My friends have a hard time accepting that I don’t believe—in anything—in spite of my insistence that this is so. Maybe they’re right. After all, you can’t go through life proving every idea.
But for me, there’s only one true belief, the rock upon which I build my house. I believe in not believing. I believe in it as a basis for determining the truth, as best as I can. I believe in it as a source of decency and goodwill among people.
I’m not talking about the kind of non-belief that thinks it can prove that there’s no God. And I’m not talking about the non-belief that simply can’t make up its mind. What I’m referring to is a decision not to accept as truth ideas that can’t be tested in the so-called real world.
The road to that decision began for me in first grade, where school and society were at war with the unorthodox Christianity practiced in my home. Each day I faced a moral dilemma: Should I recite the pledge of allegiance like everyone else, or should I refuse, out of loyalty to Christ’s imminent earthly kingdom? I dreaded the day when I would have to make a commitment to the faith of my home, and risk the certain social disapproval and likely persecution that would follow.
It was a war of ideas and values, fought on the inside where no one could see, but it was an invaluable experience. I emerged with sympathy for the good intentions of believers on all sides, and with dismay at how badly astray those good intentions could go. The problem didn’t lie solely in what people believed, but also in the nature of belief itself.
Simple beliefs, such as faith in a kind God who wants us to practice the golden rule, can be a very good thing. But any idea can be justified through faith. And when simple beliefs grow into complex belief systems, and when faith hardens into certainty, tolerance for other ideas can seem unnecessary or even immoral. The golden rule suffers, and so does the quest for the truth.
My youthful struggle taught me to distrust certainty. And I learned that I have to try to keep things simple if I want to steer clear of harmful and misleading beliefs. That’s where the test that I mentioned comes in, the one that denies the status of truth to any idea that I can’t prove through my senses coupled with sound logic. I may act on other kinds of ideas, but I try not to treat them as the “Truth,” with a capital T. I try to stay open to other possibilities.
Not believing is my way of seeking that which is good and authentic. Its narrow path keeps me from straying too far from the “truth” with a small t. And it leaves room in my heart and mind for the golden rule, and for other values that unite me with my fellow men and women, and less for ideas that divide us in mistrust and animosity.