Humans are Fallible. That Includes Theists.

John Beckett at Patheos has responded to my blog post, The Religion That Dares Not Say Its Name. His response is frankly disappointing.

Beckett takes issue with my suggestion that theists preface their claims with “I believe”, and that atheists do the same. While acknowledging that beliefs can be wrong, his claim is that by saying “I believe”, theists would undermine the confidence communicated in their expressions of faith; that, by admitting the possibility that they may be wrong, they are opening the door—albeit just a tiny crack—to admission of the chance that what they so fervently believe is factually untrue.

“In the atheist-influenced reaction to this culture,” he writes, “that acceptance (of belief) is assumed to be a bad thing, or a least an unsupported and likely unjustified conclusion…when you qualify your religion with the disclaimer ‘I believe’ you’re saying you’re not sure about it.”

Now, I fundamentally reject his thesis here. Because belief is highly prized in our culture. Being a “believer” is hardly stigmatized.

But beyond that, shouldn’t there be a bit of doubt when it comes to extraordinary claims? Isn’t it reasonable for someone who is expressing highly personal statements of credulity in that of which others likely have no experience to take personal responsibility for that credulity, rather than expressing  it as a statement of fact?

Beckett’s Paganism, he says, “has no disclaimers”. Speak bravely about your beliefs, even if they may be wrong, he says. Because the alternative is to allow that doubt to creep into your discussion of your beliefs, and others may perceive it.

I find this unpersuasive. The idea that anything a human may think should be presented as without the tiniest semblance of doubt flies in the face of everything we know about the world and the human mind. We are not infallible, and we shouldn’t pretend to be in the name of putting a brave face on our ideologies. Indeed, the first draft of this very post wasn’t very good, and when called on it, I pulled it back and took another direction.

People are fallible. And talking as if you’re “sure” about your religious beliefs doesn’t make them any more true.

I have very strong beliefs. But because mine is a scientific perspective, I am aware at all times that new, credible evidence may come along to change them. None has been forthcoming when it comes to gods and the supernatural, so I don’t believe in them. But that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t. If such evidence were to come around and pass peer-reviewed scrutiny, my beliefs would change, because I am a thinking human being. I’m not an exponent of an ideology frozen by certainty. I am available to change.

What is the alternative to some acknowledgement of the possibility of being incorrect? Shall theists and atheists under the Pagan tent continue to speak with derision about each others’ beliefs as uninformed, one way or the other? Why can we not make a minor concession—a humble acknowledgement of fallibility—a part of how we talk about what we believe, and in the process learn to get along better?

Must we talk like Christian fundamentalists?

Personally, I don’t think so. And I think that if we do, we run the risk of developing over time a kind of closed-minded fanaticism that can lead to real trouble. After all, if newbies and the next generation hear absolute assurance in expressions of belief on the part of their elders, will they not learn not to question, but simply to Believe?

Is it such a great cost to acknowledge the limitations of our minds by saying that we “believe” something, instead of that “it is true”? I don’t believe Beckett makes the case that this is so, and I encourage all of us to give it a try.

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One thought on “Humans are Fallible. That Includes Theists.

  1. It can be confusing, and a little disconcerting, to encounter a position of absolutist dogma, in a situation that seems to call for mutual understanding and acceptance of differences. It helps to understand that we all have places we just don’t want to go, for reasons that we may or may not understand, ourselves. In this case, it’s clear that Mr. Beckett is unable to tolerate ambiguity around this subject, and it would be kind, I think, to simply “allow” (as if we could deny) him his certainty. If I need to, I can enter my own, editorial, “In my opinion”, since it is so clearly to be inferred. Taken in perspective, one person’s rigidity is unlikely to result in an auto-da-fe, any time soon.

    Liked by 1 person

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