This I Believe


We hardly need to be reminded that we are living in an age of confusion — a lot of us have traded in our beliefs for bitterness and cynicism or for a heavy package of despair, or even a quivering portion of hysteria. Opinions can be picked up cheap in the market place while such commodities as courage and fortitude and faith are in alarmingly short supply.
Edward R. Murrow, This I Believe, April, 4, 1951

In the spring of 1951 renowned broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow launched the radio series This I Believe. Each episode featured someone — be it a Supreme Court Justice or a secretary — reading an essay that articulated the core principles guiding his or her life.

The bland landscape of the 50s was punctuated by mushroom clouds, the Rosenberg execution, the early rumblings of the civil rights movement, and Elvis Presley’s pelvic thrusts as the US toggled between The Age of Conformity and The Age of Anxiety. Edward R. Murrow recognized that if the country were ever in need of a reality check this was it and he stepped in as its lone facilitator. The unprecedented outpouring of personal beliefs not only sustained the series for five years, but helped to restore the country’s eroding common ground.

Fifty years later the mood is one of fear, suspicion, and disorientation. We’ve been anthraxed, yellow caked, Enroned, SARSed, shoe bombed, bird flued, global warmed, Gitmoed, Abu Ghraibed and Katrinaed; our churches super-sized, our reality televised, our Second Lives digitized, our brains freedom-fried. We’re TMIed.

Producers Jay Allison and Dan Gediman understood that the time seemed to demand another biopsy of America’s belief systems. They have picked up where Edward R. Murrow left off by reviving This I Believe. They’ve cultivated a new crop of essays, which you can hear on NPR twice each week, once on All Things Considered, and once on Morning Edition.

Writing about our beliefs is, as Jay Allison puts it, “an exercise in philosophical self-examination in the public context. It rises from the grass roots, where people can begin to listen to one another, one at a time.”

Jay Allison, and contributors to This I Believe, from both series, will join us to remind us of the importance of tapping into our beliefs. Do you know what you believe in? When was the last time your belief was tested? Is it easier for you to recognize the values that guide your life when times are tough or tranquil? Have your beliefs changed over time or are they what ground you as times change?

If you haven’t submitted an essay to This I Believe, please consider entering one here. We would love to have you also share an excerpt of your essay on this comment thread so that we have the opportunity to include it in this broadcast.

Jay Allison

Radio producer, founder, Atlantic Public Media

Brian Greene

Professor of Mathematic and Physics, ,Columbia University, author, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, The Fabric of the Cosmos,

Gregory S. Orr

Professor of Creative Writing, University of Virginia

Dr. Eboo Patel

Founder, Executive Director, Interfaith Youth Core

Mel Rusnov

Civil Engineer

Extra Credit Reading
This I Believe,, November 27, 2006: “Based on a 1950s radio program of the same name, Americans from all walks of life share the personal philosophies and core values that guide their daily lives.”

Dan Gediman, This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women,, Henry Holt & Company, October 2006.

Walker Percy, The Moviegoer,, 1998: “Tonight’s subject is a playwright who transmits this very quality of niceness in his plays. He begins: “I believe in people. I believe in tolerance and understanding between people. I believe in the uniqueness and dignity of the individual–” Everyone on This I Believe believes in the uniqueness and dignity of the individual. i have noticed, however, that the believers are far from unique themselves, are in fact alike as peas in a pod.”

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  • Old Nick

    Belief, hmmm? Funny that this thread should pop up now. I’ve recently started a blog whose first entry is an abbreviated argument that ‘belief’ is a conceptualization of mental acceptance that is fast obsolescing in our times.

    Merriam-Webster Online gives ‘belief’ the following triple definition:

    1 : a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing

    2 : something believed; especially: a tenet or body of tenets held by a group

    3 : conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence

    In my estimation, definition no.3 deserves its own concept. Providing a threshold of evidentiary support is far too important to have to split duty with mental acceptance of a contention of a ‘truth’ that can’t offer evidentiary support (like religious beliefs).

    Belief is an ancient concept—it preceded the demand for a threshold of evidentiary support informally codified in the Scientific Method.

    Belief, by the reckoning of many etymologists, originally meant ‘to wish’—and it seems to me that that’s awfully revealing. The powerful emotional connections believers have with their beliefs betrays the pervasiveness of the all-too-human truth that we ‘wish it to be true’. This renders belief an inappropriate concept for an era grounded in science and humanism instead of in faith, superstition, and judgmental condemnation of behavioral choices and proclivities beyond the strictures of humankind’s ancient, obsolescent theistic worldviews. Faithful people are notoriously willing to kill for their beliefs. Scientists are not.

    This difference indicates to me the urgency of the need to decouple scientific mental acceptances from garden-variety belief. (Please see my longer argument for a detailed account of the evolutions of my thoughts on this.)

    Forcing ‘conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence’ into the same conceptual box as ‘a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing’ implicitly—but erroneously—conflates the findings of science with the unverifiable contentions of not only religion but all manner of fatuous ideologies, not least of which is exceptionalism (see Wikipedia’s entry on that term). Not to mention superstition.

    So, to answer the question in the billboard: I don’t ‘believe’. In anything. Instead, I plause, or provisionally, tentatively, accord the beginnings of plausibility to opinions or conjectures that offer at least some level of evidentiary support:

    plause: noun,

    1. a tentative mental acceptance of an assertion dependent on empirically obtained evidentiary support;

    2. an opinion, open to disconfirmation, that certain sets of empirically obtained facts form a credible basis for eventual designation of the phrase ‘approaching objective truth’;

    3. a mental acceptance of a probability deduced from empirically obtained evidentiary support;

    4. ‘a plausible reckoning’ (informal)

    plause: verb, to tentatively or provisionally accept an assertion or conclusion deduced from empirically obtained evidence

    I invite the rest of us to consider the strengths or failings of this conceptual evolution. Feel free to comment or dissent.

  • Old Nick

    The billboard above asks, “Do you know what you believe in? When was the last time your belief was tested? Is it easier for you to recognize the values that guide your life when times are tough or tranquil? Have your beliefs changed over time or are they what ground you as times change?”

    I’ve replied to questions 1 and 4 already, in this thread’s first post.

    Question number three, however, is not about beliefs, but values.

    People use the word ‘belief’ as a catch-all synonym for all manner of mental acceptances, from the fortress-like battlements of unreasoning faith to the paper-thin tent-walls of conjecture and speculation. I prefer a more restricted usage, but am in a minority. Since I’ve made clear my skepticism over the very premise of the concept of belief, I’d like to take a crack at values, which anyone, even skeptics, can and do have. And no, the tough times of my life haven’t ever compromised my ability to appreciate or adhere to my values.

    To begin, it seems crystal clear from the reams of evidence provided by science that humans—and all other organisms—are part of a living planet. Powered by sunlight, emergent originally from a watery chemical soup, life on earth is nothing less than ancient stardust (coagulated by gravity into a mostly rocky planet) organized into self-replicating patterns. In its human manifestations, this 3.5 billion year evolution-of-self-replicating-patterns has become uniquely (as far as we know) aware of itself, and, most recently, remarkably aware of the universe it springs from. I find this vastly more amazing—and satisfying—than the ancient religious worldviews that posit an unverifiable supernatural entity who has diabolically made the planet into a testing ground on which to judge the ‘worthiness’ of the personal unverifiable supernatural entity called a ‘soul’.

    Occam’s razor suggests that the simpler the explanation, the more inherently plausible. I find the ‘ancient stardust organized into self-replicating patterns’ explanation for life comprehensively more plausible than the religious explanations it is gradually superceding. And I find plenty of deeply moving value in that view. Moreover, this ‘godless’ view isn’t amoral as religionists might presuppose. Instead, it follows that, since we each are an individual manifestation of a greater living system,

    Revere all other humans: they are you in different bodies. They see, on your behalf, what you cannot. On your behalf they hear what you cannot. On your behalf they smell what you cannot. On your behalf they taste what you cannot.

    And on your behalf they feel what you cannot.

    Revere all other creatures: they may not ponder as profoundly as you, but they feel just as deeply.

    Revere the plants: they feed you, whether directly or through animals that consume them, that you consume in turn.

    Revere the mountains and the valleys, the forests and the deserts, the wild steppes and the tamed plains. Revere all water, no matter its amount. Earth and water combine with sunlight to make you and all other life.

    Consider carefully – with empathy as your guide – the effect on other creatures and people any action you make.

    After empathy guides you, choose the action that harms the fewest other sentient creatures.

    None of that is ‘belief.’ But it certainly is a value system. A balanced system that values both organism and environment, individual and group. To it, courtesy of Irshad Manji, I add this recently discovered distinction:

    “Individualism—I’m out for myself—differs from individuality—I’m myself, and my society benefits from that uniqueness.”

    Unfortunately, people conflate individualism – which is an ideology dedicated to the perpetuation of selfishness – from individuality – which is a gift to both the individual person and to the person’s society. Which leads to my concluding trilogy of value: “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity”.

    My personal political preference for Social Democracy—a political evolution of the trilogy of humanistic values listed in the sentence above—is not founded on any ‘political beliefs’, but flows instead from recognition of life’s inelegant plebian origins in the fertile gunk of the Precambrian oceans. No matter how different we might seem in appearances, or in behavioral patterns or cultural values, we’re all the same organic stuff. Not one of us is inherently more exceptional, sacred, or virtuous than anyone else. We’ve evolved a long way from life’s originally pure bacterial mode, but not so far from it that we’re no longer individual manifestations of a universe aware of itself.

    Why not celebrate that astounding truth? Doesn’t it beat the hell out of fretting over whether our behaviors match up to the inhumane demands of the patriarchal ‘prophets’ of inhumanly judgmental unverifiable supernatural entities?

  • Ga Jennings

    Old Nick obviously believes in quite a lot considering his long philosophical post. One has to believe in what one is doing in order to do what one does. Belief, in my humble opinion, is part of being human. Those who actually do not believe in anything are psycho/sociopaths, and go through life demanding and taking of others with total disregard of what others believe (actually believing only in themselves).

    We all have varying beliefs throughout the day. Belief in caffeine to help us get out the door in the morning. Belief that too many donuts is not good for us. Belief is inherent. Belief is inherently human.

    Not just of our interactions with the physical world, our beliefs shape our social interactions. Belief in being kind and courteous. Belief in following rules. Belief that one can cut in line at the store, tailgate on the highway.

    There are also those beliefs that harm beyond being discourteous at the store. There are beliefs of an ethical nature. There are beliefs such as what is moral or not. These beliefs are what drive our social and political systems. These beliefs cause great things to happen and yet also cause misery and war. Beliefs cause war.

    The problem is people’s belief that their beliefs are better than others. That they have moral high-ground. That they know what is right for the rest of us. And that they can use force to impose their beliefs upon others. These are ideologues. These are the fear mongers. These are the people who believe that the ends justifies the means. That war is moral.

    Ideologues label other people to differentiate them: Immigrants; Criminals; Deviants; Atheists; etc. This de-humanizes their “opponents” and provides them with an “out,” a guiltless way of harming these “other” people. The War in Iraq; economic sanctions against Cuba, Iran, North Korea and oh so many other countries are prime examples of America’s belief that “other” people are not worthy of health and education (to put it mildly). Those not like us are expendable.

    Ideologies are tearing America apart. Gays are deviants. Addicts are criminals. Atheists are condemned. The list is a long one.

    Any person with what is called an “open mind” knows that certain beliefs are ephemeral and will — should — change. We should change our beliefs when we learn that any of our assumptions are wrong, when we learn new facts, when we gather new data that contradicts old. Our confidences and trusts must be pliant.

  • Old Nick

    Ga Jennings, you’re missing my point. Probably from my own failure to articulate the idea. I’ll briefly try it again.

    Does the theory of the heliocentric solar system deserve equal weight of credibility with, say, the proposition that jinns are the agents responsible for disease? Whether or not it deserves it, it implicitly has equal credibility, because both these explanations of phenomena can be ‘believed.’ Scientific explanations are forced to share a concept of mental acceptance with supernatural explanations, simply because we haven’t yet chosen to conceptualize the qualitative distinctiveness of reason-based and faith-based mental acceptances.

    I day-hike the Olympic Mountains frequently every summer, ascending, from about 3500 feet of altitude (at the typical trailhead) to just under 7,000 feet (at the typical summit). To which proposition should I award more credence: that my gasping, staggering struggle to ascend the final 1500 feet is due to the scientific explanations I’ve read concerning thin air; or, because the higher I go, the closer I come to God, whose presence is so awesome it’s breathtaking?

    Currently, mental acceptances of various propositions are all lumped together in the catch-all concept called ‘belief’. Yet many propositions are inherently more plausible than the rest. Propositions backed by empirically derived evidence are categorically more plausible than propositions backed only by the solemn assurances of Authority Figure So-and-So. Thus they deserve a new conceptual category: a new concept that distinguishes itself from the elder concept of mental acceptance of propositions with or without empirically derived supporting evidence. ‘With or without empirically derived supporting evidence’ is belief (from the Anglo-Saxon, ‘to wish’).

    ‘Dependent upon empirically derived supporting evidence’ is plause. Mind you, a plause can be wrong. For example, when planetary orbits were first detected a few hundred years ago, they were assumed to be circular, not elliptical. I’d still call the original misassumption a plause rather than a belief, since the very idea of planets orbiting the Sun was obtained from observational evidence and corroborated by mathematical support. The original, somewhat erroneous plause led to a more accurate—more plausible—explanation.

    Should we award implicit weight of credibility to both the geocentric model of the universe and the universe we now observe through Hubble?

    Unfortunately we implicitly do, and will continue to so long as belief with or without empirically derived supporting evidence is left undistinguished from mental acceptance of propositions supported by empirically obtained evidence.

    Failure to conceptually distinguish between wildly different weights of plausibility allows the unverifiable supernatural to be conflated, in our semi-conscious estimations of inherent credibility, with rational scientific examination of nature. To that, I say, enough already.

  • This is so strange, I liked listening to the rebirth of This I Believe, but had been missing it on the air for the last year or so. I plugged back in the last couple of weeks with my newly acquired mp3 player and just started listening to a long string of essays yesterday.

    I tried to write a TIB essay about a year ago, but never got very far. I was sure what my first line (and a bit beyond) would be.

    I believe that I’m a citizen, not an activist. I’m probably more “plugged in” than the average person, and I live in a town where a lot of people claim the term “activist,” but I’ve never liked that word. It implies a sense of exclusivity, as if civic engagement is a higher calling, and not for everyone. It is, actually, for every citizen.

  • rc21

    To Ga Jennings: Yes I see your point. Ideolouges are a nasty bunch who demonize and try and silence the opposition. Kind of like if your against affirmitive action you are a racist. If your against gay marrige you must be a gay bashing homophobe.If you are against abortion you are anti-women. If you are for securing the border and against illegal immigration,once again you are probably a racist red neck. If you are religous (especially christian) you are ignorant and caught up in believing in fairy tales. Yes I see your point.

    By the way homosexuals are deviant sexually. As the norm is hetorosexuality.This does not make being gay good or bad it is just a fact. Would you rather we make up a lie to appease you..

    Also last time I checked doing drugs in most cases is still a crimminal act. So if you have been convicted of a drug offense sorry to say, but yes you are a crimminal. Reality sometimes sucks.

  • plnelson

    #1 I never could stand “This I believe”. It always struck me as fatuous, self-absorbed armchair philosophizing. Sort of what I do here, but no one is forced to listen to my blathering while they’re driving to work in the morning!

    #2 I don’t believe in belief. I believe in the opposite of belief: SKEPTICISM

    Skepticism is reponsible for most of the advances in civilization that have occurred since the Enlightenment! Science is solidly based on skepticism – peer-reviewed journals, replicability, the requirement that you publish all your data and experimental design, statistical significance, double-blind protocols, control groups, etc etc! Look around you and see a world transformed by science. When religion was in charge of epistemology you couldn’t have had that.

    Or modern justice systems – physical evidence, habeas corpus, cross examination, jury trials, appeals process, independent judiciary, presumption of innocence, etc, etc. All of this is based on skepticism.

    Or modern politics. The reason we don’t have kings anymore, and instead have multiple political parties, free presses, open debate, the “marketplace of ideas”, etc, is skepticism – properly skeptical people do not take someone’s word for something just because he’s on the white horse, or has a crown. And as if anyone needs to be reminded, when we abandon skepticism, as many Americans did when Bush proposed invading Iraq, we get a disaster.

    We should have a program called This I Doubt

  • I may indeed flesh this out for the site. But here is the bare-bones of what I believe.

    This I Believe.

    I believe people are good. I believe there are exceptions to this rule.

    I believe in a higher Deity. I believe that no mortal can know the mind of God. I believe it’s possible to catch glimpses of the truth.

    I believe that just as our species spread beyond the confines of our ancestral home in Africa we do have a future beyond our small planet.

  • ChelseaM


    In thinking about this show we were kicking around the idea of doing a This I Don’t Believe show but we abandoned that idea once we realized that to negate something, be it God, or Democracy or domesticated animals is ultimately still a belief. Penn Jillette, who contributed to This I Belive did what you suggested: his essay, There is No God, details why he doesn’t believe in a supreme being. His essay is remarkable and has been the most popular one in the series to date. We tried to get him for this show but he’ll be in Vegas that night wowing those who believe in magic.

  • Old Nick

    “All Colors are Red”, Part I

    Look, folks, because my footprint is already so deep on it, I really wanted to leave this thread alone. However…

    Chelsea wrote: “we realized that to negate something, be it God, or Democracy or domesticated animals is ultimately still a belief.”

    Chelsea, please don’t take this personally, but…

    Although I recognize it as a commonplace conviction of conventional wisdom, I must call into question the premise of your sentence. (Perhaps you or someone else reading this can lay some corrective whup-ass to my doubts.)

    Do you (anyone, not necessarily poor Chelsea) believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

    What about Phédre nó Delaunay?

    Who, or what, is Phédre nó Delaunay, you ask? The central character of Jacqueline Carey’s novel Kushiel’s Dart, which I just now plucked randomly from my overstuffed fiction shelves.

    The Flying Spaghetti Monster is also, equally, the central character of a fiction.

    Is it inappropriate for me to ask whether these obvious inventions rise to the necessary threshold of plausibility to even be considered eligible for belief?

    How does that differ from the jealous, judgmental, genocide-encouraging character of the Old Testament, New Testament, and Koran, called ‘God’?

    All three, Phédre nó Delaunay, The FSM, and ‘God’ have had books written about them. The ‘evidence’ for their putative ‘existence’ lies entirely in those books, and is exactly equally credible.

    Does this statement – ‘to negate something…is ultimately still a belief’ – hold true for widely acknowledged fictions? Think it over.

    Is it a ‘belief’ to refuse to award your credulity to the ‘reality’ of the ancient Goddess Artemis? Or Pan? Ancient peoples believed in these reputed deities with just as much conviction as contemporary monotheists surrender their credulity to the argumentum ad populum that their ‘God’ isn’t just another ancient myth but ‘real’.

    Do figments of mythology like Artemis and Pan rise to the necessary threshold of plausibility to even be considered eligible for belief? Why are they less credible than ‘God’?

    Got any evidence?

    Is a lack of belief just another kind of belief?

    Are you sure?

    What about concepts you’ve never heard of? Did you disbelieve in Phédre before this post? Was that ignorant absence of belief another kind of belief?

    Am I being unfair? I doubt it.

    1. Isn’t an unwillingness to consider as a potentially credible proposition the ‘reality’ of Phedre exactly the same as an unwillingness to consider the FSM a credible proposition?

    2. Isn’t an unwillingness to consider the FSM a potentially credible proposition exactly the same as an unwillingness to consider the Biblical ‘God’ a credible proposition?

    Is a lack of belief really just another kind of belief?

    If it is, then illumination is the same condition as darkness. And if simple conjecture, or idle speculation, or even the stronger but hardly concrete position called ‘opinion’ are all ‘beliefs’, then all colors are red—that is: if ‘belief’ is used to describe every kind of cogitation, it can’t meaningfully describe any.

    Is ‘sunny’ just another word for ‘overcast’?

    Any single word meant to be characteristic of the full variety of human thoughts (plus emotions) can’t usefully be synonymous with all the others.

  • Old Nick

    Part II

    The Penn Jillette essay, is (according my understanding of the concepts cited) misleading. He confuses atheism—a conviction that ‘God doesn’t exist’—with nontheism, which isn’t a conviction—or even a position—but a conceptual shrug: ‘God’ doesn’t rise to the necessary threshold of plausibility to even be considered eligible for belief! i.e., “To a nontheist, the issue of God’s existence is no different than, for example, the existence of invisible, intangible elephants.”

    To a nontheist, atheism—a conviction that ‘God’ doesn’t exist—is a waste of mental energy. It’s exactly as much a waste of mental energy as seriously surrendering your credulity to the fiction called Phédre nó Delaunay or The Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    What about ‘Democracy’? What does it mean to ‘disbelieve in’ Democracy? That no group of people ever actually do in fact decide their future collective action by talking over the possibilities and then voting on the most palatable options?

    Doesn’t that proposition border on the nonsensical, if not meander over the border?

    Is Democracy a belief, or a socio-political value-system and organized behavioral pattern?

    Are values ‘beliefs’?

    Is my oft-confessed valuation of human equality a ‘belief’ – or a value?

    Are political preferences ‘beliefs’?

    Is my frequently admitted political preference for Social Democracy a ‘belief’ – or a preference?

    When everything is a ‘belief’, nothing is.

    ROS threads are loaded—perhaps overloaded—with opinions.

    Opinion: “A belief or conclusion held with confidence, but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof…Opinion is applicable to any conclusion to which one adheres without ruling out the possibility of debate.” (American Heritage Dictionary, 1980)

    By American Heritage’s ‘burden of proof’ clause, most if not all religious convictions are opinions. However, people holding religious beliefs would naturally find objectionable the proposition that their beliefs are mere ‘opinions’ – most especially because such beliefs are not commonly considered appropriate for debate.

    Nevertheless…isn’t ‘opinion’ the intermediate step between mere conjecture (and speculation) and firm ‘belief’? (Opinions are—or should be—easy to revise or abandon in the face of contradictory evidence.)

    Posts here at ROS that feature a predominance of pure, unsupported opinion over substantiation are inherently less insightful and useful than those featuring thought provoking questions backed by well-sourced substantiation. I personally treasure the thought-provoking posts that undermine conventional wisdom. Does this mean I’m a ‘believer’ in counter-conventional wisdom? Or simply a skeptic of conventional wisdom?

    Is a refusal to surrender one’s credulity—the absence of belief—simply another form of ‘belief’?


    Think it over.

    Is one’s refusal to ‘plause’ an unsupported proposition just another form of ‘belief’?

    Or such a (mis-)characterization merely a conflation of belief with non-belief?

    I suspect (not believe – more like ‘hypothesize’) that the main reason believers accuse unbelievers of mirror-image-belief is that they want to equate their surrender of credulity to the unbelievers’ refusal to do so—i.e., they want their beliefs to be perceived as existing on a level playing field with the unbelievers’ absence-of-credulity.

    The extreme manifestation of this is the ridiculous public confusion arising from the Creationists’ challenge of evolutionary science. This grave yet nonsensical popular revolt against reason is precisely what prompted my realization that “mental acceptance of claims-of-(putative)-knowledge supported by empirically derived evidence” deserves its own specific concept distinct from the “no-evidence-necessary!” conceptual morass called ‘belief’.

    The absence of belief is not another form of belief. Conflating the two is profoundly misleading

    If unbelief and belief are the same, then predawn quietude is the same as a jackhammer’s afternoon din, illumination is the same condition as darkness, and all colors are in fact red.

  • Old Nick


    Wouldn’t this thread and show be better titled: “This I Value”?

    Or, “This I Opine”? 😉

    If you ultimately stick with “This I Believe”, please at least acknowledge in the show’s intro that ‘belief’ descends from the Anglo-Saxon ‘to wish’. Because if this thread and its radio hour mimic the NPR “This I Believe” series, it will in fact be little more than a glorified ‘feel-goodism’ socio-cultural-political-religious wish-list.

    Not a cutting-edge radio hour.

    It’s already shaping up to be little more than a platform that allows people to promote their entrenched beliefs. To revel in their beliefs. To deepen their beliefs.

    I hope I’m wrong, but I (speculatively) don’t expect anyone to seriously respond to the challenge in the billboard: “When was the last time your belief was tested?” (My several long posts in this thread are my answer to that one!)

    Around and around goes the merry-go-round of stuck-in-the-mire conventional wisdom.

    ROS, at its best, challenges conventional wisdom.

    I wouldn’t bother listening if it didn’t.

    Good luck with your hour. I’ll listen as ever, but skeptically.

    Please don’t lose your nerve. Please don’t ever be afraid to challenge us.

    We can take it.

    Hell, we need it. (More than ever, I suspect, in this nascent century of unpredictable climate change.)

  • Seems to be a lot of text above both confusing and attempting to clarify the difference between two dichotomies:

    1) agnosticism and atheism

    2) the belief in something not existing and the lack of belief in something’s claimed existence.

    While agnosticism is the lack of belief in a deity or deities in general; atheism is the belief that there is no deity or no such thing as a deity.

    Number two just the general case of number one, of course.

    And so I’d have to agree with Chelsea here. Negation is every bit as much an assertion as anything else. Makes it hard for constructivist philosophers like me, but there it is, nonetheless.

    A haiku I wrote a couple of years back:

    Constructivists say

    all we know is what is not.

    How do we know that?

  • Old Nick

    Cave Blogem, nice haiku. But it fails to persuade me.

    Now, I’ll freely admit that my argument is far from concise. But I don’t (yet) know whether that’s because I’m swimming upstream against a spring-runoff strength of current of conventional thinking, making much of my effort seem like frantic flailing, or whether I’m simply failing to fully grasp—and therefore failing to articulate simply and smoothly—the point I’m striving to present. (It’s probably a combination of the two.)

    So here’s the simplest version I can (as yet) devise:

    You say, “Negation is every bit as much an assertion as anything else”, which is true for the Penn Jillette statement, “I believe there is no God.” (Because that’s truly an assertion, as you said.)

    But it is not true for thenontheist: “When faced with the question of whether gods exist, a nontheist would respond that the question itself is unimportant, that it concerns information that is unfalsifiable, meaningless, superfluous, etc. To a nontheist, the issue of God’s existence is no different than, for example, the existence of invisible, intangible elephants.” (Wikipedia, Nontheism)

    The nontheist is saying, in effect, “Since your ‘God’ contention is utterly bereft of any plausible evidence, it doesn’t deserve to be considered eligible for belief, anymore than a contention that “all the world’s linguine originates in fact from the unique spaghetti-tree in my backyard” deserves to be considered eligible for belief.

    For a contention or proposition to be eligible for belief-consideration, the proponent must provide plausible supporting evidence.

    The onus is on the proponent to support, with plausible evidence, the proposed ‘belief’ – it’s not incumbent on the skeptic to disprove the contention.

    The skeptic isn’t taking a position, she’s simply saying, “Prove it.”

    Penn Jillette, on the other hand, is taking a position: atheism. Although, unfortunately for all of us, he confuses atheism with nontheism.

    Is taking a position the same as declining to take a position?

    If it is, then you’re saying that dark and light are the same, or that silence and noise are the same.

    What’s the point of having a concept whose meanings include any damn thing you want it to mean?

    How can people discuss anything meaningfully if ‘absence’ and ‘presence’ are conflated?

    Belief and the absence of belief are not the same. I’ve tried (poorly, perhaps) to make this clear.

    Where, exactly, am I failing? (I ask sincerely – I could use constructive feedback.)

  • Old Nick,

    It seems as if you are proposing some third way here, between agnosticism and atheism. The quote you use from Wikipedia seems completely agnostic, an expression of ignorance. But it actually takes a strong position, because it asserts several hierarchies (there are things that are important, but then there is the question of whether god exists; there are things which have meaning, but then there is the question of whether god exists).

    The Wikipedia quote also asserts as a fact the unfalsifiability of the existence of god. And that is quite interesting and also the third time this week somebody has smacked me upside the head with Goedel’s Theorem or Russel’s Paradox, or however you want to think about that set of issues.

    What really puzzles me is the security that people seem to draw from an assertion that something is unfalsifiable. And although I have to admit that I cannot imagine how one could prove that there is no god, I am still willing to concede that there could be. Constructivists set great store by “proceeding as if,” a sort of tentative approach to reality, reality as a constant set of experiments.

    So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that the nontheists (never heard of them before, but I’ll take a look later on today at the link you provided above) seem to step over the line when they assert that a contention is not “eligible for belief.” It seems so arrogant, so comfortable, so certain.

    And the last paragraph seems to fly in the face of that great Objectivist philosopher Geddy Lee, who singing the immortal words of Neal Pert said “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Taking a position is very different from declining to take a position. They have nothing in common except for the fact that they are both positions. If I had to point to one thing in your post that I am pretty sure I don’t understand, it would be the link between the first sentence of the last paragraph and the next one. Could you bridge that for me a little, or point to something you have already written that bridges the two?

    Thanks for saying you liked the Haiku, but it wasn’t intended to pursuade. I just wanted to share it. And I’m not sure whether you are “failing,” as you put it. Could be I just haven’t gotten it yet.

  • plnelson

    “And so I’d have to agree with Chelsea here. Negation is every bit as much an assertion as anything else.”

    EXACTLY, which is why I was arguing for skepticism. Skepticism is not an assertion that a claim is not true. Skepticism is the demand that, for a claim to be considered true it has to put to rigorous tests.

    As I mentioned above, skepticism is at the heart of modern science, jurisprudence, and (at least in theory) political democracy. “Belief”, whether it’s in unseen, untestable superbeings, folk truths, or the idea that someone is wise or honest just because he’s powerful, has caused vast suffering in human history. Skepticism, on the other hand, has produced a great deal of benefit, as mentioned above, and i can’t think of too many cases where it has produced harm, although I’d welcome suggestions.

  • plnelson

    “When faced with the question of whether gods exist, a nontheist would respond that the question itself is unimportant, that it concerns information that is unfalsifiable, meaningless, superfluous, etc. To a nontheist, the issue of God’s existence is no different than, for example, the existence of invisible, intangible elephants.”

    How is this different from agnosticism?

    And N.B. I’m referring to the philosophy of agnosticism, not the vernacular use of the term to refer to some fence-sitter who just can’t decide.

  • Skepticism is a nice stance, but it doesn’t really lead to anything. Let’s face it, everybody has a set of beliefs. Sometimes they remain unspoken, and sometimes they don’t seem like beliefs, but the position of skeptics (and I include myself in this group) is usually to point to the beliefs that other people articulate and to assert the need for skepticism about those beliefs.

    And we skeptics usually are open to a certain amount of criticism of our own beliefs, but we don’t really go out of our way to prove their veracity. This is, in part, because people are not really interested in listening to justifications and rationalizations of someone else’s beliefs, but there are other reasons.

    Consider plnelson’s post of yesterday on another ROS thread:

    “Most of the world’s problems today are caused by bad behavior. The last few centuries have seen HUGE advances in the physical and biological sciences but very little progress in the social and behavioral sciences. And yet problems like tribalism, war, terrorism, crime, tyranny and despotism, drug abuse, sexually-transmitted-diseases, unwed pregnancies, spouse-abuse, racism, religious bigotry, corruption, etc, remain the scourge of humanity.”

    I could ask him about this set of beliefs, so that he could explain what he means. I could ask that these claims, that problems are caused by “bad behavior,” that there’s been “very little progress in the social and behavioral sciences,” to cite some examples, be “put to rigorous tests.” But I won’t. There are too many issues between us to bridge and sort out, too many disagreements regarding the ways in which we see the world.

    I guess my point here is just that skeptics assert beliefs all of the time, but since they tend to be eclectic about it, since they do not subscribe to a packet of beliefs with a “brand name” like “fundamentalist Christian,” or “Socialist,” or “Fascist,” they take too much energy and time to engage in constructive discourse.

  • Old Nick

    Cave wrote: “And I’m not sure whether you are ‘failing,’ as you put it. Could be I just haven’t gotten it yet.”

    I’d say the responsibility to cogently make the argument is on me. And, thankfully, you’re helping me out.

    I should iterate at the outset of this response that my concerns in this thread lie mostly with the “Come One, Come All, No Evidence Necessary!” conceptual morass called ‘belief’, of which the putative existence of supernatural entities is but one issue. It’s probably the morass’s most charismatic issue, but it’s only one of many. My goal is to urge us to reconsider the very concept and meanings of ‘belief’; belief in ‘God’ merely allows a conceptual chalkboard to do it on.

    Caveat: last night I revisited the Nontheism entry at Wikipedia and learned that in the months since I first discovered it as a ‘stub’, it has grown, and not necessarily for the better. It does, as the Wikipedians who police that page aver, need a rewrite. However, when I employ the term ‘nontheist’, I mean, probably exclusively, ‘C & G’ nontheism.

    I. I’ve posted a True Revelation. Please read it, and then return to II., below. (I’d advise reading it sooner rather than later, since I’m apt to embellish it as time and whimsy allows.)

    II. So, presumably you’ve now read my True Revelation.

    I want you to believe the Revelation as True. Sacredly True, no less.

    I suggest that, for you, the following options are possible:

    1. Take a position.

    2. Decline to take a position.

    1. ‘Take a position’ can be subdivided into:

    A. Accept the ‘truth’ of the Revelation. We’ll call people who do this ‘Acceptors’.

    B. Attempt to refute the Revelation. We’ll call people who do this ‘Refuters’.

    2. ‘Decline to take a position’ can be subdivided into:

    A. Demand supporting evidence – this leaves the door open to possible eventual acceptance (or an ongoing lack thereof). People who do this are Skeptics.

    B. Dismiss the Revelation as an obvious fantasia and get on with your life. We’ll call people who do this ‘Dismissers’.

    (This seems to me the minimum breakdown: I can already discern many more layers of nuance and complexity than just this simplistic “1A, 1B; 2A, 2B” conceptualization.)

    Penn Jillette is a Refuter. An atheist. Not an agnostic, and not a nontheist.

    Nontheists, in the main, are Dismissers—although they can also be Skeptics. Dismissers aren’t interested in refuting any putative ‘revelation’ – because, in their instantaneous gauging of credibleness, such putative revelations aren’t even eligible for consideration. There’s a difference, after all, between the concept called ‘unsubstantiated’ and the concept called ‘incredible’.

    Consider the phrase ‘take it seriously’. What does it mean? To me, it means, ‘consider whether or not ‘x’ proposition, assertion, contention, etc., is viable or unviable. To ‘take something seriously’ is a process of evaluation which implies that the evaluator has deemed ‘x’ to be worthy of a position either accepting or refuting.

    Now, if I start demanding that my ‘Revelation’ be ‘taken seriously’, what’s your likely response? Wouldn’t it be, “Prove it”? And, “Don’t bother me with your so-called ‘revelation’ without offering me some evidence”?

    If I reply that the account of my revelation on my blog is the evidence—and the only evidence necessary—then will you even bother to attempt to refute me? (You wouldn’t be able to succeed any better than Penn Jillette can refute the putative existence of the Biblical and Koranic character called ‘God’. This is the real flaw of the atheist position – it implicitly and unintentionally awards credibility to propositions as incredible as my revelation.)

    Or would you shrug, shake your head, and get on with your life – as far away from me as you could scramble?

    This is the dilemma of nontheist living in a world wherein ‘belief’ requires no supporting evidence. The contemporary English concept of belief invites every sort of, assertion, contention, proposition, etc.—whether utterly harebrained or well-reasoned and empirically-supported—into its circus tent: “Come One, Come All! You’ll all be admitted within! No Evidence Necessary!”

    Lastly, what do you do when the burgeoning believers of The Rex begin impinging on your freedom to peaceably live as you choose? Limiting the reproductive choices of the women in your life? Judgmentally condemning any and all who do not reverently accord a pretense of ‘respect’ to their faith-fantasias? Advocating ‘holy war’ against those they deem ‘sinful unbelievers’?

    Or, say, when they begin to use The Rex as a justification for the genital mutilation of girls?

    In my case, you begin agitating for a critical reassessment of the very concept ‘belief’.

  • plnelson

    Skepticism is a nice stance, but it doesn’t really lead to anything.

    What do ou mean “it doesn’t lead to anything”? As I said above, it’s the philosophical foundation of science, jurisprudence, and democracy. Those things sound like “something” to me.

    When believers owned epistemology science couldn’t get any traction. Only when we began to endorse the idea that scientific claims had to be testable and repeatable and made with sufficient description and detail for anyone else to try did science get off the ground. All of those ideas, as well as statistical significance, double-blind-protocols, peer-reveiwed journals, etc, are based on the philosophical principle of skepticism. “doesn’t lead to anything” … feh!

    Shall we talk about jurispridence? Care to guess why we have rules of evidence, habeas corpus, and cross-examinations? How about presumption of innocence? How about an appeals process? If someone accuses someone of a crime, why don’t we just take their word for it? It would save a lot of trouble and cost.

  • plnelson

    Consider plnelson’s post of yesterday on another ROS thread:

    “Most of the world’s problems today are caused by bad behavior. The last few centuries have seen HUGE advances in the physical and biological sciences but very little progress in the social and behavioral sciences. And yet problems like tribalism, war, terrorism, crime, tyranny and despotism, drug abuse, sexually-transmitted-diseases, unwed pregnancies, spouse-abuse, racism, religious bigotry, corruption, etc, remain the scourge of humanity.”

    I could ask him about this set of beliefs, so that he could explain what he means. I could ask that these claims, that problems are caused by “bad behavior,” that there’s been “very little progress in the social and behavioral sciences,” to cite some examples, be “put to rigorous tests.” But I won’t.

    You just did.

    I provided a list, above. I was trying to think of any examples of major world problems that were NOT> caused by bad behavior. I came up with “malaria”. I’m not sure what you want to know about “bad behavior”. Those things are bad, and they are the result of behavior. What is unclear?

    And as far as advances in the social and behavioral sciences – my undergraduate major was neurophysiology which I switched to from the softer social sciences because I was so frustrated with them, so I know of what I speak. They have no reliable predictive value. We cannot predict which criminals will return to crime, which kids will get into drugs, how our nation-building experiments will go, or swings in financial markets. It’s possible to design a bridge or an electronic circuit with an extremely high degree of confidence, and trace every aspect of that design back to physics and chemistry. You can’t design a school curriculum or an airline security system with anything close to that confidence.

    I’m not even talking about the kind of predictive precision you get when combining chemicals in a beaker or solar eclipses. You cannot even cite examples of consistently predicting outcomes of social group behavior as reliable as predicting New England weather. We’re having a big shooting-crime spree in Boston these days- we could really use some science to deal with this, but there is none, so all the armchair social philosophers and dutch uncles and liberal social activists and preachers and get-tough cops are peddling all their pet ideas.

  • jdyer


    November 22nd, 2006 at 6:43 pm

    plnelson is of course right to insist on the scientific method as the supreme arbiter of truth. However, to call skepticism the “foundation of science and democracy” is paradoxical at best.

    In some minds skepticism can lead to investing oneself in scientific research in others in it can lead to a life of beachcombing. Let’s remember the arch Greek skeptic Pyrrho concluded that, ‘since nothing can be known, the only proper attitude is ataraxia, “freedom from worry”.”

  • jdyer

    The question “what I believe” has religious implications. It is a type of confessional.

    I doubt most people go around holding fixed beliefs about anything.

    Life is to multifarious to full of the unpredictable to sustain consistency of belief. Hence the wonderful Emerson saying, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of fools.” I would add that the attempt to impose consistency of belief on human existence always foolish.

    In addition, it’s been my experience that it is the people who want to impose ideals, no matter how benign or humanistic sounding, on the rest of us who end up causing the most damage. This is especially true of people who love to universalize. All universal ideals, be they religious or secular, which is to say, Christian, Muslim, Buddhism, or any of the half dozen versions of socialism are lethal. (I don’t include Judaism or Hinduism because these are not universal religions, though I don’t exclude Jews or Hindus (Karl Marx, Gandhi, etc.) who are seduced by other universal ideals.)

    Most of the billions of people who were killed throughout history were slain because of some ideal or other.

    It has always amazed me that the mode used to eliminate enemies in the name of an ideal has tended to parody their deepest convictions. “I’ll just cite a couple of examples. The enlightenment belief in reason led to the use of the guillotine as a method to execute people. Isn’t it ironic that people who believed in using one’s head to solve problems should cut off the heads of their enemies?

    The same is true with burning of heretics by Christians. Why would people who believe in the sanctity of human life and the human body want to consume it in flames?

    Similarly, Communists who believe in the equality of all peoples ended up herding millions of them into gulags. The gulag, for the inmates, was a place of supreme equality.

    After experiencing the 20th century isn’t it better to ask what one should not believe?

  • Old Nick

    From the founder of Protestantism comes five more damn good reasons to critically revisit the concept of ‘belief’, and, thereafter, belief’s attempt, called ‘faith’, to render itself invulnerable to demands for supporting evidence:

    “Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight and … know nothing but the word of God.”

    “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spritual things, but—more frequently than not—struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.”

    “But since the devil’s bride, Reason, that pretty whore, comes in and thinks she’s wise, and what she says, what she thinks, is from the Holy Spirit, who can help us, then? Not judges, not doctors, no king or emperor, because [reason] is the Devil’s greatest whore.”

    “Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason.”

    “A theologian is born by living, nay dying and being damned, not by thinking, reading, or speculating.”

  • plnelson, what I meant by “don’t lead to anything” was that one has to have hypotheses to make progress even in the sciences. Hypotheses are assertions that may be disproved. Skepticism comes in with the effort to disprove. It cannot generate hypotheses in the first instance, however, no matter how they are stated. Skepticism is not a creative form of thought, however valuable it may be to solidifying our understanding of the world.

    To say that skepticism was the philosophical foundation of science, jurisprudence, and democracy is to ignore the actual historical foundations of all three. Science, which originated in the alchemical confusion of the 17th Century’s greatest thinkers (Newton, who drank mercury and mashed worms up with his own urine and drank the mixture, not out of skepticism, but out of belief in things which had no scientific basis whatsoever)? Jurisprudence, which had its basis in English Common Law at a time when skepticism could get you hung? (Jurisprudence wouldn’t even recognize statistics about social conditions until the 20th Century.) Democracy, which originated out of a stilted conversation between landowning aristocratic Deists who trusted in natural hierarchies and Plato’s Republic?

    And no, I didn’t ask for proof from you of your beliefs.

  • Old Nick sayeth, >

    I think you are reifying the word “belief” here. It is a word, a noun, not even a concrete tangible object. It “requires” nothing of us. If you mean that some group, or society at large, perhaps, is not requiring evidence, then I disagree. Is anybody actually saying these things, these “come one, come all”-type things? I’m not saying this. plnelson is not saying this. I think most people require evidence for assertions that run counter to what they already believe. I don’t find people particularly accepting of the beliefs of others, “No Evidence Necessary.”

    Oftentimes on these ROS discussion threads I have seen sentiments that seem to take much of the world as stupid. I have also been guilty of this. But most people seem to be able to get through the day somehow. And a lot of them seem pretty happy.

    And scientists seem, sometimes, to take things without evidence. I point to “string theory,” only because it is such an easy mark, but it certainly does is a very public, very recent example of the credulity of the scientific community when confronted with a theory with absolutely no evidence to support it (or refute it.)

  • Apparently I lost something in that last post through the use of a symbol that meant something in html that I didn’t intend. I meant to quote Old Nick as follows:

    ‘This is the dilemma of nontheist living in a world wherein ‘belief’ requires no supporting evidence. The contemporary English concept of belief invites every sort of, assertion, contention, proposition, etc.—whether utterly harebrained or well-reasoned and empirically-supported—into its circus tent: “Come One, Come All! You’ll all be admitted within! No Evidence Necessary!”’

  • Old Nick

    Cave, I’m not reifying, I’m just using metaphor: pretending that the concept of belief is a carnival barker. (I write fiction, and love parody and satire, so I have an affinity for anthropomorphizing all sorts of silly things. I’ll try to cease and desist.)

    As for String Theory, it’s hardly anything approaching a settled theory:

    “String theory remains to be verified. No version of string theory has yet made an experimentally verifiable prediction that differs from those made by other theories. In this sense, string theory is still in a “larval stage”: it is not a proper physical theory. It possesses many features of mathematical interest and may yet become important in our understanding of the universe, but it requires further developments before it is accepted or discarded. Since string theory may not be tested in the foreseeable future, some scientists have asked if it even deserves to be called a scientific theory: it is not falsifiable in the sense of Popper.”

    (Wikipedia, String Theory, 5: Problems and controversy).

    No less a leading physicist than Lee Smolin has effectively abandonded String Theory. My point is that most scientists haven’t ever “believed in” String Theory. Modern science doesn’t work that way. See the

    Scietific Method, and count how many times the words ‘believe, believes, belief, and beliefs’ appear in the text.

    (I have. Answer: zero.)

    Can we agree that science is a working, cooperative combination of curiosity and skepticism?

    (Skepticism is related to, but not synonymous with, cynicism.)

    Since the advent and development of the Scientific Method, our collective minimum threshold of plausibility has risen from simplistic, naïve reliance on Authority to an expectation of empirically obtained evidentiary support. But our associated concepts have not evolved to reflect this sea-change. Ancient beliefs, supported only by Authority, have been effectively ‘grandfathered’ into the vast ocean of putative human wisdom. This amounts to a free pass: if you’re an ancient, venerated belief, “no evidence is necessary!” Unverifiable dogmas and ancient prejudices are awarded equal footing with the painstaking, often controversial and therefore exhaustively tested, discoveries of science.

    I propose a relatively simple conceptual remedy to this quandary of unequal thresholds.

    Skepticism – “a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment” ( ) – is the guiding principle of my free-to-anyone-without-expectation-of-royalty concept ‘plause’

    plause: noun,

    1. a tentative, provisional mental acceptance of an assertion dependent on empirically obtained supporting evidence;

    2. an opinion, open to disconfirmation, that certain sets of empirically obtained facts form a credible basis for eventual designation of the phrase ‘approaching objective truth’;

    3. a mental acceptance of a probability deduced from empirically obtained supporting evidence;

    plause: verb, to tentatively or provisionally accept an assertion or conclusion deduced from empirically obtained evidence

    Because somebody’s got to begin separating scientifically-derived ‘beliefs’ from our species’ massive backlog of folklore-derived articles of faith. I’ve no pretenses of being a philosopher, I’m no deep thinker, and I want no credit—only a saner world. Anyone is invited to improve upon the concept.

    A plause is not a belief masquerading in a scientist’s white lab-coat. It, unlike the “No Evidence Necessary!” catch-all category called ‘belief’, requires a threshold of plausible evidence. By this standard—this demand for empirically derived supporting evidence—a hypothesis is not a ‘belief’ but a weak plause, while a theory is a strong plause. (String Theory probably never deserved the epithet ‘theory’, but hypothesis instead.)

    ‘Belief’ doesn’t ever have to enter into it. Belief is a concept deserving of retirement to the same museum as alectromantia, astrotheology, the geocentric universe, and the notorious, putative ‘intellectual superiority’ of northern Europeans, to name but four discredited beliefs of the not-so-distant past.

    Theories – explanations that depend not on the solemn assurances of self-promoted Authority Figures, but on empirically-derived supporting evidence – deserve a concept of mental acceptance distinct from run-of-the-mill low-to-no-threshold-of-evidence ‘beliefs.’ Otherwise, religionists akin to Warren Jeffs, Ruhollah Khomeini, Jerry Falwell, and Osama bin Laden can merrily carry on asserting the ‘truth’ of their evidence-free faiths without any real worry that our implicit conceptual conflation of ‘evidence-free’ with ‘evidence-supported’ will cease, and undermine their dogmas and doctrines.

    The lives, liberties, and peaceful lifespans of countless girls, women, boys, and men depend – literally – on how we conceptualize mental acceptances.

    Let’s get to it, doncha’ think?

  • jdyer

    “Founder of Protestanism” (was there only one?) had nothing on Tertullian’s

    “”Credo quia absurdum” (“I believe because it is absurd”).

    He may not have said it but it certainly fits theology’s raison d’etre.

  • Old Nick

    1. Update: the latest version of Wikipedia’s Scientific Method entry uses ‘believes’ once in its 5,496 words, and ‘beliefs’ thrice, when discussing a 19th century scientist named Charles Peirce (their spelling, not mine).

    I consider this a degradation from the belief-free version of the article I copied and word-searched this past summer!


    2. Cave wrote: “…nontheists…seem to step over the line when they assert that a contention is not ‘eligible for belief.’ It seems so arrogant, so comfortable, so certain.”

    Arrogant? What’s more arrogant than this sort of thing:

    “If anybody understood what Hindus really believe, there would be no doubt that they have no business administering government policies in a country that favors freedom and equality.”

    Smug? Who, me? Or this:

    “I know this is painful for the ladies to hear, but if you get married, you have accepted the headship of a man, your husband. Christ is the head of the household and the husband is the head of the wife, and that’s the way it is, period”?

    Certain? How’s this for ‘certainty’:

    “If you go all the way back to the days just following creation, men lived nine hundred years or more”?

    (All three quotes courtesy of: – and please, please, please read the entire collection of Pat Robertson quotes. You’ll thank me for it later. I promise.

    Then, for dessert, jump to Jerry Falwell:

    “The idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country.” (Sermon, July 4, 1976)

    Want more?

    Try this little beauty of enlightenment and tolerance: “All those against the revolution must disappear and quickly be executed.”


    “Why do you Mullahs only go after the ordinances of prayer and fasting?

    Why do you only read the Quranic verses of mercy and do not read the verses of killing?

    Quran says; kill, imprison!

    Why are you only clinging to the part that talks about mercy?

    Mercy is against God.

    Mehrab means the place of war, the place of fighting.

    Out of the mehrabs, wars should proceed,

    Just as all the wars of Islam used to proceeded out of the mehrabs.”


    “The prophet has [had] sword to kill people..

    Our [Holy] Imams were quite military men.

    All of them were warriors.

    They used to wield swords; they used to kill people.

    We need a Khalifa who would chop hands, cut throat, stone people

    In the same way that the messenger of God used to chop hands, cut throats, and stone people.

    In the same way that he massacred the Jews of Bani Qurayza because they were a bunch of discontent people.”

    (all 3 quotes courtesy of:

    Who, pray tell, is more “arrogant, smug, and certain” than religionists?!

    Scientists? No one who bothers to read Wikipedia’s Scientific method entry could possibly or reasonably accuse, with any hope of lasting credibility, scientists of any equivalent bigotry or prejudice. Many scientists might well be egotistical (I’ve only known one such egomaniacal scientist, although I’ve heard of several others), but science as a discipline is humble and cautious – by design.

    My last exhibit to address the fallacy that the nontheist’s declination to consider religious beliefs eligible for plausibility ain’t “arrogant, smug, or certain” is Sarah Asher’s 410th post in the ROS Morality thread:

    Read it and weep. Or, at least, sigh.

    It describes a socio-cultural smugness and arrogance unlike any I’ve ever witnessed or endured in my 2+decades living amid the University of Michigan’s many professional scholars: physicists, environmental scientists, microbiologists, evolutionary biologists, etc., etc., etc.

    A final recommendation for issues of belief and reason: Sam Harris

  • jdyer

    A graduate of Wikipedia College for the unlearned writes:

    “Update: the latest version of Wikipedia’s Scientific Method entry uses ‘believes’ once in its 5,496 words, and ‘beliefs’ thrice, when discussing a 19th century scientist named Charles Peirce (their spelling, not mine).

    Charles Saunders Peirce was a 19c American philosopher of the first rank. He was the true originator of Pragmatism as well as Semiotics.

    Here is what the Stanford encyclopedia says about him:

    Charles Sanders Peirce

    First published Fri Jun 22, 2001; substantive revision Wed Jul 26, 2006

    “Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) was the founder of American pragmatism (later called by Peirce “pragmaticism” in order to differentiate his views from others being labelled “pragmatism”), a theorist of logic, language, communication, and the general theory of signs (which was often called by Peirce “semeiotic”), an extraordinarily prolific mathematical logician and general mathematician, and a developer of an evolutionary, psycho-physically monistic metaphysical system. A practicing chemist and geodesist by profession, he nevertheless considered scientific philosophy, and especially logic, to be his vocation. In the course of his polymathic researches, he wrote voluminously on an exceedingly wide range of topics, ranging from mathematics, mathematical logic, physics, geodesy, spectroscopy, and astronomy, on the one hand, to psychology, anthropology, history, and economics, on the other.”

  • Old Nick
  • Old Nick

    Tonight I listened to an interview with Tavis Smiley. He admitted a painful episode of his childhood – a terrible, unspeakably brutal beating by a parent on two children – and yet ended the account with an assurance that the people had healed and even resumed a sharing of familial love. He said, “I believe that in the end, love wins. Love wins. Love always wins.”

    It was moving and inspirational.

    I think also it is mistaken.

    For 62 million human beings between 1939 and mid-1945, love didn’t win. Love was obliterated by millions of bullets, bombs, ordnance, flames, and Zyklon B. In our typical quests to glean meaning and value from life’s worst calamities, we like to take solace in the resolve and seemingly miraculous endurance of survivors. We want to accept that their eventual survival somehow legitimates the implicit theism of their tales of fervent, desperate prayers: prayers that seem, after all, to have been ‘heard’ and ‘answered’ affirmatively.

    Yet what about the 62 million who did not survive? Are we not focusing our willing credulity only on the survivors? (And please: “God works in mysterious ways” isn’t a conclusive counter-argument but an evasion.)

    It’s the same for domestic terror too: what about kids in families who not only are beaten but killed? The victims, beyond count over the centuries, of honor killings?

    Love doesn’t always win. Focusing only on the ‘positive hits’ while ignoring the countless ‘negative misses’ is act of self-delusion. ‘Love always wins’ is a sweet belief, but it’s factually wrong.

    This however doesn’t mean that love isn’t worthy of our veneration: love is the best of human emotions. Love, not jealous, judgmental archetypal projections of masculine insecurity, is truly worthy of spiritual veneration. People, after all, fall for the sales-pitch of the multibillion-dollar Christian/Jesus industry because of the love its main character represents. The same goes for scriptural characterizations like this: “…God! …The compassionate, the merciful!” (Koran, Sura 1)

    Humans want to believe not merely in supernatural entities, but in loving supernatural friends or parents. Wanting it is significant—heck, it’s more than merely significant, because differing, seemingly irreconcilable manifestations of that desire are driving so much of the religiously-linked conflict in the world today. But wanting it, no matter how intensely, doesn’t make it real.

    Love isn’t supernatural, but it is sublime. Love deserves our veneration. It deserves our every attempt to propagate it. Imagine temples, churches, and mosques devoted not to unverifiable Imaginary Friends, but to simple, tangible love. Imagine parishioners going to temples not to hear glorified parental warnings against misbehavior featuring patent fantasias about devils and hellfire, but to share personal inspirational stories about the healing power of mundane love.

    If that’s all that religion did, religion would be the world’s strongest force for harmony, not a terrible force for arrogant, exceptionalist, supremacist divisiveness.

    What a shame we don’t worship love unpersonified, but unverifiable supernatural personifications of parents instead. Love alone can’t save you from violence—but neither can impotent, unverifiable supernatural entities. The slaughtered 62 million of World War II lie as mute but irrefutable evidence.

    What’s missing from religionists like Ruhollah Khomeini, quoted a couple of posts above this one, or from Pope Urban II (who answered a trembling questioner of his design to purge the heretic Cathars of southern France with the infamous “Kill them all! God will know His own!”) is not only a genuine appreciation of love, unoccluded by religious dogmas and conceits, but an openness to empathy.

    I’ve been hammering in this thread as hard as I politely can at the concept of belief; but having presented my case (and too damned repetitively) I must wind down now, step back, and step out of character: I can and must recommend a ‘This I Believe’ from NPR’s vault – “I Believe in Empathy”. It’s the only one of the series I’ve bothered to hunt down and print out. (And because I experience some semblance of empathy every waking hour, I don’t have to ‘believe in’ it, but can plause it – comfortably – instead. 😉 ) Enjoy it.

    PS to Cave: I meant but failed to strategically place a couple of winky-smileys in the Nov. 23rd, 3:02 AM to let you know I was faking ‘outrage’. (It was late, I sayeth.) Apologies, sincerely.

    I’m gonna drop in a couple of suggested readings in answer to a question or two up-thread aways, but otherwise I’ll do my best to leave the thread to others.


  • Old Nick


    I’ve been hammering in this thread as hard as I politely can at the concept of belief; but having presented my case (and too damned repetitively) I must wind down now, step back, and step out of character: I can and must recommend a ‘This I Believe’ from NPR’s vault – “I Believe in Empathy”. It’s the only one of the series I’ve bothered to hunt down and print out. (And because I experience some semblance of empathy every waking hour, I don’t have to ‘believe in’ it, but can plause it – comfortably – instead. 😉 ) Enjoy it.

    PS to Cave: I meant and failed to strategically place a couple of winky-smileys in the Nov. 23rd, 3:02 AM to let you know I was faking ‘outrage’. (It was late, I sayeth.) Apologies, sincerely.

    Right. Enough already out of me. If I feel compelled to respond to anything I’ll do it on my blog and dump the link on this page.

  • jdyer

    [This post has been deleted. Please refer to the rules. — Greta]

  • Old Nick,

    I didn’t mean to paint all scientists with that brush. I have know, do know, many who do not fit that description at all.

    I accept your apology, although I don’t quite understand how to read the post now that you say you were faking outrage. It seems to me that those quotes come from people who feel pretty certain of themselves. I don’t see how the words of these people affect the varacity of what I said, though.

    And lumping a group together and calling them “religionists” is kinda dangerous, isn’t it? I know a number of deeply religious people who are more tolerant, humble, careful, open, and kind than I am. Are these people “religionists?” I go to church. Am I a religionist? I didn’t mean the word “reify” as an insult. I was attempting to get you to identify the group with whom you disagree so fervently.

    I hate to see you leave this conversation thread, Old Nick, and I sincerely hope you return. Thanks for the link to “I believe in Empathy.”

    jdyer, I find it puzzling that you would step in to this discourse with what seems to be a personal attack on Old Nick. Perhaps you two have some sort of history on these threads that makes you feel he merits such a screed. Perhaps it is a misunderstanding on my part. Perhaps you indended it to sound like a jest, a nudge in the ribs from an old friend. Regardless, from the perspective of somebody who does not know either of you, which I imagine includes most of the people who look at these threads, it looks like an irresponsible, childish thing to write.

  • Old Nick

    Cave, I’m not dropping out of the conversation; I’m simply tired of dropping massive word bricks onto this poor thread. I’ve written a response to you here. Please feel free to respond there, here, or both.

    I’ve offered the core of my argument as best I can, and have no desire to dominate this thread any further. (Brendan and Chelsea I’m sure will be pleased.) So, if I’ve got a response to any more posts, I’ll post ’em on my blog and notify you all here.

    For the sake of simplicity and to encourage further discussion, here’ s a tripartite summary of my argument:

    1. If we are meant to employ the sloppy common usage of ‘belief’ that includes not only mental acceptances of assertions and propositions but preferences and values too, then our conversation is destined to obfuscate instead of enlighten. I suspect that we call our preferences and values ‘beliefs’ in a disingenuous effort to award them a measure of ‘sacredness’. We are saying, in effect: “This value or preference of mine is so dear to me I want you to treat it as a quasi-religious assertion.”

    I argue in dissent that we ought to restrict our usage of the word to its dictionary meanings instead of its colloquial mishmash of whatever mere opinions we might want to puff up into ‘articles of faith’.

    2. By posting the link to the list “These We Once Believed”, I am offering an implicit argument that many more human beliefs have been abandoned than retained.

    What makes us think our current personal beliefs have any more factual credibility than alchemy, myomancy, or the geocentric solar system? Therefore…

    3. If you want us to take seriously your beliefs – i.e., for us to consider them eligible for a position of either support or refutation – then offer, along with the belief, credible supporting evidence for us to evaluate. In others words, we don’t want to bother with humankind’s billions of ‘no evidence necessary’ sorts of beliefs – we want you to give us compelling reasons to plause your assertions.

    Offer us plauses instead of mere beliefs, and you’ll wow the heck out of us! (Even if you don’t call them plauses.)

  • jdyer

    The problem with beliefs is that they are the believer is rendered passive in relation to his belief.

    The same is not the case with concepts, i.e., ideas or notions which have to be worked by the subject who is thus not a passive agent.

    This is why it makes more sense to say “I believe (or I do not believe) in or in Santa Claus,” than to say “I believe in justice, or in truth.”

    The first set of assumptions are fixed and immutable, or at least they are images of such immutable assumptions, while the second set of assumptions beg the question of “what do you mean by

  • jdyer

    The problem with beliefs is that they are the believer is rendered passive in relation to his belief.

    The same is not the case with concepts, i.e., ideas or notions which have to be worked by the subject who is thus not a passive agent.

    This is why it makes more sense to say “I believe (or I do not believe) in or in Santa Claus,” than to say “I believe in justice, or in truth.”

    The first set of assumptions is fixed and immutable, or at least they are images of such immutable assumptions, while the second set of assumptions begs the question of “what do you mean by truth or justice, etc.”

  • hurley

    Speaking of hobgoblins,..

    Emerson did not write “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of fools.” Only a fool or a hobgoblin with a thumb in his or her ear would write that. Unless of course he or she had simply made a mistake, as we all do. I point out the error only to do justice the quotation itself, and to Emerson, a favorite in these parts.

    The correct quotation runs: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesman and philosphers and divines.” (Correct me please if I’m wrong.)

    I believe, shall we say, in getting one’s facts right, particularly if one is of a mind to insult someone else for supposedly not being in possession of them.

    To beard Old Nick as “unlearned,” after all of his generous and daunting contributions here, does you no credit, jdyer. He’s contributed more to this forum than most of us put together. We’d all do well to follow his example

  • jdyer

    [This post has been deleted. Please refer to the rules. — Greta]

  • Potter

    Once you say what you believe, then (maybe you feel) you have to actually believe it forever. Whatever one says only holds true for the moment and must be renewed again and again to keep holding. Through a lifetime of thoughts there are certain consistencies that can be gathered for such a statement to be made.

    From Emerson’s essay “Self Reliance” and applicable to the discussion here is the context of the quote.


    “The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.

    But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, scarcely even in acts of pure memory, but to bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day. In your metaphysics you have denied personality to the Deity, yet when the devout motions of the soul come, yield to them heart and life though they should clothe God with shape and color. Leave your theory, as Joseph his coat in the hand of the harlot, and flee.

    A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.–“Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.”–Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood. . . .

  • Potter

    (end quote)

  • hurley

    You’re in error, jdyer. That quotation a favorite of mine; I collect variations on it (madmen” sometimes substituted for “little statesmen”). But how, short of a Vulcan mind-meld, could you know what I know from memory? Again, you fall into your own trap, here asserting a belief (“which is more than you could do,” an assertion with no basis in fact you could possibly have access to) when your point so far, beyond laying about you with insult and innuendo, was to argue against belief (“will o’ the wisps,” etc.). And why would you boast of quoting from memory something that was wrong? A strange boast, that, but I’ll take it as an indication of humility, albeit an unusual one.

    When I recommended that we would all do well to follow Old Nick’s example (not least his gentlemanly tone, which I’ve yet to master, but I’m trying), I was obviously speaking for myself, while of course exhorting others, as even the most casual examination of my sentence would suggest. Again, your misguided pedantry leads you into obvious error, and needless offense.

    I’m going to tune you out for awhile,

    Best in any case.

  • jdyer

    “You’re in error, jdyer. That quotation a favorite of mine;”

    Goody gumdrops, Hurley.

    Ok, I’ll let you pretend that you knew it by heart, I’ll pretend to believe you. How is that?

    But then you have sworn to tune me out.

    I should be so lucky.

  • jdyer

    Getting back to the thread topic of what folks believe, here is one that’s truly bizarre:

    This is from the New York Times Review of Pynchon’s new novel:

    “In “Against the Day,” Pynchon’s voice seems uncharacteristically earnest. He interrupts his narrative from time to time to lay down pronouncements that, taken together, probably constitute the fullest elaboration of his philosophy yet seen in print. One of the novel’s idées fixes is that mysterious agents are trying to send messages to individuals and to humanity at large in surprising ways: through bloody detonations of shells or dynamite I.E.D.’s (think of this as percussive Morse code that explodes into shrapnel as it’s received); a tornado nicknamed Thorvald that students attempt to communicate with by telegraph; garrulous whirls of ball lightning; coal gas (people wear special headsets to interpret the fumes and hang upside down to inhale messages through their stoves); and massive explosions on the level of the Tunguska Event or Hiroshima, which may be the footprints of angels, communicating through murder on a cataclysmic scale. In a singularly disturbing imaginative leap, he seems to make a ghoulish association with the gas chambers of the Holocaust. “Suppose the Gentleman B.,” one character observes, “is not a simple terrorist but an angel, in the early sense of ‘messenger,’ and in the fateful cloud he brings, despite the insupportable smell, the corrosive suffocation, lies a message?” By this logic, mass death could be one of the agents that increasingly seek to communicate with the world, like an insistently ringing hotline. What does mass death want to tell us? That “acute suicidal mania” is justified. You might want to leave the phone off the hook.”

    What struck me in this passage, besides, the bizarre nature of the belief, is how unoriginal this silly notion was. Vonnegut had already broached this idea in a number of his fantastic (in both senses of the term) novels.

  • joshua hendrickson

    Rather than get into it with anyone over such a thorny issue as belief, I prefer to commemorate my return (after a four month hiatus) to Open Source with an old poem of my own on the subject:

    EXISTENCE IS FORGIVEN by Joshua Hendrickson

    Forgive the tree for

    Feeding clothing sheltering

    It knew not its crime

    Forgive the sky for

    Thundering angry words of

    Gods who never speak

    Forgive the soul for

    Reflecting itself. It has

    No understanding

    For we cannot help

    But accept the fantasy

    Of reality:

    Gods and souls and words

    And worlds do not exist.

    I do not write this.

  • nother

    I am a 34-year-old single white American male of half Greek and half mutt heritage, and I believe I will marry a woman I haven’t met yet and have a child – within the next few years. Why, because that’s what’s in the cards. I like to think of myself as an independent guy, I tap into solitude more than many and I struggle to be self-reliant. Yet, my realist instinct tells me I’m following the same trajectory as countless others before me and as countless others will after. As a consequence of this awareness, I’ve been adapting like the neo-cons on Iraq, my definition of success in life is taking on a more pragmatic tone by the minute. While the mortality in the mirror warns me I may not find the perfect job and the perfect wife, the restlessness in my soul reminds me that limits – are mine for the making. Taken together, my reasoning tells me the trick is to strike a delicate balance between ambition and contentment. Ambition and contentment, I dangle between these two like a trapezes artist with tired arms – this is my destiny – this I believe.

    I also believe the act of kissing your lovers lips and face should be improvised like a jazz solo; I believe Satchmo’s solos on the trumpet are a manifestation of his all encompassing smile; and the most precious smiles happen in moments of wordless chuckles that linger after a shared laugh among friends and family.

    I believe Ralph Waldo Emerson when he writes, man “cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.”

    (As a side note, I believe our Concord sage would have done well to eliminate the limiting pronouns “man” and “he” from those beautiful words).

    The playwright August Wilson said the five themes that run through all his plays are honor, love, beauty, betrayal, and duty. This is what I believe about those themes; love – is an earnest exchange of vulnerability; honor – is a gift a person gives to themself; beauty – floats somewhere between Bridget Bardot and the sun drenched Fall foliage of Vermont; betrayal – is that menacing noise outside my window, but it’s also the darkness inside my basement; duty – is my humble payment to the piper.

  • evann

    I believe that human beings, in time, overcome their prejudices through liberal education.

    I teach in an urban high school where two-thirds of the students are non-white and almost that many are low-income, and we are a school that has made substantial progress toward closing the racial achievement gap, a goal that I proudly embrace. Yet this commitment to equality is not something that I can trace to my family heritage. My great-grandfather came from a North Carolina farming family that owned slaves. During the Civil War, his father and older brothers left home to fight for the Confederacy, and he lost both hands and one arm while trying to grind sorghum in a mill that he was too small and young to be able to run by himself. The story goes that when the doctor arrived, my great-great-grandmother was distraught over how her young son would be able to make a living without hands, and the doctor told her not to worry about that, as he probably would not survive. He did survive, and rather than making a living with his hands, like his farming family, he went to Wake Forest and learned the work of the mind, becoming a Southern Baptist minister and college president.

    As president of Meredith, a college for women in Raleigh, my great-grandfather fought for equal education for young women, introducing a rigorous liberal arts curriculum and encouraging his own daughter to become a physician and psychiatrist. He also fought for the teaching of evolution in the schools and colleges of the Southern Baptist Convention, not because he believed in evolution — he did not — but because he believed that a quality education enables young people to consider the evidence and take thoughtful positions on the important issues and debates of the age.

    There is no doubt that my great-grandfather was a racist. There were no black students at Meredith, and another family story tells of how, during a time when he was disturbed about whites using lies to justify excluding African Americans from voting, he considered preaching against these untruths, but when he searched the Bible he decided that Scripture allows lying “in a good cause.” But here’s the point: he was, I’m not. By the time his grandchildren, my parents and aunts and uncles, had finished their college educations, they were ready to support the Civil Rights Movement, and to teach their children to respect the equality of all people. And what had allowed them to move on was the educated ability to consider the evidence and take thoughtful positions on the important issues and debates of the age. The truth had won out.

    I don’t know what attitudes that I hold may cause shame to my great-grandchildren. But I do believe that their beliefs will be closer to the truth than mine, and that, however they may differ, they will share, across a span of seven generations, a profound belief in the power of education to liberate humanity.

  • joshua hendrickson

    “All stories are true.” –Alan Moore

    He goes on to point out that even if a given story isn’t true for you personally, it is true for someone. Only by remembering this am I capable of living on the same planet as fundamentalists … though I doubt if they are capable of living on the same planet as me, for their own philosophy differs in that, for them, all stories with the exception of their personal favorite are false.

  • jdyer

    “I believe Ralph Waldo Emerson when he writes, man “cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.”

    (As a side note, I believe our Concord sage would have done well to eliminate the limiting pronouns “man” and “he” from those beautiful words).”

    Ha! Nother now believes in censoring Emerson.

    Why don’t you rewrite his work and take out all references to the specific and substitute indeterminate ones instead.

  • rc21

    To Joshua hendrickson: I haven’t heard of any fundamentilists moving off the planet,so I would say Alan Moore needs to rethink his statement as nothing could be further from the truth. Although, I must admit it is a nice try at demonizing religous folks.

  • nother

    Hey Joshua Hendrickson, I love that quote. It makes me think about how important oral history was to our civilization for so long. I’m sure the stories evolved as they were told through the years, but does it matter? It was the sentiment, the morals, the humor, that they were really passing on through the stories.

  • nother…

    “beauty – floats somewhere between Bridget Bardot and the sun drenched Fall foliage of Vermont”

    I think it is very sweet of you to acknowledge the beauty in older women.

    (I’m teasing you as I imagine you are referring to BB as she appareled in the movie God Made Woman none-the-less I’m sure you will be a blessing to the real woman who does find you)

  • My first thought regarding belief was that I believe it was Mark Twain who said, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

    As a “Born Again Buddhist” what I like about my adopted – I even hesitate to call it a “religion” – I call it a practice, is that it does not require any great leaps of faith but requires a careful examination of reality. Yet, I do believe, based on observation, that pursuit of this practice will make my life better. It already has, mostly through gaining familiarity with the workings of my own mind. The Buddha arrived at four noble truths. They were not revealed truths (no handed down stone tablets) but were based on his observations of life and his own mind. The four noble truths are: 1) That life involves suffering, 2) That there is a cause of that suffering – attachment and delusion, 3) There is a way to end suffering, and 4) The way to end suffering is found in practice of the Eightfold, or Nobel Way path (Right Understanding, Right Though, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration). That is Buddhism in a nutshell, something to cultivate over a lifetime, (or many lifetimes though I can’t say I am convinced regarding reincarnation but I wouldn’t rule it out). To me Buddhism is a sane and realistic approach to living. I wear a small silver Kartika, a Tibetan ritual cutting tool, around my neck. The Kartika is used to symbolically cut away illusion. I call it my “cut the bullshit” symbol.

  • corrected typos…

    as she appeared – and – right thought

  • I belreve Briggette Bardot is still very beautiful inside and out. Here is a link to her foundation. She does good work defending animals.

  • Sutter

    I’ve been trying to figure out how to frame this elegantly, and I can’t, so here’s my inelegant contribution:

    I believe in the importance of embracing complexity. Our world cannot be reduced to easy heuristics, or schemas, or simplifications. Our world is too deeply inflected by history, geography, ethnicity, and other contingencies to be susceptible to such reductionism, and our efforts to so reduce it almost invariably end in failure. Thus, as others have noted above, “belief” is dangerous, if it is inflexible. Belief in complexity is in some sense a meta-belief: A belief in the nature of belief itself. Specifically, it is the view that belief must be inherently dialectical: It must at once influence one’s organization of otherwise unrelated facts and events (else it is not belief at all, but merely pure empiricism), but also must be influenced by those facts and events (else it becomes brittle dogma). We succeed only when our “beliefs” recognize their own limitations. In this sense, belief in complexity is at root a form of humanism: Grand theories won’t work, because things are too complicated, and we must endeavor every day to deal with the messy facts on the ground, and be willing to adapt accordingly.

    I note that as I see it, Radio Open Source is itself founded on the same belief.

    As I said, not elegant, but neither is complexity itself.

  • joshua hendrickson


    Perhaps I need to reconsider my posting or my motives behind it, but I would disagree that Alan Moore needs to reconsider his point. Far from it: after all, he, though not a Christian fundamentalist (he is in fact a kind of Kabbalist) is not demonizing religious folk but defending the imagination.

    Now, maybe I was demonizing religious folk (it wouldn’t be my first time taking a stab at it) but at the time I thought I was stating a basic philosophical difference between an imaginative mindset and a carved-in-stone mindset.

    Nothing could be further from the truth than to say that all stories are true?

    Nay, nay. Details, facts (as understood by faulty human brains), opinions: these are all capable of being falsified or proven. But stories … stories are only in our heads. However based upon reality (or not) they are, stories are a function of the human imagination, and within our imagination (if nowhere else) all fictions come to life, and are true.

    That’s why I love stories, love fiction, and like to read and write fantasy (and other, “straight” fiction if you will): because, in my head, they live.

    To quote another, rather better-known author:

    “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.”

    –Stephen King

  • joshua hendrickson

    But what do I believe?

    I believe:

    …God is the greatest fictional character

    …Social freedom should be absolute and economic freedom severely restricted

    …CEREBUS is at once the greatest graphic novel of all time AND possessed of the most misguided, wrongheaded theme in all of literature

    …Humanity is not alone in the universe BUT that the universe is so old and so big that we might as well be alone

    …sex is no big deal BUT human touch is supremely important

    …conservatives outnumber liberals because it’s easier

    …all stories are true

    …life will go on even if we don’t.

  • jazzman

    This is one of my favorite all time topics. (I apologize to Old Nick and Joshua Hendrickson who have heard this before.) For the record, I believe that beliefs are mental concepts (ideas) that are assumed to be true. All beliefs are operational – we operate under the assumption that our beliefs are based on true information, supplied from our mental database of experience and knowledge acquired from sundry sources.

    Beliefs are to humans as operating systems are to computers. They are the basis of all criteria that we use to navigate thru life. They (we) decide for us what is true or false, right or wrong. They decide what beliefs (beliefs about beliefs) we retain and what beliefs we refine or discard. All conscious incoming information is filtered thru the lens of our belief system. That which agrees with our preconceptions further reinforces those beliefs. That which does not comport with those beliefs is usually ignored or rejected out of hand filtered (admitted or rejected) in direct proportion to how strongly a belief is held. The things that challenge our beliefs are the opportunities to expand our horizons and alter our views. It appears to me that conventional wisdom (commonly held beliefs) is almost always the direct opposite of the underlying mechanism of reality and existence that informs the CW but that is my belief and I see reality thru that lens.

    Again beliefs are concepts that each of us thinks are true and we also believe that it’s true that many things that are believed by others are not true. Unless one personally empirically verifies by proper scientific method the truth or falsity of any proposition, one is forced to accept on faith (belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence) that another’s methodologies and conclusions are correct – you have only their assertion (and possibly others’) that there is logical proof or material evidence for whatever) – if the assertion comports with your preconceived notions you are less likely to challenge or examine the methodologies – or even care (I knew >/i> t would be so!) Even if one has performed the test correctly, one may jump to the wrong conclusion or misunderstand the results and it is faith (belief) in oneself that confirms the conclusion.

    Except for tautology, everything we believe is a function of our faith (belief) in our deductive/inductive reasoning powers which may be in error.

    Here are a few random beliefs which I currently hold.

    I believe everyone is responsible for everything in their experience.

    I don’t believe in evil, violence or luck.

    I believe that the concept known as God is the gestalt of ALL THAT IS (i.e., consciousness, matter, and energy which are interchangeable manifestations of each other)

    I believe in PEACE!!!


  • jazzman

    Darn greater than sign!!!

  • Cheonast

    I’m afraid my pleasure in hearing “This I Believe” was severely undercut when the philandering, lying, power-hungry pseudoinellectual Newt Gingrich was invited to air pretentious twaddle in which he pretended to believe. That essay contaminated the whole enterprise for me, and I’ve avoided listening to it ever since. Allison and Gediman ought to be asked why in the world they invited Gingrich’s participation.

  • Nick

    I’m feeling freer than usual: liberated, and rejuvenated. (Don’t ask why.) So I’ve dropped the “Old” from my byline. (I’m not young, but not exactly ancient either.)

    Sutter, I like your offering at 6:04 pm, Nov.28th. I agree with it, although I wouldn’t call it a ‘belief’ but a value. I will post why on my blog and link it to here.

    I have a reaction to the show, and it belongs here, not on my offsite blog.

    Chris said that “skepticism can become a belief”. (Oh, boy. Here it comes…)

    He said (in paraphrase) that skepticism is also a process of evaluation (“a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment” – Wikipedia). That’s correct.

    But is skepticsim a belief, too? Can it “become a belief”?

    Ask yourself whether this statement offers the lightest, faintest lick of wisdom:

    “I believe in gullibility.”

    Can you “believe in” a characterization of human credulity? If so, can you explain to me what the heck it means to “believe in” it? ‘Cos it’s Greek to me.

    Let’s try two more:

    “I believe in cautious driving.”

    Now try recklessness: “I believe in driving without wearing seatbelts.”

    Are these beliefs, or behaviors? Are they beliefs, or assertions of behavioral preferences? Are preferences “mental acceptances or convictions in the truth or actuality of something”? (American Heritage Dictionary; see: What does belief mean?)

    You can introduce any damn thing you want with, “I believe,” and it automatically earns a moment of respect from its recipients. Try these:

    “I believe in brotherhood.”

    “I believe in music.”

    “I believe in breathing.”

    “I believe in Ethiopian coffee.”

    “I believe in eating brownies.”

    “I believe in lighting matches while standing over spilled gasoline.”

    “I believe in treetops.”

    “I believe in coffee-drinking treetops that drop brownies onto the ground for the hungry foxes. To keep them from the chickens. Because the Elf-king-god pities the poor, slow-thinking chickens.”

    “I believe I don’t have to substantiate my beliefs.”

    That final one is the more than merely the only valid statement of that nonet with any operative currency among the world’s billions of believers—it’s also the only one of that list that isn’t (grammatically correct) nonsense.

    You can say you “believe in” something, but that doesn’t automatically elevate from the realm of nonsense. You can easily compose grammatically correct nonsense: “I believe in Greek Elves,” but the correctness of the construction confers no legitimacy to the assertion. (Oh yeah? Sez you! They hang out playing backgammon in cypress trees! I seen ‘em!)

    How about: “I believe in proper grammar.” What does that mean? That it exists? That you disbelieve in improper grammar?

    How about: “I value proper grammar.”

    Now that I can understand. (I also value improper grammar!) 😉

    Grammar, practically speaking, is a means of articulation: a method. Snowshoeing is a method of wintertime travel. Does this make a lick of sense: “I believe in showshoeing”?

    Skepticism is a method of evaluation (“of intellectual caution and suspended judgment” – Wikipedia). It’s no more a ‘belief’ than is snowshoeing.

    Can you value skepticism? (Or music, or eating brownies, or Ethiopian coffee, or brotherhood…)

    Yup. And you can recommend skepticism as a method that yields better results than gullibility.

    But “believing in” it makes no more sense than “believing in” skiing, “believing in” walking carefully on ice, “believing in” driving a truck, or even “believing in” bodily functions.

    We use belief all too often as a sloppy synonym for all manner of non-beliefs. I wrote above in this thread that I don’t “believe in” human equality but that I value it. I’ve recently found the time to explain how human equality isn’t eligible for belief – no matter how much I wish it could be – here: What does it mean to ‘value’ human equality?

    The reason I seem obsessed with this topic is because I plause – from ample available evidence – that our uncritical, ‘no evidence necessary’ use of ‘belief’ implicitly awards unwarranted credibility to abominable and barbaric ‘beliefs’: beliefs responsible for the misery and deaths of countless innocents. Bob Herbert wrote yesterday in The New York Times


    In a demoralizing reprise of life in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, the U.N. reported that in Iraq: “The situation of women has continued to deteriorate. Increasing numbers of women were recorded to be either victims of religious extremists or ‘honor killings.’”


    When we bloggers, radio hosts, or ordinary citizens conflate values, preferences, and, most especially, desires that the putative supernatural be ‘true’ while only ‘hidden’ from our senses, instead of incredible, we are, like it or not, complicit in the practice of stoning or butchering adolescent girls for the simple ‘crime’ of having hormones. We are complicit in genital mutilation, and for bombs exploded among innocent civilians, etc.

    Ask yourself: Is reevaluating the way my sloppy comprehension of belief—i.e., what’s eligible for the surrender of credulity and what isn’t—worth the time and trouble?

    Is the perpetuation and non-disturbance of my dearest beliefs more important than the lives of, say, Pashtun girls? Or of Israeli or Palestinian civilians? Or even of the factually baseless ‘education’ of the children of American fundamentalists, who, if only they had access to credible education, might someday fashion or discover a substance or method that helps humankind?

    Despite appreciating some of the hour’s Brian Green segment, I’ve got to give a carefully considered “thumbs down” to this hour of ROS. It made no distinction between beliefs, values, preferences, or plain old-fashioned wishes.

    It consistently and egregiously conflated the entire lot of them. (I sincerely hope it was nothing more than unintentional intellectual carelessness.) And the only beneficiaries of that gaff are the purveyors of unsubstantiated, unverifiable, and – by the standards of modern science – naturally incredible beliefs – the very kinds of beliefs that kill women and girls in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Utah.

    Please question your beliefs. Question even what it means to believe. People are suffering and dying as a direct consequence or our blasé, uncritical acceptance of these concepts.

  • Nick

    Sorry: “People are suffering and dying as a direct consequence of our blasé, uncritical acceptance of these concepts.”

    (Thanks for putting up with me…)

  • aido c

    This is an excellent idea for a programme, I think you have really hit on something here, this is a new strength.

    I have read that one of the reasons that Bush was so popular or got elected was that people warmed to his apparently simple strength, his belief in God. This is very powerful, and it should be considered. They wrote that people will warm to this simple strength or at least the appearance of strength and the associated leadership. Now I have no truck in Bush, and am only dabbling again in religion. I am not even going to start listing why… But I was fascinated by this overall idea.

    And then I saw it in action, I was watching the late late show one night (an Irish LONG running TV show) and Michael Baigent a Dan brown apologist was on to debate (read.. publicise) the DAVINCI CODE, and on queue the RC church rolled out some theologians to counterpoint the facts. Anyway a funny thing happened that night and one of he theologians was delayed at the airport or something, and in his place Fr Phonsie Cullinan, a hip sort of college/university priest took his place. Well in my opinion Fr. Cullinane stole the show, a simple man with very strong beliefs just stood up and said ‘I love my God and I don’t like the way you are talking about him’ The argument might sound childish but believe me it was stunning to see, there was no logical argument or rational one, just I love my God and you are saying bad things about him.

    I was impressed and though I dislike Bush – I got it,

    See in this, the information age, people are no longer AS impressed with quotations and research and scripture. There is something very appealing in somebody being brave enough to stand up and say, this is what I believe……

  • Potter

    I believe that a great ROS show is one that inspires and so keeps going forever.

    From Montaigne Among the Moderns” by Dudley M. Marchi

    [Montaigne believed] ….”the skeptical temperment should be maintained only temporarily towards the formulation of solid judgements [ quoting Montaigne] ‘Every superior mind will pass through this domain of equilibration’, ( Montaigne, IV, 171- emphasis added) Emerson’s casualness toward his appropration of Montaigne is thus related to Montaigne’s attitude toward his own auctoritates. Emerson relied on Montaigne but only to help him arrive at his own intellectual independence…..”

    So skepticim is an essential tool to keep us from making judgements so solid that they block our vision, no longer keep us fresh with the present.

    Emerson’s essay Montaigne, or The Skeptic is here:

    (quotes from the above)

    “But I see plainly, he [the skeptic] says, that I cannot see. I know that human strength is not in extremes, but in avoiding extremes. I, at least, will shun the weakness of philosophizing beyond my depth. What is the use of pretending to powers we have not? What is the use of pretending to assurances we have not, respecting the other life? Why exaggerate the power of virtue? Why be an angel before your time? These strings, wound up too high, will snap. If there is a wish for immortality, and no evidence, why not say just that? If there are conflicting evidences, why not state them? If there is not ground for a candid thinker to make up his mind, yea or nay,- why not suspend the judgment? I weary of these dogmatizers. I tire of these hacks of routine, who deny the dogmas. I neither affirm nor deny. I stand here to try the case. I am here to consider, skopein, to consider how it is. I will try to keep the balance true. Of what use to take the chair and glibly rattle off theories of society, religion and nature, when I know that practical objections lie in the way, insurmountable by me and by my mates? Why so talkative in public, when each of my neighbors can pin me to my seat by arguments I cannot refute? Why pretend that life is so simple a game, when we know how subtle and elusive the Proteus*(28) is? Why think to shut up all things in your narrow coop, when we know there are not one or two only, but ten, twenty, a thousand things, and unlike? Why fancy that you have all the truth in your keeping? There is much to say on all sides.”

    This from Emerson to Nother:

    “Who shall forbid a wise skepticism, seeing that there is no practical question on which any thing more than an approximate solution can be had? Is not marriage an open question, when it is alleged, from the beginning of the world, that such as are in the institution wish to get out, and such as are out wish to get in? And the reply of Socrates, to him who asked whether he should choose a wife, still remains reasonable, that “whether he should choose one or not, he would repent it.”

  • Potter

    Peggy Sue– beautiful and thanks.

  • Nick
  • nother

    Peggysue, thank you for those sweet words and the link. While it’s true that I was thinking about her physical beauty from her early years, I also had her work for animal rights in my mind when I wrote that. (although I did misspell her name.)

    That Kartika you wear around your neck sounds cool. Have you read Emerson’s essay on illusion, or shall I say his essay on “cut the bullshit?” 🙂

    a couple of excerpts:

    “Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood. All is riddle, and the key to a riddle is another riddle. There are as many pillows of illusion as flakes in a snow-storm. We wake from one dream into another dream.”

    “Life is an ecstasy.”

  • nother

    Potter, I love that!

    When I talk about the issue of marriage with my married friends we inevitably end by saying the same thing, the grass is always greener on the other side. Now I read from those quotes that old man Socrates was saying the same thing so long ago – I LOVE THAT! Or I’m freaked out by it, I don’t know. 🙂

  • Sutter

    I just read only about a third of it on my way to and from lunch, but before this thread goes stale (perhaps it has already), I want to say that the Emerson essay CL has mentioned is really quite amazing. Available online here:

  • aido c

    Nick, I appreciate your attempts to break this down because I have struggled to understand why its so powerfull today. I suspect it is an appeal to the emotions, but its just so accidental or unstagemanaged, as to be quite unique, I have also met this priest in person amd his beliefs are as unshakable in person, he is in person as he was on TV. It has to be an emotional appeal, because how can it be logical. But then how can you be emotionally involved in Jesus, who has been dead for so long, its quite baffling.

    How about my comparrison to Bush, do you think his faith is an emotional one, or is it somehow stage managed?

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