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Believing in Nothing
and Something
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Believing in Nothing and Something
An Approach to Humanist Beliefs and Values
by Geoff Heath


Beliefs and values have erupted into a high level of public awareness.

9/11 occurred. To say that it changed the world is probably true but it is a rather Western point of view. Millions have died and are dying in internecine wars, in famines, as a result of disease and as a consequence of the policies on arms and trade which are adopted by the West, not least my own country. I do not wish to mitigate the horror of 9/11, but I simply make the obvious point that in the developing world similar disasters are part of daily life – and death. Their deaths are largely unknown to those of us in the West – unknown and generally unnamed and unmourned. No extended TV coverage for them. No individual memorial list for them. The deaths of these, my fellow human beings, are frequently referred to as 'collateral damage'. They were merely in the way. In the way were an estimated three to four thousand civilians in Afghanistan during the attempt to destroy al-Qaeda. More than were killed in the twin towers of the World Trade Center, but no international memorial services for them. There is a differential valuing of life and therefore a differential valuing of death (Chomsky 2002).

Post-9/11 the urgent popularity of books about Islam is indicative of many people's ignorance about one of the world's major faiths which is perceived, in the West, as a minority faith. What are Muslims' beliefs and values? What is a jihad? What leads some Muslims to take such drastic and aggressive action? Is there likely to be the 'clash of civilisations' predicted by Huntington (1996)? Can such a clash be avoided? What do 'we' believe who are not part of any religious community? Does it matter what we believe if we are not religious? How might 'we' arrive at a reasonable, meaningful and satisfying belief/value system which does not rely on the notion of God?

And then 10/12 in Bali. And the Moscow hostages. And Mombasa. A Roman Catholic crucified by Protestant 'hardliners' in Northern Ireland. Now the war against Iraq. And so on ...

Belief in a version of God seems to be behind these acts of gross and horrific tragedy. I know that it is not as simple as that, but whatever other motivations and reasons, it seems to be God in whose name these acts of violence are validated.

Unacceptable attributes of God were not the reason I ceased to believe in any form of God some years ago. The two main reasons were: first, I failed to be intellectually convinced that there was evidence for God's existence; and secondly, I came to the view that, emotionally, I did not need to believe in God.

Having said that, there is a deep and sometimes disturbing sense of loneliness in giving up belief in God. The world loses its divine sense of origin. Life loses its sense of ultimate purpose, direction and meaning. Moral decisions become ever more complex. A complexity increased by the realisation that we live in a plural society in which there is simply no consensus on the basic principles of morality, let alone consensus as to how to arrive at moral decisions and actions, be these in personal living or in relation to social, international, scientific and medical ethics. Eagleton comments:

(Berlin) is right to see that what characterizes the moral order of modernity is our failure to agree on even the most fundamental questions. This is so flagrant a fact that we have forgotten to be surprised by it. (2003: 229)

Deciding what to believe and what values to adopt also becomes considerably more difficult when the beliefs and values cease to be prepackaged, as it were, as an integral part of the religion in which I used to believe – Christianity.

But with this kind of loss comes a sense of liberation. A freedom to think, to be sceptical, to develop my own – and owned – sense of me as the creator of my believing and valuing.

There is also a sense of loss of belonging to a community. This loss may contribute to the individualism which is so prevalent in our largely secular and generally confused society. The more I experience myself as an individual the more I am likely to experience a sense of aloneness and aloneness is a source of confusion. Aloneness is the loss of community.

There are all sorts of losses which follow from ceasing to believe in God. Indeed I think that people's needs for external sources of purpose and an anxious avoidance of a deep sense of loss, direction and meaning in part explain why some continue to be religious believers, even fervent believers. It surprises me, as it did Montaigne (1533–92 CE), that some people believe strongly in things for which there is no evidence – other than a need to believe. Perhaps the apparent need to identify groups of 'others' as 'evil' is a form of negative group cohesion: a sense of meaning derived from 'not being them'. Perhaps otherness is negatively defined by the needs of the dominant and fearful in order to confirm their prejudices.

On the other hand I sense that some people drift out of belief in the traditional God but perhaps retain a vague sense of 'a power greater than ourselves' or, as is becoming popular, a vague sense of 'spirituality'. I am not content with vague drifts, nor do contemporary views on spirituality satisfy me. They seem to me to allow emotional needs for external meaning to replace a proper sense of scepticism and of need for evidence. They seem to be residues of the hope that there is some meaning outside us, some purpose to which we can be allied. They seem to avoid clear thinking and difficult decisions about meaning, beliefs and values. I have no regrets about giving up my belief in God but it has proved difficult to know what to believe and value in God's place.

Beliefs and related myths are the stories we tell ourselves about our origins and our identities. Beliefs and myths are expressions of our need for meaning. Myths allow us to have imagined identities, imagined senses of belonging and imagined associations. Imagined because we do not know what the true reality is. Imagined because we can never know for sure what our own and others' realities are – or were, or will be. In some respects we live in a virtual world of our imagining.

My meaning arises from my human relatedness but, because I can never be totally secure in my relatedness, I imagine that I am more related than I am. I need to belong, and this need can get in the way of including others in my belonging: the 'others' who might threaten my sense of belonging and therefore of my identity as one who belongs; the stranger who may disturb the security of my myth of my imagined identity and of the imagined 'we'. The 'other' can also threaten my imagined reference group. As Williams puts it:

'Using other people to think with'; that is using them as symbols for points on your map, values in your scheme of things. When you get used to imposing meanings in this way, you silence the stranger's account of who they are; and that can mean both metaphorical and literal death. (R. Williams 2002: 67)

This book is my own response to some issues, concerns, confusions, challenges and opportunities which result from my calling myself a humanist. It is an account of my personal journey towards a nihilistic humanism.

I indicate some of the reasons for my humanistic position and of the reasons and transitions which led me to this position. In a sense my own personal journey has been a shift from believing in something (God) to believing in nothing (nihilism). But I have to believe in some form of meaning. I have values. I have my stories. I have my imaginative myths of meaning. They are the basis of my existence.

Having discussed the reasons for my transitions, I then attempt to put my own humanistic beliefs and values into a reasonably brief and coherent form.

I draw on a range of literature which has informed and challenged my thinking. These authors have helped not only to relieve my sense of loneliness in the existential predicament, but also to become clearer as to what it is that I believe and what my own values are. I decided to attempt to clarify my beliefs and values for two main reasons: I had been asked to give a lecture on my philosophical/existential position to a multi-faith group, and because beliefs and values are at the forefront of my own and many people's thinking at this particular time.

This literature also helps me to update my ideas as to what I am, what I want to believe and what my values are. Unlike religious believing which tends to be retrospective, scripture based, traditional and static, my beliefs and values are not 'givens' arising either from religious tradition or scientific 'facts'. There are important distinctions between what 'is' and what 'ought to be'. My beliefs and values are the result of my consideration of what I think is best for me, for society and for culture generally. Whilst I agree with Pinker's (2002) view that there are some universal features of human nature, based on our biological inheritance (we are not blank slates), I also agree with Janet Radcliffe Richards that:

For the materialist, on the other hand, there is no question of finding out by looking at the universe how things ought to be, because the universe has in itself no moral order. (2000: 263)

We are each responsible for choosing our beliefs and values.

I have received a great deal of help in my search for a clarification of my beliefs, in the ongoing struggle for my personal sense of meaning and in my articulation of my position not only by reading, but particularly through discussions with trusted friends. Always challenging, never cosily collusive and comfortable, we give ourselves permission to be constructively critical. But our friendship is enhancing, developmental, supportive. It is a safe relationship. There is a deep sense of trust in these relationships and I have increasingly come to think that trust is the essence of all good relationships. This may seem self-evidently true but it is not trivially true. It is important that I emphasise it. Without my trust in my friends I would not have been able to cope with those existential problems which I have had to face and from which I learn so much. I could even go so far as to say that significant aspects of the meaning of my life is embedded within the friendships which I have had and am still fortunate to have. Even in normal living, if I can't trust you and you can't trust me the chances of a productive relationship are slim indeed. The topic of trust was considered so significant that Onora O'Neill made it the theme of her 2002 BBC Reith Lectures.

I have never previously put my own beliefs into the form of a creed but it's an interesting task to try to be clear and brief about one's beliefs. My own credo follows. It does not having the ringing cadences of religious creeds. That is in part because traditional creeds use the word 'God' as a very pithy form of shorthand, but about which tomes have been written over millennia. My creed is not immutable but it is carefully thought out and is as brief as I can make it whilst at the same time stating what I want to say.

  • I believe that people are the only source of their meaning.
  • I believe in an embodied mind, not a mind distinct from the body.
  • I believe that my embodied mind arises from relatedness and does not exist independently of relationships. My sense of 'I' and my mental processes are social.
  • I believe that we are capable of understanding and controlling some aspects of the external world as well as some aspects of our own internal embodied world.ŘI say 'some aspects' because I do not know how far this process of understanding and control is capable of going.
  • I believe that science has developed the most effective ways of providing certain kinds of understanding and therefore of control.
  • I believe that science is the best way we have of discovering what the world is like, and here world includes how the human body works.
  • I believe that science is infused with values – values as to what kinds of knowledge is sought, who is authorised and resourced to seek that knowledge, how that knowledge is sought and those to whom the benefits of the knowledge are made available. Values are also present in the deep sense that the very pursuit of knowledge is valid and valued.
  • I believe that gaining understanding and knowledge is a human activity of discovery by increasingly rigorous use of reason, carefully constructed methodologies and the use of technologies – plus insight, scepticism, doubt, curiosity, leaps of faith, serendipity, peer review, imagination, courage, dogged determination, a playful and critical attitude to received knowledge, conversation.
  • I do not believe that knowledge is revealed by any sort of divine being.
  • I do not believe that values are revealed by any sort of divine being.
  • I believe that fact and value are importantly different.
  • I believe that 'knowledge is power' (as did Francis Bacon (1561–1626 CE) who coined the term).
  • I believe that our everyday experiences of the world allow us to have some limited understanding of the world. We certainly seem to believe that we can make everyday sense of the world of things and of people. The more carefully we reflect on our experiences and the more critical we are of them, the more likely we are to be able to behave tolerantly, empathically, rationally and reasonably. The more we understand, the less dogmatic we should be about that which we understand.
  • I believe that the meanings which we construct, based on everyday experiences and scientific understanding (at varying degrees of low level), are not inherent in the knowledge which we accumulate. Rather these meanings are our inventions, whereas scientific knowledge is based on discovery. These meaning inventions tend to go beyond knowledge and understanding and involve the creation of myths, narratives, notions of origins and endings. These myths and meanings deal with the human condition in all its complexity. Meanings are affirmations of our significance to ourselves.
  • I believe that there are complex interactions between the beliefs which we hold about the world, the knowledge which we discover and the meanings which we create.
  • I believe in the complexity of things and therefore I believe in many approaches to knowledge. If there were only one truth, then there would only be one way of saying it. There are many things and therefore many things need to be said.
  • I believe that it may well be the case that there is no way in which we can arrive at ultimate, total understanding and final meaning. We could never know that we knew everything. Life, understanding and meaning are processes not arrivals. We shall never know it all – for which I am grateful, because total knowledge would be all too likely to result in total domination and total power.
  • I believe that people have a right to their own beliefs and values. I would prefer it if their beliefs and values did not involve the desire to kill, torture, degrade, exploit and humiliate others. I would also prefer it if their beliefs and values did not include the desire to convert others. I would prefer it if their beliefs and values could include the acceptance of the enhancing and co-operative benefits of conversation. I would prefer people to be sceptical of their beliefs rather than accept them dogmatically and uncritically.

As I was correcting the proofs of this book I read The New York Review of Books (16 January 2003: 15) in which there is a full page taken to publish a 'Statement of Conscience' signed by more than 30,000 people.

I was moved by this Statement and decided to quote two extracts, each relating to beliefs, and each of which adds an important political dimension to my own credo. These two belief statements are also entirely consistent with the values which I state in the final chapter of this book.

I ally myself with the following belief statements:

  • We believe that people and nations have the right to determine their own destiny, free from military coercion by great powers. We believe that all persons detained or prosecuted by the [government] should have the same rights of due process. We believe that questioning, criticism and dissent must be valued and protected. We understand that such rights and values are always contested and must be fought for.
  • We believe that people of conscience must take responsibility for what their own governments do – we must first of all oppose the injustice that is done in our own name.
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