What to Believe?
by: Paul W Sharkey
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Given the fact that there is damned little that we can really know, whether about the existence of a God, Supreme Being, or even our own or the world’s continued existence, there then comes the question of what one is to believe (or not), and why.
Being an agnostic does not by itself imply non-belief. In its purest form, it merely acknowledges a lack of knowledge. Even if one does not or cannot know something, that does not in-itself determine anything whatsoever about what one may or may not, or should or should not, believe about it. The fact of the matter is that almost everything we do is based upon some belief (as opposed to knowledge) of one kind or another. The issue isn’t so much whether we say we do or do not believe something but rather what difference it makes.
Take for example belief in an “after-life.” Some of my self-proclaimed Christian neighbors think it very important to believe even have faith in the clear and “certain promise” of an after-life and seem disturbed by the fact that I don’t. Do I know that there is or isn’t such a thing? Certainly not! neither do I care. If there is, there is and if there ain’t, there ain’t and my belief about it, one way or the other, isn’t going to change whatever the truth about it may be. However, this is the kind of belief that can and does make a difference, sometimes with very tragic consequences.
Some people think that if there is no such thing as an after-life, then “anything goes.” In other words, if there aren’t any post-life consequences to one’s behaviors, then evil doers in this life never have to fear being “brought to justice” and hence have no reason to be good. But anyone who would use their non-belief in an after-life to feel fee or justified to engage in evil behavior in this one is a fool with tragic consequences whatever the “reality”of an after-life might be. Other people think that if there is an after-life, then if they perform certain special acts (whether it be accepting “X” as their personal savior or blowing themselves and a lot of other people up in the name of “X”) then they will be assured of being rewarded therein. There have certainly been all too many tragedies based upon this belief.
For the same reasons and basically the same arguments, my beliefs (or anyone else’s) about whether there is or isn’t a God, Supreme Being, Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, isn’t going to change the fact one way or the other of whether there is or isn’t. If there is, there is and if there isn’t, there isn’t and the fact of the matter is, for reasons closely similar to those above, it is much more benign to be apathetically agnostic about it than not.
No, I think it better to neither believe nor disbelieve to simply admit that I don’t know and leave it at that. Moreover, I think it better not to care either. For if I were to care, I might do something stupid and besides, it doesn’t really make any difference anyway because as Socrates so wisely understood and noted: “No harm can come to a good person in this life or any other” whatever the truth about after-lives or gods may be.
In the end it is a question of what is more important: Whether one believe there is or isn’t an after-life or a God or Supreme Being, or whether one has learned to love and accept oneself and others and how one behaves? If anyone needs “saving” at all, is it something that would come from one’s epistemological or metaphysical beliefs, or from one’s attitudes and behaviors toward oneself and others? I have found all too often that one’s epistemological and metaphysical beliefs are all too frequently used to “justify” attitudes and behaviors which otherwise could not and would not be tolerated by anyone with even the least sense of virtue. Perhaps apathetic agnosticism can help save us from that!
- See Meditations 645, 651.
- There seems to be a continuing and persistent confusion between agnosticism and atheism on this point and one from which openly admitted agnostics, like anyone in the proverbial “middle-of-the-road,” get hit from both sides. It is quite true that it is logically possible (i.e., without contradiction) that an agnostic could be a theist or an atheist as far as belief (as opposed to knowledge) is concerned. In fact, given the difference between knowledge and belief, one could say that all theists and all atheists are, in reality, either theistic agnostics or atheistic agnostics whether they know and acknowledge it or not. Though they do not and cannot know, they have made a choice either to believe or believe not. However, it is also quite possible to choose to do neither neither to believe nor disbelieve. In short to just not care. This, I think, is one of the really nice and honest things about apathetic agnosticism.
- See: Plato: Apology, Crito.