Saturday, January 14, 2012

Do We Know What We Believe? ...or Do We Simply Believe That We Know?

Today’s sermon, “Do we know what we believe ...or do we simply believe that we know?” is an evolving series of thoughts originating in last month’s Coming of Age discussion in Los Alamos. The December discussion centered around faith. In particular, theistic faith or belief in god. God was discussed at length and being a rather controversial figure in UU circles, god managed to induce tension with a number of the adult mentors, prompting me to think in a mildly entertained fashion, “How ironic, that god wields such control over people, even those who don’t believe.”

Conversely, our youth, who aren’t generally lugging around any theological baggage, seemed very much at ease discussing god and his or her influence in today’s world. This is the kind of conversation I love, not because I have any belief in God, but rather, like our youth, I’ve not been bludgeoned with any sort of theistic billy club. More importantly, god has played a central and positive role in my development as a person.

Later in the evening, during last month’s conversation, things took an interesting turn, when the leader asked a question, I hadn't considered in quite some time. Retrospectively, I was less interested in the question than in our youth’s comments. You see, we often seem to underestimate our preteen and early teen population, writing them off as being a bit vapid. We excuse their perceived lack of depth as a function of age and absence of life’s experience. We chalk it up to a developmental stage marked by revolt against parents and a fierce need for differentiating themselves from the previous generation. But when our Coming of age leader asked these youth whether they thought the world would be a better if no one believed in god, the answers they gave were both insightful and indicative of thoughtful people.

One said, “I have good friends who believe in god, sometimes I wish I believed. My friends are nice, polite and always helpful. I don’t think they would be better without God? I don’t think we would be better if they were different?” Another youth, talking about the Holy Lands, said, “Lots of people have been killed trying to take that land because it’s important in their religion. People were tortured and killed, because they thought god wanted them to own that land. I think no one should believe in god.” Another chimed in, “If no one believed in god, the Nazi’s wouldn’t have killed people for being Jewish.”

This topic, stirred a reflective discussion among our youth, representing both breadth in opinion and an enthusiasm for exploring important issues. In fact, on the way home that evening, my fourteen year old said, “I don’t think people believing in god makes any difference. You cant change the way people are. If they stop fighting about god, they’ll fight about something.”

His point of view may sound somewhat cynical, but I think it is incredibly practical. I believe it is a perspective that could make a difference in today’s world. That if we collectively confronted our fundamental tendencies. If we all accepted that each of us is capable of both great beauty and great evil, we would begin to have a real choice, we could start living by design in arenas where previously, we lived only by reaction.

This brings me to a friendly disagreement from later that evening. One of the mentors while discussing the possible existence of god, said, “There are certain definitions or conceptions of god that we know are wrong. There are theistic concepts, which are sufficiently illogical and self contradicting, that we can say with certainty, That god does not exist.” While I generally agree with much of his reasoning, I find that I can’t take that last leap of faith. Meaning faith in reason and humankind’s ability to rationally acquire factual knowledge without the ability to prove our assertions. In short, my objection lay not with his reasoning about any particular notion of god, but rather with the assumption that a conclusion, no matter how sensible, can be honestly considered true without proof.

So I went to to find definitions of knowledge and belief. It turns out, that knowledge is as follows, “facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject” While belief is, “an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof”

Looking at my life, I’ll start in my early twenties. Picture a militant and evangelizing atheist. Someone who knows that all people, who believe in god are somewhat weak minded. They refuse to be responsible for their own lives. They need someone else whom they can blame and from whom they can beg favors.

Arrogantly, I wore this article of faith, considering it not a belief, but rather a fact, like the effects of gravity. Unfortunately for me, by the age of twenty five, I had given up on college and I could not control my lust for alcohol. Angry, hateful, miserable, I went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the spring of 1995. The message was clear and I was horrified. “We admitted we were POWERLESS over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable. We came to BELIEVE that a POWER GREATER THAN OURSELVES could restore us to sanity.”

WHAT? A power greater than...WAIT A MINUTE! ...After a few failed attempts at sobriety, I relented. I began praying, every day, to some god, in whom I had no belief. To my surprise I stopped drinking and within a year, I emphatically proclaimed that this universe definitely has a loving and powerful god. While I struggled with defining a personal theology that allowed for both a loving god and somehow explained the rampant evil and suffering in this world, I never questioned the existence of that god.

...Not until three years ago, after being sober for more than thirteen years, during which time, I constantly redefined my theology. I then encountered the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a humorous and lively group of atheists, inspired by Bobby Henderson’s open letter to the Kansas City School Board in 2005. Henderson claimed that that if the school board was seriously going to insist that Christian based “intelligent design” be taught in science class, they also must teach the theory that everything was created by an invisible flying spaghetti monster, who controls both time and matter. The Pastafarians converted me quickly, and within a month, I once again identified as atheist.

However, this time, I know that atheism, like theism is a belief. It is specifically NOT knowledge!

Some, have insisted that this makes me agnostic...not atheist!

But please allow me to retort.

Agnostics tend to believe that the question of god is irrelevant. They don’t know and they don’t care if god exists. I engage with the god question, because for much of my adult life, I have depended upon god, in fact, for many years, my survival was linked to maintaining faith. So to me, god is an important question. Additionally, having a spiritual direction in life, continues to be a necessity.

This may seem a minor difference in meaning, but consider again, the definition of knowledge, being facts, information and skills acquired through experience or education, while belief is acceptance of something as true without proof.

How significant is something being true rather than simply a belief?

What sorts of actions are are possible in service of “THE TRUTH?” Under Stalin’s leadership, the USSR, saw 23 million people die as the result of Stalin’s “TRUTH”. The TRUTH of his economic revolution, the TRUTH of his atheism, the TRUTH that he had to purge his military. Isn’t history full of senseless and avoidable death and suffering, which was justified by some perceived truth? Might leaders or at least citizens have acted differently were they clear on the distinction between belief and knowledge? Could genocides have been averted and suffering minimized? We can’t definitively know, however, if we look at our own reactions, we might be able to draw some conclusions. I tend to have civil and respectful disagreements with people around personal belief. By contrast, I judge people harshly for denying or ignoring the facts. I do believe that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts!

I wonder if, as a race, humanity has simply not matured enough to meaningfully distinguish between our beliefs and what we know. Perhaps our lack of evolution in that arena, has been the primary source of many heinous acts, how many future atrocities might our attitude spawn?

Occupy Protesters and Tea Party activists mostly agree on the causes of our Nation’s financial problems, but generally, they are unable discuss these problems with each other. Is this simply because people tend to get hung up on some misguided belief and then proceed to confuse that belief with knowledge?

Consider George Lakoff, a brilliant linguist, who has provided a perspective where people, who share my politics can easily join me in accusing conservative Christians of selfishness and greed...of lacking in compassion. It surprised me, therefore, to learn that as a group, conservative Christians are far more likely than liberals to make charitable contributions or to volunteer their time. I thought...NO WAY, but on personal reflection, I realized that the volunteer organizations and committees I’ve served on, were typically dominated by conservative Christians. Catholic Charities is the single largest donor to HIV relief in the world. I was wrong!

How many other beliefs do I have confused with knowledge?

Several years ago, I took a course called the LandMark Forum. Near the end of the three day course, we participants were asked, “do you want to have power with money?” We all said YES, to which the leader responded, “If you want to have power with money, you have to start with this...You’ve got what you’ve got and you ain't got what you ain't got!”

“Huh”, I said...”what is that supposed to mean?” Well, simply put, it means you have to get a grip on reality, and start from right there if you want anything to change with your finances...or anything else for that matter.

Applied to congregational life, that concept might look something like this:
We have a few hundred members, a vibrant Religious Education program.
Santa Fe, also happens to have one my favorite UU covenants:
We gather together to seek the truth freely,
To celebrate beauty, to ease the world’s pain.
We’re moved by compassion to service and to justice.
All life is our concern and love is our Way

Los Alamos, ends our Vision statement with, “We are a beacon of hope!”

How do we even begin to fulfill on those statements? Is it possible or do we have them just so we can feel good?

I think we have them...NO, that we CREATED them as a road map, a north star by which we can navigate the perilous course through life towards our ideals. For our ideals to be vital, to have practical meaning, we have to be clear about where we actually stand. We have to be grounded in reality, clear about what we know and definite about how that differs from our beliefs.

If we are going to ease the world’s pain, If we are going to to be a beacon of hope, we must start from right here...from this exact point. It is from from here that we can begin the journey towards our ideals. But...If we fool ourselves about skills we haven’t acquired or traits we haven’t developed, if we claim competencies we haven’t mastered, if we fail to work with potential allies, because we’ve confused some belief we have with actual knowledge, our way will be lost. Conversely, if we are clear about who we are, what we actually know, what we can do, where we need to develop...then we stand a chance, then we open the door to possibility, then we might transform ourselves and risk fulfilling on our dreams.


  1. An agnostic simply doesn't know if god exists or not, whereas someone who doesn't know and doesn't care is an agnostic apatheist, if such a term exists. Moreover, Stalin did kill millions in the name of a worldview, that being Communism, which is very close to Christianity in that it requires the individual to sacrifice him/herself to the greater good of sum of the rest, whereas atheism is as much of a worldview as having a bushy mustache is and is just as blameless. Nobody has ever committed an atrocity is the name of NOT being a..

  2. First, what a great sermon. Wish I'd had a pastor like you when I was a teenager.

    Regarding your son's quote: “I don’t think people believing in god makes any difference. You cant change the way people are. If they stop fighting about god, they’ll fight about something.” My son, about the same age, has expressed similar views. And I have, too: I generally think that people can be good and people can be bad, with and without religion. I don't think religion (or the lack of it) TURNS good people bad.

    But it also strikes me as very similar to the NRA motto that guns don't kill people, people kill people. We know that merely having a gun around changes a person's thought patterns. It opens up possibilities that aren't there if the gun is not there, and that can change decisions that are made. Do you think it's possible ideology can be like this too? People fight over pragmatic matters like resources and power, but nothing seems to drive people to fight with as much bloody intensity as ideology. Whether it's the idea of a perfect Islamic society, a perfect Aryan society, or a perfect Communist society, the utopian promises offered by ideology seem to fire up the bloodiest wars.

    I realize this is not the thrust of your sermon, but it's one point that especially caught my attention.

    1. Thanks for your comments Stephanie! I tend to agree with your thinking on ideology. I guess when I hear people say that religion, or theology is the problem, I always think, "No, if religion disappears, we'll still have the human condition and they'll just fight over economic systems or politics."

      I'm also not sure that I think humans would be human without ideology. Ideology seems intrinsic to humanity. What do you think?

      Also, Stephanie, I'm no pastor, but thanks very much for the high compliment. I'm just a layman, who writes and delivers sermons at UU churches from time to time, and I volunteer with the High School students in Los Alamos. By trade, I'm a computer geek!

      In reading your comments, I'm reminded of Howard Zinn, who I believe insisted that all wars he has ever studied were ultimately caused by resources, and ideology was laid over the top as justification. I wasn't sure if I agreed or not, but it was an interesting point, and I always really admired Zinn.


Thanks for your comments! :-)
My wife says comments save fairies. I mostly just want to know that the traffic hits I get on my statistics aren't Russian Spam-Bots!