To believe or not to believe

Published 7:03 am Monday, January 18, 2010

Despite all the arguing about God, we have given insufficient thought to the lack of understanding and actual misunderstanding between those who believe in God and those who do not.

Believers and unbelievers each ought to hold their opinions and convictions confidently but humbly, and allow the others freedom to differ. If we are confident in our own beliefs, we will not feel threatened by others who differ but be selflessly concerned for their welfare. If I feel an unbeliever harms himself by not believing in God, I ought to make a good case for belief for his sake and not to win a convert to my own cause. If an unbeliever feels I am hurting myself by believing in God, he ought to be as concerned for my welfare and not just want to win an argument.

Even to phrase the differences in these terms (belief and unbelief, believers and unbelievers) betrays my bias. It sounds like “us vs them.” To cartoon this presumptuousness: There are those of us normal people who believe in God, and then there are those abnormal people who refuse to believe in my God. The other side can be equally cartooned: There are those of us rational people who just take the world as we see it, and then there are those irrational people who indulge in superstitious notions about a God.

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Every individual sustains the right, opportunity, and responsibility to reach personal conclusions about the existence or non-existence of God. On the other hand, we are all logically and ethically obliged to allow others to reach their own conclusions and to tolerate their choices, as we expect to be tolerated. This is not to say we are obliged to agree with each other’s opinions, but we  must respect their right to differ with us and to respect them as equally human beings.

There are corollaries to this concept. It is reasonable to expect people to give reasonable thought to the issue and make the best possible decision for ourselves. Having done so, we must accept responsibility for the decision we have made and not fault others for any mistake we make.

We must allow others to do as we have done and not attack them for reaching different conclusions. Nonetheless, we should be convinced of the validity of our own conclusions for our own sakes and then, out of responsible concern for others, we not only have the right but the ethical obligation to make reasonable efforts to convince others of our conclusions. They have the right to differ, and we have the right to offer our opinion that they are mistaken.

(If I learn a friend is taking harmful medicine, I have a right to tell the person what I think about the decision. If I know of the right medicine, I am obliged to inform about this. And then I allow the person to make his or her own decision.)

If I approach another person about not believing God, I am obliged to listen to his explanation and also what he thinks about my beliefs. If both are confident in our different beliefs, being approached fairly would be no threat, and we should take no offense. If we are not sufficiently self-confident to listen to the other, it is especially important that we listen to learn.

People reared in and who live in a largely religious environment have a difficult time understanding how anyone could not believe in God. This does not mean they are intolerant of unbelief or unbelievers. Likewise, people reared in and who live in a significant secular environment have a difficult time understanding how anyone could believe in God. This does not mean they are necessarily evil people who hold believers in contempt.

There are believers who do, in fact, despise the unbelievers, and there are unbelievers who are, in fact, contemptuous of believers. These realities are a different matter. The more emotionally upset they are about the others, the less confident they are in their own beliefs. The more confident, the more willing they are to listen to the others. (Some evangelistic zeal is an unintended confession of serious doubt rather than burning compassion.)

I urge us all, first, to ensure we understand our own beliefs and reach confidence in them. If we achieve this, we ought to exercise concern for those who differ. Finally, we must leave the decision with the others for they must live with them.