I admit it, G. K. Chesterton* was right in the oft-quoted:
“When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing. They then become capable of believing in anything.”
Just not, perhaps, in the way that G.K.* thought he* meant.
Chesterton* is quite right – when [wo]men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing.
Absolutely. Although some may attempt a nihilistic approach, non-theists are not typically bereft of all belief, but believe in all sorts of things.
It’s simply that a non-theist’s belief isn’t constrained by a prefabricated conceit of reality into which their reasoning and interpretation must try to conform. Thus, post-theists ‘then become capable of believing in anything’.
What enchanting joy! What welcome wonder! Freedom from a cage that doesn’t fit reality well is a blessed release from perpetual cognitive dissonance and the implicit fear that seeking or gaining new knowledge may disrupt or rupture my metanarrative.
Is it possible that the universe is billions of years old? Let’s look at the evidence and see what it says, without fear of finding an answer that might cause theological disquiet.
Is it possible that that Israel predominantly arose from the indigenous Canaanite population? Let’s look at the evidence and see what it says, without fear of finding an answer that might cause theological confusion.
Is it possible that the definition of marriage can be amended to accommodate two same-sex partners without damaging its structure in fundamental ways or causing other societal harm? Let’s look at the evidence and see what it says, without fear of coming to a conclusion that might cause theological (or ontological) breakage.
Do the benefits of vaccines outweigh the risks? Can psychics contact the dead? Is the multiverse a reasonable theory? Do quarks exist? Does the hypothetical ‘Planet X’ exist?
It’s true – I’m capable of believing in anything … based on the evidence marshalled in support of the item under consideration. And I’ll believe it (or not) with a level of conviction appropriate to the strength of the evidence in support or against. And I’ll change my mind based on additional evidence where warranted.
Am I simply self-deluded in thinking I can manage to do this?
I don’t believe so, though I’ll readily admit I do it imperfectly. If there’s evidence I am self-deluded in this regard, provide the evidence and I’ll weigh it – in consultation with others, if necessary. That’s all I can do.
It’s true that not all non-theists treat this delightful intellectual opportunity open to them in the same way. There are plenty of believers in all kinds of things for which I find the evidence far from compelling. But to my mind, that’s just a reminder to remain vigilant and keep a certain epistemic humility as best you can.
I’ll believe in anything. Convince me.
“The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error.”
*So why the repeated asterisk (*) throughout the post? It’s because although Chesterton is generally attributed with the quote, it comes, in fact, from Émile Cammaerts in his work ‘The Laughing Prophet: The Seven Virtues and G. K. Chesterton’ (1937).
And so the evidence suggests it was not G. K. Chesterton’s quote at all.
For some reason I find that fact delicious.