Belief in Non-Belief

Here is the beginning of  Professor Douglas Knight’s most recent article:

Raised in a Baptist family that valued diversity and social justice, educated during the 1960s period of anti-war student unrest, Vanderbilt Divinity School professor emeritus reflects on higher education, critical thinking, and belief. When faced with expansive debates and diverse lived experiences, how can one claim to be in possession of the absolute truth?


It is a tautology to say that everyone believes something. It is also unhelpful, even if it is true. The better question is what one believes and what its effect is on oneself and on others. Fundamentalism of any sort, for example, can easily become problematic in multiple ways, but in itself it does not need to be oppressive. The problem comes, however, if absolutism about a belief is interjected. Absolutists exclude all scrutiny and debate from discussion, and other options, regardless of their weight and cogency, become anathema, detested, and dismissed. Moreover, the believer in this case presumes a level of superiority and authority over others, willing to marginalize and denigrate them and in extreme instances even to incarcerate or kill them. Beliefs are sometimes labeled as “deeply held” as if that were enough to legitimate them, even though such a characterization may actually mask the insidious, harmful effect of trenchant opinions.

A key part of maturation is learning to tolerate and accept difference, which includes decreasing one’s self-assurance that one particular belief is better than another. Such acceptance is a counterpart to empathy, which can start to appear in rudimentary form during a child’s early years but then around age five or six usually begins to blossom into a more subtle form of reasoning and understanding of others. This trait matures throughout adolescence and even into early adulthood. Unfortunately, some adults scarcely exhibit empathy at all, especially in pathological cases of criminality or exploitation.

Our observations of people with little or no empathy prompt us—or at least should prompt us—to examine our own judgments and our self-confidence, to ensure that we respect the rights of others to hold opinions of their own. This applies to all manner of issues—life choices, political values, gender options, consumerism, career moves, educational opportunities, and much more. And it certainly figures into the world of ideas, ideologies, and beliefs. A wide range of options exists in each of these areas, choices that we all make personally and with stimulation from the thoughts and actions of others, not the least through close and meaningful association with select others.

Beliefs are subject to the vagaries and complexities of life, many out of our control. We may be born into a loving and supportive family or one that is abusive and violent. We may enjoy plenty or suffer hunger and want. We may benefit from good health and strength or experience disability and physical limitations. We may be free from disaster or be struck by a devastating, life-changing accident. We may be raised a Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, or any of thousands of other religious variations. In all such cases we are not creators of our circumstances, whether they be good or bad. As much as we may wish to think of ourselves as the determiners of our fate, much lies outside our control. Of course, we are responsible for how we react to our given state of affairs, including the notions or ideas we hold about life and the world.

Here is where belief, doubt, disbelief, and non-belief come into play. They all can coexist as viable responses to human existence and conditions. None deserves to be ruled out prima facie; each can be credited as a valid assessment. And all, we must acknowledge, are opinions, not facts or irrefutable evidence or absolute truths.

The general comments made here need to be anchored in specifics, and I will do so with some autobiographical reflections about my own personal experiences and the evolution of my thinking about this topic, especially in light of the role and nature of religious thought. I was born in 1943 into a supportive family that sought to give my three siblings and me many opportunities and encouragement to be productive and happy in life. I should say, though, that our parents’ horizons were confined to quite traditional Christian options. While both of them had a university education and our father even earned a doctoral degree, they encouraged us to attend Christian colleges, which we all did except for our youngest brother.

Our father was a minister in the American Baptist Convention, a denomination that is not as conservative and dogmatic as the larger Southern Baptist Convention. The latter had formed in 1845 because of its support of slavery, which the Baptists in the northern U.S. firmly opposed. The Southern Baptists also subscribe now to such principles as the inerrancy of the Bible, the belief in personal salvation in order to enter heaven and avoid eternity in hell, and such social positions as forbidding women to become clergy and condemning same-sex relationships.

Like other American Baptists, our parents promoted social justice and diversity, grounding them theologically in the teachings of the Bible; such veneration of the Bible is quite commonplace in the Baptist tradition. All four of us siblings followed our parents in some of these more liberal social principles, but we all started to break away from their strictnessduring our university years, if not even before. In general, they instilled in all four of us siblings a set of values: a deep concern for the wellbeing of others; a sense of equality among races, genders, and peoples; a drive for knowledge instead of material acquisitions; a commitment to family and friends; an appreciation for music, art, and literature; an intrigue with cultural differences around the world; a love of travel; and a healthy work ethic. These are not beliefs as such, but more on the order of coordinates, points for orientation and action. None of us, though, carried forward our parents’ religiosity.

Read the whole article here. 

Douglas Knight is the Drucilla Moore Buffington Professor of Hebrew Bible and Professor of Jewish Studies, Emeritus 

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