Question Everything

I’ve long been a fan of the NPR series This I Believe, and I was recently asked to write such an essay for an interfaith trip I’m taking this May. I wrote about the importance of spending time alone, but the exercise prompted me to think about belief more broadly. I decided there was a different belief I wanted to write about—what follows is the result.

I don’t believe in much. For the past couple of years, my M.O. has involved being generally skeptical about just about everything.When I do find myself “believing” something, it’s usually pretty equivocally. Which is not exactly the point of belief.

Take, for example, kindness. I believe that we should be kind to others. But I can also think of a bunch of situations where we shouldn’t be kind. And I would be perfectly open to an argument that being kind to others—or thinking we should be kind to others—is actually a bad thing. So it’s not really a belief as much as a general preference.

To pick a stronger example: I believe there is no God. I believe this pretty strongly, inasmuch as I really doubt there’s evidence you could produce that would cause me to believe in God. But for one, this is an antibelief more than a belief, and I’m still pretty ambivalent on what we should believe about God. I certainly wouldn’t make the claim that no one should believe in God, or that believing in God is wrong. In fact, I often think it might be better to believe in God.

My lack of belief in all things has always been the case to an extent—I like to prioritize nuanced, flexible opinions. But these days, I find myself questioning the very act of belief itself.One of my new favorite thinkers is Paul Graham, a founder of startup incubator Y Combinator. In his essay “Keep Your Identity Small,” he notes how things like politics and religion tend to generate useless discussions because we approach them at the level of identity. “I’m a Democrat,” we say. “I’m Jewish. I’m an atheist.” Because this is now not just a particular opinion at a particular time, but something fundamental to who we are, the chances that we’ll change our view in the face of a good argument or compelling evidence is correspondingly slim.

It’s the same story with belief. Although “I believe” is less self-identifying than “I am,” it still holds a certain weight beyond merely “I think.” Belief tends to be considered unassailable; it doesn’t need foundation or justification and is valid as long as you believe it. And when you declare a belief, à la This I Believe, it becomes a part of your identity. Everyone else loses any strong ground to question that belief.

In contrast to the anti-belief claim I’ve been staking out, I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College. He says:

[I]n the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.

This rings very true, and you can really hear it when you listen to someone like Richard Dawkins speak. He spends a good deal of time challenging the unfounded beliefs of religion. But his set of values is no less inviolable than a belief in God except that at its center, instead of the Bible, or a particular theological narrative, is human rationality. Which you can argue is a better foundation than irrationality, but it’s not immediately obvious to me that that is the case.

So under the DFW view, I am left with a belief of sorts: I believe in questioning. I believe in ceaseless interrogation of what we know. I don’t think it’s the best way to do things—in fact, I think there’s a well-grounded case to be made that such a lifestyle is a recipe for unhappiness. But it is more or less a central organizing principle of my life, just about the only one I’ve got. This, I believe.