We mostly believe what we believe because someone told us so, not because we’ve taken the time to investigate. It can be true of the small things in life or the really consequential things. Our parents, teachers and peers pass on their beliefs, and we generally acquiesce. This pattern of acceptance applies not only to universal ideas but also to myths, prejudices and political persuasions. Our “‑isms” and ideologies gain an all-too-easy foothold when we don’t check their origins.
When the challenge is to a big or long-held idea, perhaps a universal belief, the demand on us can be so overwhelming we just want to turn away. We’d rather believe what we’ve always believed. But every so often someone comes along and faces up to the challenge.
Patrick Glynn works for the US Department of Energy as senior technical policy advisor. He has written about foreign and defense policy and science, but also about religion. His early education was in Catholic grade school and Jesuit high school. Like many of us, however, he gradually moved away from religious belief. “By the time I graduated from Harvard,” he writes, “I had thoroughly absorbed [the] modern, secular viewpoint. But I remained a genuine ‘agnostic.’ I thought the existence of God very, very unlikely, but I did not know. . . . By the time I received my Ph.D. at the end of the 1970s, I was a convinced atheist.”
It’s a not-unfamiliar path. But what then happened was atypical. He recorded the journey in his 1997 bestseller, God: The Evidence: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Postsecular World. The change came because he was brave enough to question his secular beliefs. Whether we’d agree with his “evidence” is, of course, a personal matter; but the greater point is that he was willing to undertake the search.
“Today, it seems to me, there is no good reason for an intelligent person to embrace the illusion of atheism or agnosticism, to make the same intellectual mistakes I made. I wish—how often do we say this in life?—that I had known then what I know now.”
Another author with the courage to question the convictions of his generation was the 20th-century economist E.F. Schumacher. His journey also took him from accepting the established great ideas of his time to skepticism and rejection of them. Imagine taking on Darwin, Freud and Marx, not to mention modern science and its pursuit of purely empirical knowledge, as well as relativism, by which there are no moral absolutes. What he referred to as six dominant (and damaging) ideas became the backdrop to his much-celebrated bestseller, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. That book emphasized human beings rather than large corporations; care for the environment rather than limitless growth; and giving rather than taking.
Both Schumacher and, a few years later, Glynn came to recognize that approaching the big questions in life from a purely material perspective is insufficient. There has to be pursuit and practice of the spiritual if we are to survive.
Schumacher notes, “In ethics, as in so many other fields, we have recklessly and wilfully abandoned our great classical-Christian heritage. . . . As a result, we are totally ignorant, totally uneducated in the subject that, of all conceivable subjects, is the most important.”
For Glynn, the journey led away from secularism into a values-based life. In his concluding comments he asks, “If reason, in the final analysis, offers no protection against evil, then are we helpless in the face of our ignorance? There is in fact a simple test of insights, one that Jesus offers in the New Testament and that we tend to apply in practice anyway: ‘You will know them by their fruits’ (Matthew 7:16).” In that passage, Jesus is talking about recognizing falsehood in the form of false prophets, whom Glynn compares to the false prophets of the god of reason. He continues, “The moral law is no secret to humanity. God is beyond our comprehension, but His commandments are not.”
Would you agree that we all need to ask ourselves why we believe what we do about human reason, and what we know about knowledge revealed by God? Is it time to inspect our foundations?