Believers can learn a lot from PBS disbelief show
It matters what you believe. I mean, really believe. Not just think you are supposed to believe, or even wish you believed. If the concept has any meaning, it refers to the actual wellsprings of behavior, the assumptions you make about how things are and about how you actually respond as a result. Ultimately, it is only what you really do believe that matters.
If you are uncertain about this, ask yourself how you behave "as if" you believed. It is likely different from what you tell yourself, and others, about what you believe.
Until relatively recently in historical terms, to openly admit to any discrepancy between those could be a threat to life or at least livelihood. Not that long ago, it could get you burned at the stake.
The vision our Founding Fathers had of a nation without religious coercion is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees free expression and protects us from governmental interference.
We tend to take all of that for granted these days, not realizing how unprecedented the notion of a religiously pluralistic nation really is. In most of the rest of the world, it still is.
The ultimate test of full religious freedom is how a culture deals with those who don't believe. Some cultures have tolerated other religions within narrow limits. But unbelievers? Rarely.
PBS is running a three-part series by Jonathan Miller titled "A Brief History of Disbelief." It had previously aired on the BBC. The series was introduced recently on the Bill Moyers program with an interview with Jonathan Miller. The series will begin at 10 p.m. tomorrow and continue on July 15 and 22.
Having already clicked my way through it in nine-minute chunks on YouTube, I can report that it is quite excellent on many levels, whether you are a believer or not. For history buffs, and all of us with short historical memories, it is a rough romp through the history of the diversity of opinion on matters religious. It is also a review of the challenges to literalism and dogmatic orthodoxy in Western Christian history.
On a deeper level, it is about the curious human phenomenon of belief itself, about the ways in which rigid belief can shred lives and breed violence. It is a reminder of just how tenuous freedom of belief is and how peculiar the "modern" idea of religious pluralism is.
Communities that are not monolithic religious and cultural entities are really quite recent, and still problematic. The pope recently tried to shore up correct doctrine in South America. Islam is wrestling with how it can retain its cultural and religious integrity in pluralistic societies in many parts of our world. American evangelicals still insist that the United States is a Christian nation. And the "wedge issues" still have Americans divided over whose religious doctrine shall shape public policy.
It isn't just about whether one believes there is a God, but about how much diversity the human species can handle without beginning to tear itself apart.
It is no accident that religious differences are at least a contributing factor in the many bloody battles going on all around our world. The species is in the throes of sorting out this difficult issue. It is one of the reasons for my continuing interest in serious interfaith dialogue, and its thorniness is one of the reasons why it attracts so little wider interest. It is that threatening at some deep level of the human psyche.
We have all the narrowness of tribalism just as we are being inundated by the sea of diversity in our rapidly globalizing world. It might be one of the defining issues of our era. And resolving it might be one of the preconditions for dealing with all of the other threats to the sustainability of human life on the planet.
At the personal level, the only place you can grow from spiritually is to begin where you are with what you really do believe. Even conversion is inauthentic unless it begins there. Few things are as threatening to the spiritual life as the culture's pressure to appear to agree.
Some will find the PBS program threatening as appearing to approve of disbelief. It isn't. It raises all the right questions. The only thing it threatens is the all-too-human tendency to try to force others to pretend to be exactly like us. And that is a spiritual theft, not a gift.
The Rev. Mike Young is the minister of the First Unitarian Church, a Unitarian Universalist Welcoming Congregation.