The general Protestantism of the culture (whether you’re atheist or whatever, you’re still essentially Protestant if you drink deep of it) is perhaps nowhere more visible than in its marketing:
- At Valspar, we believe there is power in color.
- I believe in keeping guns out of our inner cities… (the President)
- I believe we’re all equal…
Belief, statements of belief, belief systems are the culture’s primary communicative stock and trade. Protestantism focuses on belief because it denies the sacramental character of reality. For the Protestant, the inner man is what is most authentic, and an ultimate personalism (each person is the priest of their own atittudes) supertends the identity. You are, in effect, what you believe, and what you believe (even if you just borrowed it from a movie or someone else’s speech or common parlance) not only defines you, it is inherently made personal by being made the center of identity, since the Protestant, necessarily, conflates person with nature in a “personal nature”.
I mention this because the cultural Protestant (whether religious or not) is simply unaware that many of us do not in fact operate in this way. For those of us who are not believers (in the cultural religion), beliefs are trivial, incidental, generally irrelevant. When confronted with someone offering up their contrary beliefs, instead of feeling compelled to stop and debate, as though those beliefs were relevant, we might be thinking that people believe any number of things – beliefs are cheap – some people believe Elvis is alive – other people believe in income redistribution – still others believe our culture needs this or that solution to a problem they believe plagues us.
These beliefs are significant to the believer to such a degree, having confused them with his own identity, that to dismiss them is (for the cultural Protestant) to dismiss him – he himself, and indeed anyone who shares his attitudes. To a nonbeliever, beliefs are ephemera, transitory, and ultimately peripheral. “What do you believe?” people ask, or “What do your people believe?”, never realizing that the question itself is incorrect. The question itself begs the question, presuming in its premises that belief systems are definitive are a means of identity. The person who asks the question is presuming not only that we are both Protestant, in the cultural sense, but that Protestantism is total – it is all there is – it is simply ‘how things are’ or ‘what the world is’.
This is why it is necessary to offer occasional statements of unbelieverness – which is not the same thing as “disbelief”. Disbelief presumes that culture is propositional and, again, begs the question. I am not a collection of beliefs. My soul – that is my mind, will, and emotions – does not consist of propositions, nor does the soul of anything I am part of – not my family, not my religion, not my friendships, and not my life. I wasn’t born an unbeliever. Like you, I took in Protestantism of one form or another with my mother’s milk. So the journey to becoming an unbeliever meant first considering the culture as might Max Weber or Eric Voegelin – exploring for the possibility of a bigger world, a world beyond, a world that is not adequately explained by the culture. And then it meant rejecting the religion of those around me, and paying with that the requisite costs, which I understood and traded on gladly. You cannot become an unbeliever if you value consensual reality over reality, or the culture over the world.
The tedious drone of belief is unending. Turn on the radio, stick your head into a coffee shop, pick up a newspaper, consume some popular art, and most of what you hear will be a statement of belief. A doctrinal proposal. An alternative conclusion within the same tired epistemologies. I have an answer, actually, for those who ask me what I believe. I don’t believe.
It’s interesting that the first two words of the Creed in my Faith are “I believe”, and the West has borrowed and revised that Creed to suit its own principle of deity and personal religion. But the most significant revision is not the words themselves, but the meaning and act of saying “I believe”. For my people, the next several words of each stanza are the point. It is not the subjective “I believe” that could just as easily believe in longer prison sentences for drug offenders or in some theoretical principle of community. Rather it is the eternally personal object of belief, that must precede the operation of belief. “In one God the Father… And in one Lord Jesus Christ… And in the Holy Ghost… In One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” – always a belief in a pre-existing personal object. The subjective is a participation in the objective personality.
For this culture, by contrast, the significance of belief is in the “I” – in the subjective personalism of the mental action. What follows the phrase “I believe”, even if it is the same phrase, is a propositional reality – a hypothesis – a thing that could as easily be Buddha or Job Growth or Individual Liberty. In short, even when we are saying the same words, we are not speaking the same language. The Protestantism of the culture is talking about itself – the object of its talk is an extension of itself. It’s like when someone says or asks if this or that food is good. Good for whom? According to whom? Or is the speaker the only one who really exists? The fundamental solipsism of preference, and of belief, are a hallmark of the cultural attitude. Whoever it is who is the “I” in “I believe” is the one who exists in a way that the rest of us don’t really exist except as participants in the same propositional assent.
Why am I an unbeliever? So I can exist. So others can exist without believing or disbelieving. So the world can exist, not merely the culture – which consists of propositions. I am an unbeliever for the very reason that I say the original Creed in the manner of my people – so that persons beyond myself can exist (or more correctly, since that’s cultural language – so that I can allow for their existence). I am an unbeliever so I can know – know, specifically a world and persons outside of the subjective perceptions of the ideologue. Belief locks us up tight in the squinting inner prayer to the omni-essential self. Which is why Protestant religionists pray in that manner, and Protestant non-religionists are unaware that we do not share their assumptions and yet do exist independently of them. I am an unbeliever so that when I believe, it is not a subjective preference for one of any number of subjective perceptions, but rather an interaction with someone that is not me or a mere extension of my solipsism – so that it is rather the encounter with someone else entirely.
So next time you hear the phrase “I believe” and “I believe” and “I believe” (and if you listen, you’ll hear it at least 20 times today, in one form or another), think “blah” and “blah” and “blah blah blah”.