Three little words: I don't know

(talk to Marshall University chapter,
Campus Freethought Alliance, Feb. 11, 1997)

(reprinted in In Search of Reason, the UU Infidels newsletter, Autumn 2004)

By James A. Haught

When I was a young reporter about your age, I hung out with my newspaper buddies in all-night diners (liquor clubs were illegal in those days), earnestly debating the meaning of life.

Some of us couldn't swallow the standard explanation -- that the purpose of life is to be saved by an invisible Jesus and go to an invisible heaven -- but we couldn't see any alternatives that made sense.

One day I asked my city editor, a disciple of H.L. Mencken, how an honest person can answer the ultimate questions: Is there life after death? Is there a spirit realm of unseen gods and devils, heavens and hells? Is there a divine force running the universe? Since there's no tangible evidence, one way or the other, how can you make a sincere answer?

He replied: "You can say, I don't know.''

That rang a bell in my mind. I suppose I had half-known it all along, in my confused search for answers, but now I saw clearly how to be truthful and straightforward about an extremely touchy, emotional subject. I felt liberated, because it gave me a way to maintain integrity. Saying "I don't know'' isn't really an answer, but it's the only answer I could give without lying or guessing or pretending.

Of course, those were the naive days of youth. I hadn't yet learned of a thousand philosophers who sweated through the same dilemma and reached the same conclusion. But it became a foundation stone of my psyche, never to leave me.

Once you say "I don't know,'' you're in conflict with the majority culture. All the supernatural religions and ministers claim that they do know. They say absolutely that invisible spirits exist. Hundreds of millions of Americans go to churches and pray to the unseen beings. Successful politicians always invoke the deities. When you say "I don't know,'' you're clashing with all these people who claim to know.

It puts you out of step with the world -- but I don't think a truthful person can take any other stance. From my viewpoint, the only honest mind is the unsure mind, the doubtful mind. It's the only outlook that doesn't claim knowledge which nobody actually possesses. This is the agnostic, skeptical, rationalist, scientific posture. To me, anything else is dishonest, because it requires people to swear they know things they really don't.

To me, priests and theologians are lying when they declare that supernatural beings are real, that people are rewarded or punished after death. It isn't dishonest to speculate about such ideas -- but the clergy flatly say spirits exist, and pray to them, and even claim to know how the spirits want us to behave. That's absurd.

As Voltaire said, "Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.''

Once you've crossed the "I don't know'' threshold, maybe you'll take some logical steps that lead you further, beyond just a neutral, hands-off position. If you're scientific-minded, always looking for trustworthy evidence, you'll see that there isn't a shred of reliable proof for mystical, magical, miraculous things.

What's the evidence for an invisible heaven or hell? For invisible deities and devils? None, except ancient tribal writings and the pronouncements of priests. It's rather like the evidence for witches, ghosts, vampires, fairies, werewolves, demons, leprechauns, etc. Educated people know that the latter spooks are just imaginary.

By the time you reach this point, you may be pretty much convinced that the mystical beings worshiped by religions are just imaginary, too -- that the whole rigmarole is a gigantic, worldwide, billion-member, trillion-dollar fantasy, a universal human delusion and self-deception that has been going on for 10,000 years.

And you may extend your skepticism to other fantastic things: astrology horoscopes, UFO abductions, seances with the dead, Ouija boards, New Age "channeling" of spirits, psychic prophecies, palm-reading, "dowsing" rods, etc., etc., etc.

See how far you can be led by three little words: I don't know.

If you proceed along this mental path, as I did, you'll face a tough decision: whether to dispute the True Believers you encounter, or whether to stay silent.
There's little point in arguing with worshipers. They often become angry when challenged. (Bertrand Russell said it's because they subconsciously realize their beliefs are irrational -- so they can't tolerate having them questioned.)

Time after time, I vow to avoid theological quarrels. But when an ardent believer tells me that God wants us to punish homosexuals, or that prayer cures cancer, or that Jesus opposes birth control, or that God disapproves of nudity and sex, I can't restrain myself. I don't want to be a religion-basher, yet I turn into one.

Perhaps you and I should take a pledge: When believers confront us with dogmatic declarations about miraculous things, we will just smile sweetly and say, I don't know.