This I Believe: Robert Stow (1967-68)

I am a Judeo-Christian atheist.  Some years ago, I made a sharp break with Fundamentalism, but took something along.  Is there a supernatural God (omni-this, omni-that)?  Not to my knowledge.  Are we alive after we are dead?  I know no evidence for that.  The Bible?  Historical legends, poetry, myth, insights, platitudes, dark sayings, dogmas.  Produced by human beings inspired in the ordinary human sense – selected, translated by humans – all bound to their centuries and culture.  Salvation?  But man was never innocent; there was no fall, can be no redemption.

But does not the orderly universe we see require a more natural God, a creative intelligence?  I believe it does not.  For to explain how there was such a God would be infinitely harder than explaining the universe.  There really are things which we cannot explain, which we do not know.  I prefer my not-knowing at some finite range.  The universe then occurred by itself, unguided, I believe.  No physical arrangement is truly impossible; none is so improbable as not to happen once.  Since we see it has in fact happened, probability is not involved.

To believe that there is no other intelligence or judgment (that we know of) but our own, is to lose one’s innocence, and to face an ethical dilemma.  First, there is no divinely ordained right and wrong.  Moreover, the ancients have not authoritatively settled this problem for us, nor has our own society or group.  Worst of all, we cannot read off the answers simply by searching deeply our own true individual natures.  We too are bound to our times, cultures, and habits.  In summary, it has been left for us and it is our responsibility to undertake a quest for values.  In such a search it is legitimate to consider how I really feel, how peers respond, and what thoughtful men have passed down to us.  But is a search which will always be incomplete – not just the application of known values, as I once thought.

No, what is really worst is that specific decisions have to be made every day.  There is no time for me to complete my unfinishable search.  In responding to this dilemma, I am worse than Kierkegaard, but in the same way – I bring in things from outside by simply adopting certain common values – subject to re-examination – because they satisfy me.

I believe in myself as a center for me; everything else I believe is relative, radially, to this.  I believe in the search for self-knowledge – the examined life in curiosity, reason, genuine emotion – including honestly felt hostility where this is appropriate – artistry and artistic economy, imagination, responsibility, and integrity.  “Happiness is for pigs?”  Well, not exclusively.

I believe in other aware people encountered at firsthand.  Each is “another I.”  I believe in the search for knowledge of others – of how it is to be them, authentic second-hand “learned of” experience.  Concern for others and an opening of myself to them.  Compassion, love, a desire to serve others but also recognition of my need for them.

I believe in other people beyond my personal knowing; in the worthwhileness of any authentic experience, analysis, or product of the imagination.  I have a legitimate stake in the well-being of any human, and a likeness to him.  I have faith in the tremendous potentialities that are really there and can be brought out in people.  I believe that man can come gradually to an understanding of the universe, including human nature and the functioning of human society.  I believe in community and in the possibility and desirability of building a better society.

I do believe also in the reality of death, including my own.  Someday, I will really be dead – not an individual, not a spirit, not even a body.  I will not be at all.  I find this belief, this recognition refreshing and salutary – a source of passionate concern for the well-using of my one-and-only life.  Since I must die, I must live; I will not be lived.  After an aware and productive life, even after one honestly sought, death is no tragedy.  And what I claim here for myself, I claim for others on the same basis.

But I also believe in the reality of many smaller deaths – ways in which we can in a sense be dead even while we are still living:  old age (I already know some things about middle age).  I believe in loneliness.  Is no man an island?  Is not every man an island in some sense?  I believe in unreason, contradiction, confusion, compromise.  They are all real parts of our pluralistic experience.  There are many times when I really do not understand people or come through to them, when they seem very much unlike me.  And there are times when I do not feel compassion, or when it would be more appropriate for me to receive compassion.  Accomplishments do not often measure up to potentialities.  We are often unaware, unproductive, irresponsible.  The better society is often torn down faster than it can be built.

In the face of all these things I feel, not despair, but an unreasoned buoyancy and inspiration, an intuition of well-being, a faith – which very probably has its roots in the common Judeo-Christian tradition.