Belief in Non-Belief

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Raised in a Baptist family that valued diversity and social justice, educated during the 1960s period of anti-war student unrest, Vanderbilt Divinity School professor emeritus reflects on higher education, critical thinking, and belief. When faced with expansive debates and diverse lived experiences, how can one claim to be in possession of the absolute truth?




It is a tautology to say that everyone believes something. It is also unhelpful, even if it is true. The better question is what one believes and what its effect is on oneself and on others. Fundamentalism of any sort, for example, can easily become problematic in multiple ways, but in itself it does not need to be oppressive. The problem comes, however, if absolutism about a belief is interjected. Absolutists exclude all scrutiny and debate from discussion, and other options, regardless of their weight and cogency, become anathema, detested, and dismissed. Moreover, the believer in this case presumes a level of superiority and authority over others, willing to marginalize and denigrate them and in extreme instances even to incarcerate or kill them. Beliefs are sometimes labeled as “deeply held” as if that were enough to legitimate them, even though such a characterization may actually mask the insidious, harmful effect of trenchant opinions.

A key part of maturation is learning to tolerate and accept difference, which includes decreasing one’s self-assurance that one particular belief is better than another. Such acceptance is a counterpart to empathy, which can start to appear in rudimentary form during a child’s early years but then around age five or six usually begins to blossom into a more subtle form of reasoning and understanding of others. This trait matures throughout adolescence and even into early adulthood. Unfortunately, some adults scarcely exhibit empathy at all, especially in pathological cases of criminality or exploitation.

Our observations of people with little or no empathy prompt us—or at least should prompt us—to examine our own judgments and our self-confidence, to ensure that we respect the rights of others to hold opinions of their own. This applies to all manner of issues—life choices, political values, gender options, consumerism, career moves, educational opportunities, and much more. And it certainly figures into the world of ideas, ideologies, and beliefs. A wide range of options exists in each of these areas, choices that we all make personally and with stimulation from the thoughts and actions of others, not the least through close and meaningful association with select others.

Beliefs are subject to the vagaries and complexities of life, many out of our control. We may be born into a loving and supportive family or one that is abusive and violent. We may enjoy plenty or suffer hunger and want. We may benefit from good health and strength or experience disability and physical limitations. We may be free from disaster or be struck by a devastating, life-changing accident. We may be raised a Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, or any of thousands of other religious variations. In all such cases we are not creators of our circumstances, whether they be good or bad. As much as we may wish to think of ourselves as the determiners of our fate, much lies outside our control. Of course, we are responsible for how we react to our given state of affairs, including the notions or ideas we hold about life and the world.

Here is where belief, doubt, disbelief, and non-belief come into play. They all can coexist as viable responses to human existence and conditions. None deserves to be ruled out prima facie; each can be credited as a valid assessment. And all, we must acknowledge, are opinions, not facts or irrefutable evidence or absolute truths.

The general comments made here need to be anchored in specifics, and I will do so with some autobiographical reflections about my own personal experiences and the evolution of my thinking about this topic, especially in light of the role and nature of religious thought. I was born in 1943 into a supportive family that sought to give my three siblings and me many opportunities and encouragement to be productive and happy in life. I should say, though, that our parents’ horizons were confined to quite traditional Christian options. While both of them had a university education and our father even earned a doctoral degree, they encouraged us to attend Christian colleges, which we all did except for our youngest brother.

Our father was a minister in the American Baptist Convention, a denomination that is not as conservative and dogmatic as the larger Southern Baptist Convention. The latter had formed in 1845 because of its support of slavery, which the Baptists in the northern U.S. firmly opposed. The Southern Baptists also subscribe now to such principles as the inerrancy of the Bible, the belief in personal salvation in order to enter heaven and avoid eternity in hell, and such social positions as forbidding women to become clergy and condemning same-sex relationships.

Like other American Baptists, our parents promoted social justice and diversity, grounding them theologically in the teachings of the Bible; such veneration of the Bible is quite commonplace in the Baptist tradition. All four of us siblings followed our parents in some of these more liberal social principles, but we all started to break away from their strictnessduring our university years, if not even before. In general, they instilled in all four of us siblings a set of values: a deep concern for the wellbeing of others; a sense of equality among races, genders, and peoples; a drive for knowledge instead of material acquisitions; a commitment to family and friends; an appreciation for music, art, and literature; an intrigue with cultural differences around the world; a love of travel; and a healthy work ethic. These are not beliefs as such, but more on the order of coordinates, points for orientation and action. None of us, though, carried forward our parents’ religiosity.

Non-belief is not a contentless position. As much as anything, it represents a deliberate, informed, inquisitive stance toward life. It defies constraints, especially those that shackle the mind. It opposes assuredness, the glib notion that displays a firm, even an exclusivist hold on “truth.”  It is suspicious of motives and intent, especially when there are political or economic gains to be made.

Critical Thinking

Having begun my university education with an undergraduate degree in philosophy, I followed it with Masters training in biblical studies in California and in Oslo before earning a Dr.theol. degree from the Universität Göttingen in Germany. Two sets of experiences during this period, 1965-72, proved to be formative for my intellectual and cultural development. One involved my prolonged periods living outside my native environment of the U.S., half a year in Norway and then four years in Germany for my graduate work. During the course of my career, I’ve spent another year and a half in Germany and a year in Israel, as well as a semester each teaching at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, and at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. All of these periods as well as many additional trips to other countries helped to expand my horizons, especially due to the close relationships I was able to forge with people in each place. I also acquired fluency in the German and Norwegian languages, which did as much as anything to open doors for me that otherwise would have remained shut.

The other set of experiences came in the form of critical and political exposure to currents of thinking and activism. As a child of the 1960s I cut my teeth first in the heady context of California and then in Germany during 1968-72. Those were the periods of student unrest across the U.S. and Europe; in fact, Germans refer colloquially to the ’60s generation as “die Achtundsechziger,” the 68ers, named after that first year of protest, which coincidentally happened to be my first year there. In Germany the younger generation—my peers at the university—struggled also to come to terms with the history of German wars in the first half of the twentieth century, which many of them blamed on their parents. That specific dimension was unique to Germany, Italy, and Japan.

The U.S. later had its own Vietnam war to get through and past, as many American students were quick to point out; I also joined German students in demonstrating against that war. For me, discussing with other students the burning issues at the time in Europe proved to be exhilarating as I became more informed about East and West Germany as well as the East Bloc on the whole. That began a life-long commitment for me to engage various political issues: civil rights (e.g., in California I started a small group to mobilize against redlining, the practice of banks and realtors to discriminate against racial minorities applying for mortgages), women’s rights, prison reform, illiteracy among the homeless, and Democratic politics at the state and local levels.

These international and political engagements fed into the development of my academic subjects and methods, which evolved during my graduate education and then especially after my faculty appointment at Vanderbilt University. At a seemingly superficial yet definitively substantive level, the very title of my subject matter underwent change. Throughout my entire education, including my doctoral work, my field was called “Old Testament,” as was customary at the time, and the same held true when I joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1973 to start my 42-year career there. But when I was promoted to full professor in 1986, I requested that my title be changed to Hebrew Bible in order to express a more expansive and less-confessional orientation than the Christian term “Old Testament” conveys. “Old” presupposes a “New” Testament, with the latter usually granted priority over the “Old,” which I was in no way willing to grant since I wanted to study the Hebrew Bible in its own rights. That characterization in title was retained throughout the rest of my career, even when I received a named professorship as the Drucilla Moore Buffington Professor of Hebrew Bible. In addition, I was appointed Professor of Jewish Studies and served in the Vanderbilt University Program in Jewish Studies. I was thus gradually separating from my earlier parochial confines.

For me, this move proceeded hand in hand with the development of critical thinking. Consider feminist theory, for example. In the early 1970s it was only beginning to take hold in universities, let alone in the wider world of business and culture. It was also not widespread in the world; I don’t recall much attention to it at all during my years of doctoral studies in Germany. When I arrived at Vanderbilt in 1973, I was thus several steps behind my colleagues there in being attentive to and sensitive to systemic sexism. Very quickly, though, I was educated in the problems of language, of female representation at all institutional levels, of political and social issues, of personal interactions regarding gender, and of our very assumptions about gender.

In Europe I had to learn German and Norwegian to function; now back in the U.S. I had to adjust my own native tongue to incorporate inclusionary language—“he and she” instead of just “he,” and “man” to mean only “male” rather than “all humanity,” to name just two examples. It may seem a small detail, but I needed to learn that it wasn’t—that women did not feel included if they weren’t referenced explicitly in speech. Before long I learned to incorporate feminist methods in my own teaching and writing.

The nature of Vanderbilt University Divinity School fostered such intellectual development by affording my colleagues and me considerable latitude, a privilege not everywhere available. The university itself was founded in 1873 by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, following the divisive and tragic U.S. Civil War of 1861-65. One of its first five schools was named the Biblical Department, the early predecessor to what eventually became known as the Divinity School. A major turning-point occurred in 1914: the Methodists wanted the university to train clergy for ministry and to steer clear of more secular education, while Vanderbilt University sought to deepen its ties with the full spectrum of learning befitting a modern university.  Hostility and suspicion had been brewing between the church and the university for several years and eventuated in their legal separation from each other in 1914.

From that point forward to present times, Vanderbilt has continued to have a school devoted to the study of religion, but it has not been explicitly tied to nor primarily funded by a specific religious body. It also is not a seminary, by which is meant a school devoted to the training of professionals within a given religious tradition, whether Christian or Jewish or whatever. Vanderbilt University is one of only four large, private (thus not state-operated) research universities in the U.S. that have a divinity school but are not affiliated with a specific religious body; the other three are Harvard University Divinity School, Yale University Divinity School, and The University of Chicago Divinity School. Each of these universities also has a graduate department of religion offering M.A. and Ph.D. degrees, as well as a Department of Religion devoted especially to undergraduate education. In these four institutions, world religions, not just Western traditions, figure into the curricula. Such an array of offerings may seem awkward and unwieldy to outsiders, but they work effectively and quite congenially in most cases.

As may be deduced from these descriptions of these universities, dogmas and doctrinaire thinking are not particularly welcome in our classrooms and our publications. This is not to say, however, that beliefs have no place on our campuses; it would be impossible, impractical, and hypocritical to rule them out. Yet critical thinking is central, which involves a thorough scrutiny of traditions, institutions, and personal deep-seated ideologies. This is true not only at Vanderbilt but at Chicago, Harvard, and Yale as well. Of course, the same can be said for most large research universities and many other universities and colleges, which is essential if free-thinking is to be promoted. But our four divinity schools stand out from other schools or departments of theology in that we lay no explicit expectations on our faculty or students to follow a particular kind of religious thinking or credal allegiance. In that crucial respect we are more like other humanistic and social-scientific departments in the university than we are like confessionally aligned religious programs of study.

My own evolution over four decades of teaching and research has led me to the point where I now identify myself as a secular humanist engaging in the study of ancient Near Eastern social history and applying predominantly the method of ideological criticism. A lot is packed into that last sentence and deserves to be explicated, but it may be enough to say simply that I have come a long way since starting as the child of a Baptist minister and his wife.

To illustrate the orientation of these four and other secular universities, I would like to describe a major project undertaken at Vanderbilt. When in 2003 the invitation went out to all parts of the university to propose new multidisciplinary undertakings, my colleague Volney P. Gay, a psychoanalyst and psychologist of religion, and I submitted an ambitious proposal to found a Center for the Study of Religion and Culture. It was subsequently approved, received a grant of $3.1 million from the university, and continued to flourish for six years, 2003-2009. The Center was not subsumed under any single school; it was a university-wide research enterprise and answered to the Provost of the whole university.

We were thus free to gather faculty members and students from potentially any and all departments. And we did—a total of 93 faculty members from nine schools of the university, in addition to 25 scholars from other universities and 80 Vanderbilt students and graduate fellows. Our collaborative work focused on ten different research projects and resulted in over 120 published books and articles, as well as numerous conferences, public lectures, and courses. I mention this output only to illustrate the avid involvement of specialists and students alike in our wide-ranging effort to explore the intersections of religion and culture, focusing on topics related to ecology, economy, genetics, music, science, gender, politics, suffering, archaeology, and theories of religion. I must say that all of these engagements combined for the most intellectually stimulating experience of my own career. In large part this was due to the Center’s nature as an expansive, inclusionary effort to enlist professionals from multiple fields in collaborative work.

Like many other universities and colleges in the U.S., Vanderbilt University has an office for diversity, equity, and inclusion, concerns that also undergirded the work of the Center just described. Such issues still persist as social and systemic problems that demand attention, and institutions of higher education have stepped up to address them—even in the face of a backlash from certain conservative strongholds in the U.S. The Vanderbilt Divinity School has a remarkable record of mobilizing resources and personnel to address social justice causes. I once counted over twenty non-profits and NGOs that our students, either during their studies or after their graduation, founded in communities since the 1960s—projects to deal with hunger, homelessness, prostitution, drug abuse, prison reform, halfway houses after prison, racism, the status of women, gays, transgender, and more.

A famous Civil Rights case in 1960 centered on Vanderbilt Divinity student James Lawson who was expelled by the university for his work in training students in the methods of non-violent protest. It triggered the resignation of most of the divinity faculty, although they were eventually reinstated (see the detailed description in the history of the Divinity School).  Lawson was eventually allowed to return, but in the meantime he had chosen to finish his degree elsewhere. Much later he spent several reconciliatory years with us at Vanderbilt, and he also became a fellow in our Center for the Study of Religion and Culture. Significantly, the university established a new institute, the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements, to commemorate and further his incisive contributions to the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.

On another front, Vanderbilt has worked to improve Jewish and Christian relations, and there has been at least one Jewish faculty member at the Divinity School most of the time since the early 1950s. We also have what I understand is the longest-running annual Holocaust Lecture Series of any university or college in the U.S. I served as a member of that committee for years and chaired it for two years. Finally, our school has for decades organized work with local prisons; like other faculty members I taught at the maximum security state prison for three semesters, one of them with prisoners on death row. All such engagements have figured centrally into the type of education we foster at the Divinity School, and they have been enormously helpful to the larger community as well. They are the action-oriented complement to critical thinking.



In my final semester of teaching before retiring from Vanderbilt University in 2015, I decided to offer a course on the subject of secularism, a course that to my knowledge had never before been taught at Vanderbilt nor at most other universities with which I am familiar. It was available to students across the university at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional levels. To field it, I decided to invite a total of 31 faculty colleagues from all over campus. Each was urged to describe and assess the extent to which secularism had an effect on their own areas of academic expertise. Intriguingly, many of these scholars were at first inclined to defer on the grounds that they claimed to know little about secularism as an academic subject, and I had to persuade them that, if they only thought about it, they would see the evidences of secular notions and content throughout their fields of study.

The course turned out to be a remarkable experience for all those involved (see this article about the course). Two historians traced the roots of secularism in antiquity and the turn that occurred with the Enlightenment and the advent of modern science. Five specialists sketched the evidences of secular patterns on various continents around the globe. Several philosophers focused on the contributions of Spinoza, Hume, Diderot, and Jefferson. Four discussed secularism in the Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Buddhist traditions and among their adherents.

Others examined theism and its limits. An ethicist invoked the importance of a pragmatic and tentative approach to morality, especially in the public sphere. Another reflected on the impact of globalization and cosmopolitanism. Two from the law school spoke about the roles of faith and morality in public governance and law. Two sociologists addressed the importance of various types of diversity in characterizing power and privilege in society. An anthropologist sought to distinguish between religiosity and secularism, and a psychoanalyst elaborated on the psychological needs met by a secular vis-à-vis a non-secular approach to life. A business-school professor explored the roles of secularism in the workplace and in the media.

Several teachers analyzed the presence of religious notions and approaches in education in both pre-university and university contexts. A professor of literature spoke of the imaginative and creative process that distinguishes good literature in the secular age, and an art historian and a music professor compared the changes over time as their subjects gravitated from a religious to a secular context.

Even though these colleagues explored the topic of secularism, it would be inappropriate to suggest that they all are non-believers; in fact, I am quite sure that some hold religious beliefs and adhere to one religious tradition or the other. But they all participated with passion and intrigue in the discussions and contributed substantially to the success of the course—as should only be expected in light of the diversity of the university population and the collaborative search for knowledge. Institutions of higher learning can and should be expected to engage belief, critical thinking, and non-belief with openness and curiosity, and we are all the better for it.

While my varied experiences have shown me the importance of listening to each other and collaborating, my journey has led me to non-belief, which I understand to be not anti-belief but an avoidance of any stance that privileges or excludes any one belief over another, including the choice not to conform to traditional, sectarian positions. Non-belief is not a contentless position. As much as anything, it represents a deliberate, informed, inquisitive stance toward life. It defies constraints, especially those that shackle the mind. It opposes assuredness, the glib notion that displays a firm, even an exclusivist hold on “truth.”  It is suspicious of motives and intent, especially when there are political or economic gains to be made.

Non-belief, however, does not equate to atheism, which can easily appear as a dogmatic and self-assured stance, not unlike theism. Non-belief comes closer to agnosticism, the position that because of obvious human limitations we cannot know ultimate reality, if such actually exists. It affirms a humanistic sensitivity to the complexities and possibilities of all of us. In my experience, that is a sound and productive approach to living and working in this diverse world.

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