Fandango’s Provocative Question #29: Thomas Jefferson said, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to tell me there are 20 gods or no gods. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” The question therefore is: “Do you agree with Thomas Jefferson that it doesn’t matter or hurt you if people believe in many gods, in one god, or no gods? Why or why not?
Fandango’s question must be addressed with a nuanced response. I will therefore approach it as a two-parter. Does it matter? Yes. Does it ‘hurt’ me? It depends.
As to the first part: does it matter? In a pluralistic, liberal society which celebrates difference and diversity – no. It does not politically or “socially” matter.
On a more philosophical level – socially it does have some relevance. Community cohesion and shared social values can be strengthened by shared beliefs and values. Human beings are quick to detect perceived difference. Jesus had said “the poor are with you always,” but so too is the “other.” The other is subjective. Be it appearance, origin, or belief – people “notice” the “odd one out.” If our absolute social goal is pluralism, then belief may be personal, but then to “new other” is the one that cannot accept the beliefs of others, therefore division emerges. Shared belief in a deity removes this philosophical division.
Theologically it does matter. Not necessarily to the beholder. But to the one holding to the polytheistic or atheistic belief. If there is one truth. One God, one faith, and one baptism, then there is an imperative for people to live up to that standard. It is their salvation that is at risk. For the atheist, this may not be of any concern. They expect nihilism (in the Roman sense, that existence ends with the last breath) anyway. But if Pascal’s wager is correct, they are playing a dangerous game.
I as a Christian minister, hold that it does matter in an eternal reality.
The second part is equally important. Does it hurt me?
Fundamentally, it does not effect me. The belief of others does not in and of itself have any direct impact on my own belief or faith. Does it affect me? Yes, I am afraid it does. As a monotheistic believer, it saddens me that any might turn their back of the free gift or grace of a living God.
But should I act? After all it isn’t effecting me. But as a Christian believer, I have been called to teach the gospel. So it does require action on my part. An action of example, teaching, and loving concern (not necessarily acceptance) of others’ beliefs.
In the US Navy Chaplains Corp there is a motto: “Cooperation without compromise.” Put simply – support people of belief or none, but never at the expense of your own belief. This is a good starting point.
Militantly opposing others’ beliefs, and definitely imposing one’s own on others is truly a problem. If a monotheistic people violently impose their views, in the name of defending God, we have a problem. Jesus never called for forced conversion, and Muhammad initially called for respect to be shown “to people of the Book.”
A person’s lack of belief is not an attack on Me. It is an attack or at least slight on God. Let’s stop there for a moment. An omnipotent God, does not need us to “defend” him. So we must evaluate our actions and motives. Are we showing the love and compassion the scriptures call for? Are we teaching, not fighting? Are we loving, not imposing?
For me then: Love all. Teach those who will listen. Live as an example. Fight none.
So in the final analysis was Jefferson right? Socially – Maybe. Philosophically – Probably. Physically – Yes. Emotionally – No. Spiritually and theologically – he had a lot to learn.
5 thoughts on “On The Nature Of Others’ Beliefs”
I think you nailed this right on the head.
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I appreciate your thoughtful commentary in response to this question. The only real issue I have with what you wrote was when you said about atheist, “they expect nihilism.” Nihilism is defined as “the rejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless.” Given that definition, atheists (I am one) are not nihilists. We do not “reject all religious and moral principles” nor do we believe that life is meaningless. It’s unfortunate that many religious people paint all atheists as nihilistic and, therefore, lacking morals. It saddens me that you, as a Christian minister, would perpetuate such a misconception about those who don’t believe in the existence of the deity that you choose to believe in. Preaching that atheists are nihilistic, and therefore lack morals, is hurtful and harmful. I’m hoping that your comment equating atheism and nihilism was a misstatement, but it definitely reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what being an atheist is.
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That is a really useful and important point, and I apologise for my
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lack of precision in the word choice, the term was used in the ancient Roman religious sense that “there is nothing beyond,” and was not meant to suggest any application to “this life” especially in regards to ethics and morals. The Humanist Society here in the UK have produced several useful videos on an Atheistic humanist/moral outlook, which I have long taken to heart. So you are absolutely correct in my misuse of the term within context, and my words as such reflected as you say a fundamental flaw, which was linguistic and not of understanding. So thank you for pointing it out so others may not be misinformed.