There are a few labels that describe my relationship to belief and knowledge: weak atheist, agnostic, weak agnostic, militant agnostic, agnostic gnostic, gnostic, Fortean, epistemological anarchist, skeptic, zetetic, philosophical pessimist, truth-seeker, and I’m sure I could add a few more. Basically, I trust both personal experience and intellectual inquiry more than collective belief, trust facts and rationality more than appeal to authority.
I, of course, consider my position to be superior to the alternatives… and, besides, it’s just my way of seeing and thinking about the world. Ever since a child, I’ve always been a questioner… and conventional answers tend not to satisfy me. I don’t have a choice but to be who I am. But, for the sake of argument, let me present the pros and cons of my attitude.
There are two main pros that come to mind.
First, I have no particular beliefs that I have to defend at all cost. This makes it easy to have a debate with someone who feels compelled to defend their beliefs. Having no absolute beliefs gives me room to shift my position.
Second, this gives me a more open attitude toward knowledge. I don’t have to worry about new data challenging my assumptions. In fact, I seek out new data to challenge my assumptions. In a sense, I can’t lose a debate as long as I maintain this open position because I have nothing to lose. Any debate is an opportunity to learn something I didn’t previously know and I’ll simply adapt my arguments to that new data.
Now for a couple of cons.
First, this may seem like an easy position to maintain, but it actually takes a lot of effort. I never accept anything on faith or on authority. I’m constantly seeking out new info and new perspectives. I’m constantly double-checking what I think I know and verifying claimed facts. This is an endless effort. I might spend hours or even days researching a single point. I honestly try to understand all sides. Because of my values and ideals, I hold truth above all else even when the person I’m debating doesn’t. Depending on time and energy, I’ll often try to understand someone else’s perspective even if they merely dismiss mine.
Second, it can be psychologically difficult living with endless questions and no certainties. At least, I live in a liberal community and so don’t have to defend my lack of belief and ideological certitude. I’m very glad I wasn’t born into a religiously fundamentalist society. Still, even in a liberal community, maintaining a lack of belief isn’t easy. There is something in human nature that makes us want to grasp onto a worldview. A sense of certainty (even when that certainty is vague and/or superficial) can be one of the most comforting things in the world. There is a reason religious people tend to be happier and live longer. Thinking and questioning might be good for social progress, but it’s not necessarily good for personal gain.
I’d say that, if you want to be happy and healthy, you probably should choose to be a closed-minded ideologue. But such isn’t the choice most of us face. I doubt most people choose their psychological attitude towards the world. Such things are a combination of genetics and experiences (especially early experiences), both of which aren’t generally within our control. I couldn’t choose to be a closed-minded ideologue even if I tried. Maybe in the future they’ll have drugs and genetic engineering that will help people to question less and think less independently. Until then, we freethinkers will have to suffer the burden of rationality (it’s similar to the white man’s burden except that it’s open to all races).