I do not believe in Belief. But this is an age of faith, where one is surrounded by so many militant creeds that in self-defence, one has to formulate a creed of one’s own. Tolerance, good temper, and sympathy are no longer enough in a world which is rent by religious and racial persecution, in a world where ignorance rules, and science, who ought to have ruled, plays the subservient pimp.
E. M. Forster wrote that almost 80 years ago, in a short essay called ‘What I Believe’. The language may seem a little dated but the sentiment is not. The world is still threatened by militant creeds. It is still rent by religious and racial persecution.
Forster’s essay has become famous for the writer’s hope that he would betray his country before his friend. It was a brave thing to say at the time, and easily misunderstood. But Forster was defending a vital space for personal freedom—including freedom of thought—against the claims of Fascism and Communism to think for people in the name of the greater good. Certainty is so easy, so appealing. Forster accepts that he differs from most people ‘who believe in Belief, and are only sorry that they cannot swallow even more than they do’.
It’s easier to recognise other people’s beliefs than my own because—evidently—I don’t believe them. They are just crazy ideologies to be dismissed or condemned. But if I don’t question, or even see, my own beliefs, I just mirror those with whom I disagree. A pause for thought, for trying to see things from another’s point of view, can begin to end a cycle of violence and violence returned.
Art can create empathy, and ultimately understanding across the gulfs of experience, situation and belief that separate people, but only when artists commit to that purpose and only when audiences commit to making the imaginative leap it requires. In other conditions, where artists and audience close their minds in unquestioned belief, art may simply reaffirm an existing consciousness of superiority. And I’m not even thinking of propaganda.
In his essay, Forster raised ‘Two Cheers for Democracy’ because, accepting diversity and permitting criticism, it offered most protection to individual, complicated human beings.
What is good in people – and consequently in the world – is their insistence on creation, their belief in friendship and loyalty for their own sakes; and though Violence remains and is, indeed, the major partner in this muddled establishment, I believe that creativeness remains too, and will always assume direction when Violence sleeps
Doubt may be all that separates each of us from the fanatic within.