I was having a friendly discussion/argument the other day: it had something to do with my militant, Dawkins-esque atheism, and my disparagement of some sorts of religious ritual. “At least I believe in something”, said my sparring partner.
This struck me as an interesting attack on my position. Putting aside the point that in this case believing in nothing (that there is no God) is believing in something (it is not a belief without content, it is a belief that there is no supernatural being), the criticism had echoes of that routinely levelled at politicians. “He/She doesn’t really believe in anything”, people say, as though this were the most damning of rebukes. And Tony Blair, condemned by many for taking Britain into a war with Iraq, would repeatedly fall back on the flip side of this: “I believe in the rightness of my position”, he would insist, as though this alone made his actions acceptable.
Again, putting aside the merits of the Iraq war, why would one believe that there was anything good about believing something false?
One sort of politician derided for ‘believing in nothing’ is the pragmatist or managerial type. Pragmatists are those who push for the implementation of policies that ‘work’. In the tribal politics of Britain, the pragmatist attracts particular scorn. However, even political pragmatists have to believe in some ultimate ends: pragmatists are pragmatists about means, not ends. They have to have a definition of what counts as ‘working’…and so ideology can’t be entirely excluded from the equation. Is ‘working’ maximizing GDP, is it redistributing to the worst off…? Etc.
But my guess is that when people accuse a politician of believing in nothing, they usually have in mind a form of life even lower than the pragmatist…the politician who has no morals or principled ends. And this accusation involves two types of attack on character. First, the politician is being charged with inauthenticity and hypocrisy: of pretending to believe in something that he or she doesn’t. Second, the politician is accused of being self-interested and egotistical: of espousing a party ideology whilst only really caring about power and self-advancement for its own sake.
And I can see why, in this regard, believing in nothing is a bad thing. Does it therefore follow that believing in something, even something false, is, at least in this one sense, an improvement?