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During my recent trip to China, I was asked: ‘Do you think China’s problem is that we don’t believe?’

‘What do you mean?’ I said.

‘A Western religion like Christianity assumes that you must believe’, my companion said. ‘You must have an existential commitment to the cause. In China we don’t have that. Do you think that is a problem?’

His question set me thinking, wondering whether belief isn’t actually the problem. By belief I mean not a collection of doctrines, but as my friend said, the existential commitment, the giving of one’s being to a cause. Is this sense of belief the real problem? In seeking an answer, I am reminded of Burton Mack’s point that belief was a peculiar invention of Christianity, bred under the conditions of marginality in the first couple of centuries. I would extend that point to include the major Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Perhaps Mack was onto something, indicating the oddness, the peculiarity of belief.

But we should not rest with Western religions, for long ago that notion of belief was extended to politics. Thus, one believes in liberalism, or anarchism, or communism. One becomes a true believer of a political party, one ‘keeps the faith’. One commits to the cause, heart and soul and mind, and fights for it by whatever means. But is this not the problem? Is it perhaps the case that the truly dangerous person is the one who really believes, who is thoroughly committed to the cause? I suspect so.

This is why the recent lecture given by Graham Ward, who now calls himself the Reverend Professor, was so deeply mistaken. Its title was ‘Why Believe?’ and it was given at Christ Church Cathedral in Newcastle, Australia. In a chronic example of ethnocentrism, he extrapolated from the particularity of Christianity and asserted that belief is part of human nature, that it is characteristic of being human, even an anthropological condition. So you can find it everywhere, from prehistory to modern neuroscience. Yet he failed to ask whether belief itself is the problem, whether its claim to universal status is then a false universal.

What’s the alternative? In his earlier and more interesting days, before he began believing in communism, Žižek made an interesting observation concerning communism in Eastern Europe. Everyone was critical of the government, thought a better world existed outside their own country (especially in the West), and no one actually believed in communism. Rather than a sign of the failure of communism, he argued that this was precisely the sign of its success. Of course, Žižek suggested this as one of his dialectical jokes, but he may have spoken more truly than he realised.

All of which makes sense of what I once thought was a curious answer to the question, ‘Are you a believer?’ It was asked of a visitor from China to north-western Europe. His answer was, ‘I am a believer without belief’. Most present laughed, thinking it a clever answer, a way of avoiding answering the question. But now I suspect that he spoke directly: yes, I am a believer, but not in the sense that you understand it, for I do not have belief.

Roland Boer, on the road in China

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