It is not uncommon in american anarchist circles to hear someone say, “I believe in fairies”, “I believe in magic”, “I believe in ghosts” or the like. Only rarely do these believers claim a direct experience of the phenomena they claim to believe in. Much more often it is a friend, a relative or that standard favorite, “someone I met” who supposedly had the experience. When there is a direct experience, a little bit of questioning usually reveals that the actual experience has, at best, a very tenuous connection to the belief it is used to support. Yet if one dares to point this out, one may be accused of denying the believer’s experience and of being a cold-hearted rationalist.
Neo-paganism and mysticism have penetrated deeply into the american anarchist scene, undermining a healthy skepticism that seems so essential to the battle against authority. We were all well trained to believe—to accept various ideas as true without examination and to interpret our experiences based on these beliefs. Since we were taught how to believe, not how to think, when we reject the beliefs of the mainstream, it is much easier to embrace an alternative belief system than to begin the struggle of learning to think for ourselves. When this rejection includes a critique of civilization, one can even justify the embrace of mystical beliefs as a return to the animism or earth religion attributed to non-civilized people. But some of us have no interest in belief systems, since we want to think for ourselves, and such thinking has nothing in common with belief of any sort.
Probably one of the reasons american anarchists shy away from skepticism—other than that belief is easier—is that scientific rationalists have claimed to be skeptics while pushing a plainly authoritarian belief system. Magazines such as the Skeptical Inquirer have done much of worth in debunking new age bullshit, mystical claims and even such socially significant beliefs as the “satanic abuse” myth, but they have failed to turn the same skeptical eye on the mainstream beliefs of established science. For a long time, science has been able to hide behind the fact that it uses some fairly reliable methods in its activities. Certainly. observation and experimentation are essential tools in the development of ways of thinking that are one’s own. But science does not apply these methods freely to the exploration of self-determined living; rather it uses them within a system of beliefs. Stephen Jay Gould is a firm believer in science; he is also unusually honest about it. In one of his books, I found a discussion of the basis of science. He states clearly that the basis of science is not, as is popularly thought, the so-called “scientific method” ( i.e., empirical observation and experimentation), but rather the belief that there are universal laws by which nature has consistently operated. Gould points out that the empirical method only becomes science when applied within the context of this belief. Scientific rationalists are glad to apply their skepticism to belief in fairies or magic, but won’t even consider applying it to the belief in scientific laws. In this, they are acting like the christian who scoffs at hinduism. Anarchists are wise to reject this rigid and authoritarian worldview.
But when the rejection of scientific rationalism becomes the embrace of gullibility, authority has been successful in its training. The ruling order is far less interested in what we believe than in guaranteeing that we continue to believe rather than beginning to think, beginning to try to understand the world we encounter outside of any of the belief systems we’ve been given to view it through. As long as we are focused on muons or fairies, quasars or goddesses, thermodynamics or astral-projection, we won’t be asking any of the essential questions, because we’ll already have answers, answers that we’ve come to believe in, answers that transform nothing. The hard road of doubt, which cannot tolerate the easy answers of either the scientist or the mystic, is the only road that begins from the individual’s desire for self-determination. Real thinking is based in hard and probing questions the first of which are: why is my life so far from what I desire, and how do I transform it? When one leaps too quickly to an answer based upon belief, one has lost one’s life and embraced slavery.Skepticism is an essential tool for all who want to destroy authority. In order to learn how to explore, experiment and probe—that is, to think for oneself—one must refuse to believe. Of course, it is a struggle, often painful, without the comfort of easy answers; but it is also the adventure of discovering the world for oneself, of creating a life that, for its own pleasure, acts to destroy all authority and every social constraint. So if you speak to me of your beliefs, expect to be doubted, questioned, probed and mocked, because that within you which still needs to believe is that within you that still needs a master.