In the autumn of 1940, when Britain stood alone, when the bombers came at dusk each evening and went away at dawn, I observed a sign on a church just off the East India Dock Road; it was crudely lettered and it read: If your knees knock, kneel on them. I quoted that sign in a broadcast to America that night, but did not fully understand it. For even in those dark days I could observe no more kneeling or knockning knees than at the time of the Anschluss or Munich. The imminence of disaster brought no spritual revival. And ye, at a time when most men save Englishmen despaired of Englands life, there was a steadiness, a confidence and determination that must have been based on something other than a lack of imagination.
As the months wore on, and the nights lengthened, and the casualty lists mounted, I became more concerned to try to understand what sustained this island people: what belief or what mythology caused them to stand so steady in their shoes. In part, it was ignorance of their own weakness; in part, it was a reluctance to appear obvious by expressing doubt as to the ultimate outcome. But at bottom this calm confidence stemmed from a belief that what they were defending was good; that Englishmen had devised a system of regulating the relationship between the individual and the state which was superior to all others, and which would survive even though cold military calculations concluded that the state was doomed.
There was little logic in this British belief. Unconsciously, they dug deep into their history and felt that Drake, Raleigh, Frobisher, Hawkins, Cromwell and all the rest were looking down at them, and they were obliged to appear worthy in the eyes of their ancestors. But above everything else, they believed. They believed not only in themselves but that they were fighting against evil things and the fight was worth while.
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We do, it is true, live in a society that is materialistic and mechanistic, where most of the goods we use are mass produced. We employ the same phrases, buy nationally advertised products, wear nationally branded hats and suits; the majority of the newspaper editors have abdicated to the syndicated columns. The voice of one broadcaster is heard from one end of the country to the other. There exists a real danger that the right of dissent, the right to be wrong, may be swamped because the instruments of communication are too closely held. We face the risk of forgetting that todays minority may become tomorrows majority, and that every majority in a free society today was not long ago a minority.
The matter of what men believe became of great importance to me when I first discovered that a friend of mine had been killed, not because of what he had done, but because he insisted upon retaining and agitating for his beliefs. I have known many men who have traveled many roads that brought them to beliefs ranging from Catholicism to Communism. I have never yet hear a man express what he believed in a fashion that failed to interst me. Most of the contributions in this book reflect an abiding belief in the importance and the inviolability of the individiual spirit; they reflect a belief in the dignity of the individual and the conviction that any belief worthy of na individual and the conviction that any belief worthy of an individual must be hammered out by that individual on the anvil of experience and cannot be packaged and delivered by print, radio, or television.
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For my own part, I remain fascinated by the manner and method by which people reach their beliefs and, at the same time, gratified by the demonstrable fact that their beliefs are not predictable. Four years ago, in the 1948 Presidential campaign, many of us, reporters, readers and listeners alike, were enthralled by something that wasnt true. The pollsters told us what we would do. We almost came to believe that the hopes, the fears, the prejudices, the aspirations of the people who live on this great continent could be neatly measured and pigeonholed, figured out with a slide rule. As individuals we didnt count; we were just little dots on a graph. The pollsters turned out to be wrong; we were not predictable, and regardless of the political consequences, their error restored to each of us a little dignity and some mystery as to why we believe what we do. This experience re-emphasized the importance and the inscrutability of the individual. We are not predictable, we are not robots. The individual is unpredictable, and in the area of what he believes, he is still sovereign.
At a time when the tide runs toward a shore of conformity, when dissent is often confused with subversion, when a mans belief may be subject to investigtion as well as his action, we have thought it useful to present these brief statements by people who have attempted to define what it is that they believe.
Pages vii to xi.