Don’t You Believe It!

They say that seeing is believing. But believing can take the place of seeing. One speaks of believing one’s own eyes. But that is inappropriate, for we are hardly called upon to believe what is readily apparent to the senses. Verbal propositions are another matter. Apart from statements of what is immediately given in experience, one must decide whether to give credence to the claims that others make. These may be claims about their own experience, but more often they are about concepts and abstractions. We accept a claim as true when we can corroborate it with our own eyes. That cannot happen, of course, when the claim is about something invisible or abstract. In that case, acceptable evidence is less direct, but could still consist of something visible. We cannot see subatomic particles, for example, but we can see the tracks they leave on a photographic emulsion. Therefore, we “believe” in their existence.

Religious people may claim that their faith has a similar foundation. That is, they have personally experienced what they consider sufficient evidence for the existence of God. As creationists, they may take the manifest complexity of the world as proof of intelligent design. Some may claim to have felt God’s presence. While I discount these claims for varying reasons, at least they involve the testimony of direct experience! It is quite another matter to accept the testimony of a scripture, a text, however revered it may be. To suppose that the written word is reliable because it was dictated by God is absurdly circular reasoning. And yet millions believe in the Bible or the Koran as the literal word of God. How can this be?

Some religious people hold that God is needed to regulate a world that cannot be safely left in human hands. For them, civil law is not wise enough (or free enough from corruption) to provide the absolute authority that can command universal obedience. Humans are like squabbling children who need an all-powerful parental authority to keep them in order. (Note that dictators can perform this function!) In Christian Europe, there once was a universal Church, uniting believers, but it was hardly free from corruption and couldn’t sustain authority. Nothing has ever replaced it to fulfill that role. We have a United Nations that is anything but united. We certainly do not have a world united under God. Quite the contrary, people embracing this rationale for religion are divided in pockets, hoping their brand of invisible Super-hero will set things right in some final reckoning.

I am sure that religion did arise out of historical collective need. But that does not quite explain the ongoing appeal to individuals of its fanciful story lines. I think that appeal lies less in the details of the story than in the need for stories generally. After all, we are creatures of language. However we conceive the world amounts to some narrative or other—even the scientific one. When the story is written down, it acquires an aura of objectivity that goes beyond the claims of accountable individuals. The expression “it is written” means that it is far more than someone’s opinion or fantasy. Since the invention of printing at least, widespread access to the text allows it to assume the place of a power standing over all. In principle, the text is timeless and authoritative: just what we want a god to be. Apart from errors of copying, whoever accesses a text reliably finds the same words each time they look and the same as anyone else would find. In contrast, nature and human affairs are ambiguous, elusive, and ever changing. (Even scientific findings often cannot be repeated.) While the hand of God or Adam Smith are invisible abstractions, you can hold the tangible Bible or Koran in your hand. It consists of readily quotable memes or tweets. As a guide for living, it provides a ready map of a territory that may be overwhelmingly complex.

Personally, I think it is about as reasonable to believe in God as in the tooth fairy. But what I want to emphasize is the conundrum of belief itself. A clue may be the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone, according to which one is “saved” simply by believing. Such pathological reasoning contradicts Jesus’ actual teaching of unconditional love. For, what one is to be saved from is the wrath of a punitive and judgmental father god. The doctrine of salvation by faith goes against the very reasons for which religion was socially useful in the first place: to ensure that we get along together. For, it doesn’t matter how wicked you have been, you can still be forgiven at the eleventh hour if only you claim to believe. It is far easier to believe than to be good.

Language itself makes such unreason possible, which renders belief far more dangerous than a mere question of theology. The bottom line is that you can be controlled when you can be led to believe a claim despite the evidence of your senses and common sense. It’s a form of hypnosis, the power of suggestion. Inherent in language is the power to deceive—not only by outright lying but also by creating an ersatz world. That may have served society two or three millennia ago, when people had to be tricked into behaving properly. It has hardly achieved that goal in the modern era. On the contrary, belief has become the bane of demagoguery, social media and divisive politics, which are platforms for bad behavior.

Some people argue that there is nothing to lose by being a believer, no matter how outrageous the “truths” one is asked to embrace. It may seem rational to cover all the bases, just in case. I don’t agree. I think one can lose one’s dignity, credibility, and the trust of others, which is a big price to pay for a fairy tale ending. Nature has nightmarish aspects to be sure—disease and pain and horrifying creatures. But at least there is nothing personal in its machinations. Religious believers hold that the world is supernaturally personal and that all the claims and implications of the text are literally true. The believer lives as a subservient child in a dysfunctional family, headed by an abusive and autocratic Super-parent. One wonders not only at the sanity of this vision but also at the vindictive intent that would cast unsaved neighbors, relatives, and loved ones into eternal hellfire because they do not share one’s thoughts. A few centuries ago, it meant literally burning them alive! One is right to mistrust the believer.

Of course, neither belief nor craziness is limited to religion. Conspiracy theories, for example, are akin to religious beliefs. They allow the insider to be special, provocative and prophetic, in the know, even saved. They are based on claims as off-the-wall and paranoid as the absurdities of theology—the wilder the better, since belief serves to provide identity, status, and belonging within a cult. It polarizes and divides society. Political extremism flourishes in times of uncertainty, when there is a glut of indigestible information, of divergent voices clamoring for attention and belief, overwhelming one’s confidence in the ability to make sense of them or know what to believe.

Unlike the testimony of your senses, verbal claims—for instance by political leaders, newscasters, and social media—provoke belief or disbelief, unless one simply ignores them. They direct attention—sometimes away from the real issues. It matters little whether the claims are true or false, for either way one’s energies are channeled to sort them out in the terms in which they are presented. It is easier to believe a claim than to reject it, which requires a certain inner effort that goes against our social instinct to be agreeable. It is yet harder to think in one’s own original terms. These are the downsides and liabilities of our human capacity to communicate. Belief is the Achilles heel of our wondrous ability to imagine and abstract, and to express our thoughts in symbols. Belief is how we talk ourselves into things that we ought to know cannot be true or even relevant. Believers do not have to come up with their own vision, their own claims about reality, their own sense of what is important, their own story. They simply sign up to someone else’s.

Ideally, communication is an honest game among equal players, in which one is respectfully invited to consider the claims of the others. But communication is disrespectful when the intent is to manipulate. The bad faith of the gullible believer meshes with that of the cynical communicator—a match made in hell, where neither is obliged to be sensible. The onus is on the buyer to beware of seductive games that distract one from the senses and from common sense—which, being common, should unite rather than divide. Individuality is a matter of sorting information oneself, not for the sake of being different or belonging, but as one’s best effort toward truth. While I hope you agree, I invite you to not believe a word I’ve said!