In my last post about Atheism, I mentioned being a skeptic. Maybe that’s why, of the myriad of things that could be occupying my mind, I find myself pondering belief lately.
For those of you that don’t know, being a skeptic roughly means that I don’t tend to accept things without sufficient evidence.
(I say mostly. I’m not perfect.)
I can not say that I have always been a skeptic, but my life is more interesting since I became one.
I realize that statement seems odd. Stick with me.
Most of the time, people think being a skeptic means that I find no mystery, no magic in the world. In some cases this is true. I’ll get to that in a minute. The important corollary to that idea is this:
I also don’t worry about a lot of things most people worry about.
Turn on the news, for even 5 minutes, and you will notice that people – especially in recent years – are up in arms about a lot of shit. I mean really tearing their hair out over issues.
(To be sure, some of these issues are worth a little hair pulling, but as I have found, not nearly as many or as frequent as seems to be the case in the general populace.)
And here is where my skepticism does me a wonderful turn: if I cannot find evidence that a thing is so, I don’t have to accept that it is so, and therefore, I can be at ease about it. This allows me to focus on things that are, so far as I can find evidence for them, actual and deserving of my energies.
Also, I have this personality flaw wherein I don’t like to think of myself as gullible.
(If this begins to wander a bit, please keep going. I’m pretty sure I’ll tie it all together in the end.)
So, I’ve been thinking about beliefs. More to the point, what people believe and the actions they take based on those beliefs.
There are numerous stories in circulation about the insane things people do based on their beliefs. Christian scientists letting a child die because they decided to pray away an illness that should have been corrected by surgery or medication. The dietary restrictions of any faith causing people to go hungry rather than eat a certain proscribed food. People giving their money to supposed mediums and psychics in order to talk with the dead. The list goes on. An it’s not just the religious. Take a look around and you’ll find plenty of stories about someone doing something detrimental – to themselves or to others – based on an irrational belief. Hell, I have a fair share of it in my own history.
It seems that belief, and the sometimes insane things we do because of it, are just a natural human tendency. But it’s not a tendency we’re stuck with.
Also, ingrained in our brains, is a deep curiosity; a thirst to solve problems and to know why. This, I think, works both for us and against us at times.
So, I ask myself: is belief just an evolved tendency to attribute agency? Does it do us, as a species a good turn at this stage of our evolution? Or is it an artifact of our development that we need to temper with reason and logic?
I don’t have much in the way of superstitions, (which are just beliefs about the nature of reality that tend to be ground in self confirmation bias). I walk under ladders, if it’s the shortest route to get where I’m going. I love black cats, and have had a few in my day. I don’t believe in jinxes or hexes or curses. I don’t believe in ghosts, spirits, angels, demons, or magic. I don’t make sure that my right foot is the first to cross the threshold or to touch the floor when I get out of bed in the morning. I don’t say prayers, throw salt over my shoulder, avoid stepping on cracks, and the only bad luck I think a broken mirror brings is if you cut yourself while cleaning up the glass. I don’t believe in God, the Devil, or any deity. And I don’t believe in Fate or predestination.
There are a lot of things I don’t believe in, and not because I’m being contrary, but because I’ve seen no good evidence to suggest that those views of reality are actually true.
This is my skepticism. It also extends to thoughts and assumptions within my own head. Every once in a while I will stop to think about what I think, or believe, and see if there is any reason to continue to think it. Sometimes, I find I have new information which gives lie to an old belief.
So, what about belief? Is it a good thing? Does it help us more than it hurts us?
It’s a complicated question. And one you’ll hear a lot of opinions about. I certainly have. But a lot of those opinions are based on anecdotal evidence; some story or personal experience which gives it the weight of truth to the teller. Those are interesting to listen to, sometimes, but I don’t think anecdote can be used as actual evidence. There are just too many conflicting anecdotes, for any given situation or event, to come to some kind of reasonable consensus. For every anecdote I’ve heard given in proof of some thing or another, I’ve heard just as many given as proof to discredit that thing or event.
It becomes a dangerous game of he said/ she said, and which are we to accept as real?
You see my quandary.
I think, generally, that belief can be beneficial to us when it is moderated by reason.
(And reason, far from being the end all – be all, is generally more beneficial when it is moderated by our emotions. We have both for a reason – that being the continued health of our organism, in case you were thinking I was speaking of some ineffable, unknowable divine plan.)
(As an aside, what is the use of saying there is a divine plan – of any stripe – if it is ineffable and unknowable? A plan is only useful if it allows one to predict an outcome. Calling it a plan after the fact is just silly, and a tautology.)
A belief in one’s self, for instance, is highly beneficial so long as it is tempered by reason. You, if you live in this world at all, have seen the numerous negative consequences of people that either do not believe in themselves enough – and thus never achieve their potential or add to the whole in any meaningful way, or the ones that believe in themselves so much that they cause harm to not just themselves but others, and the whole in general, due to the actions based on their unmediated belief.
There are quiet, lonely people out there, with talent and vision and something to add to the whole, who do not do so simply because they were conditioned not to believe in themselves, and therefore, to not try.
And there are loud, crazy fuckers who generally wreck the place because they are so convinced of their own worth that the idea that they may be wrong never even enters into their heads.
If you’ve survived to adulthood, you’ve undoubtedly met one or two from each category, even if you have never left your hometown.
An unreasoned belief in agency, of any sort, can have negative consequences.
I know that, because I am an Atheist, some people will think that I am talking about god(s). Partly I am, but more pernicious, more detrimental to human happiness – I think – are the unreasoned beliefs that are not founded in any religion; even if they are sometimes based in religious thought.
People believe odd things, like, if they deprive themselves of some form of enjoyment now, it will atone for something in the past, or ensure something in the future.
This only works, so far as I can tell, with dieting.
It’s pretty much useless for everything else, save for the rare occasion where it generates the Placebo Affect in the believer, and thereby has a beneficial influence.
(If you’re counting on the Placebo Affect, congratulations, you’ve already talked yourself out of it.)
I knew a guy once who lost his job. Instead of trying to figure out why he was fired, and correct that character flaw – he tended to act like an entitled dick – he decided his best course of action was to go on a pseudo-fast. It wasn’t a real fast, like you would do for a cleansing ritual, spirit quest, or some other mystical practice. No. It was a, “don’t allow myself to enjoy some of the things that give me comfort and that will square me with god/ universe” sort of thing.
(He didn’t actually use those words, he used about three thousand more. I’ve shortened it for your convenience.)
And you know what?
It didn’t work.
(Now, the more religiously inclined will say it didn’t work because he was not severe enough or sincere enough in his choice of atonement, or whatever. I tend to think it didn’t work because what he did had fuck all to do with the problem he was encountering at the time. But I’m just kooky like that.)
I knew this girl once, she was attracted to a friend of mine, but wouldn’t go out on a date with him because she was also attracted to this other guy.
(I know, for young people, this isn’t so strange.)
Here’s the strange part about her unreasoned belief, this other guy, the one she was saving herself for, had no romantic interest in her. (I asked him, some years later.)
(This is also, not terribly unusual for the young.)
But it was her belief that, if she dated someone else she liked, she would never have a chance with this guy who wasn’t interested in her. Like the universe or luck or the Fates or some other fucking thing would disapprove and, (in a fit of supernatural pique, I guess) ensure that she would never get that thing she wanted, namely, Mister Disinterested.
(By the way, she had never gone up to said dream guy and made any kind of approach, and didn’t seem likely to.)
She was just hoping that, if she abstained from the correct things, the universe or god, or whatever, would throw the two together, like the climax of a bad 80s romantic comedy.
(Also, by the way, my friend -who was infinitely more sensible than I was at the same age – did the smart thing and stopped talking to the girl. I’d have to check, but I don’t think he’s spoken to her since. That’s something like 16 years. Gotta’ admire that level of dedication to principle.)
Why do I illustrate the point with these two stories? Because they both serve to show people depriving themselves of some measure of happiness in order to satisfy an unproven belief.
(Also, in both cases, neither of them got what they wanted because they held to unfounded beliefs rather than doing the work they needed to do to get what they wanted.)
And these are just a few examples. Think for a couple of minutes and I am sure you can come up with some that you’ve encountered in your own experience.
So, do I believe in anything, and if so, what do I believe?
(That depends on your definition of belief, really, but let’s give it an ill-defined whirl.)
But, yes, even being a skeptic, I do believe in some things.
I believe that life is hard and short, and that we suffer enough random pain in one lifetime that to deprive one’s self of joy, (so long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights or safety of another), is so foolish as to deserve ridicule, and only adds to our sorrow.
(My sense of decency – yes I have one – tends to keep me in check when I get in a ridiculing mind. You’ll notice I didn’t reveal any names or dates in the preceding anecdotes. And really, people are unhappy enough as it is without me adding to it.)
I believe that the universe is random, and that random events can both help and harm us. (notice I said the universe, not people.)
I believe that you do what you can, with what you’ve got, where ever you’re at.
I believe that we are the cause of a great deal of our own suffering, and that we often regret things we have no control over.
I believe that time is short and we never have enough of it to do the things we think we should.
I also believe that fact should not stop us from trying.
I believe in me, but hopefully just enough to do some good in the world.
And I believe in you.
If that sounds too sappy, it shouldn’t.
The follow up to that statement is:
“Even though sometimes you people make it damn hard to believe.”
You might say my belief in humanity is unfounded. But I’ve seen enough evidence to suggest otherwise…
…And so – because I’m tired of typing – I leave this meandering missive at a “You say/ I say” stopping point. Because, really, how many discussions have you had that don’t end up stopping there?
Which belief are you going to accept as real?