“Everyone Believes in Something”
Three simple words. "No, they don’t."
A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a former CUT member who I hadn’t spoken to in about 15 years. We talked for about an hour, and as inevitably happens in these conversations, the discussion turned to belief, specifically my beliefs. I calmly explained to her that I tried not to have any beliefs at all, and only paid attention to or respected what was supported by the evidence. She practically snorted, "Well, everyone believes in something."
I tried to explain what I meant: That I systematically discounted and ignored anything that was not empirically supportable. Still she insisted that was a belief.
Usually at this point, I direct people to read my article Atheist Metaphysics and Religious Equivocation. In it, I explain how using the word "belief" in multiple contexts (to describe belief without evidence, belief in spite of evidence, or belief based on evidence) as if they were the same thing is equivocation. It’s like saying "day" actually also means "night" because a day has 24 hours. Technically, it’s true, but you have to qualify it, and make the distinction, explaining that when you say "day" you mean the entire rotation of the earth and not just "day" the time when it’s light. Deliberately confusing the two in conversation would be either woefully imprecise or downright mendacious. But that’s just what gets done every day with concepts involving "belief."
This discussion has been done to death in skeptical circles. Everyone who bothers to follow even the basics of critical thought is already aware of this potential for linguistic legerdemain. But it bears reiteration because as it turns out, this tactic only seems to be gaining strength in the popular press. It’s pretty evident many people find their hold on reality to be tenuous at best. They walk around strongly influenced by the latest thing they’ve heard or read. They mindlessly forward every ridiculous chain email about 9/11 conspiracies, numerology, gas boycotts, electronic "sensitivity" causing migraines (aggravated of course by ubiquitous 802.11 WiFi), without bothering to check snopes.com or even asking themselves if it makes any sense.
They also fail to understand that bad information crowds out good, that erroneous beliefs prevent true understanding and make the world a worse place to live. But that is of small consequence to the believer mentality. They have convinced themselves that not only are beliefs not harmful–they are necessary and beneficial. Such people are so driven by their beliefs, and more specifically fears, they can’t be bothered to run a reality check. They really do inhabit Carl Sagan’s "Demon Haunted World." Their emotional response is so strong, they have a vested interest in being riled up, and riling other people up in turn. For them, reality is just a party pooper.
But it’s part of a larger problem: People who are used to operating on beliefs can’t imagine living without them. They gain an emotional reward and a sense of narcissistic control by imagining that their opinions actually mean something. They feel something, and it is SO. They’ve essentially made themselves non-accountable for responding to anything going on outside themselves. This works OK until physical reality intervenes: "Gee, a concrete block just landed on my foot. I don’t believe it." But they still have to go to the hospital. Amazingly, such a person might still cling to their other "less concrete" beliefs even though their brush with reality has left them severely injured. They rationalize that "maybe their angels were on strike" and left them vulnerable. Anything but take simple responsibility for failing to get out of the way of the physical hazard.
It sounds mean to mock someone who’s been injured. But far worse than a severed foot is severance from knowledge. How many people have lost that tether? How many people live in a vast swirling sea of "I don’t fucking know?" Flailing blindly, they grasp onto any flotsam or jetsam, whether or not it’s carrying them further from shore. Rather than saying "Hey, over here, you’ve got to let go of the driftwood and grab the life preserver!" some people would rather we just let them all be swept out to sea.
For believers, any conveyance of information–no matter how factual or dispassionate–is viewed through a religious lens. They simply can’t imagine a life without beliefs. Every premise is weighed on its emotional value. Specifically, how does it impact the maintenance of their belief system? Is it friendly to how I want the world to be? I believe it. Is it threatening? It’s not true. They see conflicting information in terms of a conversion narrative. Because conversion is how they latched onto their current views, and conversion is the only way they would consider changing them. The possibility of de-conversion and the recognition of the tyranny of belief (previous article) is as unfamiliar as it is frightening.
Consider the following recent headlines:
- Apostles of Atheism
- Is Atheism Just a Bundle of Sentiments?
- Gospel of Godlessness
- Student Club Aims to Proselytize Atheism
- Atheism as a Stealth Religion
So here we are back at square one. We have blatant and deliberate equivocation trumpeted in headlines. Like my earlier example of including "night" as an equivocated definition of "day," the authors of these headlines fail to distinguish between types of information. Every one of these articles casts skepticism, the scientific enterprise and those who value rigor in the same mold as believers. I always chuckle at this. Because if the believer mentality is so great, why use words like "apostle" (an ardent promoter), "gospel" (a revered text), "sentiments" (beliefs) as pejoratives about atheism? Aren’t believers accusing atheists of doing exactly what they proudly do? Doesn’t that just boggle the mind? "The Apostle Paul was great, but we should all run from the Apostles of Atheism." Really?
Either an apostle is a good thing or it’s not. I would say that depends highly on what the ‘apostle’ is promoting. Content, baby. Substance over style. But this very construction exposes the rotten core of belief. Believers know damn well that conversion depends not on the truth value of what the apostle is saying, but the emotional content. They only ask, "Is the apostle sincere and convincing? Is he on fire for his message?" Never "Is the apostle right?"–unless it’s an ‘apostle’ of atheism. It’s a category error. They know that describing any message in terms of a "gospel" (God’s spell) removes it from analysis. It must simply be accepted. Unless it’s scientific or skeptical. As they retreat to this contradictory and intellectually rotten core, (what an awful and frightening place to live) believers know they couldn’t be in a weaker position. Their world view literally collapses in on itself as it’s challenged from literally every corner. So they project the abject weakness of their very own beliefs out onto every area of human knowledge they find to be threatening or inconvenient.
It is a cowardly and futile enterprise. Yet seemingly more popular than ever.