Sunday, February 14, 2010

Disbelieve With Me

What really disturbs me about the Tebows, and about many other people who think of themselves as religious, is their facile confidence that when things work out well for them, it was God's idea all along. As though other people don't suffer calamities in almost exactly the same circumstances -- or, worse, as though when other people suffer such calamities, that was God's plan, too. And there are plenty of new-age liberals with the same attitude: "Your cancer is back? Oh, dear -- it must be wrong with your spirituality." People seem unable to accept the world's frightful indifference[...].
William Saletan - commenting on "Focus on Your Family"
Mr. Saletan takes exception to the ease with which many people chalk up the myriad good and bad things that happen in the world to God's plan or correct or faulty spirituality. Fair enough. But this isn't a "facile confidence," it's a central tenet of their faith. Evangelical Christians and new-age liberals alike eschew a belief in "the world's frightful indifference," not because they can't accept it, but because they won't accept it. Their beliefs tell them that it's a patently false idea. One thing that I've noticed about many people's approach to not only faith, but it seems knowledge in general, is that we have an easier time understanding why people don't believe in the things that we believe in, as opposed to the fact that they believe in things that we don't. (In this regard, the supernatural and man-made global warming are in the same boat.) In another example, in this BBC Radio documentary about child sacrifice in Uganda, when the Ugandan Minister of Ethics and Integrity refers to consulting with Witch Doctors as "nonsense," Tim Whewell immediately assumes that he dismisses the whole idea of the spirit world, thinking it "made up." Instead, what the Minister is referring to is the idea that one should actually pay attention to the desires of Evil Spirits. When Whewell suggests that perhaps the Ugandan government should tell people that spirits don't exist at all, the Minister is scandalized by the idea that the government would disseminate such obvious disinformation. While the British documentarian doesn't seem to have much difficulty with the idea that people out in the bush believe in spirits, he seems genuinely impressed that the educated minister isn't more skeptical.

To a certain degree, it appears that we have come to expect a certain level of agnosticism from other people when it comes to those things that we don't believe ourselves (especially when we think of them as educated), rather than realizing that people with different belief systems are sometimes (if not often) going to have fundamental differences with us in the way they see (and interact with) the world. Someone who honestly believes that life events are directly tied to divine intervention or the practice of spirituality should be expected to behave as if that were true, and should be expected to espouse that if asked. Why do we expect them to express skepticism about such an idea, simply because there is a potential for people who find it preposterous to be in the audience? As I mentioned before, it's not just the supernatural that triggers this - pretty much any strongly held belief, especially those that inspire people to change their behavior (or not, as the case may be) can be suspect. I've come across religious people who seem to have great difficulty with the idea that anyone sincerely believes in the theory of evolution, for example.

Not being an academic, I find that I have to beat the English language about the head and shoulders to express this, but here goes: There seems to be a widespread, but unconscious belief in the idea that our individual worldviews are shaped by a perception of reality that is clear, objective and perhaps more importantly, shared (if not universal). Therefore, if we ourselves don't believe in something, not only must it not be demonstrably real, but others like us (even perhaps everyone else) must suspect to some degree its fundamental unreality. This leads us to the expectation that people are agnostic about, if not actually skeptical of, those things that we ourselves do not believe; and when people strongly profess a belief in things that we consider suspect, insincerity, denial or delusion must be at play. (Whew!)

The general confidence that people have in their own objectivity makes sense. But so does the ability to dial it back, if not turn it off, now and again. Doing so makes it easier to understand why other people see things in the way that they do, and to understand that they genuinely hold to those beliefs, often for different reasons than we ourselves would.


Archaeopteryx said...

I can't believe that you believe that crap!