Belief is an odd thing. It’s a product of our minds, and our minds can sometimes construct odd things. I look at the world around me, and I see people who believe some very odd things. Right now I’m watching people in what’s being called the “Birther Movement” (and who thought up that name?) who believe that President Obama is not a natural born citizen of the United States, and as a result, should not have been allowed to run for office, much less elected. This, despite the fact that his birth certificate has been certified by the state of Hawaii, and that birth notices were placed in two newspapers at the time. Yet these people in this so called movement cling to the belief that it’s all a fraud. The logical conclusion of their beliefs has to lead to a conspiracy that arose before he was born, one that he was not a part of, to get him elected to high office knowing in advance that there would be an objection to his actual place of birth. How far fetched is that? This boggles my mind, that there are people who sincerely hold this belief. I can’t fathom, for the life of me, how someone can hold a belief that is pure and utter nonsense, that has been effectively disproven, without any objective reason to hold it other than the desire for it to be true.
So, as is my nature, this current event got me ruminating on the nature of belief.
I used to think that all beliefs were utterly useless, unless they were supportable beliefs. I would want to see some arguable substance behind the belief. This is one of the underpinning tenets of my atheistic lack-of-belief. However, now I think it’s a little more nuanced than that. There are beliefs and then there are Beliefs. When we deal with religious beliefs, since there is nothing that substantiates them other than a desire for them to be true, we must be very cautious, because of the way religious beliefs are bandied about in this complex world we live in. We find them involved in places one would not logically find them, like medicine (stem cell research, abortion, right to die situations), science (global warming) and even international politics (do I really need examples?). So we need to differentiate between your run-of-the-mill belief, and religious beliefs.
Take an example. I believe that the Grateful Dead was one of the best bands of its type in the last 40 years. I could give you multiple reasons for that belief, and could cite to multiple facts to support my reasoning. My belief is formed and colored by a multitude of intersecting facts, ranging from my taste in music, my upbringing, my experience with the band, the social crowd I hung out with, the time I’ve spent listening to them, reviews and other opinions I’ve read and agreed with, etc. But when you boil it all down, my belief in the greatness of that band is nothing more than my personal opinion. All of the facts and reasoning that convinces me, could be used by someone else to form the opposite opinion. And their opinion, their belief that the Grateful Dead sucked as a band would be equally valid, because at its core, it is a subjective opinion. Subjective opinions are inherently valid to the opinion holder, but they don’t generate automatic respect, nor even a modicum of acceptance by others, unless there is an objective reason for doing so.
A belief in gods, or more specifically, a belief that gods exist, can be analyzed similarly. Religious beliefs, as held, are more than subjective opinions. They purport to be statements of absolute truth about reality. Theists can point to lots of things to substantiate their belief in god’s existence, many of them facts. They’ll tell you of the miracles they heard about (“Aunt Clara’s cancer was terminal, but after she drank the Lourdes water she lived till she was 90, doncha know”) or how good things happened to them that could only be ascribed to divine intervention, (“I couldn’t find my glasses anywhere, but there they were, right under my favorite picture of Jesus.”) or how orderly and clearly designed the world seems to be, or any number of things that, in their minds, they use to substantiate their beliefs. But in the end, these beliefs are nothing more than mere personal opinions, no more valid than my belief about the Goddamn Grateful Dead, and equally subjective.
The difference between these two beliefs/personal opinions is that I don’t revolve my life around the belief that the Grateful Dead are stupendous. I listen to them (when I don’t get sick of listening to them – and I do), I participate in online groups that discuss their pros and cons, I still attend concerts of the surviving members and I collect their shows. What I don’t do is:
- Worship them, expecting some greater reward
- Attend the church of the Grateful Dead
- Expect that my political leaders make policy decisions based on their lyrics
- Say “Jerry Bless You” when someone sneezes
- Bow towards San Francisco five times a day and repeat the words to Dark Star
- Get angry when someone denies their excellence, expecting total respect for my beliefs
- Insist that Jerry Garcia’s face be put on the 2 dollar bill, or lobby to incorporate the chorus of Uncle John’s Band into the Pledge of Allegiance
In short, it’s simple entertainment, and while I find it feels good to listen to and enjoy one of my favorite bands, I don’t raise my belief to the level that religion has been raised. You may think this is a silly analogy, but I find it apt.
Religion seems to get a different treatment, even though, in comparison to my GD beliefs, there is not much difference. Religious beliefs are actually, pound for pound, much sillier and far more subjective. While I believe the Grateful Dead was a great live band in their prime (while often falling on their faces in the studio), theists believe that their respective gods actually listen to billions of prayers transmitted to them telepathically every second, and answer many of them. You may have to listen to hundreds of hours of live GD concerts to arrive at the former belief, as I’ve done, but you have to do nothing to form the latter. All you need is a desire to believe it’s true, and it becomes true, in your theist’s mind.
So how did I get from the Birther Movement to the Grateful Dead and religious beliefs? Clearly, they all make the holders of their beliefs feel good. The Birthers are reassured that the nasty black man in the White House shouldn’t be there, and they can rationalize in their minds what amounts to hatred for him. The religious are reassured that there is someone who is taking care of them now, and will continue to do so when they die. And the Dead Heads are just Truckin’ through life, reassured that all is right with the world.
These beliefs are all just subjective, feel good, emotional responses to external stimuli. They may give meaning to the individual who holds them, but to someone else, they can be meaningful, or useless, or anything in between. The point it, it’s an individual belief, not the absolute truth, one you have no choice about but to live your life as if it’s true. If it gets you through the day, or makes a moment of your life brighter, I say go for it. But please don’t try to impose it on me, unless you have something objective to back up the belief.
As the Dead sang in Box of Rain
Believe it if you need it, if you don’t just pass it on
This is why I’m an Atheist Dead Head, and not a religious Birther.