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 stick-man-banging-headmy 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.

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16 thoughts on “Belief

  1. If it gets you through the day, or makes a moment of your life brighter, I say go for it.

    The “live-and-let-live” side of me wants to agree with that. But, when I consider things like Madeline Neumann’s tragic death, I can’t agree. The beliefs that probably brightened a lot of her parents’ days also made Madeline’s final days on earth a living hell. Which brings us to

    please don’t try to impose it on me

    Madeline had no choice about the imposition of her parents’ ill-founded, ill-considered – perhaps just downright ill – beliefs on her. She didn’t have the privilege you and I have had, of living to adulthood and being able to make up our own minds about religious dogma.

    I am not arguing against freedom of religion. People should never be coerced into nonbelief. What I am arguing for is opposition to unfounded beliefs because some of them are downright dangerous to believers and to others. I don’t care if their religious beliefs help them make it through the day; what they need to do, for all of our sakes, is find their footing in the real world.

  2. Yes, I agree, to a point. What you’re talking about, it seems to me, is the distinction between the belief, and acting on that belief. Actions can be harmful, but thinking is not.

    My belief in the GD is harmless until I go out and assassinate another, rival band.

    Charles Manson could have believed he was some deity all he wanted, with no problem from society in general, as long as he didn’t send his minions out to butcher people in furtherance of his beliefs.

  3. Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose. Your right to worship your personal manifestation of god ends at my right to be a citizen, my right to be me. And your right to loving the Grateful Dead ends at my eardrums. Beatles I can see. Bob Dylan I can see. Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Santana, hell, even the Eagles I can see. But the Dead?

  4. Much like religion, the GD are much more captivating if you’re under the influence of some mind altering something or other.

    I had this yahoo write me about “spiritual truths”, which she described as what you believe to be true concerning spiritual issues. Speaking of being under the influence of mind altering shit, right? Anyhoo, ignoring the spiritual bit, I simply let her know that things aren’t truths just because you believe them. That also should be sent to some numbnuts who posted on Chaplain’s blog recently about god having to exist because most people believe he does.

    Why can’t these people simply smoke a joint, kick back with a nice scotch or, my new summer favorite, Capt Morgan Reserve instead of getting high off these whacky beliefs? Well I guess they’ll be physically healthier in the long run, provided they don’t pass on the medical care in favor of prayer. 🙂

    Btw, I couldn’t take the GD even on acid.

  5. If it sounds good, it is good. – Duke Ellington

    Bingo! But good sound, like beauty, is in the [ears] of the beholder.

    Btw, I couldn’t take the GD even on acid.

    Which is my point. You don’t have to. Taste, beliefs, opinions. America was made great by the variety of these things, not the homogeneity of them.

  6. SI:
    I get your distinction between beliefs and actions motivated by those beliefs, but there is an undeniable connection between the two. I’d like to see people get rid of the religious-thought-shit that motivates the religious-behavior-shit. If we could help them do that, then society wouldn’t have to deal with cleaning up the messes created by religious-behavior-shit. I don’t think our supply of pooper scoopers is infinite.

  7. Spanish Inquisitor “Actions can be harmful, but thinking is not.”
    What about Mat 5:27-28, hmm? Merely thinking about stuff makes Jesus cry. Why must you make the Lord cry?

  8. My father, for reasons I’ve never been able to figure out refused to believe that the US military had ever had enlisted pilots. I don’t know why, he had no interest in aviation whatsoever (except during WWII when he was a master gunner in anti-aircraft artillery and charged with making the enemy’s aviation assets stop flying), was a career officer himself, and should have known better.

    Presented with the facts that persons such as Chuck Yaeger, Gene Autry, and Jackie Coogan had all been enlisted pilots, and the fact that he personally KNEW two persons who had been (the father of a friend of mine was a petty officer pilot before the war and commissioned during WWII) and a neighbor (who had been an enlisted USMC pilot during Korea and among other assignments had flown with VMF 212 as one of the “Flying Chevrons”) he would set his jaw and intone,”The United States Military has never had enlisted pilots”. And that was the end of it.

    But he believed that because of the actions of two “people” in a “paradise” he and every other human were sinners and doomed to an eternity of agony by a “heavenly father” who loved them unconditionally, and that he was “saved”. On the authority of a book that he’d been “brought up” to believe was “sacred” and “The Truth”.

    He also believed that since I had been baptized and was now an apostate, there was no point in “bringing me back to the fold” because the bible said that apostacy was unforgiveable and there was no point. (in some ways this was a relief)

    I really enjoy your headers, Spanish Inq! They are wonderful.

    In the name of belief, I believe I’ll have another cup of coffee…there! My belief was justified! Hallelujah!

  9. I’ve always found religion and politics very similar as far as belief is concerned. With both, people are encouraged to fully embrace the belief systems with very little information. After that, any new information is filtered through what they already believe. The quintessential example of this mindset is the doubting Thomas story, where the gospel writer- through the mouth of his fictional Jesus- asserts that the best kind of belief is the kind with no supporting evidence.

  10. Your right to believe what you want doesn’t mean I can’t make fun of it, either. I got one of those terribly amusing “An atheist was being chased by a bear” emails at work today, and come Monday I’m going to point out that I am no longer bound by politeness to refrain from jokes about religion. I’m looking forward to this…

    Unfortunately, while not a Deadhead I do quite like the Grateful Dead as well, so I’ll have to taunt *you* another time, SI! 😉

  11. And you like my analogy? Not only was this post completely awesome (and I wish I could be this zen about believe-niks) but I’m gonna re-examine the Dead. They never were my cup of tea, but . . . any band that can inspire a post like this must indeed rock. It’s time to give the old boys a try, again.

    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


    Though I really wish someone would do that, if only to parrot certain vocal theists own idiocy back at them.

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