Waking Up From the Fever Dream

August 12, 2010

When I water my plants, I imagine them feeling taken care of.  When people I know die, I imagine that they’re not really completely gone, that they’re somehow “around,” somewhere, in some unspecified “state.”  Innumerable times throughout my life I’ve imagined a God – the Judeo-Christian God, but without the nasty, judgmental bits – looking out for me and caring about me in some vague way.  All of these imaginings make me feel good.

I don’t really believe any of these things.  But sometimes I have to consciously remind myself that I don’t believe them, because these kinds of thoughts seem to come naturally to me.  I suspect they come naturally to most people, which makes me also suspect that we may be “hardwired” to be able to easily believe things without any empirical evidence and with no need for such evidence – that this is perhaps our “natural state” that gives way to scientific rationality only under the steady influence of a good education, in much the same way that the baser, often cruel instincts of children give way to more civilized behavior under the steady influence of socialization.

Overall, socialization works pretty well; instilling scientific rationality, not so much.  The ubiquitous religious beliefs that apparently require no empirical evidence to shore them up are a stunning testament to that fact.  And beyond the realm of religion too there is copious evidence that people often require little in the way of empirical support for their convictions, even as they’re loudly, and often angrily, parading those convictions on the National Mall or elsewhere.

Belief in things for which there is no empirical evidence has been called “magical thinking,” as if what one believes to be true came to pass as a result of the wave of a magic wand.  Children, of course, believe in all sorts of things – fairies, Santa Claus, the Easter bunny – requiring no evidence for any of it, additional support for the hypothesis that we are hardwired to have no problem believing things based on nothing at all.  As children grow up, however, they are generally quite willing to let go of these beliefs, trading them in for the higher status of being an adult – except religious beliefs.  These we carry with us into adulthood and throughout our lives, unburdened by any weight of evidence.  And much in society – and, perhaps, in our biology – conspires to enable us to do that.

The discussion of whether there is any evidence that God exists – to be clear, the kind of God that most Christians, Muslims, and Jews believe in; a God who cares about us – is too voluminous to reference here, but there really aren’t any arguments that even remotely approach the threshold of being convincing.  To all the people who say that they’ve “just felt the presence” of God, I remind them that such interpretations of  personal experiences are generally not scientifically defensible, that people are notoriously subject to bias in interpreting such personal experiences and are easily fooled or, perhaps more commonly, easily deceive themselves (wanting to have a personal experience of God).   To those who start talking about God as a “life force” or “the love energy that is all around us” or some such description, I say that they have redefined “God” to such an extent that we are no longer talking about the standard Abrahamic conception of God that most people in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions know and want to believe exists.

Rather than God creating man in His image, it is much more likely that man created God in his image – which would explain the nasty, judgmental bits.  In fact, I think it most likely that all religious beliefs, rather than being facts “out there”, originally came from human minds. I imagine a huge outpouring of ideas and beliefs spurting forth from the head of someone (who perhaps had sat out in the sun too long), the way Athena burst forth from the head of Zeus.  Once these ideas and beliefs are “out there” in the public sphere, it’s as if they crystallize into a solid formation for all to behold.  Once they are “out there” – enhanced by the corroboration of other people believing too – we forget that they are just the products of our own minds.  And with the passage of millennia, it is easy to forget – or to never have known in the first place – that what we hold to be religious “truths” are just the ideas of people like you and me who lived a very long time ago.

But despite the lack of supportive evidence, religious beliefs have persisted.  They’ve persisted so well, in fact, that in the United States there is a social stigma to not believing in at least one set of such beliefs.  In the Islamic world, there is more than just a social stigma – one can lose one’s life if one’s loss of belief in Allah becomes known.

So why is it such anathema to avow one’s disbelief?  It seems so straightforward and rational to say that if there isn’t any evidence to support a supposition, then there isn’t any reason to believe it – and there really isn’t any evidence to support belief in a god, at least not the kind of god in which most followers of religions in the Abrahamic tradition believe.

One can certainly say, “Why should I believe in such a thing?” and many atheists (who are finally coming out of the closet) do say this.  But the reaction of most Americans, and many other people, is one of horror and/or disdain – as if one is a bad person for not believing in God.

Indeed, this appears to be what many people think.  When asked in a 1999 Gallup poll if they would refuse to vote for “a generally well-qualified person for president” on the basis of some generic characteristic (e.g., if the person were Catholic, black, a woman, a Mormon, a Muslim, gay or an atheist), atheists “won” with a 48 percent refusal rate (vs., for example, 5% for a black, 8% for a woman, 38% for a Muslim, and 37% for a gay person).[1]

When the American Humanist Association launched a campaign to assure nonbelievers that they are not alone and that they are good people too,[2] it was met by an outcry.  AHA billboards with slogans telling people that they can be “good without God” were vandalized.  People took offense; they got angry.  Why?  Was religion being attacked? It could be argued that saying one doesn’t believe in God is implicitly saying that those who do believe are wrong, and that this is offensive.  But people disagree about all sorts of things in the course of life, and most disagreements do not raise such an outcry.  Why should it bother people who follow a religion, or, more generically, who believe in God, if some people say they don’t?

I’ve often thought of religion as a collective wish fulfillment dream from which the dreamers are loath to awaken.  They want it to be real; they talk as if of course it’s real; they make recourse to numbers (how could so many millions of believers be wrong?); they cite the sheer durability of religious beliefs over millenia.  But none of this is actual evidence.  The number of people believing something doesn’t make it true; nor does the length of time people have believed it.

It is more likely that sociological and historical – and perhaps evolutionary – factors have kept religious beliefs alive, rather than any fundamental truth to the beliefs themselves.   If I told you about a creature (I’d just made up) called a hephalinx, you probably wouldn’t believe me, since you would have no evidence of such a thing.  You wouldn’t see the hephalinx; nor, of course, would you hear it or smell it.  But now suppose a whole bunch of people came along and professed to believe that there was indeed a hephalinx, regardless of whether anyone could see it or hear it or touch it.  They might say, for instance, that it wasn’t the sort of thing that one could expect to see or hear or touch.  It was quintessentially different, not like things one typically encounters in this world.

As a rational person, I would be very skeptical of such a claim.  But suppose that instead of encountering this claim as an adult, I was born into a family that believed in the hephalinx.  Suppose, moreover, that my family was one of many families that believed in it.  In fact, suppose most families believed.  Suppose also that it wasn’t just the existence of the hephalinx that they all believed in, but they believed that the hephalinx cared about them.   Well, you can see where this is going.  We don’t encounter religious beliefs for the first time as adults; we typically encounter them as children – and children are not intellectually or emotionally ready to challenge the beliefs of their parents, who seem somewhat godlike themselves.  Now suppose further that all these believers in the hephalinx tell you that if you don’t believe, something’s wrong with you.  If you don’t believe, you’re a really bad person.

So, yes, even without any empirical evidence to back up the assertion that God exists, there are ways to “keep the dream alive.”  First, having a critical mass of people who also believe is essential – an example, perhaps, of sheer quantity making up for lack of quality.  And second, ostracizing those who don’t share the belief goes a long way towards “keeping the dream alive.”

And why is it so important to keep the dream alive?  Religions serve several important social and emotional functions, and these could no longer be served if too much doubt were allowed to spread too far – that is, if too strong a light were shone on the fact that there is no evidence to support religions’ foundation (God), let alone all the other supernatural components.  Put more simply, we could not enjoy the benefits of believing in God if we acknowledged that there is no rational or empirical support for this belief.

One of those benefits is the comfort that religions offer.  They tell you that God loves you, whether or not any other human being does.  They offer you the lure of an afterlife (or at least most of them do).  And perhaps most important, religions offer certainty in the midst of great uncertainty.  Even for things that seem incomprehensible (like the problem of evil), religion offers the pseudo-certainty that there are reasons for these things, even if we cannot understand them.  And reasons that we cannot understand (but that God can) are better than no reasons at all. Religion gives us the assurance that Someone is in control, even if we are not; Someone understands, even if we do not; and that is comforting.  All of this is comforting provided we believe it.

Religion is also easy.  Religions offer answers to many of the difficult questions people ask – How did the universe come to be?  (God created it.) How did we come to be? (God created us.) Why are we here? (To serve God’s purposes.)  And because religions do not require any empirical evidence to support their explanations – and because people generally do not demand any – they can say whatever they like.

And there is another benefit too.  Religious congregations that meet regularly are automatic communities.  In modern Western societies it is not so easy to achieve a sense of community, and most people find it through their religious affiliations.  I’ve had people tell me that they don’t even believe in God any more, but they keep attending their church or synagogue for the sense of community it gives them.

There seems to be little disagreement that religion has been very successful at ministering to our emotional needs – giving us comfort and community and often inspiration as well.  And it doesn’t require years of difficult education to be able to enjoy those benefits.  It just requires that you believe something for which there is no empirical evidence.

In contrast to religion, science is not trying to be comforting or easy or to offer a sense of community; science is simply trying to get at the truth about things for which a truth exists.  This may sound easy, but it’s not.  Scientific explanations require serious thought, study and research.  Empirical evidence must be gathered; experiments must be carefully designed to minimize the possibility of bias; methods and results must be published in peer-reviewed journals.   It can require knowledge of physics and math and cosmology or evolutionary biology.  It can require the collaborative work of many researchers over many years.   The scientific process is rigorous, demanding that methods and results stand up to scrutiny, that researchers aren’t just finding what they want to be true rather than what is true.  Nothing is simply accepted because someone says so.  Everything is open to question.   Providing answers to important questions can take years of hard work and require years of preparatory education.  Even being able to assess the answers given by others requires a level of rational thinking and an understanding of the basics that must be developed.  None of this is easy.  And for a lot of people, it can be forbidding and overwhelming.  Stories of creation, on the other hand – stories which, moreover, put mankind at the pinnacle of life on earth – are easy to understand and fun to listen to.  They don’t require years of education to be able to understand.  That’s a “benefit.”

These benefits of religion are no small things.  Having easy answers to life’s difficult questions, having a sense of comfort and certainty in a difficult and treacherous world, having a built-in community – these are great benefits.

But there is a cost.

We can believe in something either with evidence or without evidence.  I argued above that there simply isn’t any real evidence for the existence of God.   So that leaves the other alternative – we can believe without evidence, i.e., we can have faith.  My sense is that “having faith” is greatly admired in religious communities; questioning, not so much.

It has, of course, been pointed out that blind faith in a religion can be very dangerous indeed, especially if combined with a culture or subculture that prizes violence against those who do not share the faith. While the underlying motivation for 9/11 and all the suicide bombings in the Middle East may be political, the motivation for those who actually have given their lives (the suicide bombers and those who piloted the “planes of death” into the Twin Towers) presumably did have something to do with those virgins they were promised in heaven – or at least the idea that there is a heaven to go to, and that carrying out these destructive acts against “the infidels” would help them get there.   Ah, I can hear you say, but that’s them and not us.  Violent Muslim fanatics do things like that in the name of Islam; Christians (or Jews) don’t do such things in the name of Christianity (or Judaism).  However, while it’s true that the violence is currently being perpetrated primarily by Muslims, violence in Christendom – killing in the name of Christ – certainly had its heyday (think the Crusades).  The extent to which religious beliefs actually contribute to these kinds of acts is an empirical question; but my guess is that the answer is not zero and is in fact substantial.

The corrosive effect of religion on how a few extremists act is clear – the dead bodies are clarifying.  But the corrosive effect on the way many people think may be less clear but more insidious.  Telling people it’s okay – in fact, it’s admirable – to believe something for which there is no evidence sends a powerful message:  we don’t need evidence, certainly not of a caliber demanded by science.  This is especially appealing when we want to believe something, when we want it to be true.

But that’s precisely the type of situation that should raise red flags, precisely the type of situation where we should be wary that bias will cloud our assessment.   If we want something to be true, it’s all too easy to settle for “evidence” rather than real evidence, to not scrutinize that “evidence” too closely, to be easily satisfied – to “keep the dream alive.”

The scientific method is specifically designed to not do that.  A scientist asks, “Is this true?”  And, “How can I find out if this is true – making sure that my own biases (what I might like to be true) don’t get in the way?”  Far from “keeping the dream alive,” science simply tries to get at the truth – whatever it may be, even if it isn’t what one wants to be true.  The truth, after all, isn’t necessarily what we want to be true; it isn’t beholden to us.  It just is what it is.

Religious people often talk about “spiritual truth,” an expression I’ve heard many times but for which I have never received a coherent definition – a good example of the sloppy thinking that religion encourages.

Yes, there are people (Francis Collins, of the Human Genome Project, comes to mind) who are both religious believers and scientists – and good scientists, at that.  They are testaments to the human ability to compartmentalize – to understand and apply scientific standards of evidence to science but not to religion.  These people presumably understand that religious belief cannot measure up to such standards, and they accept that, and still believe.  Isn’t that okay?  After all, if a hypothesis is unfalsifiable – if it’s impossible to prove or disprove – doesn’t that just put it in the realm of “you believe it if you want to – or not”?

There may be no way to prove or disprove the existence of God, but it is possible to find evidence – lots and lots of evidence –  which is inconsistent with the hypothesis of a benevolent, omnipotent God.  That’s the kind of God most people believe in; that’s the kind of God most believing people need to believe in.  Those people tend to twist themselves into logical (and cherry picking) pretzels trying to make it all seem consistent.  Failing that, they resort to the tired standard, “God works in mysterious ways …” There is no answer, really, because there really is inconsistency, and plenty of it.  So if you want to believe, you either have to live with the inconsistency or ignore it.  Neither of those options is intellectually appealing; neither seems intellectually honest to me.

The scientific method, on the other hand, is intellectually honest, and it isn’t just for science; it’s for everything.  It’s a way of approaching questions that is based on rational thinking and evidence.  It acknowledges that our own feelings and desires can bias our pursuit of the truth, and it cares more about getting at the truth than about satisfying our wants and needs.  Religion simply cannot honestly make that claim.

I have come to think of “the dream” that believers want to keep alive as more of a fever dream than a wish fulfillment dream.  Because it’s not based on anything empirical, it can embody almost any manifestation of the human mind – virgins in heaven, eternal fires in hell, the end times in which only the true believers will be saved.

Or, to change similes, religion is like a great sandcastle within whose halls and turrets many people live and congregate, and rationality is like a tide coming in.  The sandcastle is just a human creation.  It comes from us; it is destructible.  But its destruction doesn’t spell doom.  Instead it opens up our vista and lets the light of day come in.  Now we can start trying to get real answers to those questions for which answers exist, and let the ebb tide take with it those “answers” to the questions for which there may not be any real answers.


[1] That’s the bad news.  The good news is that the refusal rate for atheists, as for the other generic characteristics, has declined over the years.  It has declined more slowly, however, than the refusal rates for the other characteristics.  The refusal rate for blacks went from 21% in 1987 to 5% in 1999.  The refusal rate for atheists stayed at 48% from 1987 to 1999.  See http://atheism.about.com/od/atheistbigotryprejudice/a/AtheistSurveys.htm.

[2]  The AHA advertised the slogan “Why Believe in a God? Just be Good for Goodness’ Sake,” which appeared on Washington, D.C. Metro buses during the Christmas season in 2008.  Similar campaigns were launched in a number of U.S. and U.K. locations.

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