Tuesday, December 2, 2008

This is My Truth, Tell Me Yours, Part 4

I seen off god and devil, too With no weapon, just the truth Belief does not existence make It’s only in your mind – Oasis, “The Nature of Reality” There’s a great show on The History Channel called UFO Hunters. There are three guys that go around looking in to UFO sightings and stories. There’s The Old Guy, The Scientist, and The Other Guy. The Old Guy is a True Believer, while The Scientist is, well, a scientist, and The Other Guy is a skeptic. I was watching an episode the other day that was focused on alien abduction. They found people who had physical “evidence” of their abduction. The Scientist looked at it using science and in a very scientific manner said, “This evidence is inconclusive.” The basic idea is, “We don’t know how this got here, but the evidence shows there’s nothing special about it and in the absence of anything conclusive other than the story itself, science can prove nothing.” The episode then ended with the three sitting around a desk. The Old Guy had this to say:
“We’ve taken technology and applied it to UFOlogy. Rarely is that done in this field. The debunker will always say to you, ‘You haven’t proven the existence of a UFO,’ as if you’ve gotta produce the UFO on the table for it to be true. But on the other hand, the UFOlogist will say, ‘Well you haven’t disproven the UFO, show me something that says this is anything but a UFO.’ And you know what? We have not found one thing to disprove that there’s an extraterrestrial presence affecting us on planet Earth, interfering with our lives, and traveling through our skies.” (Ah, the DVR…)
The camera kept going to The Other Guy during this soliloquy. He kept leaning forward and blinking. And it wasn’t just regular blinking, it was long, forceful blinks followed by him opening his eyes as wide as possible. I think I know what he was thinking, because I was doing a similar thing. I was thinking, “Wow, the UFOlogist is a dumbass.” See, science says that if you’re trying to prove a new hypothesis, you need actual, provable evidence. Therefore, if you want to prove the existence of UFOs, you have to put a UFO “on the table.” Or, falling short of that, you have to put incontrovertible proof of extraterrestrial material on the table. Until that can be done, inconclusive evidence does not, by default, prove the existence of UFOs, it does exactly the opposite, arguments of the True Believer notwithstanding. I wore my own True Belief like an ill-fitting suit, like church clothes, if you will. I brought it out when it was appropriate, wore it around uncomfortably, aware of all the little itches and mislaid seams, then shrugged it off as quickly as possible when no one was around who would notice or care. It’s why at the end of my time with Christianity I took refuge in my non-Christian friends or those Christians who, like me, could no longer quite see the point. Yet there are still some days when I long for that old, worn suit of clothes I hated so much. Perhaps it’s simply the nature of what I did and how I left, but there are times when I long for the comfort, not of True Belief itself, but of what it represents. Certainty. The ability to, just for a moment, step out to the edge, look over the yawning abyss, and believe it’s not there. I have a genuine problem with people who equate religious belief with mental illness, even if I do think that evangelical Christianity nearly drove me insane. If religion is a mental illness, then it’s simply one aspect of an illness that’s shared by every person I’ve ever come across: the need to believe in something, anything, larger. The Old Guy on UFO Hunters is a True Believer, the dude who dresses like Nostradamus and shows up on, like, every History Channel special about Ol’ Nosty quoting random quatrains out of context and trying to argue that when Nostradamus said “Southern France” he meant “The Great Plains” and when he said “the seventh month of 1999” he meant “September 11th, 2001,” is a True Believer. They are different kinds, but they’re exhibiting the same mental deficiency that the religious True Believer exhibits, that all humans exhibit. We all worship, not at the altar of god, but at the altar of belief. This is the problem we have to deal with. We rarely fight a battle of ideologies, or religions, or even fundamental truths. We usually fight each other in battles of belief. Beliefs are powerful, beliefs are often good, but when we confuse our beliefs with our religion or ideology, everyone loses. Beliefs infuse our world with meaning. But they’re fragile and often lack the necessary robustness to withstand scrutiny. The more we identify with our beliefs, the more fearful we become of seeing them get upset. For most of human history that didn’t matter. Subjective belief was all the human mind could work with. There was little or no tested objective truth to counter subjective belief. Wars of ideology solved nothing, but they also never destroyed beliefs on either side. It’s now possible for one side to destroy the other. Science vs. religion might actually create a zero-sum situation. At the very least, a lot of people seem to believe it does. Combine that with the fact that we seem to be experiencing an upsurge of apocalyptic millennialism and we’re in for a bad time. This is why we keep seeing specials on Nostradamus and Revelation and hearing about the Mayan 2012 “end of the world prophecy.” Millennial hysteria is nothing new and I’m not one to join in to the “worst ever” hubbub, as I think everyone has a tendency to want to say they have the best or worst ever, not because they believe it, but because they want to feel special, and somehow more important than anyone else. But I will say this: we have a remarkable convergence of opportunities to fearing the end of the world that may well have never existed before. Getting tired of Revelation? Go find Mayan prophecies. Tired of expecting god to do it? You can find terrorists with dirty bombs or Korean nuclear missiles to fear. Want bigger problems? There’s global warming or giant asteroids or alien invasions. And unlike people of past centuries who only got their end of the world prophecies at church, we’ve been hearing about it on TV, in movies, in books, and in school our entire lives. Add to that the fact that we’re the heirs of religious apocalyptic fear and the mutually assured destruction of the Cold War and we live in a world with no shortage of terror. In the face of the terror of the abyss, the existential crisis of conflicts of belief can tear connections asunder. On a societal level we see the conflict of cultures or the fight between the religious right and the liberal left. But there’s a field on which the conflict plays out every day that rarely, if ever, make the news. There’s a fairly common story among converts to a new religion. In extremes, the convert is shunned, persecuted, or even killed. In more mundane terms marriages or friendships or family ties are strained, sometimes to the breaking point. These stories of persecution are often used – in some cases exaggerated or just plain invented – to rally the faithful. But they work from the other direction, too. I learned an important lesson about friendship when I left religion behind. Some of my friends stuck with me. Some of them didn’t. Some tried to get me back in the fold and ultimately abandoned me. Some of them acted like my decision was a personal affront to them. In addition to friends, though, I lost the ability to even pretend for True Belief. True Belief is much easier than having to actually consider morality, or confront the fact that in a world without a god, without an afterlife, we only have to answer to each other and ourselves. It also means that we can’t sit around waiting for Revelation or Nostradamus to be proved right. The world won’t suddenly end. We don’t get a “Get Out of Existence Free” card or a mulligan to the next life. We have to find truth. Or, barring that, we have to admit that there is no truth except that which we can make for ourselves. That’s much, much harder than simply passively accepting received truth and behaving accordingly, even if that truth has to be worn like an ill-fitting suit.

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