Being Right

7 11 2014

Seeing things differently

A friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen in a while came into the Library. I was horrified to see the terrible swelling and bruises on her face and the bandage on her nose. It seems she had been out working with one of her horses and the animal had bolted, knocking her down and trampling her. This was a big work horse, too. She could easily have been killed. As it was, she got off with relatively minor damage, no broken bones or serious internal injuries.

“God and his angels were looking after me that day!” she declared. My first thought was, If God and his angels had been looking after you, my dear, the horse wouldn’t have bolted in the first place.

It would have been useless, and even rather mean, to point this out to her. She is an earnest and deep believer. To her, God and his angels are a very real force in her life. To me, they are as imaginary as unicorns, dragons, and fairies in the back garden. So who is right? And how can we possibly decide?

A great number of atheists have expended a great deal of energy explaining in lengthy logical detail why God is a delusion. Yet they are unable to convince anyone who wasn’t on the fence anyway. Theists, on the other hand, argue back with equal fervor. All right, some of their arguments are laughably flawed and silly. But there have been some genuinely intelligent and eloquent defenses of the reality of the Divine. Belief is not a matter of faulty thinking. Nor is disbelief a matter of spiritual poverty.

It boils down to this: We cannot help but believe what our experiences and worldview tell us makes sense. Period.

Fortunately, there are a great number of things we can agree on. The reality of the sun and its course through the sky, defining day and night, for example. But there have been and still are people who would laugh with disbelief at the assertion that it is the earth moving and not the sun which creates this experience. If I did not have the benefit of a science education, which has shaped my worldview, I would be among them.

I cannot know what convinces a person to believe in God, or in conspiracy theories for that matter. But I can generalize from examining my own reasons for belief that they, like me, accept what makes sense. And all the logical arguments in the world aren’t going to change their minds if they are certain they are right. They have had experiences of God, or met a ghost, or had some other insight that makes the supernatural real to them. Buddhists, whose wisdom I otherwise respect, believe firmly in rebirth. My Western, scientific worldview keeps me from being able to accept that as truth. Does that mean I’m biased? Wrong?

How arrogant of me to assert that no, I simply have a superior understanding of the world thanks to science. Arrogant, and yet, I can’t help it.

And neither can they. Or my friend with her God and angels. Understanding this helps me to be tolerant, and introduces a degree of humility to my certainties. It also makes me wince when my fellow atheists righteously heap contempt upon theists.

But, I remind myself, they can’t help help it either.

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3 responses

8 11 2014
Mary Jolles

I agree completely with your wonderfully concise statement, “We cannot help but believe what our experiences and worldview tell us makes sense.” I think you understand that what makes sense to one person may not make sense to another. But somehow we muddle through the traumatic experiences in our lives, trying to make sense of it all, sometimes with science, sometimes with imagination, sometimes with our strong connections to others.

On the news the other night, a reporter in Sierra Lione interviewed a 13-year-old boy who is the sole survivor of his family after the Ebola virus ravaged his village. He himself contracted Ebola and survived. The reporter asked him, “What are you going to do now?” and I winced at the question–as if this boy had any idea! But surprisingly, the boy answered something to the effect that he planned to help his village. Having survived this epidemic, perhaps the belief that sustains him after the terrible loss he has endured is that his life now has a special significance. Does it? I’m not sure, but I could see that this belief is what gives this young boy’s life focus now and keeps him going.

Children (and adults) experiencing trauma often keep themselves alive and sane by creating a fictional future in which everything is all right. They picture to themselves a future in which they are safe and well, and they work toward that future as if it already exists. Sole survivors often ask themselves why they survived while others died. They sometimes take comfort in the idea that their life has now been imbued with a special meaning, and they pursue that. This can have positive consequences, in the case of Malala Yusufsai, or negative consequences in the case of victims of genocide who now think their life’s mission is to attain revenge through killing.

Perhaps this is where some people’s belief in God or a supernatural power comes in. Even if there is no proof that the supernatural power is “real,” the evidence that it sustains people until they can get to a safe place is reason enough to think it is a useful survival mechanism.

And then there is the the law of averages. There are some people who escape unscathed, time after time, from situations that should have eventually done them in. Our reason tells us that they should have succumbed by now. Our superstition tells us that “something is watching over them.” Be that as it may, I think anyone who escapes a terrible end and survives usually ponders the meaning of their life and what it means to be a human being, takes stock of their life up until that point, and makes a decision as to the future course of their remaining days.

8 11 2014
justinegraykin

Thank you for adding these insights. So much of our thinking about our lives is taken up by the search for meaning, as well as truth, two related but distinct processes. Our concept of what is true and real is often handed to us, a result of our experiences, over which we often have little control. But our search for meaning is deeply personal and conscious, something we actively must work out for ourselves. We all have a world view, and an idea of what is real. But too many of us go through life without a sense of meaning or purpose.

8 11 2014
Mary Jolles

Absolutely! Truth and meaning are not the same thing, but we sometimes talk about them interchangeably, e.g. people say “I have discovered these truths in life…” when what they really mean to say is that they have discovered something which is meaningful to their lives. Not at all the same thing, but they feel like they ought to mean the same thing.

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