This is the third post in a series of posts about evidence. Here are parts 1 and 2.
In this post, I want to focus not on the philosophical benefits of truth or my personal experience of truth, but rather on the simple facts (that’s what skeptics like, right?). So I’ve heard some people say things like: “All of my beliefs are based on evidence”. When I hear someone say that my first reaction is “WHOA DAMN WE HAVE A GOD HERE IN OUR MIDST”. Now I can tell just from looking at it that you haven’t taken the time to examine the evidence for that statement, because unless you are a robot and not a human being you have come to beliefs by a different route at least once. So by saying it, you’ve actually just proved yourself wrong. You’ve also essentially asserted that you’re not tripped up by petty things like human psychology.
I am willing to bet all the money that I own that there is not a single person on the face of this planet who does not hold a single belief tainted by faith, wishful thinking, prejudice, stereotypes, emotions, assumptions, or other non-evidence based things. I know for an absolute fact that I have TONS of beliefs like this. I know for a fact that most of the people who have said this to me have beliefs like that. Every single person I’ve met has demonstrated non-evidenced based beliefs to me.
As human beings we have evolved to have emotions that affect how we act. We have fight or flight instincts. We have paranoias and irrational fears. We have histories that paint how we view things. We are susceptible to societal biases and easy to manipulate based upon quirks of our minds. We may think we can verify the truth or falsity of things with our senses, but our senses are easy to fool too. We’re not made to work only on evidence and it takes a lot to overcome some of our emotional nature that asks us to come to quick conclusions to protect ourselves.
And you know what? THAT’S OK. It is entirely 100% acceptable and not shameful in any way to have some beliefs that aren’t perfectly based on evidence. Because it is human and we are not capable of perfection. What I strive for is to do my best, not for perfection. There’s lots of instances where I don’t have the time or the ability to find all the evidence I might need, there’s times when I’m straight up lazy because the thing isn’t important, there’s times when I am physically incapable of finding all the evidence, or there’s times when the evidence is about half and half for two different things and I just kind of have to guess, or assume or hope that I’m right. I might even just have to go on faith a bit by listening to others.
I realize that the word faith has a dirty connotation to a lot of atheists, but we go on faith a lot of the time. When someone tells you something and you don’t have the time to check their credentials or check for yourself, and you trust this person and then go on to act in accordance with what they’ve told you….that’s faith. I bet you every single one of you has done that at one point or another. Or at least I hope every one of you has trusted another human being at some point in your life. It’s more practical than feeling an obligation to personally check the facts for every single situation. It’s useful. It’s often necessary.
The MAJOR difference between this kind of faith and a religious faith is that this kind of faith is open to new evidence. It’s a temporary accepting of whatever seems most plausible at the moment, or of someone else’s evidence, or of their authority. If your boyfriend tells you he loves you and you don’t have any access to a brain scanner to make absolutely certain, you’ll probably believe him. But if you find out he’s a compulsive liar and has been cheating on you, you’re likely to adjust that belief. But you did take it at least somewhat on faith the first time around. You had some evidence, but not as much as you could have had, not enough to make it as certain as possible. You accepted it without certain. You accepted it through trust. By some people’s accounts that’s a bad thing to do, but in my mind it’s highly practical and quite rational.
So if we can all accept that sometimes we have flawed beliefs that aren’t based wholly and strictly on evidence, then can we look again at the people who believe in god with a little more compassion? Because honestly they’re not doing anything morally WRONG by believing in god. Their actions based upon their religion might be harmful, the specific teachings of their religion might be harmful and the actions they take because of it might be harmful, but the belief in god itself is not harmful. It’s an understandable lapse, just like all of us make understandable lapses. To perhaps reach a more compassionate view of theists let’s take a look at another false set of beliefs and see how we approach those (caveat before I continue: I am not trying to call religion a mental illness in any way. It’s a metaphor. METAPHOR).
So. I have a pretty firmly engrained set of false beliefs that come not just from evidence (because there is some evidence involved), but also from emotion and assumption. I believe quite firmly that I am a useless lump of fat. I can give you a list of the reasons why I think that, the evidence I believe I have, but in the end this belief and its attached conclusions and attitudes are very emotional.
I have never, not once in my life, had someone believe that this makes me an appropriate target for ridicule, condescension or mockery. And if they did it would be the most heinously unfeeling thing anyone has ever done to me. I’ve had these beliefs for a good 4 or 5 years now. At different times I’ve tried to shake them, but a lot of the time I have no desire to shake them because they seem like the single most important set of beliefs I’ve ever held in my life.
But just because I have one set of false beliefs does not make me stupid. And just because you don’t hold this particular false set of beliefs doesn’t make you better than I am, smarter than I am, a better person than I am. It means I have more work to do in one area. That’s it. And if you suddenly start to think that I’m unworthy of your compassion because I have been willing to hold on to these beliefs for this long, then I don’t think you’re worthy of my respect anymore. If you feel that the correct way to disabuse me of these notions is by condescending to me, telling me how stupid I am, telling me that my beliefs are crazy and ridiculous, or by acting like you are more intelligent than I am, I can promise you now that I will never change my beliefs and I will never have the happier life that true beliefs could bring. If you feel that the appropriate way to make yourself feel better about your life is to tell me that I’m ignoring all the evidence, that I can’t think straight, that my beliefs are destroying the world because they’re false, or that those beliefs are the worst form of oppression because they are false and I am content to keep them that way, then your life is sad indeed.
If instead you take an attitude of compassion and say “yeah, you have some wrong beliefs. And I have some wrong beliefs too. Let’s try to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong together so that we can all be happier” I would be far more inclined to listen.
So let’s apply this all to religion. When you come towards religious believers acting as if all of your attitudes and beliefs are based strictly on evidence, they see someone blowing smoke out their ass because that’s a bullshit claim, and they see you acting like you’re a lot better than they are for absolutely no reason. They see us patting ourselves on the back for being so damn enlightened. Well you know what? Atheists have a lot of shitty beliefs too. Some of them have even shittier beliefs than some Christians do. Being an atheist doesn’t make you a perfectly intelligent, fault-free person. Neither does being a skeptic. None of these attitudes rid you of the fact that you’re human and ALL of our decision making is tinged by emotions (when psychologists study people who have had damage to emotional parts of their brain and who act strictly on rationality, these people are often incapable of making decisions). And when a Christian or theist of any kind sees someone blustering up to them acting like God incarnate with no false beliefs, they’re going to shut down mighty fast. Atheists are often accused of seeing themselves as God, and I think we should do our best not to make it easier to stereotype us this way. Saying that we never are flawed in the way we come to conclusions is a really BAD way to make people realize you don’t think you’re God.
Look I know how fun it is to feel smarter than someone else. I KNOW how much fun it is to verbally and intellectually rip someone to pieces (I was on the debate team, I practically get high from doing that). But it’s not always the time or the place to do that, and you don’t always have a right to do that simply because another person has a mistaken belief. Imagine if we felt that because we had a right belief and someone had a wrong belief it was not only our right but also our duty to leave them in quivering pieces of destroyed self-esteem. Imagine if we did that to EVERY mistaken belief. That sounds like a damn shitty world to me, and I know that I’d end up a hermit if people did that to all of my mistaken beliefs. I know most of you would feel pretty crappy too (because you do have badly formed beliefs. Seriously, just accept it).
Now yes, some irrational beliefs are harmful. My irrational beliefs are harmful. And it’s great to promote the idea that we should strive for more and help each other come to better beliefs. But if we’re trying to promote a better world through truth, then shaming people for not living up to your expectations is just as bad as religions that shame people for not being able to live up to the impossible expectations of god. You end up with just as much guilt and hatred.
Having a bit of compassion for the fact that every human on this planet is doing their best to get by in a way that allows them to survive when things are hard and cruel is the best place to start. Adding to that that truth can help us is a good place to move next. And accepting that all of us sometimes sacrifice truth to our emotional well-being or simple practicality is crucial to coming across as human beings and to being relatable and kind individuals, as well as to having a flexible and working value system. I think it’s time that we start remembering that kindness and compassion can be part of the atheist value system as well as truth.