Believin’s got nothin to do with it

I’ve grown so weary of hearing or reading about what someone believes, most especially if that someone then goes on about how others must respect or acknowledge their beliefs, just because they believe them. There are over 7 billion humans on the planet currently, born throughout various generations and into countless cultures. It would likely be a literal impossibility to tabulate all the things that all these people believe to be true. It is however, fairly simple to calculate the probability that all of these beliefs are actually factually correct. In other words, that the things people believe to be true are actually, verifiably true, or at least as close to true as we can get.

I personally know people who firmly believe in ghosts, and only slightly less firmly believe in demonic possession. People believe in the ability of psychics to predict their future with the use of Tarot Cards. People believe in Astrology, Numerology, and that the number 13 is unlucky. I once strolled along on the sidewalk with professional colleagues, walking to our hotel from an Atlanta Braves game. These were college educated men in leadership positions for a large corporation. Since the sidewalk was a bit narrow, I chose to walk under a ladder that was leaning up against an ongoing renovation project. You would think I had contracted a virulent strain of a highly contagious disease the way my peers veered away from me. One of them was able to articulate his fear:

  • “Why would you do that?!”
  • I just looked at him in stunned disbelief. “What forces of the Universe do you think that I just unleashed by walking under some corrugated steel?”
  • “Well I don’t know, but why take the chance?”

People believe they’ve been abducted by aliens, probed and prodded and then returned to Earth. People believe Bigfoot is out there, and as someone cleverly tweeted not long ago, “Finding Bigfoot has been on the air for 5 years. It should be called Not Finding Bigfoot.” People believe in ESP, telepathy, lucky rabbit’s feet or other talisman, and yes, there are even Scientologists. People think acupuncture actually does something. It doesn’t. People swear by chiropractic care because they believe cracking their neck and popping their vertebrae restores their body’s innate intelligence, even though systematic reviews of chiropractic care have shown that it’s not effective for treating a single medical condition.

One of the more frustrating things I encounter is when faced with these statements of mine about the various things people believe to be true, someone will blurt out, “Well, no one really knows anyway.” This my friends, is the first issue to tackle.

In order to clear the muddled way we tend to think, and by we I mean all Homo Sapiens, it’s important to realize that we all have innate biases that make us irrational, or at least make it more difficult to be rational. Once you make yourself aware of these biases, it becomes increasingly easy to catch yourself lured into their sweet embrace. “This article is so good! It confirms exactly what I think,” should set off warning bells in your mind. “This article is terrible and it’s making me feel upset. The points they’re making just can’t be true….” is the same bias at work. When presented with something contrary to what we believe to be true, especially if it’s a belief we hold very dear, a disturbing sensation will run through us, in a very similar way to when we sense danger around us. The fight or flight response is a very rapid, but not particularly accurate means our brains have of keeping us alive. That noise you heard outside is probably not an armed robber about to burst through the door to invade your home, but it might be, so let’s act as if it is… just in case. If it turns out to be a squirrel breaking a twig as he ran across it, we can breathe easy again, safe in the knowledge we aren’t about to die in horrible and nasty ways. That same type of system engages when we hear something that just can’t be true because it disturbs us to our very core. So we either take flight, or we fight. We either run away, by saying something like the aforementioned, “Well, no one really knows anyway,” or we double-down, dig deep, and prepare to verbally brawl, or more likely these days to Facebook comment brawl.

Things either are, are not, or aren’t yet known to be or not to be. For example, 2 + 2 = 4. It doesn’t equal 5, or 3. We know this to be the case, to a fairly precise degree of accuracy. A circle is a shape of known proportions that we have chosen to call a circle. There aren’t any square ones. I don’t care if you believe that there are. I can’t respect your belief that there are square circles, and you should really rethink your position on it, and if you try to argue that you’re entitled to your opinion, I must point out that once you air your dirty opinions to the public at large, the public at large is now entitled to opine about your opinions. If you can’t support your opinion about the existence of square circles with logic, reasoned argument and ideally, evidence, you really should wonder why you hold such an opinion. It’s rather unseemly.

The second thing I’d like to point out is that if you make a proclamation, you are entirely responsible for proving that your proclamation is valid. If I, like former Governor Mike Huckabee has done, proclaim that there is, without any doubt, an ongoing criminalization of Christianity in the United States, I have to back that up with something verifiable. I can’t just believe it and somehow impose that belief on others, asking any doubters to prove me wrong. That ain’t the way stuff works. I can’t proclaim there’s an invisible fire-breathing dragon in my garage, and tell anyone who doesn’t believe me to prove that I don’t have it. I’ll go so far as to say, there is no Loch Ness Monster. How do I know? Because there’s not a shred of evidence to even suggest it. It’s not a case of, “well, who really knows if there is one or not.” There isn’t until it’s proven that there is. You believe there’s a link between autism and the measles vaccine? If you can’t prove it, then there isn’t one. I don’t care how strongly you believe it, I don’t care if Susie’s mother’s cousin’s nephew is autistic and they first discovered it the day after his rubella vaccine. That’s not proof, I don’t respect your belief and I don’t have to. No one does.

If you label your beliefs as faith, that doesn’t change anything, in case you were wondering. Faith means you believe stuff because you want to, not because it’s actually true. Disagree? Pick anything that someone else faithfully believes to be true. For example, pick a religion you don’t subscribe to, but that others do. So if you’re not a Muslim for example, go ahead and have faith that the tenets of Islam are true. After all, over a billion Muslims have faith that they are true. Go on, force yourself to believe it on faith. Can’t do it, huh? That’s what I mean by saying that labeling your beliefs as faith doesn’t create some kind of special power to your beliefs requiring others to not challenge you on them if you choose to share your beliefs with them.

Perhaps the ridiculous, shamefully moronic tale of the KY Clerk of Court, Kim Davis, who refused to do part of her job and issue marriage licences to would be newlyweds–and sits in jail for contempt of court as I write this–has brought me to this point. How wearisome it has become to hear people drone on about what they believe marriage to be. “I believe marriage is between one man and one woman.” Okay, well who cares what you believe? Who even asked you? Read this patronizing, semantically twisted statement from one of Ms. Davis’ attorneys:

Today, for the first time in history, an American citizen has been incarcerated for having the belief of conscience that marriage is the union of one man and one woman,” Mr. Gannam said after a hearing that stretched deep into Thursday afternoon. “And she’s been ordered to stay there until she’s willing to change her mind, until she’s willing to change her conscience about what belief is.

First of all, it is almost preposterously simple to point out that this statement is a complete falsehood. Kim Davis was incarcerated for refusing to perform the duties of her elected government position, for which she draws a salary and benefits, despite a lawful court order to do so. No one gives a damn what Kim Davis believes about any of her four marriages, or anyone else’s marriage. Secondly, calling a belief “a belief of conscience,” is tantamount to labeling a belief as faith, trying to use emotive words to disguise what is no different from kids who believe in the Easter Bunny. Your child may have a belief of conscience in Santa. Doesn’t matter. Lastly, Kim Davis can leave jail as soon as she agrees to go back to work and actually do the job she’s paid to, and no one gives a damn what she believes while she performs her job. I’m willing to bet that right now, somewhere in the world, there’s a McDonald’s employee who has a belief of conscience that offering to Supersize the meal for the overweight person at the register is wrong, but they will do it anyway because it’s their job and no one cares what they believe.

Believe anything you want to believe, but don’t expect much as a result, because believin’s got nothin’ to do with it.

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