This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
I don’t mean people who unconsciously don’t care about reality. I don’t mean people who unconsciously resist or rationalize evidence when it contradicts the things they believe. I get that. That’s universally human. Everybody does that. Atheists, believers — everybody. Me, and you, and everyone we know.
I’m talking about people who consciously, intellectually state that they’re less interested in what’s really true about the universe than they are about their personal interpretation of it. People who consciously, intellectually state that reality can’t be completely understood, and therefore all interpretations of it are equally valid. People who consciously, intellectually state that it’s less important to understand reality than it is to not offend people by pointing out that their beliefs are inconsistent with the evidence. People who consciously, intellectually state that, even though there’s powerful evidence against the belief that (say) consciousness is animated by an immaterial soul that survives death, or that life was shaped into being by a loving God, or what have you… it’s still reasonable for them to hold those beliefs. People who consciously, intellectually state that, when it comes right down to it, they don’t care whether the things they believe are true.
And who firmly defend that position.
What do you say to them?
As an atheist writer, I’ve been having this weird series of conversations about religion with believers who take this position. Some of them take it in a very hard-line relativist way: they insist that there’s no reality other than the one we create in our minds. Or they insist that, even though there probably is an external reality, there’s no way to truly understand it… so it’s completely reasonable to live in the world as we create it in our heads, and to interpret reality in whatever way gives us comfort and pleasure. Regardless of whether that interpretation jibes with, you know, evidence about how reality works.
I’ll be honest: I find it very hard to argue against this position. Mostly because I find it so utterly baffling. The idea that reality matters? The idea that we ought to care whether the things we believe are true? To me, this is close to a fundamental axiom. And when people say they don’t care about that, it leaves my jaw hanging in dumbfounded silence.
But that makes it a topic worth getting into. I like questioning my fundamental axioms. I think they’re worth examining. So I’m going to examine this one.
Why should we care whether the things we believe are true?
Why should we treat the external, objective reality of the universe as more important than the internal, subjective reality of our personal experience?
Why is the universe more important than me?
Perspective as a Moral Obligation
I’m not saying the insides of people’s heads aren’t important or interesting. Of course they are. They’re what make art interesting, and literature, and so on. And they’re what make psychology and neuropsychology interesting as well. The insides of people’s heads are fascinating. And they matter.
But the world inside a person’s head is just one tiny fragment of the vast, ancient, wildly freaky complexity of existence. Why would I give that tiny fragment greater priority than the vast, freaky complexity? Even if the head that this tiny fragment is inside happens to be my own? To me, that seems like the absolute height of arrogance.
In fact, I’d argue that it’s more than just arrogant. I’d argue that it borders on unethical. Understanding that our own experience is not the only one? That other people matter to themselves as much as we do to ourselves? That none of us has a pipeline to truth? Understanding that we are not the most important being in the universe; having the ability to view life from an outside perspective, and acknowledge that we don’t, cosmically speaking, matter more than anyone else? That is the core of human ethics.
Perspective is more than an intellectual discipline. It’s a moral obligation. The willingness to step back from our experience, to examine our beliefs about the world and let go of them when the evidence contradicts them, is a huge part of how we gain the humility we need to see our true place in the world. Caring whether the things we believe are true is a crucial part of caring, period.
Garbage In, Garbage Out
This isn’t just about philosophy, though. It isn’t even just about the vital branch of philosophy known as ethics. There are purely pragmatic reasons for caring whether the things we believe matter.
We need to understand reality, so we know how to behave in it.
And this applies to religious and spiritual beliefs as well. If we believe that we failed our English test because Mercury was in retrograde, or that our stomach-aches are God’s punishment for thinking impure thoughts about Lady Gaga… we’re still not going to study or knock off the Doritos.
Understanding reality is how we know how to behave in it. Understanding cause and effect, which causes lead to what effects, is how we make better decisions — decisions that are more likely to lead to outcomes we’re hoping for.
And if we’re going to understand reality, we have to care whether the things we believe are true. We can tell ourselves that we create our own reality until we’re blue in the face… but if we don’t create our personal reality based on the best possible understanding of the larger reality around us, if we don’t create our personal reality by eating a healthy diet and doing our English homework and so on, reality is going to bite us in the ass.
Of course there are some very pragmatic, nuts- and- bolts ways that our beliefs about reality affect reality. Being optimistic can help us see more opportunities; being good to people draws other good people to us; etc. But there’s nothing magical about that. It’s just human psychology. Based, I’d like to point out, on observable cause and effect. Exactly the kind of reality I think people should care about.
Now, when pressed with these kinds of questions, many of these “We create our own reality and don’t have to care if our beliefs are true” believers will agree. They’ll say that, when it comes to petty, mundane, physical matters, of course they understand cause and effect, and want to understand it better so they can create good consequences and avoid bad ones. When they’re on the twentieth floor of a building, they don’t exit that building by jumping out the window. They don’t act on the principle that they can create their own reality and gently float down from the window to the sidewalk. They believe in reality, in physical cause and effect… enough to take the elevator. When it comes to practical matters, of course they care whether the things they believe are true. It’s just the grand metaphysical issues, the issues where cause and effect isn’t blindingly obvious, the issues of God and the soul and eternal consciousness and whatnot… that’s where they feel they can make up any interpretation of reality that makes them happy.
Yeah. See, here’s the problem with that.
It’s not so easy to believe whatever you find comforting in some cases… and then question, or challenge, or let go of your beliefs in others.
Skepticism is a discipline. It does not come naturally to the human mind. The human mind is wired to believe what it already believes, and what it wants to believe. The habit of questioning whether the things we believe are true — and letting go of beliefs we’re attached to when the evidence contradicts them — takes practice.
What’s more, my spiritual beliefs were very slippery. (A phenomenon I’ve noticed in many other believers.) When confronted with strong evidence that contradicted my beliefs, I’d pull out the “this may not be literally true but it works for me” line. But when I was alone, or with others who shared my beliefs? I bloody well believed those things. Entirely and literally. And again, that slipperiness — that willingness to slide back and forth between wishful thinking and critical thought, depending on convenience and who was watching and how attached I was to the ideas — slopped into the practical areas of my life. Often with truly lousy consequences.
Which leads back to the question of ethics. When pressed to the wall in these debates, believers will often wind up saying things like, “Why do you care what I believe? Living in my self-created reality where God loves me and I’m never going to die… it makes me happy. What difference does it make to anyone else?” But rejecting evidence about reality doesn’t just affect ourselves. It means rejecting the reality of how our actions affect other people. It means rejecting the realities of money, of sex, of showing up to work on time, of foreign policy, of global warming… in favor of stories we find familiar and comforting.
And I see that play out with religious believers, every day of my life.
Liar, Liar, Pants On Fire
But beyond all that — beyond my philosophical objections, my ethical objections, even my pragmatic objections — I have another, stronger, far more serious objection to people who say they don’t care if the things they believe are true.
If you really don’t care whether the things you believe are true… then why are you defending those beliefs in an atheist’s blog?
Why are you arguing so passionately, and at such great length, that your solipsistic cultural relativism is a valid viewpoint? Why don’t you just shrug off my arguments for atheism and materialism, and go about your merry way in your self-created reality? Why do you care what I think?
Here’s the thing. I think religious believers do care whether the things they believe are true. The ones who comment about their beliefs in atheists’ blogs sure as heck do. I think they comment in atheists’ blogs because they want validation for their beliefs. They want atheists to say, “No, your beliefs aren’t like all those others, those other beliefs are crazy, but yours make sense.” Or they want atheists to say, “Wow, I haven’t heard that one before — how fascinating and well thought out!”
It’s only when that response isn’t forthcoming that the cultural relativism gets dragged out. It’s only when atheists say, “Actually, your belief isn’t any more consistent with evidence or reason than anyone else’s,” when we say, “Yes, I’ve heard that one before, about a hundred times, it still doesn’t hold up”… it’s only then that believers start insisting that they don’t care about stupid old reality anyway. I think believers do care whether the things they believe are true — right up until the moment when they’re faced with evidence strongly suggesting that they’re very much mistaken.
And that curiosity is one of the best things about us. That curiosity has led us to a greater understanding of the vast, ancient, wildly freaky complexity of existence than we ever thought possible. That curiosity is why we understand about galaxies, and continental drift, and matter being mostly empty space, and everything that’s alive being related, and any number of compellingly fascinating, completely counter-intuitive realities. What’s more, that curiosity has led to innumerable advances in the quality of human life. That curiosity is why we understand that diseases are caused by germs and viruses and genetics and so on, instead of evil spirits or imbalances in the bodily humours. That curiosity is why we understand that we ought not to let raw sewage run in the streets or in our drinking water. That curiosity is why we can talk to each other on the Internet.
Curiosity about how reality works is one of the finest things about humanity. We ought not to abandon it whenever it makes us uncomfortable or forces us to let go of beliefs we’re attached to. We ought to care more about reality than we do about the stories we tell ourselves about it. We ought to care, more than just about anything else, whether the things we believe are true.