Ever since I wrote the “Transcendental Skeptic” piece on this blog, I’ve been thinking a lot about the skeptic/spiritual believer question. Questions, I should say. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the question of how agnostics/atheists/skeptics and religious/spiritual believers can get along — and why, sometimes, we really can’t.
I have friends — extremely dear and close friends — who have religious or spiritual beliefs, in some cases strongly held ones. And this is not a problem, either for me or (as far as I know) for them. I don’t feel superior to these folks, and I don’t pity them. I don’t happen to agree with them — but so what? I don’t agree with a lot of people about a lot of things. I don’t even agree with myself all the time. Not agreeing with someone doesn’t mean I can’t connect with them.
In a few cases I even think they’re flat-out mistaken — but again, so what? I’m sure people in my life think I’m flat-out mistaken, about this topic or any number of others. And I’m sure that, in some cases, they’re right. I would be shocked beyond measure to find that I wasn’t mistaken about anything. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter that much. It doesn’t feel like an insurmountable barrier, or even like much of a barrier at all.
And yet, I don’t think it is. Not to me, anyway. Not always.
And why is it that sometimes the difference really is insurmountable?
There’s something else, though. Something both less utilitarian and more fundamental, something that does have to do with values and motivations.
Here’s what it is. I think there’s a profound difference between having a religious or spiritual faith that you hold despite there not being substantial evidence supporting it — and having a religious or spiritual faith that you hold despite the existence of substantial evidence that actually contradicts it.
And the former is something I can strongly identify with — while the latter is something that I just can’t.
But in life, you do that all the time. You have to. In life, you have to make decisions based on insufficient evidence, or even no evidence at all except your gut feeling. Big decisions, even. Especially if you’re going to have any kind of interesting and fulfilling life. You have to take risks and chances; you have to make leaps of faith.
So the fact that some people have decided that Yes there is a God of some sort, or Yes there is an immortal soul of some sort, or Yes there is some sort of metaphysical energy permeating the physical world, despite not having solid evidence to support that hunch… that’s something I can identify with. I don’t agree with them about that particular hunch, but the fact that they’re making major life decisions based on a hunch isn’t alien to me.
But hanging on to a religious or spiritual belief despite actual compelling evidence that contradicts it — that’s profoundly different.
And this is just baffling to me. I mean, even if you do believe in a God who created the universe, wouldn’t that make you respect and revere that universe more, and want to understand exactly what it is and how it works, as clearly as you could? Wouldn’t you think that God knew what He/She was doing — and when faced with hard evidence of how His/Her creation works, wouldn’t your religious humility and awe force you to revise your view of the world to better reflect His/Hers?
Faith that’s unsupported one way or the other by reality is one thing. Faith that flat-out denies reality is something else entirely. And it’s that kind of faith that reflects an approach to life that I find fundamentally and insurmountably different from mine.
It’s not that I can’t identify with it at all. The tendency to ignore reality when it contradicts your beliefs is probably a universal human trait, and it’s certainly something I’ve done more than once in my life, and will almost certainly do again.
But it’s not the foundation of my belief system. And I don’t think I’m right to do it. In fact, when I am doing it, I almost always feel a squirming in my belly, and an awkward foot-shuffling in my head, that tell me I’m being a jerk. And most of the time, after a certain amount of wrestling between my conscience and my opinionated stubbornness, I eventually let go of my old belief, and either revise it or abandon it to let the new evidence in.
Which brings me back around to my first point — namely, the fact that I care more about how people act than how they think. See, the reality-deniers don’t just think like close-minded assholes. They act like close-minded assholes. The kind of faith — religious or otherwise — that denies reality is what makes the Catholic Church deal with its child-molesting clergy crisis by drumming out gay priests… when the evidence shows that most child molesters are straight, and that gay people overwhelmingly do not molest children. It’s the kind of faith that makes people oppose sex education in schools because they believe it’ll make kids have sex earlier… when the evidence shows the exact opposite. (You knew I’d get sex in here somehow, didn’t you?) It’s the kind of faith that makes the Bush administration pursue a military/foreign policy that runs counter to the evidence and counsel provided by their own military and intelligence advisors, and continue to pursue it in the face of overwhelming evidence that it’s not working… because that evidence contradicts their own unshakable belief in their own righteousness.
And that is the insurmountable obstacle, the fundamental difference in values. To some extent, we all live in bubbles, the solipsistic bubbles of our own consciousness and experience. We all frame our observations and experiences with our beliefs and values. We all give more weight to facts that support our opinions, and less weight to facts that contradict it. But when someone consistently responds to solid real-world evidence that contradicts their beliefs by denying the evidence and clinging harder to their belief — and when they firmly believe that this is the right and moral thing to do — that represents a way of looking at the universe and your place in it that I simply can’t be tolerant of. And I don’t think I should be.
But that’s not a difference of spiritual versus skeptical. There are true-believer reality-deniers in the secular world, and flexible, open-minded people in the spiritual one. So when I find myself getting enraged at radical religious extremists — around the world and of every stripe, Christian and Muslim and Jewish and New Age and everything — who are trying to hammer a huge, messy world into a tiny square hole, I remind myself that this isn’t religious intolerance. It’s not the religion I’m intolerant of. It’s the rejection of reality — scientific, political, or simply human.