A Fraud in a Cassock


I cannot recall being a believer. I can recall not really having an opinion about things. Agnostic if you will. But I must have made my mind up early because I do remember joining St John’s church choir, simply because I fancied one of the choristers, to discover I had to pledge my love for and service to God each week.

This was difficult and I tried not to say “The Creed” out loud, mouthing it instead. I knew I was a fraud in a cassock. I was about 13.

I have believed in things that I no longer do. Ghosts are a good example. It always seemed plausible that the spirit was so powerful it could defy death. And hearing various theories of parallel universes crossing over and strange quasi credible time theories seemed to open up at least the possibility of ghosts really existing. Something that shouldn’t be ruled out. Something that I should be open minded about.

But now I’m absolutely the wrong person to talk to if a close relative just died. Recently I was faced with an elderly relative whose son had just died, tragically and too young, from cancer. She was, still is, understandably distraught. She asked me whether I believed in the afterlife. Conversationally. Not to provoke a meaningful debate. So I should have just said “yes” and “you’ll be with him again soon” shouldn’t I? I didn’t say that. I said “No. He’ll live on in all our memories though, until we also die”. She wasn’t comforted in any way. Was I wrong?

I don’t believe in God (none of them), ghosts, miracles (not literally anyway), psychics, acupuncture, reiki, reflexology, phrenology, the afterlife, spirits, mediums, tarot, aliens visiting (not the same as aliens existing), conspiracy theories in general and 9/11 theories in particular, gremlins, gorgons, demons, devils, heaven, hell, Roman Gods, the River Styx, chanting, ranting, …need I go on?

So what do I believe in? First off, do I really need to have some deeply held existential belief in order to function in society and be a productive and acceptable part of it? No, I don’t. In fact there are plenty of people who fit into that category. Some people just aren’t bothered about a higher level. And they’re absolutely fine, most of them. Even if they go through the motions of being spiritual, religious or whatever.

It is, however, good to have beliefs, as protection from the absolute drivel we are occasionally asked to believe. And it does seem to me that we have a belief system that needs feeding. For example, if I didn’t believe that there is no God, how can I protect myself from the attempted indoctrinations of any mystical messenger? Without opinion how can I raise sufficient energy to attempt repelling psychic boarders and their snake oil? Agnosticism just isn’t enough sometimes, I find. It’s a paradox really because I’d like to be more moderate and considered. But sometimes I just want to shake people really hard. Often by the neck! That just makes me feel guilty and pompous as though I think I am the possessor of some mighty and revelatory information that only the enlightened few can understand (sound familiar?)

Lack of conviction seems to equal vulnerability to the acceptance of illogical claims. Or at least their tolerance. Is this because we have a belief system that is effectively shelves waiting to be filled? If you don’t believe in a point of view on a subject, then anything could be true. You’ve not ruled anything out. The shelf needs filling. So an idea comes along, even a ridiculous one, and inhabits that shelf, perhaps on a temporary basis. Then, because that idea is on that shelf and doesn’t get dislodged early (remember that the person wasn’t looking for a belief in that area and may not get round to challenging it) it gets reinforced instead and when the topic comes up again that’s all they have in the cupboard and so they argue from that position. People just don’t seem to say “Well to be honest, I don’t really think I know enough about that to form an opinion.”

There are other problems to be dealt with in critical thinking too. Especially if, like me, you only started putting flesh on the skeptical bones recently. There is the potential that friends who you previously thought would be friends for life turn out to be raving woo peddlers. Every time you bring them to mind you’re having to battle with the growing opinion that you are having less and less in common with them as time progresses. Increasingly you get frustrated and you want to persuade your friends to your critical point of view. But they’re not listening. Because it’s not important enough to them to think critically. What to do? There was nothing wrong with your friendship before, was there?

I’ve come up with a mathematical formula to describe vulnerability to woo. I’m calling it the woo ranking

Where b is Credulous Belief, l is Lack of Opinion, t is time, w is Exposure to Woo and a is Apathy,

Therefore: Credulous Belief = Lack of Opinion x Exposure to Woo x Apathy / Time

As a skeptic the matter to be addressed is the apathy. This is where we should expend our efforts. Building narratives that cause the spider senses to tingle. Stimulating interest with soundbites and then having a quick and accessible way to put the main point across.

Effectively we need to get people to revisit that time when they first filled the gap with woo, and just loosen it slightly. Then give them a bit more information that prevents them from considering that a proven belief. Then stop. When that topic arises again it’ll be harder for them to maintain the woo position. Woo is based upon belief. All we really need to do is stop it being a belief and start it being only a possibility. Raising doubt is the objective. Not winning the argument.

It is important to me that I am true to myself, so it is unlikely I will permit woo peddlers to go unchallenged when I encounter them. However that cannot be the focus of my effort. Based on the formula above what I really need to do is figure out how to make people care about being a critical thinker. (wrong language for most people BTW. Sounds like you need a degree to do it)

I can start the ball rolling if you like. If you take a 125 ml homeopathic preparation that costs $16 and is a 12C formulation, how much water do they have to throw away in its preparation? And what are the disposal guidelines?

Or to a God believer “which are you favourite bible stories, the miracles or the incest?”. Ok maybe that one’s a bit inflammatory. Perhaps, “I quite like some aspects of the Bible. Miracles are very uplifting and morally informative. But it’s difficult for me to be inspired by them because of the incest and stuff. What do you think about that?”

They’re just two ideas and not necessarily good ones. We need to come up with better ways to loosen the apathy all the time. Not arguing point by point. Killer questions, if you like. Rather than carefully considered arguments.

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