I’ve copied below an essay I posted in this space on 29 July 2008. It’s posted verbatim, and is preceded by a brief, contemporary introduction and also an embedded song. There’s much more, too, at the bottom of the page.
Belief is an odd topic of discussion. Belief leads directly to the mentality of conquest, human superiority, patriarchy, and faith-based junk science. What’s not to like?
We adhere so strongly to our beliefs, however ill-supported, that we are driven to acts of insanity. Clinging even tighter, we fail to recognize the insanity. We “believe” it away.
Check with any denier of climate change. Or denier of abrupt climate change. Or nearly anybody embedded within civilization, unable to question civilization. In the latter case, along with many others, the belief isn’t stated. It’s assumed.
Civilization is assumed, without question, as unimpeachably good. In that way, it’s a lot like hope.
No questions allowed. Questioners are ignored, and perhaps laughed at. But rarely fought, contrary to Gandhi’s famous line.
The price of oil did not rise to $150/barrel in July, as I had predicted. Instead, the price climbed slightly above $147 before falling to about $120. John McCain would have you believe the plummeting price resulted from BushCo’s promise to drill offshore. Most economists attribute the decline to a weakening economy, although they fail to admit the profound extent of the demand destruction here and abroad.
What’s the first law of holes? When you’re in one, stop digging. Or, in this case, stop drilling.
Since I was wrong about the price of oil, my views on other issues are suspect as well. I encourage skepticism about all that follows.
I’m amazed anybody cares what I believe, at least enough to ask. Belief is personal, and what I believe is not relevant to what you believe. At least, I hope not. But, since you asked ….
I try not to believe. After all, as Nietzsche pointed out, “Belief means not wanting to know what is true.” Instead of believing, I try to think. But it’s sometimes difficult to separate the two, and it’s often difficult to marshal enough evidence to allow thought to proceed unimpeded by belief. I suppose I’m skeptical, even about my skepticism. Usually, I think that’s a good thing. And I recognize I’m quick to offend, especially when my words are unaccompanied by my smiling face and accommodating body language. Continue reading at your own risk.
I believe we spend too much time in this country debating belief, especially belief in spirits. And I believe we routinely confuse religion with faith or spirituality. I believe we shouldn’t mislead children into believing there is a Santa Claus, an Easter bunny, a tooth fairy, a unicorn on the dark side of the moon, or a god. I think it’s a sad commentary on the state of our cultural affairs that we finally get around to telling the truth about only the former three. Even sadder commentary is provided by the paucity of people who take time to think about what they believe, how they live, and what they live for.
People who know me, even slightly, would describe me as neither spiritual nor religious. I do not believe in spirits, so I can understand the common conclusion about the former. I think organized religions are, to a great extent, absurd, violent, and immoral. When I think about the impacts of organized religion on society, I’m an anti-theist. But most of the time, I’m an indifferent rationalist, open to evidence but realizing faith is based on the absence of evidence. Or, as I tell the occasional student who asks, I believe in one fewer god than you. Unless you’re Hindu, in which case I believe in 33 trillion fewer gods than you.
I believe all life is loaded with religiosity. After all, religion is merely a set of beliefs and practices. Consider, for example, the set of beliefs and practices in my own uniquely quirky life: I’m a self-proclaimed rationalist and skeptic with a penchant for social criticism. In the latter role, I comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable with religious fervor. I religiously seek the truth (and I believe it should be spelled with a lowercase ‘t’). I religiously count steps when I’m walking. I religiously exceed the posted speed limit when I drive. And like Albert Einstein, I am a deeply religious unbeliever. And so on, ad nauseum. I suspect you get the point.
I believe Spinoza nailed the issue about religious spiritualism when he concluded that, if a triangle could think, it would imagine God to be like a triangle. Upon learning this story, most people accuse the triangle of hubris.
I believe Nietzsche was correct about our lack of free will, and overwhelming evidence accumulated since his death supports this view (e.g., the mind as computer, and vice versa). Nietzsche recognized that our ability to choose can overcome our lack of free will, but only with great intellectual effort (and, very often, intellectual suffering). Our absence of free will constrains, but does not eliminate, our freedom to choose. I believe education facilitates the process of choice over will — that is, I believe education, when it works, is an intellectually painful process — and I believe all education is, ultimately, autodidactic.
I agree with Jules Henry, in his classic book, Culture Against Man: “School is indeed a training for later life not because it teaches the 3 Rs (more or less), but because it instills the essential cultural nightmare fear of failure, envy of success, and absurdity.” Public education in this country has become exactly the essential cultural nightmare it was designed to become by the likes of John Dewey and the United States Congress. It serves corporate Amerika by creating belief-filled drones incapable of deep thought. And, paradoxically, I believe John Dewey was right when he wrote: “Education is not preparation for life. Education is life itself.”
In part because of the virtual absence of deep thought by mainstream Americans, I believe western civilization will suffer a profound and sudden collapse, thereby joining the 23 major civilizations that failed before it (albeit at different rates, from different apexes and to different nadirs). I believe the collapse of civilization will be complete, in this country, within five years, and will be accompanied by suffering that is unimaginable to most of us.
I believe this is a damned sad state of affairs.
I believe I will not live through the ongoing collapse. But I will fully engage the collapse, and act as if I will survive it. Acting “as if” is one rapid and appropriate way to ensure something positive will happen. Rosa Parks sat on the bus “as if” doing so were right. And, of course, it was.
Acting and living “as if” is a powerful approach to improving the human condition. It enables quick identification of the obstacles to improvement. It is the route to social change often espoused by contrarians and social critics (not to mention Buddhists). To live in opposition, as Christopher Hitchens points out in Letters to a Young Contrarian, “is not to be a nihilist. … It is something you are, not something you do.” Hitchens knows about our lack of free will.
Many people, including several friends, find it hard to believe I can go on, given what I believe (and especially what I don’t believe). As if spirits, or faith in a life better than the one we get on Earth, make life worth living. As if one life is not enough, given its rarity and splendor. As if we need the promise of something else to carry on through our trivial existences on this celestial speck of dust at the edge of an insignificant galaxy. As if dying wasn’t part of the deal from the beginning, for individuals, civilizations, and entire species.
I have no problem finding things to live for, finding meanings in this most insignificant of lives. But I’ll save that issue for another day. Meanwhile, I welcome your thoughts, especially the ones that point out the many errors in my logic.