Tag Archives: beliefs

Believe it or not

I should have written this ages ago, and now Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon has done gone and beaten me to it.

I’m gonna let you read what Amanda wrote in a minute, but first I want to say a thing or three myself.

It’s just this. It annoys the crap outta me when people say stupid shit like “I don’t believe in homosexuality” or “I don’t believe in evolution” or “I don’t believe in climate change” or “I don’t believe in abortion,” as if any of those things are like the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus or dragons.

I wanna grab ’em by the collar and get right up in their faces and say, “You don’t believe in homosexuality? Surprise! I’m a big ole queer!” Homosexuality, evolution, climate change, abortion — they’re all facts. You just can’t say you don’t “believe in” them like they’re fairy tales or something.

You can say you don’t accept them, as Amanda notes, but to say you don’t “believe in” them? There’s another word for that.


Here’s Amanda. I’ll be back after you’ve read her.

I’m usually not one to argue semantics anymore — in fact, I really have come around to hating nit-picking semantic quarrels that people get into that end up distracting from the real issues.  Not that I think semantics are always irrelevant!  Misleading terms like “pro-life” can and do alter the battle dramatically, and should be replaced with more accurate terms like “anti-choice.”  When the wrong term can lead to genuine misunderstanding, I think it’s important to say something.  Which is why I want to nit pick this one little thing that Bill Wolff said on “Rachel Maddow” in an otherwise excellent and informative segment:

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The one little thing is the word “believe,” as in “people who ‘believe’ in global warming.”  I would like, if at all possible, to declare a moratorium on using the word “believe” to describe what people do in relationship to scientifically sound theories backed up by oodles of evidence.  I’d prefer the word “accept,” which more accurately conveys what’s going on.  Something is true, full stop.  If it’s true, then people either accept it or deny it.  But they don’t “believe” in it, which is a word we tend to use more to describe people’s relationships to untrue or at least unprovable things, or to values.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:

*My beloved grandmother is dead. When I get the news, my shoulders fold and I start crying.  Am I accepting her death or believing in her death?

*I’m debating with someone on whether or not abortion should be legal. Do I accept orbelieve that abortion should be legal?

*Someone giving me directions says to turn left at the light and then the location is on my right.  Do I accept these directions, or do I believe them?

*Do small children accept Santa Claus or believe in Santa Claus?

I could go on all day, but you get the idea.  “Believe” spikes the sentence to suggest the thing that is believed or not believed is really up for debate by reality-based people.  Global warming is not, nor is the theory of evolution — these things are simply true.  Since they’re true, you either accept the science or you deny it.  Deny is the word we use when someone refuses to agree with the facts.  So, say my boyfriend dumps me and I refuse to accept that it’s over.  I am in denial.  Global warming denialists are just that, in denial.

It’s true that there are many cases where “accept” and “believe” are interchangable.  I’m not denying that  (See what I did there?).  But I think in a situation like the one we’re dealing with now, where huge percentages of the public simply refuse to accept reality, then we can’t afford to use ambiguous language that allows for people to think their denial is more justifiable than it really is.  For laymen like myself and most Americans, the distance between global warming theory and fact is so thin as to be irrelevant; it’s basically a fact.  We either accept or deny reality.  And we should use language that reflects this.

Apologies, Amanda, for running the whole post, but this here’s important.

Now, I happen to disagree with Amanda on the second example she lists — but only because she changed the wording. She asks if she “accepts” that abortion should be legal or “believes” it. Of course, she “believes” it. But the word isn’t used like that. Abortion opponents frequently say “I don’t believe in abortion.” Fine. Don’t have an actual, existing medical procedure that you think doesn’t exist. Not a problem. But I happen to know that abortions do exist, and they will happen whether they’re legal or not — and women will suffer far more if they’re not. So keep your fantasy world out of my real world and stop insisting that government codifies your hallucination.

Same thing with homosexuality. You don’t believe in something that clearly does exist, so terrific. Don’t be queer. Just keep having that little fantasy in the privacy of your own home and not in the halls of Congress.

Evolution, climate change? Just because you have some weird distrust of science — or a skewed idea of what the word “theory” means in scientific circles — doesn’t mean the rest of us do too. We do not have to change text books for your superstitions and backwards “beliefs.”

I happen to believe that human beings can overcome the bullshit and fully become the humane beings we are meant to be. But I accept that it isn’t gonna happen by Congressional edict.

So I’m totally with Amanda on a moratorium on “believe in.” Say what you really mean — that you deny scientific research and that you’re an intolerant, unaccepting throwback to some distant time when the average person was not given access to education and diversity, back when keeping the populace in the dark was as important to your feudal masters as it is now to your future feudal overlords.

When you were, in a word, barbaric.

Sadly, that’s something I have to learn to accept.

I know what I know if you know what I mean

Delusion. Most of us, when considering delusion, think primarily of delusions of grandeur. I don’t know if that’s the most common type, but movies and the news are full of people who likely carry delusions of grandeur. Think Lindsay Lohan or Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies.

Delusion comes in many more guises, though, and I’m quite sure you’d recognize most of them.

A fellow named Karl Jaspers was the first to define delusion, many, many moons ago.

    certainty (held with absolute conviction)
    incorrigibility (not changeable by compelling counterargument or proof to the contrary)
    impossibility or falsity of content (implausible, bizarre or patently untrue)

In layman’s terms, or the plain English of wikipedia, a delusion

a fixed belief that is either false, fanciful, or derived from deception. Psychiatry defines the term more specifically as a belief that is pathological (the result of an illness or illness process). As a pathology, it is distinct from a belief based on false or incomplete information, dogma, stupidity, apperception, illusion, or other effects of perception.

Some of the types of delusion, according to that great online dictionary in the intertubez, include

Nihilistic delusion: A delusion whose theme centres on the nonexistence of self or parts of self, others, or the world. A person with this type of delusion may have the false belief that the world is ending.

Delusion of reference: The person falsely believes that insignificant remarks, events, or objects in one’s environment have personal meaning or significance. For instance, a person may believe they are receiving special messages from newspaper headlines.

Persecutory delusion: These are the most common type of delusions and involve the theme of being followed, harassed, cheated, poisoned or drugged, conspired against, spied on, attacked, or obstructed in the pursuit of goals. Sometimes the delusion is isolated and fragmented (such as the false belief that co-workers are harassing), but sometimes are well-organized belief systems involving a complex set of delusions (“systematized delusions”). People with a set of persecutory delusions may believe, for example, they are being followed by government organizations because the “persecuted” person has been falsely identified as a spy. These systems of beliefs can be so broad and complex that they can explain everything that happens to the person.

and of course the ever-popular

Religious delusion: Any delusion with a religious or spiritual content. These may be combined with other delusions, such as grandiose delusions (the belief that the affected person is God, or chosen to act as a God, for example).

A delusion may be classified as bizarre or non-bizarre, and it may involve extremes of emotions such as anger or depression.

And of course, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has its own definition.

A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture.

But what happens when an entire subculture is in the thralls of a delusion or three or four?

Mass delusions. Mass hysteria. Most commonly this manifests as a group psychogenic illness, or, bizarrely, something more akin to the Dancing Plague of 1518 in Strasbourg, France, when over the course of a month, hundreds of people danced themselves to death by heart attack, stroke or exhaustion. Some believe the Salem witch trials of the 17th century may have been stoked by mass hysteria as well.

And history is filled with cultures that ignored the clear and ominous warning signs of their own destruction until it was far too late, thinking, as many teenagers do, that nothing could possibly happen to them.

I don’t know what was going on in Strasbourg in 1518, but I’ll bet it was a scary time for its people. That’s the origin of most mass delusions — fear. And that’s where we are these days, too — a time of great change, on many different levels — and, quite frankly, change is one of the most frightening things we face, for the simple reason that we don’t know what’s coming.

Now, here’s the thing about delusional people, be they in groups or singly: Facts mean nothing to them. Your persuasive and passionately held arguments, not to mention your utter disbelief that the delusional can hold to such obvious falsehoods, will not move them one iota and, in fact, will likely only strengthen the delusion.

Their argument, of course, will be that you are the delusional one because you can’t see what’s so obvious to them.

That’s how it is with cognitive dissonance. Think about it. If you’ve believed something all your life — say, that the earth is flat — no amount of facts, like pictures from space, could change your mind, especially if you associate with like-minded people. To change your mind would mean admitting you were wrong, and that’s just way too difficult for an awful lot of people. And besides, all those pictures were faked.

The only solution is to peel back the delusion one step at a time, the way it formed in the first place. And that’s not a quick process, leaving us in much the same place as all those historical cultures who failed to heed the truth in time to save themselves.

It’s no wonder we want to scream and shout, grab those delusional souls by the shoulders and shaken some sense into them.

But it won’t work.

The only thing that will is a calm, centered approach, a patience that speaks of the endless time we don’t have and our own certainty that a spoiled Gulf of Mexico is a disaster is not a delusion, that tax breaks for the rich never help anyone but the rich, that educating our children is the best and only way to ensure our culture’s longevity.

And that each and every human being deserves the same rights, regardless of the color of their skin, whom they choose to love or whether or how they choose to believe.

These are not delusions. They are the core of who we are, all of us. Even the truly delusional.

But as the people of Strasbourg and Salem learned, mass delusion is a killer, and if the rest of us have learned anything from the long history of this earth, it’s that delusions must be neutralized or we must start again.