Tag Archives: facts

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:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking newsworld news, and news about the economy

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.

Knowledge is power

Turns out, Americans don’t know much about their religion. That’s not much of a surprise. Americans don’t know much about anything when it comes right down it. But when atheists and agnostics know more about your religion than you do, Houston, we have a problem.

Of course, the religious amongst us will just say their religion is based on faith, not knowledge. And therein lies the problem. Too often, the disconnect between the religious and the rest of us has been written off to a conflict between science and religion — evolution, the age of the earth. But that’s not it at all.

The conflict is between knowledge and mythology. The more we know about the world we live in, the more we understand about the religions that have permeated our history, the less we need to rely on myths to make us comfortable. It’s also why we can lay claim to spirituality without buying into the dogma of religion, but that’s another post at another time.

Some of the religionists amongst us spend a lot of time trying to bend science to “prove” their beliefs. Take a recent study that “proved” a 63 mph wind blowing for 12 hours could have parted the Red Sea (it’s a Moses story, for the uninformed), although at some place where the sea was shallow enough for it to happen. I have my doubts about a tropical storm force wind staying in one place long enough — and blowing in the exact right direction long enough — to make that work, but that’s neither here nor there. My point is this — who cares? The seriously religions aren’t gonna like it because it takes away their miracle. All it really proves, if you accept the basic premise, is that a story in the Old Testament could have happened.

Lots of stories in various religious books could have happened, and no doubt many of them did — although, given the time between when they might have happened and when they were written down, the details might be somewhat different. That’s how myths are. And, over time, they also tend to attract a supernatural component.

All this comes from the release the results of a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s 32-question quiz. And here’s what it found:

It’s not Bible-belt Southerners who scored highest — they came at the bottom.

Those who believe the Bible is the literal word of God did slightly worse than average, while those who say it is not the word of God scored slightly better.

Barely half of all Catholics know that when they take communion, the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ, according to Catholic doctrine.

And only about one in three know that a public school teacher is allowed to teach a comparative religion class – although nine out of 10 know that teacher isn’t allowed by the Supreme Court to lead a class in prayer.

Goes right along with the higher teen pregnancy and divorce rates in conservative states, doesn’t it? Or the complete lack of understanding of American history and the Constitution of the teabaggers who claim to base their insanity on both.

I took Pew’s 15-question quiz and missed one, the last one. I’m ashamed to say it was a question that covered both American history and religion. But I didn’t know the answer. It put me in the second highest group — a very small one.

The respondents to that quiz fell into the typical bell curve — the vast majority falling someplace in the middle. But for people who claim to be religious, it seems to me the bell curve should be broken, especially in America, one of the most religious of the developed nations. Six in ten Americans say religion is very important in their lives, but far fewer have any real knowledge of even their own religion, let alone any of the others.

I dare say we’d find similar results if we had the teabaggers take something like the citizenship test, proving that those who cry the loudest rarely know what they’re talking about. But they’re willing to apply “second amendment remedies” to get what they want.

That’s even more shameful than my missing one question on Pew’s quiz.

The Christians who came to the new world were a humorous lot, locked into the dour and hopeless life view of the Calvinists — all work and no play. Ever. Theirs was a predetermined world — and a predetermined life. Work, work hard, and maybe you’ll get into heaven. That dogma was the root of many early mental collapses — the guilt, the worry.

It’s easy to understand why many of our founders, not willing to complete devoid themselves of a belief in god, called themselves deists. They believed in god, but not the insane dogma that came with the territory of the Christians who preceded them.

But even when the country began to move away from the colorless world of the Calvinists, it still brought with it the same attitudes about work, which eventually brought a new wave of mental exhaustion, particularly among women, in the 19th Century as the industrial revolution took away many of the menial “jobs” women did in the home just because they needed to be done. Soap making, candle making, those sorts of thing — they all gradually became automated, and women, still under the Calvinist drive to work work work, found themselves with no work and serious depression.

Barbara Ehrenreich, in “Bright-sided,” suggests that this state of the mind gave birth to the positive thinking movement (it was called “New Thought” when Mary Baker Eddy and Phineas Quimby came up with it) and eventually to the new agey idea that we control our own destinies and can create our own reality by the power of our minds.

Ehrenreich doesn’t buy it. I do, to a certain extent — we can certainly control how we react to and deal with life’s uncertainties, and that will determine our state of mind. But I agree with her that the proponents of things like “The Secret” are selling psychological snake oil to deluded people who haven’t been able to navigate the complexities of this modern life.

But more to my point, and I do have one (I think), it seems to me that the very religious among us — who have no clue where they came from and what their religion actually is — as well as the teabagging constitutionalists — who couldn’t tell you a single thing about what’s in the document other than the 2nd Amendment and certainly are clueless about the ideas of the founders — have sucombed to their own version of “New Thought.”

And it’s this. They believe they have no need to understand the world around them or the world they come from, or even what may be coming in the future. Where “The Secret” tells us that we can have what we want just by believing we can, the religious right and the tea baggers believe it is, now, just because they say it is. We saw that throughout the Bush administration. It’s why these folks have no need for facts. The facts don’t matter — whatever they believe is truth, and nothing can dissuade them from it. And eventually, you’ll believe it to. Repetition works wonders, you know.

Except that in the real world — not the fantasy world these folks inhabit — only the truth, supported by the facts, is the truth. And eventually, as the truth tends to do, it will come around and bite them in the ass.

Unfortunately, before that can happen, they’ll have plenty of time to come to the real truth on their own, which they won’t, and that means we’ll all suffer for it.

Apollo doesn’t ride across the sky in a flaming chariot every day, bringing light. Atlas doesn’t hold the world on his shoulders. Athena didn’t burst forth from Zeus’ head, although given that Athena is a symbol of wisdom, it’s an interesting thought. The Persian despot Zahhak did not have two vipers growing from his shoulders that grew back their heads whenever they were beheaded. The earth isn’t flat. The sun and the planets do not revolve around the earth. We can build machines that fly.

Knowledge. It kills myths. And it will, eventually, kill the myths that power the right. We just have to survive the process.

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.