Where Belief Is Concerned…

… all believers are irrational, sometimes mildly so, and sometimes wildly so. When I mentioned this to someone I know, she replied, “Belief makes people stupid.” I don’t know that I’d go that far, at least not with all people, but what people do in the name of belief is sometimes puzzling, and at times mind-boggling.

Here in Utah, there was a newspaper story about woman, described as an intellectual, who was ex-communicated from the LDS faith years ago because of her “liberal” views, who still attends church services, although she cannot enter a temple or take part in any “higher” church functions. This is a faith that has just threatened to excommunicate LDS women who have spoken out decrying the lack of women in church leadership. Why do they still want to be LDS priests and bishops in a faith that, for all its protestations to the contrary, minimizes the position of women, as evidenced in cold, hard fact? Utah, with a legislature overwhelmingly male and LDS, has the greatest pay discrepancy between men and women. It also extols marriage for time and eternity, yet has a divorce rate above the national average. There are also LDS gays and lesbians who still want to be “part of the church.” Why? Why would anyone wish to be part of a faith that funded the initiative in California to outlaw gay marriage, or part of a faith that denounces acting on same-sex attraction as a sin against God and nature?

Christians don’t fare any better on the rationality test, either. One study showed that eighty percent of Christian pastors under the age of 45 did not believe in global warming. Seventy percent of evangelical Christians don’t, either. According to a Pew survey, over 80% of American Christians believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. More than 60% believe that the story of Noah was factually accurate and that the entire earth was covered in water within historical times.

“Belief stupidity” isn’t limited to religion, either. Why is it that almost a third of conservative Republicans, the Republican true believers, insist that President Obama is a Muslim, while only eight percent of Democrats do? Or why 75% of Tea Party Republicans deny global warming, while 67% of the population as a whole say that it is occurring? Devout Democrats are no better in their irrationality; they’re just irrational on different subjects. More Democrats than Republicans believe that astrology is scientific; lasers are made from sound waves; genetically modified foods are harmful; vaccines are harmful; organic food is more nutritional than conventional food. And when facts conflict with political beliefs, studies show that something like sixty percent of both Democrats and Republicans will choose their political loyalties over conflicting facts that are scientifically and factually verifiable, and then they’ll argue that the facts are “wrong” or go well out of their way to find one example or fact that seems to support their views.

All of which suggests that perhaps the most dangerous words are “I believe.”

19 thoughts on “Where Belief Is Concerned…”

  1. Thom says:

    I may be missing your point, but it seems like you’re just trying to say “Everyone is stupid about something, and that’s bad.” And with that I would agree. It’s bad to be stupid about something. But who gets to be the ultimate judge of when someone is being stupid? One of the most dangerous “beliefs” could be assuming we’re the one qualified to judge when people are stupid. After all, is it not a fair translation to read your final statement as “I believe that perhapt the most dangerous words are ‘I believe’.”? 😉

    Perhaps it would help if you explained what we should put in the place of belief. Even assuming that the facts/truth are known about everything there is to have an opinion on, who has time to learn everything there is to know? At some point we have to rely on belief just to survive. I’ll certainly agree that we should try to be more consistent with our beliefs and that we should be more open to contrary evidence, but at some point you either sink into analysis paralysis or you just have to screw up your courage and go.

    1. The problem isn’t “belief,” per se, but sticking to beliefs at variance with what has been demonstrated to be so. Almost all of us change some beliefs as we mature and learn more about the world around us. It’s charming for a child to believe in “Santa Claus,” but far from charming for a twenty-year old. It’s even understandable for someone to vote the party line for the party of their choice even when the party line in areas is at variance with reality, but to deny reality and verifiable facts in order to stick to the party line, and to openly deny something proved to be so in order to be “loyal” is less rational [unless, of course, one lives in a dictatorship where dissent is fatal].

  2. Robert The Addled says:

    Mr. Modesitt – Your 4th paragraph really hits the spot.

    And Thom – the phrases “trust but verify”, and “maintain a questioning attitude” are trite catchphrases I learned in Power School, but there is more than a grain of truth in them.

    Everyone – “Truth” is ever changing – History is written by a) the victors (biased by default), and b) humans who are inherently prone to selection bias. There are MANY, MANY things out there that people believe, in the absence of fact checking or even contrary to extensive scientific study results. I’m guilty of cognitive bias as well, but at least recognize that and try to adapt. Too many people can’t or won’t accept that they also have such a ‘mental imperfection’.

  3. Ryan Jackson says:

    Trust but verify being the key point.

    I self define as agnostic but have a core from a specific religion I adhere to. The issue here is that at the point any one of my beliefs are factually proven incorrect I will re-examine them and change them to coincide with the new fact.

    That is what I interpret Mr. Modesitt to be addressing. That far too many people, when faced with reality differing from belief, default into some type of mental delusion that invalidated reality so as to defend their core belief.

  4. mikor says:

    In light of this discussion, http://lesswrong.com/ might make an interesting reading. It’s a web site discussing cognitive biases and what can be done to reduce (but rarely eliminate) them in our own thinking.

  5. D Archerd says:

    One of the key differences between science and religion is that science (contrary to what many think) cannot provide The Truth, i.e. a single, incontrovertible reality. But what science can do – and this is no mean accomplishment – is provide theories, ways of explaining our universe, that are progressively less wrong. However, since people vary in their tolerance for ambiguity, there are always going to be a certain percentage of any population who cannot be satisfied with being merely “less wrong” and demand the mental security of being in possession of The Truth (pick from any of the excellent examples above).

    Having said that, even those who are of a more “rational” or “scientific” bent nevertheless also accept certain things on faith. “My senses tell me true” is a basic tenet of faith that all of us must accept in order to simply get through each day and function in the world. Similarly, most of us accept as facts most things we learn because we have faith in the authority from whom we learn them, i.e. who among us bother to attempt to personally replicate the findings of any, let alone every published scientific study? Yet we continue to behave as though such learned knowledge are “facts” when in reality they are also unsubstantiated beliefs.

    And while we would like to think that science is different from religion inasmuch as it changes its theories when confronted with contradictory information, the reality is much more nuanced. Even in scientific circles, paradigms notoriously don’t shift until sufficient numbers of the holders of the old paradigm have died. Just look at how long it took the theory of continental drift, first proposed by Wengner in the 1920’s, to be accepted by the majority of Earth scientists, and Wengner was ridiculed and vilified in his lifetime.

    This can all be summed up in the cynical pair of definitions:
    o Belief – something I do not believe
    o Fact – something I do believe

  6. R. Hamilton says:

    Even presuming global warming to be true: I _believe_ the centralized power to alter behavior on a massive scale is far worse than the end of all human life on the planet, let alone whatever more moderate consequences may follow from global warming – because sufficient power to alter consumption on a planetary scale is sufficient power to cast everyone into slavery.

    Even presuming there’s no deity, or the deity doesn’t care whether people act on their inclinations so long as they’re consensual and non-violent, I _believe_ that it’s not helpful to redefine words and institutions to mean what they never meant before – yet neither is it helpful to have government have the power to dictate consensual relationships beyond compliance with whatever private contracts people agree to. Which is to say, government perhaps shouldn’t be issuing marriage licenses to anyone.

    I don’t care if I can argue those positions on the basis of any logic further than presented above – but I will nevertheless defend them vigorously unless the most compelling of evidence can be presented to the contrary. To my knowledge, that has not yet happened.

  7. David says:

    I am a person of faith. My faith is in the one, true, creator God as He reveals Himself to us. I hope that my statement does not stop you from reading the rest of my comment. I am also a person of science. I am disappointed in the ‘pop’ scientists we see so often in the MSM. They have allowed bias and pre-conceived notions to cloud their findings. The definition of science is basically to study what is there and, if possible, form conclusions or even discover previously unknown physical laws or elements of physics. I am also disappointed with most of the pop-religion that we see. The same biased media only presents a slanted view of religion to parallel their slanted view of science. You made a comment against religious folks who do not ‘believe’ in global warming. Do you see the paradox in that statement? What does an element of faith have to do with a scientific theory? Until there is enough empirical evidence to prove some physical law or proven fact, Climate Change or global warming theory is only a theory, and consequently people can form opinions about it, but they cannot prove the validity of their opinions. We have only been keeping records on climate for a few centuries. Geology gives evidence of climate change on a millennial scale and larger. What is the real question? Are human beings changing the weather through their activities? It might appear so from some of the data, but other segments of analysis seem to indicate that it is not the case. I submit, again, that there is not enough empirical data. Do I think we should not change our pollution practices? No! It is unthinkable that we would do anything to harm the common property of earth, water, air. It is unethical! The person who created this beautiful planet was a Master Artist. We should respect it and not destroy it! Do I judge previous generations for their filthy practices? No, because they did not know. We know. We should change our ways. Oh, and by the way, it is good business, big business to do the right thing where it comes to ‘cleaning up our act.’ Not all of us religious people are mindless hermits in a cave.

    1. I probably should have written that a high percentage of Christian believers “do not accept” the validity of current studies on climate change.

  8. David says:

    I accept that modification of your statement. I would like to offer a thought, and I intend no antagonism. I think that one of the greatest human rights is your freedom to your opinions, certitudes, and ‘beliefs’. “All believers are irrational.” This is by definition. Faith is not based on evidence that can be measured with scales, lasers, or other measurement devices. This is why there is such a huge gulf of misunderstanding between the scientists and those who say, “I believe.” Those who have a religious faith should never make a statement about the natural realm that they cannot substantiate with measurable facts. If they are making a statement based on their belief structure, they should carefully explain this up front. For some of the more prominent conservative religious leaders to make a public statement like, “The earthquake hit that island nation because there are voodoo priests there” is stepping over a boundary that I cannot approve of. This kind of public statement is a complete violation of the very principles that this religious leader has taught his followers. I ascribe it to old age and possible dementia. I have always respected his work of offering hope to people who feel that they live in hopeless situations. This is more the realm of the work of faith. Our work is to help people who are ‘at the end of their rope’ find a way back to peace and sanity through faith in a higher power. Any other application of belief is a waste of time and energy. If you do not want or need faith, I respect that and do not want to attempt to force anything on you.
    Back to the topic at hand. Faith is not based on scientific evidence. A person comes to faith without a logical understanding of it, especially at first. People who are more rational will study the elements of the faith they have subscribed to and develop some explanations that satisfy their mind, but the first steps of faith are, as you say, irrational. I actually agree with you. What a shocker!
    Thanks for the thought exercise!

    1. In turn, I agree with what you have set forth. I’m not against belief; I’m against its misapplication.

  9. Thom says:

    I think one problem with judging any belief system is the tendancy to look at the extremes rather than the mean. Both the people who believe too emphatically and the people who claim to believe but don’t really let belief lead to real action/improvement tend to be the strongest argmuments against a particular belief. But neither one necessarily invalidates the belief, but rather the believers themselves.

    For example, while I’m not yet ready to accept all the conclusions and implications of Global Warming research (the fact that the observed data doesn’t seem to be matching their models indicates the system is much more complex than their models are able to predict), I do believe in taking sensible steps to reduce my own impact. I think it’s safe to say my carbon footprint is considerably lower than Al Gore’s.

    Considering some of the books I’ve seen seem to suggest we should essentially gut our economy and lifestyle and live like sub-Saharan bedouins, it’s no wonder there’s a significant backlash of people not wanting to believe. But is that coming from the main core of believers or the fanatic fringe? In the Internet age all information can be given equal play, even though not all information is equal–or equally true.

    One of the biggest obstacles to enlightened questioning and adjustment of belief in the face of new evidence/information is determining what sources can and should be listened to. If I want to evaluate Obama’s policies it’s probably equally hazardous to take either the Democrats or the the Republicans seriously, but media has increasingly started to choose sides these days, too. When all information is suspect, what is one to do?

    But perhaps one of the most important things we can do is simply be aware that we all likely lack the complete picture and be more kind to one another when we encounter disagreement. So far on this thread I’m seeing a lot of that, and it’s both encouraging and refreshing. If my initial comments came across as defensive, I apoligize.

  10. Bob Walters says:

    Your Blog is interesting as I am rereading the Recluse series in chronological order. The “Fallen Angel” series you indicate that the war between the “Rats” (for the Rationalists) and the “Preachers” (my invention for the UFA) was started by the Rats because of their intolerance of the Preachers faith. This does not make sense all one has to do is look at the conflicts caused by religious extremists all over the world. I have not seen too many scientists strap bombs to their chests and blow up innocents, picket funerals of soldiers or gather guns and preach hate against people with different life styles, or claim that school shootings in the US are God’s punishment. To see the effects of faith in government all one has to do is look at the 30 Year’s War.

    1. You’re overlooking one thing. You’ve only been given the “angels'” point of view in Fall of Angels and The Chaos Balance. How many “believers” claim they’ve been the ones offended and persecuted when others don’t accept their beliefs? Or when people make fun of their beliefs?

      1. Bob Walters says:

        You are right, in addition true believer tend to feel that “freedom of religion” really means the right to force ones beliefs on someone else – witness Hobby Lobby.

        I would love to know more about background about the UFA and the Rationalists. BTW – Will we ever hear the Rationalist’s side of the war? Or perhaps, find out from what language Temple is derived?

  11. Bob Walters says:

    BTW – To understand the opposition to Climate Change just follow the money. Look at the anti-alternative energy cookie cutter laws that ALEC is pushing in states ran by the GOP. Follow the money.

  12. HMac says:

    It would be SO interesting to read about the Rationalist’s side of the war! Any chance that would happen Mr. Modesitt?

    1. I don’t have any plans on that front, but there are some hints in the first story in Recluce Tales.

  13. Rob Grier says:

    There is a paradox on the subject of belief as it is discussed today. I have several friends who are professed athesists, yet have “I believe the science” bumper stickers. They don’t see the contridiction.

    One person may believe X is true about the world because a religious authority tells them that a religious institution declares it to be true. Another person may believe Y is true about the world because a political authority tells them that political institution declares it to be true. A third person may believe Z is true about the world because a scientific authority tells them that a scientific institution declares it to be true. All three of these people are devout believers. The only difference in their belief is in whom they place their faith; in this example a prophet, a state or a science journal.

    You may say that science is verifiable. Yet the State run media will verify the Great Leader (TM) is correct. And the church will verify that it’s council of elders have prayed and verified their statement is true. Again, it’s down to which authority you trust.

    Human beings cannot seem to escape the need to shape their views by the views of a trusted authority. Only the names and symbols change, the belief remains.

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