Why “It’s True For Me Because I Believe It” Is Dangerous

[CN: Anxiety]

I’m currently taking Religions of the West in college, and one of the texts we read recently was The Sacred and the Profane by Mircea Eliade. In the introduction, Eliade defines the sacred as that which “manifests itself as a reality of a wholly different order from ‘natural’ realities” (10). In other words, in the minds of the religious, there is a dichotomy of the natural world (the profane) and that which transcends beyond the natural world (the sacred). Even material things become sacred in the minds of the believer. Eliade writes:

A sacred stone remains a stone; apparently (or, more precisely, from the profane point of view), nothing distinguishes it from all other stones. But for those to whom a stone reveals itself as sacred, its immediate reality is transmuted into a supernatural reality. In other words, for those who have a religious experience all nature is capable of revealing itself as cosmic sacrality. (12)

For example, according to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the bread and wine of the communion ceremony literally become the body and blood of Christ. The “profane” (i.e. non-Catholic) point of view sees the bread and wine and remaining normal bread and wine. In fact, there is no scientific evidence that anything supernatural occurs during communion. However, the bread and wine become sacred to those who believe it.

So basically when Bill O’Reilly told Richard Dawkins the Christian faith “is true for me” because “I believe it,” he actually made a good point. In the mind of the believer, religious claims are capital-t Truth because of the power the believer gives them. It doesn’t matter what the facts are; if it’s true for the believer, then it’s capital-T truth. The Bible is the Word of God because Christians believe it. The Qu’ran is the Word of God because Muslims believe it. The bread and wine are literally Jesus’ body and blood because Catholics believe it. Circumcision is a sign of being God’s chosen people because Jews believe it.

You may ask, “So what? If it’s true for the individual and it helps them get up in the morning, who’s to say they’re wrong? You claim to be a pragmatist, and didn’t your boy William James say religion is useful because it helps people get up in the morning?” While it’s true that faith does inspire people to get up in the morning and do good deeds, the opposite is also true–unchecked beliefs can be just as harmful.

For example, I have a mental illness cocktail of depression, anxiety, and ADD. One of the worst parts about this mental illness cocktail is that I often give way too much power to false beliefs. “I’m stupid.” “I’m worthless.” “Everyone hates me.” “Something terrible is going to happen.” I have a thought, I obsess over it, and it eventually becomes capital-T Truth for me. It gets to the point where I am literally unable to function because I’ve convinced myself the bad thoughts in my head are Truth.

Ten years ago, for example, I was convinced the world was about to end. I picked up a book called The Bible Code that claimed if you rearrange the original Hebrew text of the Torah in a certain way, it reveals predictions about the future. One such prediction was that the world will end in 2006 in a nuclear war. Even though all my Christian friends said it was hooey because Jesus said no one will know when the world will end, my mental illness cocktail convinced myself that they were wrong. I had no reason to doubt it. Iran was enriching uranium, North Korea tested a missile, and Israel was fighting Lebanon. The stage was set for an all out nuclear war, I thought. Plus, didn’t Jesus say the Son of Man would descend to Earth in a cloud? Could it be a metaphor for a mushroom cloud? Looking back, it’s all ridiculous, but at the time I believed everything I thought. I spent the entire summer of 2006 in crippling fear of the upcoming apocalypse. And when it didn’t happen and I realized The Bible Code is a crock of shit, I was embarrassed.

So even though religious beliefs may help people get up in the morning, they can also hurt people because people give way too much power to religious beliefs. As David Silverman told me last week on my podcast, people put religion on a pedestal as something that cannot be touched. Yet the more we perpetuate the whole “It’s true for me because I believe it” mentality, the more we enable harmful religious beliefs. Which is why I’m finally starting to understand why a lot of atheists say liberal religion enables fundamentalism.

Bottom line: don’t believe everything you think, even if it’s a “good” thought.

Dogmatism is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

beware-dogma

In light of the recent terrorist attack in Brussels, I’m sharing a blog post I wrote a few months ago shortly after the Paris attack.

Remember that thing I wrote the other day, about how everyone thinks their interpretation of reality is the right one? At best, this mentality leads to petty arguments on the Internet, but at its worse it leads to yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris.

I really don’t want to debate whether Islam is “a religion of peace” or “a religion of dashing your enemies to pieces” because a) I’d rather have ex-Muslims like Heina Dadabhoy and Sadaf Ali tell their stories instead of talking over them, and b) neither statement tells the full story. Like the Christian Bible, there are several ways to interpret the Quran, ranging from liberal Islam to Islamism. However, just like with fundamentalist Christianity, fundamentalist Islam has its roots in scripture. So I don’t agree with Reza Aslan; religion did play a part in yesterday’s attacks, along with other factors.

Instead I want to talk about the one thing that ties Christian fundamentalism, Islamism, and other dangerous ideologies together: dogmatism.

Google defines dogmatism as “the tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others.” Most people use the word fundamentalism as a synonym for dogmatism, but there’s a slight difference. Fundamentalism, as Google defines it, “upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture.” This is why, as James Croft explains, there’s no such thing as a “fundamentalist atheist” because atheism has no Bible.

Dogmatism, on the other hand, can happen with any ideology, whether it’s religious or secular. It’s what happens when one is so sure that one’s own interpretation of reality is the right one, and everybody else is wrong. Of course not all beliefs are automatically dogmatic. After all, as the diagram below illustrates, when use beliefs and truths to gain knowledge:

Epistemology

However, sometimes our beliefs do not align with the facts. I can believe all I want that I’m a millionaire, but one look at my bank account will show that’s not true. But what if I refuse to acknowledge the facts? What if I still believe that I am a millionaire, and I keep spending money like one? Eventually I won’t have any money left, and I’ll be shit out of luck. That, my friends, is how dogmatism works.

This is why epistemology and skepticism are so important: they remind us that we could be wrong. It’s scary to think we could be wrong because we wrap our entire identities around our beliefs. But as Ricky Gervais famously said, “Beliefs don’t change facts. Facts, if you’re rational should change your beliefs.” Plus, with the events of Paris and Beirut, the only alternative, dogmatism, is literally killing us. As Sam Harris wrote in The End of Faith, “If religious war is ever to become unthinkable for us, in the way that slavery and cannibalism seem poised to, it will be a matter of our having dispensed with the dogma of faith”