Ever since I wrote the “Transcendental Skeptic” piece on this blog, I’ve been thinking a lot about the skeptic/spiritual believer question. Questions, I should say. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the question of how agnostics/atheists/skeptics and religious/spiritual believers can get along — and why, sometimes, we really can’t.
I have friends — extremely dear and close friends — who have religious or spiritual beliefs, in some cases strongly held ones. And this is not a problem, either for me or (as far as I know) for them. I don’t feel superior to these folks, and I don’t pity them. I don’t happen to agree with them — but so what? I don’t agree with a lot of people about a lot of things. I don’t even agree with myself all the time. Not agreeing with someone doesn’t mean I can’t connect with them.
In a few cases I even think they’re flat-out mistaken — but again, so what? I’m sure people in my life think I’m flat-out mistaken, about this topic or any number of others. And I’m sure that, in some cases, they’re right. I would be shocked beyond measure to find that I wasn’t mistaken about anything. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter that much. It doesn’t feel like an insurmountable barrier, or even like much of a barrier at all.
But why is that? I mean, at least on the surface, the skeptical and the spiritual outlook would seem to represent seriously different values, fundamentally different ways of looking at the universe and our place in it — a difference that would seem to be irrevocable.
And yet, I don’t think it is. Not to me, anyway. Not always.
And why is it that sometimes the difference really is insurmountable?
Part of it, for me, is that I care more about what people do than what they think. A good example is a friend of mine, whose Christianity is a big part of what drives her to do progressive grass-roots political work. A whole hell of a lot more work than I do, I feel compelled to point out. And of course, you have all the obvious examples from history: Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, the Quakers in the underground railroad, etc. If people’s faith inspires them to do good in the world — and if their idea of “good” resonates with mine — then I don’t care very much why they do it, as long as they’re not doing it as part of a sinister plan for indoctrination or world domination or something.
There’s something else, though. Something both less utilitarian and more fundamental, something that does have to do with values and motivations.
Here’s what it is. I think there’s a profound difference between having a religious or spiritual faith that you hold despite there not being substantial evidence supporting it — and having a religious or spiritual faith that you hold despite the existence of substantial evidence that actually contradicts it.
And the former is something I can strongly identify with — while the latter is something that I just can’t.
See, science is different from life. In science, you don’t advocate theories that you don’t have any evidence for — or at least, you try like hell not to. In science, substantial evidence that’s carefully gathered, rigorously and double-blind tested, peer-reviewed, independently replicated, all that good stuff… that’s the name of the game. That’s what makes science special and cool: the fact that it takes the time — immense amounts of time, usually — to test its hunches thoroughly and see if they’re right. It often starts with hunches, with imagination and irrational inspirations, but it doesn’t rely on them.
But in life, you do that all the time. You have to. In life, you have to make decisions based on insufficient evidence, or even no evidence at all except your gut feeling. Big decisions, even. Especially if you’re going to have any kind of interesting and fulfilling life. You have to take risks and chances; you have to make leaps of faith.
I do, anyway. And while those leaps and chances have sometimes been disastrously wrong — the first several years of my romantic life leap to mind — much more often than not they’ve been right, and they’ve gotten more right as I’ve gotten older. The impulse to pick my college major based on two weeks of classes with an inspiring teacher; the impulse to quit a job I loathed despite having no other job prospects lined up; the impulse to call Ingrid ten days after we started going out to tell her that I loved her… I could go on for pages about life-changing decisions I’ve made, and important conclusions I’ve come to, based on little or no evidence other than a moment of calm, powerful clarity in which some inner voice spoke with confidence and certainty.
So the fact that some people have decided that Yes there is a God of some sort, or Yes there is an immortal soul of some sort, or Yes there is some sort of metaphysical energy permeating the physical world, despite not having solid evidence to support that hunch… that’s something I can identify with. I don’t agree with them about that particular hunch, but the fact that they’re making major life decisions based on a hunch isn’t alien to me.
But hanging on to a religious or spiritual belief despite actual compelling evidence that contradicts it — that’s profoundly different.
To hold on to a belief — religious or otherwise — that flies in the face of reality speaks of a special sort of arrogance. It says that you think the inside of your head is more interesting, more important, even more real, than the vast, mysterious, unimaginably complex immensity of reality itself. It’s an approach to life that puts your own opinions and beliefs on one side of a scale, and the universe on the other side — and sees your own opinions and beliefs as carrying the greater weight. (Creationism is the classic example, of course, although there are examples from the groovy alternative-spirituality end of the faith spectrum as well.)
And this is just baffling to me. I mean, even if you do believe in a God who created the universe, wouldn’t that make you respect and revere that universe more, and want to understand exactly what it is and how it works, as clearly as you could? Wouldn’t you think that God knew what He/She was doing — and when faced with hard evidence of how His/Her creation works, wouldn’t your religious humility and awe force you to revise your view of the world to better reflect His/Hers?
Faith that’s unsupported one way or the other by reality is one thing. Faith that flat-out denies reality is something else entirely. And it’s that kind of faith that reflects an approach to life that I find fundamentally and insurmountably different from mine.
It’s not that I can’t identify with it at all. The tendency to ignore reality when it contradicts your beliefs is probably a universal human trait, and it’s certainly something I’ve done more than once in my life, and will almost certainly do again.
But it’s not the foundation of my belief system. And I don’t think I’m right to do it. In fact, when I am doing it, I almost always feel a squirming in my belly, and an awkward foot-shuffling in my head, that tell me I’m being a jerk. And most of the time, after a certain amount of wrestling between my conscience and my opinionated stubbornness, I eventually let go of my old belief, and either revise it or abandon it to let the new evidence in.
And this willingness to revise your beliefs is key. The spiritual people I feel connected with — the ones whose beliefs don’t actually contradict real-world evidence, even though they’re not supported by it — are flexible about those beliefs, and willing to modify them as their experience grows. They’re willing to acknowledge that their faith is just that — faith, not objective truth — and they’re willing to admit that they might be mistaken. “To turn and to turn, it will be our delight/Till by turning, turning, we come ’round right,” and all that. And as a result, they’re accepting and supportive of people with different spiritual beliefs — and of people with no spiritual beliefs at all.
Which brings me back around to my first point — namely, the fact that I care more about how people act than how they think. See, the reality-deniers don’t just think like close-minded assholes. They act like close-minded assholes. The kind of faith — religious or otherwise — that denies reality is what makes the Catholic Church deal with its child-molesting clergy crisis by drumming out gay priests… when the evidence shows that most child molesters are straight, and that gay people overwhelmingly do not molest children. It’s the kind of faith that makes people oppose sex education in schools because they believe it’ll make kids have sex earlier… when the evidence shows the exact opposite. (You knew I’d get sex in here somehow, didn’t you?) It’s the kind of faith that makes the Bush administration pursue a military/foreign policy that runs counter to the evidence and counsel provided by their own military and intelligence advisors, and continue to pursue it in the face of overwhelming evidence that it’s not working… because that evidence contradicts their own unshakable belief in their own righteousness.
And that is the insurmountable obstacle, the fundamental difference in values. To some extent, we all live in bubbles, the solipsistic bubbles of our own consciousness and experience. We all frame our observations and experiences with our beliefs and values. We all give more weight to facts that support our opinions, and less weight to facts that contradict it. But when someone consistently responds to solid real-world evidence that contradicts their beliefs by denying the evidence and clinging harder to their belief — and when they firmly believe that this is the right and moral thing to do — that represents a way of looking at the universe and your place in it that I simply can’t be tolerant of. And I don’t think I should be.
But that’s not a difference of spiritual versus skeptical. There are true-believer reality-deniers in the secular world, and flexible, open-minded people in the spiritual one. So when I find myself getting enraged at radical religious extremists — around the world and of every stripe, Christian and Muslim and Jewish and New Age and everything — who are trying to hammer a huge, messy world into a tiny square hole, I remind myself that this isn’t religious intolerance. It’s not the religion I’m intolerant of. It’s the rejection of reality — scientific, political, or simply human.