Believers are still out there

Being a skeptic is incredibly hard work. I’m not referring to the fact that many people have a completely vacuous and dizzyingly inaccurate idea of what ‘skepticism’ means – that it’s simply the refusal to entertain or accept new ideas – that’s tough enough. No, even if everyone had the definition right (skepticism being the practice of questioning all assertions about reality and apportioning the strength of one’s belief to the strength of the available evidence), it would still be a slog. Not only does a skeptic have to question the opinions of others, she/he must repeatedly check her/his own assumptions and thoughts constantly.

Skepticism, like the concept of ‘enlightenment’ found in Zen teaching, is an abstract; a goal that can never be fully attained but which should be constantly pursued. Nobody can ever be a ‘true’ skeptic, as we constantly find ourselves falling back into our human failings. One of the things I keep finding myself blindsided by is the occasional realization that while, as far as I’m concerned, the supernatural aspects of religious belief are the stuff of juvenile fantasy, there are still lots of people out there that really do believe that shit:

Belief in a god, or a supreme being, and some sort of afterlife is strong in many countries around the globe, according to a new Ipsos/Reuters poll. Fifty one per cent of the 18,829 people across 23 countries who took part in the survey said they were convinced there is an afterlife and a divine entity, while 18 per cent said they don’t believe in a god and 17 per cent weren’t sure.

But only 28 per cent believe in creationism, the belief that a god created humans, compared to 41 per cent who believe in human evolution and 31 per cent who simply don’t know what to believe.

From my personal experience, even those religious people I regularly spend time with say that most of their beliefs are more allegorical than literal. They believe in ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ in abstract terms representing a belief in some sort of ultimate justice. They believe in ‘god’ as a vague description of some kind of greater organizing force that permeates the universe. As such, they describe themselves as ‘religious’ in the sense that they do not accept that the universe can be entirely explained through cause/effect chains. If you really drill down to the core of modern theology, it eventually becomes various forms of this kind of ecumenical refusal to be certain about anything.

While infuriating from a rationalist point of view, this kind of belief system is not the kind of thing that inspires people to go out and murder their fellow man or oppress her rights, and often these people are able to pivot that kind of fuzzy ‘religion’ into something constructive (which, I think, points even more strongly to the fact that belief is entirely ancillary to human virtue). And while I think this kind of belief is an intellectually lazy way of having your cake and eating it too, I can at least appreciate the impulse to retain some kind of belief in the supernatural.

That’s why I am gob-smacked when I am confronted with the fact that more than half of my fellow creatures believe in the literal truth of life after death and an ultimate supernatural entity. Not as a vague abstract notion, but as a real being with conscious decision-making abilities and a penchant for judgment. I can handle the abstract concept of people who believe this kind of stuff, but from time to time my brain grabs onto it semantically, shakes my conscious mind and says “can you believe this shit?”

And of course, they do:

Mexicans were the most likely to accept the idea of an afterlife, but not heaven or hell, followed by Russians, Brazilians, Indians, Canadians and Argentines. Believers in creationism were strongest in South Africa, followed by the United States, Indonesia, South Korea and Brazil.

Of course there are two different ways of looking at these findings. Yes, depressingly 3 or 4 billion people in the world think that their entire lives are nothing more than the staging area for some post-mortem talent contest judged by the ultimate Simon Cowell. However, it’s almost perfectly balanced by people who either recognize that there’s no evidence for such an assertion or simply reserve judgment on that particular issue. Nearly half of my fellow creatures live their lives under the operating assumption that this life actually matters, not as a screening process for some kind of real life that happens after you die, but to the planet they live on and the beings that share it. Even if it turns out that there is an afterlife (although the very idea seems preposterous – what part of you goes to the afterlife? And no, ‘soul’ isn’t a meaningful answer to that question), the world we do know exists is made better through the actions of people that live as though their existence matters now.

Opinion polls are largely unimportant when it comes to determining truth about reality (saving those exceptions where we are trying to describe the reality of human belief), but they do give us a pretty significant nod in the direction that our policies and decisions will take us. It’s crucial to never underestimate the fact that while I (and many of you, I’d imagine) have abandoned the false promises given by those who claim knowledge of the afterlife, we share our space with literally billions of other who every day trade the cow of their life for the magic beans of faith.

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