Is Everything You’ve Lived For A Lie?

It’s only a few days until the Apocalypse, and I’ve been thinking, what if it doesn’t happen? What do people who have absolute faith in a prediction do when they find out that they are wrong?

I suggested on my last post that a lot of people will gravitate towards a more scientific understanding of the world. Ptolemists become Copernicans. Creationists who dedicated their lives to advancing pseudoscience often change their minds. Psychologists reverse their opinions about homosexuality based on evidence. The Flood didn’t really happen. Adam and Eve weren’t actual people. Muhammed didn’t really fly to Jerusalem. Dedicated believers, even priests, become atheists. But these positive changes are not singular events–they come from an gradual buildup of knowledge, experiences, public debates, self-reflection, and self-questioning over many years and with many different kinds of people. We can’t teach the value of reason or the methods of science in a day; it has to be built over a lifetime.

So that’s why it was naive of me to assume that a singular event, like the Great Disappointment, would shake the faith of believers.

Part of the problem lies with the way religion has turned out after centuries of criticism, often from secular society. As Greta Christina notes, religion is often a pile of mushy nonsense.

And when I ask religious believers who aren’t theologians to define what exactly they believe, they almost always evade the question. They point to the existence of “sophisticated modern theology,” without actually explaining what any of this theology says, much less why they believe it. They resort to vagueness, equivocation, excuses for why they shouldn’t have to answer the question. In some cases, they get outright hostile at my unmitigated temerity to ask.

I’m pretty sure all of us who’ve had experiences talking to or debating with people of faith can relate to the problem above. It’s a problem that seems to come from a reluctance to truly examine or rigorously defend the propositions of what it really means to be a person of that faith, as well as a deep fear of being wrong, which is a common characteristic of religion. However, I think the greater problem is described below.

Even when religions do make falsifiable claims — like “Prayer is effective in treating illness” or “The world was created 6,000 years ago” — their defenders slip and slide and squirm away when their claims actually do get falsified. They find the most convoluted rationalizations for why the evidence doesn’t count… or they just stick their fingers in their ears and ignore the evidence altogether. The beliefs are falsifiable in theory — but in practice, they’re unshakeable articles of faith.

The scariest thing is that I sometimes worry that there’s nothing you can do about this. No matter how much evidence you put on the table, no matter how rigorous the studies are, or how clear it is that a position leads to results that benefit the common good and promote human flourishing, religious people may never lose their faith in their immoral, unscientific positions. On topics like blood transfusion, to circumcision, to marriage, to talking snakes, to the movement of the sun, there are some people who will never change their minds, no matter how strong the evidence or clear the reasoning.

It’s definitely true for people who make End Times predictions. Harold Camping, the mastermind behind the May 21 prediction, previously predicted 1994 to be the lucky year, but just admitted that he made a “calculation mistake.”

What about the Great Disappointment? Did the thousands who gave away their possessions on the lie that Jesus was coming back in 1844 leave their faith? Did they vow never to make predictions again? Did they become atheists?

Of course not. Instead, as we expect, all kinds of desperate rationalizations came into existence, ranging from the “shut-door” hypothesis to the idea that the whole event was actually the beginning of a judgement party in heaven. All kinds of new sects and denominations formed, many of them popular and thriving today. They still make all kinds of eschatological predictions, although they don’t dare to be as precise.

This rationalization process that Greta describes is a widely understood by psychologists to be a coping mechanism for cognitive dissonance. It’s the way we humans have evolved to take into account all the contradicting information in the world and to find a pattern that fits the evidence. It keeps us functioning, so that we won’t be shocked every time we learn something new, and it keeps us happy, so that we don’t always have to know that everything we’ve lived for is a lie.

Part of understanding this world and understand who we are, of course, is to understand our limitations. Although there are millions of people of different contradicting faiths who say otherwise, we don’t have to capacity to know whether there’s a supernatural being with any definitiveness. We almost certainly don’t know this being’s mind, instructions, or commands. Yet, the religious always find ways of making human predictions about supernatural events.

Greta Christina put it most nicely.

… supernatural explanations of unexplained phenomena have never once panned out… and a natural explanation has always, always, always turned out to be right.

We’re atheists because religion has had millennia to prove itself right — millennia in which it has dominated the intellectual and scientific discourse, for all but the past few decades — and has utterly failed. We’re atheists because the religion hypothesis has been tested — and tested and tested and tested, and tested again, and tested yet again, and then tested one more time to be sure, and given the benefit of the doubt and tested again, and then again, and again — and has never, ever, ever panned out.

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Posted on May 17, 2011, in History, Humanism, Religion, Science and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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