Thought on belief

If we stopped to count e-mail forwards, I wonder how many we’d come up with, and what we might learn by developing a taxonomy of them. It’s work that’s been partly done by sites like Snopes and, of course, but their concern is practical, aimed at helping people recognize bogus stories, not that of the researcher.

In an academic way, it’s remarkable just how many phony stories are being circulated out there as true. You might, for instance, have seen the e-mail blasting Target as a French company that’s opposed to veterans; I’ll admit that my dad likes to refer to Target as “Tarjet, the French store,” but that’s the only thing French about them (they’re headquartered in Minneapolis). They may have chosen to focus their corporate grant-giving on educational and arts projects, but that doesn’t make them anti-veteran. You might also remember the one about Procter & Gamble being a front for the Church of Satan—supposedly, the CEO went on a talk show and boasted about it, and pointed out the “666” hidden in the beard on the company’s logo. This one, it turns out, was started by a regional Amway distributor, and has been around long enough that older versions had this mythical executive making his confession to Phil Donahue and Johnny Carson.

Do you ever wonder why these things get around so well? They spread across the electronic landscape like kudzu, after all—there has to be a reason. Or maybe several, since we human beings tend not to do things simply, or for simple reasons. I don’t claim to know all of them, but I think I can name the big one: we’re wired to believe.

This isn’t to say that we’re wired to hold any particular belief—I think we were, originally, but our fall into sin broke that—but it is to say that when confronted with a proposition, with someone declaring something to be true, our deepest natural reflex is to believe it. We are innately credulous. That’s why Internet rumors spread the way they do: many, perhaps most, people grant them the presumption of belief, assuming them to be credible simply because they exist. It’s why the “big lie” propaganda strategy works, because it’s hard for us to credit that anyone actually would tell a lie that big, even when rationally we know that such things happen. And it’s why, as you might have seen in the news lately, research has shown that atheists are significantly more likely than religious folk to believe in UFOs, ESP, and paranormal phenomena; having thrown out religion doesn’t leave them able truly to believe in nothing. Thus the great Christian writer G. K. Chesterton said,

It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense, and can’t see things as they are.

Or, as another line attributed to Chesterton has it,

When a man ceases to believe in God, he does not believe in nothing. He believes in everything.

Now, obviously we don’t believe everything we hear (or at least, most people don’t); we learn fairly early that we can’t, because that would require us to believe many things which are mutually contradictory. Further, as we come to believe in certain things, that rules out believing in others. Over the course of life, we evolve a set of criteria for determining what things we believe and what things we don’t; we develop filters to strain out the things which don’t make sense, or don’t fit with what we believe, or contradict things which we know to be true. And yet, despite all this, we still have the predisposition, the reflex, to believe what people tell us. I spent most of a year working in inner-city ministry, right along the north side of one of the most blighted urban slums in the developed world, and in that time I had people lie to me and try to con me in more ways than I would have imagined possible. It was an education. And yet, when I had someone come up to me one rainy night outside our favorite restaurant and ask for money because he’d run out of gas, I gave him a toonie (a two-dollar coin, for those unfamiliar with Canadian money); I didn’t realize I’d been conned until the next week when I saw the guy referenced by one of the local columnists. I should have known better; but I was predisposed to believe his story.

The most basic reason for this is that God created us to believe him. Obviously, that was bent when we chose to turn away from God into disobedience, but it’s still there; and I think there’s something about living in our fallen world that reinforces it. It shows up in a lot of ways. Some are fairly unflattering, like the desire to know something that most people don’t—we like feeling special, like we’re smarter than the average Joe—while others are more noble, like the desire to understand the world. Behind them all, if we look, I think we can see a common root: this sense that everybody has, though some pay attention to it and some don’t, that there’s more to this life than what we can see. We can study how this world works in a lot of ways, through sciences like physics or social sciences like economics, or through disciplines in the humanities like history or literature, but there’s always more to understand than we can get to, and always a deeper truth that we can’t quite reach on our own. It’s the sense that there’s a mystery at the heart of life, one that we can’t understand without a deeper wisdom than this world has to give us; we need something better to believe in than money can buy, or power can win, or pleasure can produce.


Posted in Quotes, Religion and theology.

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