Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

Believe What You Want…


A colleague of mine, for reasons that are not completely clear to me, recently showed his students the movie Zeitgeist.  Now I’m not one to critique a movie I haven’t watched (or a book I haven’t read), but as near as I can figure out from the enthused ravings of a student who said I really needed to see it, it’s a bunch of conspiracy theories ranging from Jesus-never-existed-and-Christianity-is-based-entirely-on-Egyptian-mythology, through The-US-staged-the-911-attacks-to-engender-fear-in-the-masses-and-justify-war-with-Iraq, to OMG-The-US-Federal-Reserve-Bank-controls-EVERYTHING!!!!! 

If there was a unifying thread tying these three premises together, it escaped my student — except perhaps the unifying thread of Open Your Eyes! Don’t Be Deceived! Sinister Forces Are Out To Get You.  All of which just reminds me of this “protest song” featuring a very young Hugh Laurie and Tony Slattery.

But I’m not interested in a critique of Zeitgeist here; what interested me was how uncritically my student absorbed and believed everything he saw on it.  Largely, I believe, because it fit with the way he already thought.  He likes conspiracy theories; he wants to believe there’s a big evil mastermind pulling the strings.  (He also wants to believe zombies are real, but that’s another story).  It made me think about how easily we’re convinced by things that fit with what we already believe, or want to believe.

Now when it comes to documentaries, I love Michael Moore.  Not just because big scruffy guys are sexier than they get credit for (true though that is), but because I agree with his politics.  Even though I know his presentations are as biased and manipulative as anyone else’s, I’m less critical because he’s saying what I want to hear.

Andrea had a thought-provoking blog post recently about critical reading, and moving outside of comfort zones.  One of the morals of her story is: Don’t Marry The Book. In other words (at least this is how I understand her point) don’t uncritically accept the message of any book (or movie, or speaker, I would extrapolate) and allow it to shape your worldview, without analyzing it and understanding where it’s coming from. 

As I read this, I thought about what a tendency I have to Marry The Book, to be overwhelmed by a book’s message and allow it to affect the way I think about everything. The best current example of this, of course, is my reaction to Jesus for President (and, before that, to The Irresistible Revolution).  These books have moved me profoundly and made me change my thoughts and actions.  But did they only do that because the ideas they presented are ones I’m predisposed to agree with?

Books, I’ve found, are far less likely to move me out of my comfort zone than to confirm me in the comfort zone where I’m already snug and secure.  There have been times I have read books that challenged me, that forced me to crawl outside the zone and examine new ideas. The raft of reading about the historical Jesus debates that I did in the early 2000s (Crossan, Borg, other Jesus Seminar people, etc etc) was one such time.  But when I started reading N.T. Wright he became my new hero, my theological guru.  Was that because he was so much more convincing than the others, that his arguments stronger? Or was it because he told me what I wanted to hear? I strongly supsect the latter.

Actually I find this in every area of life, not just reading (or watching documentaries). What I choose to believe (and do) is so heavily conditioned by what I want to believe (and do).  I think about my track record vis-a-vis making changes to become more environmentally friendly.  All the changes I make are the ones I want to make, the ones that appeal to me anyway and all I need is a little outside guilt to justify me making that change.  Like, I’ve made the switch completely from plastic shopping bags to reusable ones.  But the truth is that I always hated plastic shopping bags. They’re tacky and they proliferate around the house and aesthetically, they just annoy me.  So of course as soon as a good alternative was readily available and socially acceptable, I went with it.  I should get NO points for that. 

When it comes to a more difficult environmental change — like using my car less on the 95% of days when it’s cold and wet in St. John’s — surely that would be a better test of my beliefs? I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and I’m convinced that eating locally where possible is a good idea.  That moves me to seek out a source of local organic beef and start buying it, because that makes me cool and green (and it’s hardly any trouble), but not to give up fresh imported bananas and strawberries, because I want those.

If I really cared about the environment, or poverty, or social justice, I’d make changes that don’t appeal to me, ones I don’t feel like making.  What shall it profit a woman if she boycotts WalMart because of its unsavoury labour practices, when she actually finds WalMart crowded and stressful and can’t stand to go in there anyway (except when she needs 11×17 bristol board, for which she will gladly make an exception to her principles)?

If I were really committed to intellectual honesty, wouldn’t I give equal weight to the claims of those whose religious and political views differ from mine, rather than paying lip-service to open-mindedness and then quickly retreating into the arms (or pages) of someone whose views I find comfortingly familiar?

Having posted so recently about What I Believe, I’m now forced to admit that despite whatever evidence I’ve considered and weighed, my main reason for believing all those things is because I want to believe them. I like those beliefs. They make me feel comfortable.  New beliefs are adopted more on the basis of being coherent with beliefs (or tastes, or preferences, or even prejudices) that I already hold, more than on a rigorous intellectual examination of the evidence.

I assume we all do this to a greater or lesser degree.  Some people, I guess, are better at moving (or getting pushed) out of their comfort zones than I am, but I suspect most of us tend to adopt views that support what we want to believe (perhaps the image we want to hold of ourselves).  And this can’t be wholly wrong.  I mean, there’s something to be said for trusting your instinct, your intuition. your gut. 

But (as I’ve observed about disagreements in church on occasion) if we all just go on trusting our instincts, sifting through the evidence to find the pieces that fit with what we already believe, we’ll continue to polarize more and more on issues, rather than finding common ground.

I guess the only real good I can find in this is that it helps me to be a little gentler with those who disagree with me.  I can flare up and get angry with people who believe global warming is a hoax, and those who believe women have no role in pastoral ministry, and those who say that people choose to be gay because they’re sinners, and those who think poor people could all be middle-class if they’d just get off their lazy backsides. But I have to remind myself that people believe these things because on some level they want to believe them; these beliefs fit with the world as they see it.  And I’m no better myself. 

Not that I’m going to be all postmodern and suggest that there’s no such thing as an objective standard of truth — just that it’s incredibly hard for any of us to cut through the thicket of our already-existing beliefs and worldviews to get to it. So while we try to inch closer to The Truth (and I think I am trying, and so are lots of other people, including those who disagree with me) I will try to go easy on those whose version of Truth is different from mine.



19 thoughts on “Believe What You Want…

  1. In your second last paragraph you state that you are more understanding of opposing viewpoints because of your realization that people are merely believing what they want to believe. Wow… that would make me less prone to rationalize their viewpoints. If they had contrary or hurtfully biased viewpoints because they have not been exposed to anything other than that (ignorance), then I’d tend to be more tolerant (if I gave myself time to think about it). But it I knew that they were making a choice, even subconsciously, to believe things such as you cited as examples, then I’d be more inclined to feel that they were being a tad malicious… something for which I would have decreased tolerance.

    By the way… I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Well-written and thought provoking. Far more intelligent than anything I would write. But maybe that’s just what I want to believe so I can keep the bar set low! 🙂

  2. This was very cool, and very apt. It is all too tempting to treat the people who don’t use the same evidence we do like idiots.

  3. Steve, I guess it just makes me more tolerant of others’ views because I feel like I’m no more inherently rational than they are. And I’m not sure how consciously most people “choose” their beliefs, but I’m thinking of people who DO think about what they believe, people who say, “Well I’ve studied this issue closely and here’s the evidence that convinces me and here’s my conclusion.” And I just look at them and shake my head and think, “How did you ever get to THAT conclusion?” Then I realize; that was where they (on some level, perhaps unconsciously) wanted to end up. And I do the same.

    Andrea, thanks for the comment! And for sparking my train of thought in the first place.

  4. Acknowledging you are irrational kinda makes you rational, right? I mean, insane people don’t know they are sane. Knowing you are ignorant is kind of enlightening.

    Ok… now I’m being silly. I understand the point. Laissez faire. Let folks believe what they want to believe because everyone is coming from a different place and has their own reasons for believing certain things. Like, for the life of me, I don’t understand why it is SO important to put the seat back down.

    Thanks again Trudy for such an entertaining read. Most of the blogs I subscribe to are silliness just like mine.

  5. Mine always has a fair share of silliness. For example, did you click on the link to the “protest song”?

  6. Great post 🙂

    I’ve always been fond of the saying “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but I’m the only one that’s right.” 😀

  7. I’ve been accused of only reading books that agree with what I want to believe, of only listening to people who backup what I want to believe, and of surrounding myself with people who believe the same way I do, just so I could justify my sinful ways. Of course, while I believed the ‘proper’ things, I was never accused of any of this, even though I was doing it more then than ever.

    And it’s really hard for me to say how much of this is true for me. It’s true that I won’t read anti-gay literature anymore, but is that because I don’t want to believe it? Or is it because I’ve read both sides of the argument and find one side simply doesn’t stand up? Or is it somewhere in between? I’m about the same place with Christian apologists, who do seem MORE inclined to decide on “the Truth” first, and fill in the steps leading up to it later. But again, is that because I didn’t want to believe that stuff? As far as my conscious self goes, I’m pretty sure I DID want to believe it, but stopped being able to. So do I find atheist writings more appealing because I want to believe them anyway, or because they make more sense to me and seem more rational. That they are less certain perhaps helps a bit.

    I don’t know. This has given me food for thought. But I have allowed myself to be bullied by other people’s thoughts and ideas for so long, that now I’m a little shy of putting myself in the line of fire.

    I’m rambling. I need to stop.

  8. FLG: Cheers, great saying!!

    Jamie: Well, I do think there are times in life when we need to read things that re-affirm and confirm who we are and what we believe, and times when we need to challenge ourselves more, push harder outside that comfort zone, question our assumptions. I think one of the things we do know instinctively, if we listen to our intuition, is which time it is for us. There was a time when I was actually afraid to read atheist books and things that were critical of the Bible — not because I believed it was wrong to read them or that I’d go to hell (!!), but because I didn’t feel ready to grapple with those questions and examine my faith at that level. And somebody (online, not IRL) once mocked me for that fear, and yet I stuck to the sense that I would read those books when I felt ready. And when I was, I did, and my faith was changed and re-shaped but not destroyed.

    However I do think that you (Jamie) are in a somewhat different position than I’ve ever been, because as you said you have been told who and what you were supposed to be and think by other people, and now you are going through the process of figuring out who YOU really are and what you think, and that means making a bigger break than I’ve ever had to make. I think part of that process is protecting yourself, not reading or listening to things that are going to make you feel attacked or torn down.

    I don’t know why rambling should make you stop — it certainly never stops me!!

  9. Rambling rarely stops me either. Truth be told, I was running out of ramble, but what was there could be construed as rambling enough, so it’s kind of a cop out way of ending a ramble that I didn’t know how to end.

    Even as I was starting to read things highly critical of my faith, I remember not wanting to read books like “The God Delusion” because I just wasn’t read for them. By the time I did come around to reading that particular one, it didn’t matter any more. My faith (such as it was) had been lost, and I knew the book couldn’t destroy it anymore.

    You are right, though, that it’s a big break I have to make. At the same time, I’m a little miffed that I have to do this when I’m nearly forty. There is a song called “Unhook The Stars” that says:

    “Just when everything’s in order and good, things fall apart
    Just when life should be resolving I’m back at the beginning,
    And it comes back to the heart …”

    And that’s where I find myself. The freedom that comes with that, though, is that I’m not even sure what I want to believe, and so I’m not sure how much I am gravitating to things that comfort me instead of challenge me.

    In some ways, everything is a challenge. And in some ways, nothing is.

  10. I believe in the Golden Rule and treating people as we would have them treat us, but everyone can’t be right.

    There are always boundaries. Right, wrong, truth, and untruth.

    Someone may believe kiddie porn is okay. That’s their personal sexual preferrence. It’s illegal, but it’s their preferrence. Hitler believed he was right, and many let him have his way.

    Both extreme cases, I know, but where do we draw the line and stand up and say, I’m not alright with that? We have to have some sense of morals and beliefs as individuals, and as a society.

    I need our legal system, with all it’s flaws, to be able to say, “this is right and that is wrong, and there are consequences.” I wouldn’t feel protected if they didn’t do that.

    Same with faith. There “are” rights and wrongs, and I have to deal with that…and face the consequences. I can play nice on the Church and world playground of faith…but there are boundaries for me.

    (I also believe that big burly guys are sexier than they get credit for.) 🙂

  11. I have to admit that it annoys me when people say “I just can’t believe in..X”. I could never have believed that Mt. St. Helens would erupt or that the World Trade Center would be bombed and collapse. It didn’t stop either one from becoming facts.
    Maybe if your students need a lesson on seriously considering the facts about conspiracy theories they should visit this website:
    It is an expose on a dangerous chemical…

  12. Sherry, I didn’t mean to imply that I think all beliefs are equally valid — as you know, I feel VERY strongly about the things I believe are right. Beliefs lead to actions, and I believe that some of the beliefs I consider wrong can lead to very cruel and unjust actions. And I believe in opposing cruelty and injustice.

    But I also believe we can love and respect people while disagreeing with their beliefs. And when I disagree with a belief someone holds, if I remember how hard it is for any of us to move outside our comfort zones and change our opinions, that makes it easier for me to treat that other person with love and respect despite our differences.

    Sharon, I’ve seen that website before; it’s great!

  13. Amen to that!

  14. “Both extreme cases, I know, but where do we draw the line and stand up and say, I’m not alright with that? ”

    To me the answer to this has absolutely nothing to do with faith, and it’s the same whether or not there is a God.

    It has to do with suffering. Of course, it’s easier to see in the extreme examples–kiddie porn causes huge, sometimes irreparable suffering to children. And Hitler is an easy target here too. But the rights and wrongs with faith seem to me to be a lot more arbitrary, and I think on a moral level we can probably do without them (although, I can see how they can motivate someone to live a moral life).

    I realize that sometimes the question about whether something causes suffering isn’t always an easy one. But sometimes it is. We see that in the clash of belief systems around gay marriage all the time. A love between two people that causes no suffering is suddenly put center stage as the greatest threat America has ever faced, as if somehow this is causing more suffering than the stupid war they are stuck in down there. And that is where faith sometimes undermines reason so that morality becomes not about what causes suffering to others or self, but about whose holy book says what.

    I think it’s okay to draw the line and say I’m not okay with that about whatever you want to say it about, but when that translates into unfair laws and repressive social constraints I think a line does indeed need to be drawn. I also think there is a way (as everyone who has responded here has shown) to say what you believe in a way that does put this on the level of faith and belief where each is welcome to differences.

  15. I agree with most of what you say, Jamie, although I have to point out that we broke Godwin’s Law sometime back by bringing Hitler into the discussion…

  16. My bad. Breaking Godwin’s Law should have ended our discussion. 🙂

  17. Now I have to Google “Godwin’s Law”…

    Okay…done googling. Doesn’t look like we so much broke the law as proved it!

  18. When I self-reflect on this, Trudy, I think I’ve spent a large part of my life exposing myself to the readings and viewpoints of people I don’t agree with. Like forcing myself to listen to Dr. Dobson every day when I was working at VOAR. And having conversations with really right-wing Americans about the Canadian health care system and, surrounding myself with people who don’t value the things I dedicate my life to (like my art). I don’t think I’m unusual. It was actually harder for me to walk away from a toxic congregation than it was to stay–and took four years to do–largely because I value other people’s freedom to think and say what they want to think and say more than I value my own freedom of expression and happiness. Kind of self-defeating in the long run.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s