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.