Why Do So Many People Believe Nonsense?
Is the trend toward embracing beliefs without evidence accelerating? It would appear so. Never before in US history have millions of Americans disputed the results of a federal election — without a shred of credible evidence. Never have millions of Americans believed something as crazy as the premise that the leadership of one of the two major political parties is composed of a ring of pedophiles who engage in cannibalistic Satanic rites — again, without a shred of evidence.
What is driving this nuttiness? I don’t think that there is one simple explanation, but rather a confluence of influences, which I will attempt to explore here.
Why do people embrace a religious belief without evidence? The answer seems simple to me: because they want to. Sure, most people who identify with a religious institution were indoctrinated into it from an early age. But they still have a choice. I was raised as a Catholic but became more and more skeptical of the whole edifice of belief as I approached adolescence. Why did the creator of billions of suns need to be worshiped anyway? Was he insecure? It became apparent to me that the anthropomorphic caricature of an almighty God in the old testament was a human construct.
The model I saw for the biblical God was a very bad-tempered iron age king — with added-on superpowers. He is cruel. At times, he is a monster. In one passage, God smites seventy thousand of David’s subjects with a plague because the king had the audacity to attempt a census of his people. Right.
Then there are all the biblical passages recounting the exterminations of tribes who are not God’s chosen ones. “Do not spare them, but kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys,” orders God’s s prophet, Samuel. “Leave nothing alive that breathes.,” God commands while calling for another genocide. Some of the passages of cruel slaughter, sanctioned by God, turned my stomach when I first encountered them. They still do. I could only hope I was reading fiction.
I officially left the Catholic Church by sending a letter to the archbishop. In it I enumerated some of the many crimes against humanity past and present performed in the name of the Church. I believe it is incumbent on all of us who are associated with a religion, to make a public statement regarding criminal acts made in the name of that religion. If you belong to the club, you don’t get to duck your head and claim the bad stuff has nothing to do with you.
The letter, which I distributed, was my statement. I received a polite reply from the office of the archbishop acknowledging that I had decided to leave the Church. Three hundred years ago, I would have been burned at the stake. There are still some 18 countries with Muslim majorities where a similar letter, renouncing personal adherence to Islam, could get the author arrested and prosecuted. In some countries, like Saudi Arabia, the apostate could be sentenced to death, as prescribed by Sharia law.
In North America, though, we can generally come and go and pick and choose as we will. So people can believe what they want. But when they have chosen their religious belief relying on so-called faith, can that make them more likely to embrace other beliefs without evidence? Just asking.
“The Election was stolen. I just have a feeling. “– a Trump follower.
The Abrahamic religions require that one puts faith before reason. This is a template for submission to authoritarianism. The demand for obedience to God, in practise, has always been about obedience to those who claim to speak for God — and their political allies.
I do not deny the personal reality of the profound mystical experiences that some people can have. Individuals have been having those for thousands of years. Sometimes they tell others about these experiences. And then there are always those who will interpret these stories to profit from them for power and sometimes wealth. The latter is exemplified in the obscene church of prosperity gospel.
Some 2500 years ago, Gautama, the Buddha, had a mystical experience. One truth that he believed he had discovered and then related to others is that there is no such thing as an imperishable individual soul. But if you ask folks who call themselves Buddhists today, many will tell you their teachers have told them the opposite. That is, after all, an easier sell.
Most people need a spiritual dimension in their lives. I am in awe of the ineffable mystery of being every single day. But I don’t buy the pretentious claim by any individual or institution to have a handle on God. Defining God, as the institutions of religion are wont to do, is misguided human hubris. Think of the many sects within the Abrahamic religions that have gone to murderous war with each other over interpretations of scripture. Consider all the inquisitions, tortures, and executions inflicted on people in the name of getting the holy word just right.
On the other hand, the humility expressed in some degree of agnosticism can perhaps make for a saner world. Many people, however, have a need to embrace the illusion of certainty, rather than accept the mystery.
A science article that guides you further to understand the intricate workings of the universe may bring you at least as close to the face of God as discovering a sublime metaphor in a sacred text. That’s not to say that there are no poetic metaphors in religious texts — but turning metaphor into dogma is crazy.
More than a few evangelical leaders have told their followers that Trump was selected to be president by God. They remind their followers that in the Bible, God chose sinners like David and Saul as leaders. So character doesn’t matter? It’s a trade. Trump promised evangelicals political power. They, in turn, had to overlook his depravity. “Ye Hypocrites,” as Christ said to the religious leaders of his day. Truly.
It has occurred to me that the ego-driven, submission and loyalty demanding, spiteful, insecure, wrathful Trump, matches the character of Jehovah in the Old Testament in many ways. If one somehow accepts these character flaws as positive attributes, then I guess one can accept Trump as the chosen one. On the other hand, he’s not a bad fit for the Anti-Christ either.
Philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that the Holocaust was caused by a failure to think and feel. Indeed, if we could put reason and empathy ahead of dogma and authoritarianism, we might have a better world. Recall that the model for human behavior in the Abrahamic religions is the patriarch who was ready to slay his son because he heard a voice in his head (in a dream, according to the Islamic version) ordering him to do so. This would clearly be considered madness and evil outside the upside-down world of authoritarian religion.
The Breakdown of Mental and Emotional Discipline
Civilization is about restraint. Freud said that neurosis is the price we must pay for controlling our impulses to enjoy a relatively peaceful and cooperative society. Most people don’t act on their darker urges. But that is breaking down. Jan 6 was a melding of unrestrained anger and irrational belief; a toxic stew stirred up by the champion of unfettered id, Donald Trump. Everyone has an inner demon. And Trump seems to be able to channel it in so many people. By behaving like an asshole, he gives his followers the blessing to do so too. For many of his acolytes, it must feel like a personal liberation. But it’s a dark and dangerous one.
Finding truth is a rational process. But it is also an ethical one. Truth has to matter. And if truth matters, then one is obliged to accept uncomfortable truths — like our side lost an election. Truth requires emotional discipline. If you believe in truth, you are not free to choose the truth you want. You are obliged to choose the truth that is true, the one that is based on the preponderance of evidence-supported conclusions.
In 2001 the US government, under George W Bush, conspired with the Governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel to plant explosives that would bring down the twin towers of the World Trade Center. This was carefully coordinated with suicidal Arabs (19 of whom had been recruited in all) who hijacked jetliners and flew them into the buildings to deflect attention from the explosives. There is a wall of silence concealing this conspiracy. None of the thousands of people involved have come forward in the 21 years since the event.
Occam’s razor, this is not.
It’s not that real conspiracies don’t exist. The Mueller report, contrary to what many claim, clearly stated that Russia meddled in the 2016 US election in favor of Trump. That was a conspiracy. The Watergate coverup that Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein exposed was a conspiracy. The difference between a real conspiracy and a false one is evidence.
Arguing with a false conspiracy theorist always involves batting down numerous details they have brought up as “evidence.” Yes, the fires in the twin towers were not hot enough to melt the steel columns. But they didn’t have to be. The fires were sufficiently hot to soften the steel enough to fail.
Yes, building seven near the twin towers was the only tall steel column building to ever collapse, supposedly due to fires. But detailed engineering reports have explained how the fires, which burned all day, aided by structural deficiencies in the original design, caused the budling to collapse.
The Arab hijackers were uneducated fodder who would have been incapable of planning a sophisticated plot. In fact, all the hijackers had post-secondary educations. Some had advanced degrees. Several were engineers. Osama Bin Laden, the initiator of the plot, was himself an engineer. Mohamad Atta, the leader of the hijacking group, somewhat ironically, had an advanced engineering degree in urban planning. They knew exactly what they were doing.
Many engineers have been involved in numerous studies of the 911 disaster. They would have all had to participate in the coverup.
False conspiracy theorists are usually obsessed with disconnected details. They invariably fail to look at the larger picture in any way that makes sense. None of the thousands of people that would have had to be involved in the supposed fake moon landing have ever spoken up. That 99% of earth scientists are engaged in a conspiracy to foment a climate change hoax is in a category with flat earth and QAnon beliefs. The latter posits that the Democratic party leadership is involved in Satanic rites involving the sexual abuse of children and drinking their blood. Donald Trump has explicitly welcomed the support of these crazies. He, who has frequently complained about a metaphorical witch hunt by the Democrats, ironically endorses a literal one. Oh yeah, and wasn’t he the one that inflicted monstrous cruelty on children by having them separated from their parents and locked up in cages?
Why do people believe nonsense? Again, because they want to. Studies have revealed a statistical personality profile for folks that embrace false conspiracy theorists. They are often people who feel that they have little control over their own lives. Perhaps believing they have an esoteric peek behind the curtain to see the guy manipulating the switches gives them a sense of empowerment. And joining with others, who in their minds, have also dared to look behind the curtain, gives them a sense of belonging. Hence the QAnon slogan, “Where we go one, we go all.”
But why do many people in American society feel so disempowered? Why the malaise? Why the anger? Why is fundamentalist Christianity so much stronger in the US than any other country? Why do Americans “retreat into their guns and their bibles,” as Obama inadvertently, but perhaps truthfully, blurted?
It’s a tough question. What do people want? In America, it seems to be stuff. An astonishing statistic is that the US has ten times the per capita floor space devoted to retail compared to Europe. Canada, at eight times, is not far behind. Even though an Austrian architect invented the modern strip mall, the enormous North American-style ones are rare in Europe, as are big box stores, or what we here would consider a supermarket with an entire aisle devoted to chips and pop. Europeans, in general, just don’t seem as frantic about consumption as Americans. And it’s not just about stuffing homes with things they don’t need; it’s also about stuffing faces with non-nutritious food our bodies don’t even want. What is this emptiness we need to feed?
Could it be that people no longer participate sufficiently in their own lives? If they no longer feel real themselves, does their perception of reality in the outside world becomes a nebulous construct as well? The average American now spends more than eight hours a day viewing various media — more time than most spend sleeping. This has unequivocally led to a decline in traditional person-to-person human interactions. Young people are even having less person-to-person sex.
A few owners of pubs and cafes have resorted to shutting down their internet to try and get customers to interact with each other. Reports are, it works. One pub owner in the UK built a Faraday cage around his premise to shut out all electronic waves, including those from cell phones. He has testified that his experiment is a huge success. People were having conversations and making new friends just like the old days, he said.
As a lifelong traveler, I have noted that it has been harder to meet new people during my planet-wide wanderings in the last few years. Personal media obsession has crept into every corner of the globe. While visiting a monastery in a relatively remote part of the Himalayas not long ago, I found monks seated everywhere with their heads deeply bowed — too focused to speak with me. They were engaged with their smartphones.
In modern media, the line between fiction and news, entertainment and reality, has become blurred. There is no evidence that Donald Trump significantly enhanced the fortune he inherited from his father. One way or the other, the evidence would be in his tax returns, which he won’t release. Yet millions of people believe he is a successful businessman largely because he portrayed one on a successful so-called reality show.
What is real? Unfortunately, too many people don’t even stop to give it much thought. And even more unfortunately, those that do, are too often hesitant to stand up for what is true.
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
- From the Second Coming by W.B. Yeats
We need to get in touch with ourselves and with each other. Importantly we need to practice an all-important virtue with ourselves and others — honesty.
We have a lot to deal with, climate change, dwindling resources, and pollution. We better learn to be truthful about the challenges.
Otherwise, we face the future prophesized at the end of Yeats’ poem.
“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”