Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Face of Perfect Faith

"She didn't seem unhappy. She didn't have problems at school and she seemed a happy little girl."

Maria Kislo: killed by a belief.
That was the quote from this story in the Mirror--a distraught mother describing the tragic suicide of 12 year old Maria Kislo who hanged herself in order to be reunited with her dead father in Heaven.

I'm sure she was happy. I'm sure she was a joy. And if her fucking idiot parents hadn't filled her little head from day one with fairy tale BULLSHIT about Jesus and Heaven and angels, SHE'D STILL BE HERE.

The reason I am an atheist, and why I am often an obnoxious prick about it, is not to to hurt people's feelings or take something away from them out of spite. I'm not looking to offend them or hurt them or shame them. I'm not trying to make them look stupid--I have plenty of friends of faith and I know damn well that they are not fools. I am not just some asshole who gets off trying to deprive people of a source of comfort, or a way to express gratitude for the good in their lives, or their sense of fellowship and warmth and community, or a sense of wonder and mystery about the universe and our existence. I LOVE all of those things! To tell you the truth, I wish I didn't have think about being an atheist, the same way I don't burn any fuel thinking about how I'm not an alchemist, a "ufologist," a "cryptozoologist" or an astrologer. But unlike other kooky, unprovable pursuits, religion is the one irrational idea that normal people who are otherwise rational buy into, in great numbers, and that makes it dangerous. I am the way that I am for one simple reason:

What people believe, and their reasons for believing, MATTERS.

The fact is, what this little girl did was perfectly rational, given a certain set of beliefs about the world. Ditto for the 9/11 hijackers, David Koresch and his followers at Waco, and hundreds of other examples. Is it good that they believe these things? Is it right that they believe these things? Whether or not her parents truly believed in Heaven, the credulity of a child's mind turned that fairy tale into fact for her. She truly believed. Like the that of the 9/11 conspirators, this act was an act of faith--perfect faith, as it turned out.

Beliefs, to paraphrase Sam Harris, are the machinery that guide people's actions. When we actually believe something--rather than, say, just hoping for it, or giving lip service to it--it changes us. It motivates us. It guides our behavior. We stop at red lights and avoid tumbling from high places on the basis of our beliefs about the consequences of those actions. I could tell you that you have won the Powerball, and coming from me, you might find it a pleasant thought or an amusing joke. But given the requisite conditions--you bought a ticket, there was a drawing, I'm the convenience store clerk who just scanned your ticket--that allow you to actually take the idea on board as fact that you have, really, won the Powerball, it would unleash the flood of emotions and changes in your physiology (increased heart rate, racing mind, sweating, shaking, breathing hard) that would accompany such a message. That's true belief.

True belief is extremely powerful, and like all powerful things, it must be handled responsibly. We must carefully and thoroughly vet those ideas that we allow to achieve that hallowed status, which means we must possess, and rigorously apply, the machinery of reason and skepticism to all ideas. Most of us are completely competent at doing this in most areas of our lives except, strangely, when it comes to religion. We apply healthy skepticism to all other mundane claims--Elvis is still alive, that auto shop is honest, Obamacare will save the taxpayers money--but when it comes to ideas about the origins of the universe, or what happens after we die, many of us pretend that some other standard applies. Again paraphrasing Harris, in an era that knows the existence of murderous jihadism, potential miracle cures like stem cell research, and the power to annihilate ourselves with 21st century weaponry, this intellectual disconnect is now suicidally untenable, no matter how harmless it seems when reading Bible stories to your child at bedtime.

This is the face, and the consequence, of true belief in the improbable and unprovable. Remember it well.