Every time I or a good friend of mine, Aaron Ross Powell, writes an article about belief, faith, religion, atheism, etc., it's guaranteed that there will be a comment block at the bottom of the article that exceeds, often times greatly so, the length of the article. Every time a man blows himself up in Iraq, it's blamed on faith. Every time a man is persecuted for their beliefs, it makes the news, and has often become history; from Socrates to Jesus Christ to the Spanish Inquisition and manifest destiny. People love this stuff.
Several things come to mind, but they all point to the same thing in the end. Defense of one's own beliefs.
We all believe certain things to be true, and most of us agree on the majority of these things. Gravity. Oxygen. The Tigers will lose. We base our lives upon these things (we walk, we breathe, we don't get too excited about Motown's boys of summer).
We also build other beliefs upon these things. We believe hard work will reward us. So we work hard. Most of us get rewarded. We believe this makes us hard workers. Since we know that hard workers get rewarded, and since reward is good, we identify being a hard worker with being good. And we associate lazy people with being bad, because in our gestalt, our idea of life, they don't get rewarded, live in squalor, and have crummy lives.
So, all is well at home, and we get to put the "I'm a happy contented person" cherry on top of our gestalt sundae.
But wait, the filthy rich are lazy too, right? Well, not necessarily, but since they can afford to be lazy, and still get the reward of the good life... well, we resent that.
For the same reason we argue faith -- they don't fit into our gestalt. And that makes us uncomfortable. Not because rich people are bad or because they don't deserve it, but because anything that doesn't fit into our gestalt threatens it, and our entire lives are based upon our idea of how our lives work being right. If our gestalt is wrong, then the cherry that we get to put on top of it goes rotten.
So, we have three options. Fight, adapt, or succumb. I've ordered these according to their attractiveness to human nature, as I see it. However, I'll cover them 3-1-2, because I like to save the best for last.
Succumb. We give up on the cherry. We lead miserable unsatisfied lives, or at least, we accept that this one little corner of the greater happy cherry is a lost cause. I hope we can agree that unless you're clinically depressed, this option is abhorrent.
Fight. If we fight and win, then we've demolished rich people. Or religion. Or atheism. Or whatever we didn't like. As you might suspect, this doesn't happen too often, and when it does, it's usually to the greater detriment of the human race. For example, just about every war ever fought. Again, the Spanish Inquisition. Manifest Destiny and White Man's Burden. Just about every newsworthy event in the Middle East for the last several millennia. China's Cultural Revolution. The Holocaust.
Seems like fighting's maybe not the best idea here, but I'll be damned if it isn't our favorite. Every inflammatory comment arguing the beliefs I present is a step down this road, and it's no secret that this first step is attractive. Internal conflict, cognitive dissonance, awakens loathing in us all. Our first reaction to something bad is to destroy it. Depending on how much a thing threatens our gestalt, we may even choose to try to do so at great cost. It's a balance; would we rather be right or would we rather be good?
It's a tough call, and far too often, the wrong person makes it. By wrong, I mostly mean morally unprepared. Since it is also in our nature to rationalize away cognitive dissonance, the unprepared man will all too readily work out a thought process by which the great cost that's on the line can become a sort of twisted benefit instead. In this way, we can be both right and good. Then we start doing terrible things in the name of god and country. Or worse yet, we start convincing others that we're all right and good to do so.
Sometimes it's easy. I've just decided that I'm not going to kill my roommate because he believes it's ok to wait until the 4th time I ask to give me his half of the rent so I can pay the landlord. There. Easy as pie. But watch any episode of The Twilight Zone, and you'll probably catch one of an uncountable set of dilemmas that can face us. What if my roommate was somehow getting away with murdering toddlers every night, and for some contrived reason, there was no way I could ever prove it? Would I kill him then? Even though I abhor the idea of vigilantism? Would I justify it just this once? Or would I try to convince all my friends that this was happening, and form a lynch mob, thus further justifying myself and by extension further relieving my cognitive dissonance?
Should we fight for our beliefs? How hard and to what extent? Is paying taxes enough to satisfy our desires to bring peace to the Middle East (assuming of course, that you think our tax dollars help)? Or should we join the military? Or go out there ourselves and really get into the thick of it?
Mostly, I think physical fighting is a waste of time. Only the ignorant still fight physically for right and wrong, because only the ignorant are still wrong about issues worth killing over. The majority of the world's civilizations are past figuring out right and wrong at this point. I'd like to think that education has come far enough to make this true in the vast majority of us, and that continuing this trend will be the eventual solution to our fighting out of ignorance.
So what does this leave us? The last one, my favorite. Adaptation. Through argument, debate, and education, we come to either adaptation or acceptance of faith that we don't share: unaligned belief.
We can adapt to envelope unaligned beliefs, making them our own. This is another form of rationalization, but as its impetus is of an educational nature instead of an antagonistic one, I think it's healthier. We still have to be careful; slippery slopes do exist, but one should never abandon one's moral compass anyway.
Or, we can accept unaligned beliefs as tolerable in others, but not for us.
After all, isn't it better to be good than right?
This certainly doesn't sound like defending our beliefs, though, does it? How are we suppose to foster a big sweet maraschino if our sundae's constantly being remade? This is exactly my point. Arguing faith -- fighting unaligned beliefs -- needs to be recognized for what it is, a growth opportunity for all parties involved. Before we can have any kind of debate, we must first abandon all defensive postures.
To bring our metaphor to a close, keep the cherry and toss the sundae; it's fattening anyway. As people who advance atheism often argue, we don't need faith in a big, benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient, imaginary friend in the sky to be happy; we can do that on our own. Well, I agree; but we don't need to have a steadfast death-grip on reality to be happy either. Abe Lincoln, who shares a birthday with my good friend Aaron, once said, "People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."
Right, on. So, endeavor to argue inquisitively, not competitively; your happiness is not at stake.