New Year’s Message: The Greatest Offense

Doctore Who

I’ll admit it: I have committed the greatest offense of them all. And I did so willingly and gladly. Many, many times.  It’s an offense, indeed, that is the primary purpose of this blog. It’s an offense that can lose you “friends” and elicit a great deal of hostility toward you. It’s an offense that can prompt many in the media to revile you as public enemy number one.

What is this unforgivable sin? It’s challenging people’s beliefs.

Most people do not want their beliefs challenged. In fact, most people are more defensive of their beliefs than they are of their homes, their families, their money. There’s a little speech in the play Inherit the Wind in which schoolteacher Bertram Cates notes that because he dared to teach evolution in school, the townspeople look at him with more hatred in their eyes than they would if he were a hardened criminal. There may not have been so much animosity toward Cates’ real-life counterpart, John Thomas Scopes, but he was put on trial for teaching scientific fact that conflicted with fundamentalist dogma.

Literally nothing is more important to most people than holding onto their beliefs at all costs. In 1954, an Illinois housewife named Dorothy Martin proclaimed that God had given her a message that the world would end on December 21 of that year. But the faithful would be saved by a UFO. She assembled a sizable cult of followers who prepared for the end. And when neither the end nor the spacecraft did come, were they deterred? On the contrary, they were more steadfast in their beliefs than ever, declaring that because of their faith, God had decided to spare the entire planet.

Writing about this phenomenon in 1957, psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term cognitive dissonance, which is now a standard fixture in the lexicon of popular discourse. And for very good reason. Typically, when people experience cognitive dissonance — i.e., when the facts conflict with their beliefs — they alter their facts rather than alter their beliefs. Just as the UFO cult did.

As Doctor Who observed almost exactly 40 years ago:

You know, the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts; they alter the facts to fit their views.

I make it a point to avoid trying to convince anyone of anything. Because people do not want to be convinced of anything except what they already believe. And confronting them with contrary information only causes discord. The best you can do is put information out there for anyone who’s interested and hope it eventually trickles down to those who most need to hear it.  Challenge beliefs, but not in the face of the believers.

For many centuries, virtually everyone in Europe believed, because of the story of Adam and Eve, that women had more ribs than men. Until around 1543. When somebody finally got around to actually counting them.

Here’s hoping this will be the year when people start counting ribs.

One comment

  1. So true, and I admit that I am often reluctant to let go of my preferred beliefs. It has something to do with living in an uncertain and often threatening world where even clinging to falsehoods can actually make us feel more secure and comforted.

    As in 1984, the false narrative that Big Brother was fighting (what was really a concocted enemies in its wars), gave people a sense that they were being cared for, despite the fact of their subjugation to government controls was pervasive at every level.

    Religion is also for sure, one of those things which brings us some sort of false security, and thus causes us to fight against all “unbelievers,” who are expected to perish in a lake of fire for their disbeliefs (at the hands of a compassionate God)?

    A good point to remember is, as you pointed out, whether we change our views to conform to reality or change the facts so that reality will conform to our own subjective beliefs? In that regard your example of “believers” who concocted a self-fulfilling way to rationalize the reasons why a space ship did not take them away in some sort of divine rapture, is typical of the later. Yet, I frequently get the impression that those who very strictly deny the need to examine their beliefs, because they do not disagree with current science, can be prone ot a different kind of bias in which all spiritual concepts are regarded with disdain, and are frequently ridiculed when they disagree with current scientific knowledge. Most of the time, scientists are more enlightened and thus can be more compassionate about the beliefs of others. But in general, any belief that seeks to denigrate all others as stupid, or as victims of false beliefs, promotes an uncalled for, and/or snobbish condemnation of others— whether they are backed up by science or not–and which also needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

    The main handicap we all seem to suffer from is in equivocating our particular beliefs with absolute truth or peace of mind–an attitude which makes all future discussions suspect. However, many of us do see the folly of maintaining that the Earth is only 10,000 years old, just because that’s what certain biblical scholars want us to believe. We know just as well, that masturbation will not give us warts, and that we will not suffer if a black cat crosses our paths. Yet there are many less obvious, but likely candidates, which urge us to believe that if we simply keep clinging to their beliefs out of anxiety, eventually it will be for our own good.

    Have a great 2018 POP!

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