Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Jesus saves: the role of money in belief

Every once in a while, while considering topics for Skeptophilia, I run into a belief, claim, or point of view that is so completely foreign to my way of thinking that when I first read about it, I can barely even understand it. 

Please note that I am not talking about the usual run of things that form the basis of most of my posts here.  While I am an atheist, I can certainly understand the appeal of there being a deity watching over us, and that the events around us have meaning and purpose.  My inclination is to believe that there are no such things as ghosts, but I see why people are fond of the idea, being that winking out like a candle flame when you die seems kind of... grim.  Less seriously, I get why people like the idea of there being odd, mysterious creatures in the world, such as Bigfoot, Nessie, El Chupacabra, the Bunyip, and the rest of the gang.

But yesterday, a friend and frequent Skeptophilia contributor sent me an article from the Phnom Penh Post (heaven alone knows how he found it, he lives in Minnesota) that reflects an approach to knowledge, understanding, and the universe that at first I found bafflingly incomprehensible.

The article is entitled "Ethnic Minority Turn To Jesus As More Affordable Option."  Apparently, in a village in Ratanakkiri District, Cambodia, there has been a mass conversion to Christianity -- not because they decided it was true, but because it's... cheaper.

Somkul village, inhabited by people of the Jarai ethnic group, have traditionally held a combination of Buddhist and animist beliefs.  And amongst these beliefs was that if a relative fell ill, the only way to free him from the clutches of the evil spirits causing the disease was to slaughter a buffalo, at a cost of about US$500.

Apparently, some years ago, missionaries appeared, and told the villagers about Christianity.  When the villagers found out that all you had to do was put a little money in the collection plate every Sunday, and when you got ill, you pray to Jesus, they said, "Heck yeah, that sounds like a much better deal!"

Sev Chel, a 38 year old woman from Somkul, told reporters how before her conversion, an illness cost her a bundle to pay for the buffalo, chickens, rice wine, and all of the other stuff necessary for the ritual.

"So if I sold that buffalo and took the money to pay for medicine, it is about 30,000 riel to 40,000 riel [for them to] get better, so we are strong believers in Jesus," she said.  "If I did not believe in Jesus, maybe at this time I would still be poor and not know anything besides my community."

Kralan Don, 60, agrees.  "We believe in Christianity because we are poor; we don’t have money to buy buffaloes, chickens and pigs to pray for the spirits of the god of land or the god of water when those gods make us get sick," he said.

Okay, now wait just a moment, here.  You believe in Jesus' power to make you well not because you think it's real, but because it's cheaper?

At first, I thought, "Well, okay, maybe they believe both in Jesus and in their old gods and spirits and so on, but have switched to worshiping Jesus because they think he's more powerful -- and also, as an added benefit, less demanding in a monetary sense."  But no: the article makes a strong point that the villagers understand perfectly well that Christianity is strictly monotheistic, and that in order to adhere to it, they have to accept that their old beliefs were simply wrong.

So, I'm forced to the conclusion that these people have decided what they believe purely based on selfish motives -- not whether it makes sense, nor whether it's appealing, nor based on their interpretation of the available evidence, all of which are motives that I can understand.  They have decided that something is true solely because it is in their best financial interest to do so.

Anyhow, I was sitting here this morning, pondering this, and all of a sudden, I had a chilling thought; how is this so very different to our approach to hydrofracking?  For those of you who don't live in natural-gas-rich parts of the United States, and are unfamiliar with this gas extraction technique, it is a method that involves pumping up groundwater, adding various chemicals to it (the makeup of most of these chemicals falls under the "proprietary information" laws and has not been made public), and then forcing it back into wellheads under pressure to shatter rock strata and make gas easier to remove.  The anti-fracking movement claims that the process has contaminated groundwater (including that used for drinking water), caused environmental damage, and might even be responsible for triggering earthquakes.  Fracking advocates say that none of that is true, that the process is completely safe.

And who, exactly, are the advocates of fracking?  The ones who stand to make money from gas leases.  The places you see lots of pro-fracking signs in people's yards are almost entirely poor communities whose economies would be boosted, at least in the short term, by gas revenue.  So these folks believe that the natural gas companies' claims that hydrofracking is safe are true not because they have been demonstrated to be true -- they believe because it is in their financial best interest to believe.

And suddenly, the conversion of the Jarai didn't seem so baffling, after all.

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