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.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Faith, belief, and agnosticism: a guest post by author Cly Boehs

My dear friend, the author and artist Cly Boehs, was inspired by one of my posts from two weeks ago to write an essay of her own responding to the points I brought up, and I have invited her to present it here.  You can (and should!) read Cly's short stories, posted on her wonderful blog Mind at Play, and I encourage you all to buy her brilliant collection of four novellas, The Most Intangible Thing, available at Amazon here.  I know you'll be as entertained and intrigued by Cly's writing as I am.

On Skeptophilia on December 24th, 2013, in an article entitled, "Elf highway blockade," you ask the question, “…how do specific counterfactual beliefs become so entrenched, despite a complete lack of evidence that entire cultures begin to buy in?” You state that you get how individuals can become superstitious but are perplexed by how cultures can do this—supposedly because more heads should be better than one? The underlying question seems to be—why wouldn’t there be enough dissenting voices in such groups to stop such ridiculous claims? How can so many be so wrong about something so outlandish? 

Since I’ve spent quite a bit of time researching, thinking and writing about why people (as individuals and groups) believe what they do, I’d like to take this question on, at least offering an opinion in brief form. Over time, I’ve come to two major conclusions (1) groups don’t use factual evidence any more than individuals to come to their beliefs; and (2) once individuals’ beliefs are strengthen by numbers, the believers take on a superior hue such that they disavow any other claims than their own—they are right and that’s that. You seem to be asking how this can happen when there is contrary factual evidence readily available for them to see. To a rationalist, a term like “factual evidence” is redundant because both “facts” and “evidence” imply objectivity. To a person basing evidence on faith or will-to-believe, “evidence” lies in subjective truth; and since that truth’s validity is based on personal experience, the more of those will-to-believers you can gather together, the greater the validation of truth (see below).  

I’d like to draw attention to two points about both individuals and groups that allow any belief (superstition or not) to become foundational to them. First, culture, the state, the church, all organizations and institutions are made up of individuals and studies have shown that what the individuals in the group believe becomes strengthen by numbers. Which brings me to my second notion: that belief(s) of the group are held together because they believe they are right, often the only right. The strength of belief gained in numbers produces a feeling of superiority such that the group forms an “us vs them” mentality and most often (depending on how significant the belief is to the group) takes it to battle against other beliefs. Lord knows we have enough examples of this throughout human history and in foreign affairs today. 

It is tremendously important that we remember that groups are made up of individuals—that in the most important way, groups do not exist in and of themselves. When we begin thinking that they do, we end up in extreme situations such as with the Nazi mentality of World War II, the mass execution of 1862 in Mankato, Minnesota and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. The defendants at the Nuremberg trials (or any others for that matter) can claim immunity on the grounds of mass-think. Which leads me to this business of feeling superior and safe because of being right. 

I realize in your article you are talking specifically about superstitious group beliefs—beliefs way, way out there like believing that elves not only exist but have rights. But I ask you, how far off is this from the now institutionalized belief that our supreme court recently translated into the law of the land, that corporations are individuals with rights? And how far away from beliefs such as transmigration of souls and transubstantiation is the belief in elves? Or that Buddha’s mother, before his birth, was struck on her right side by a white bull elephant that held a lotus in its trunk, an elephant that then vanished into her— or as another story goes—the elephant entered her womb and shortly after disappeared? This is after the elephant walked around her three times—well, of course it was three times. Three is the magic number of fairy tales and religious triads, right?

We all know stories from sacred texts that defy objective evidence—water into wine, an ass speaking on the road to Damascus, parted water to expose dry land (Buddha performed this one before Moses), a Hindu holy man changing jackals into horses and back again at will and the list goes on and on. Miracles or superstitions as a foundational belief arises out of “faith,” as a belief not based on facts. In fact, such beliefs as miracles and superstition are a demonstration of faith. Actually, it’s why they are there. Faith of this kind produces massive power in individuals especially when socialized and politicized, which makes faith-based belief(s) concrete in ritual and activism. Superstition works in this way because when individuals, strengthened by groups, believe against “the odds,” e.g., the Anabaptists against the Catholics and Protestants; the American Revolutionaries against English and French militaries—such polarities only strengthens each in what they believe is right. [A study demonstrating this clearly showed up recently on the site in which two psychologists demonstrated that the more extreme a person’s views are the more they think they are right.] The most important component in any cultural or polarized situation is belief, not reasonableness, facts. And this is because facts change by necessity; while belief can remain consistent and constant if founded in faith, the will-to-believe. The validity of a belief is often expressed in this constancy down through time, e.g. the Vedas are 3500 years old and Christian time is counted since Christ and so forth. There is comfort in not only being right but being so with such consistency and constancy. 

So how does a group of people (note that a singular verb is used for the term “group”) end up believing that elves should be given rights to stop a highway through their sacred territory? By individuals comprising the group believing elves-are-individuals-with-rights. And these individuals find strength in this belief by numbers in the groups and by the outlandishness of the belief as proof of faith in that belief. According to this logic then, the crazier the idea, the greater the faith needed to believe it; therefore, the greater the proof of its validity. Trust of this sort and the will-to-believe—a trust to act in faith before any supporting evidence, one of William James’ terms for this is “confidence”—can be constant in a way reason based on facts cannot. And the stronger the faith of an individual or group is, the stronger the belief. And because of this, psychologist and philosophers of all kinds of stripes have opted for head over heart, reason over emotion-and-feeling, reason over will. And it’s easy to see why. When people fear that their faith or will-to-believe is taken from them, they know that what they regard as constant, permanent, is gone; living in a constantly ambiguous state-of-affairs leaves one too vulnerable. ‘Tis unsafe. 

But polarity is not the answer. An alternative to rightness-in-belief lies in the willingness (note the word) to believe conditionally—not to give up belief. We will believe (again, note the word). We have to believe in order to function, actually to literally live at all. We don’t have all the facts for what we believe, never will. But in order to develop more fully as individuals, our beliefs have to be founded with an open heart and mind. And in order for this to happen, individuals have to believe in the self over groups, have to understand how culture can be an obstacle to self-identity, and have to be willing to die because believing this is deeply threatening to those caught in the whole system of belief that states “being right” is all there can be, especially when it comes wrapped in the outrageous intentionality of religious fervor. 

And what about imagination and creativity in all of this? The human capacity for ambiguity is at the heart of creativity, true self-identity, justice and all human endeavors with inherent freedom for the individual in them. Ambiguity is not waffling between one held belief and another—it is remaining open to the possibility that states-of-affairs can be other than they are perceived to be. In other words, we can be wrong. And the human ability to be wrong is inherent in so much of what we learn. [Gordon pointed out to me recently Kathyrn Schulz’s TED talk, “On Being Wrong,” which is a beautiful declaration on why we seek solace in being right.]

My view is not that we should evolve to a state of rationalism over beliefs based on faith or will, but become individuals with an ability to suspend belief just as we suspend facts. By “suspended belief or facts,” I mean lift the total-rightness-of-belief, out of its foundational bedrock, i.e. hold what is known either as fact or belief-through-faith in regard, even respect, even act on it until something else replaces it. But when suspended belief of this kind is presented to individuals as a possibility, they usually become more radicalized in their position than before. They can’t give up the constancy of faith over the inconstancy of facts, when in order for all of us to live as fully as possible, we have to give up both so that we can embrace both. What’s interesting is that when suspended belief is presented to a rationalist, meaning they have to take the agnostic position over the atheistic one, there is just as much fluttering of feathers and great resistance. Since rationalism is based on evidence (observable facts) and without it, there can be no belief, they are just as adamant in their position as Faith-and-Will believers are in theirs. Suspended belief doesn’t mean no belief. It means not knowing or even not knowable—which is what agnosticism is.

So what to do with the Friends of Lava and the project detrimental to elf culture?

What would “suspended belief” look like for both sides in this dispute? Why not negotiate and do it while applying Gordon’s suggestion of critical thinking thrown into the mix…mess—the discussion being along the lines of how far traditions in culture should/could be allowed to influence progress of a practical nature. But also, discussion with some open-mindedness has to be there as well, lifting that desire to be right and listening to the other side, working together to meet some middle way in the situation. We have these negotiations going on all the time—the ten commandments monument in the Alabama Judicial Building and another one in Oklahoma on its state capitol grounds as examples. Is this really too terribly different from the Icelandic version of respecting the Little People and their territory? Unfortunately we haven’t found a way yet to discuss such disputes without the rush to polarities and the superiority of our views—so until such time, it is left to the settlements in the courts.

1 comment:


    When it comes to man's relationship with God it is all about the heart condition. The question is, how is your heart?

    Luke 8:15 But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.

    An honest and good heart is essential in order to be a true follower of Jesus Christ.

    Ephesians 4:17-18 So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart.

    Ignorance about God is due to a hard heart; it has nothing to do with a lack of intellectual ability.

    Romans 2:5 But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,

    An unrepentant heart cannot produce a desirable result.

    Luke 21:34 "Be on your guard, so that your heart will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap;

    Heart health is important in order to be ready for the return of Christ.

    Acts 1:24 And they prayed and said, "You, Lord, who knows the hearts of all men, show which one of these two you have chosen

    You can fool men into believing your heart is functioning properly, however, the Lord knows your heart. Jesus can help with heart surgery, it is up to you.

    Romans 1:21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

    Dishonoring God results in a foolish and darkened heart. This is not a heart condition anyone should seek.


    Acts 2:37 Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brethren, what shall we do?"

    Peter preached the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus to the three thousand on the Day of Pentecost. That was the heart biopsy. (Acts 2:22-36)


    Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.


    Hebrews 3:12 Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.

    A Christian's heart must remain faithful till the end.


    (All Scripture quotes from: NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE)