What we want to believe

The recent spate of rapture news and debate on Obama’s birth status got me thinking a bit about faith and belief in a slightly new way. I was very curious to read about the reaction of the believers after the date of rapture had passed to see if their faith would be shaken or transformed in some fashion.

 

The Pastor, Harold Camping seemed genuinely shaken but quickly bounced back and modified his prediction for future disaster. Few were much surprised by this. Of course the thing of it is, people have been doing this since the very earliest days of Christianity despite bible scripture being pretty clear that such predictions would always be false.

 

In the case of Obama, the facts are pretty well established that he was indeed born in Hawaii, and any evidence to the contrary is vastly overshadowed by the much more direct evidence in favor. But again, no matter how much evidence is provided, some will still cling tenaciously to the opinion that it is simply not possible for him to be American and they only need dig deep enough to prove that truth.

 

What these two cases hold strongly in common is a desire for the belief to be true. In the case of rapture it is the promise of eternal life, freedom from misery, and being part of the greatest event of all time. For the birthers it’s about their own self identity as Americans and the danger that their vision of it is no longer true. An America where a liberal black man is president is not their America which means their whole identity is false, something that they could not accept as being true.

 

I see the same thing in those who believe in astrology, in ghosts, in faeries, and all manner of things which plain evidence speaks strongly against. All they need is some tiny elements of possibility along with desire and enough other people to form a consensus of faith. Having tried to debate true believers, I know that they have uncanny powers for ignoring or failing to address contrary arguments or evidence. They often start certain and gun-ho but when the going gets rough they find an escape hatch of some kind.

 

This for me is a tip that a belief is powered not by argument or reason but by desire and identity. I think once you have discovered that the more meaningful path is not to try and change that desire or identity but to understand it. These kinds of desires or feelings are deep rooted and no measure of reason or rationale will change them. Even first-hand experience can be subverted in any number of ways to support a position backed by strong desire. Getting at those root desires and understanding how they can be fulfilled is the only means to affect any change.

 

And I am not entirely convinced that such beliefs should be changed unless they pose dire harm to others. A belief in something you desire and the commitment to living by it is simply part of the human condition. It ultimately doesn’t matter if that belief is true or not true so long as it gives some measure of peace and purpose to one’s life. Of course if someone tries to push that belief, there will and should be push back, but to hunt it down simply for falsehood is beside the point. Such beliefs are often and end in themselves.

 

I think if someone does want to directly challenge a belief of this kind, you must provide an alternative view that still satisfies the underlying desire that prompts adherence to the belief. If you try to pull someone out of a cult that provides purpose, family, and love, you had better be prepared to deliver all those things yourself. So next time you face off against someone who seems to hold a position against reason, ask yourself what personal needs and desires would require or be satisfied by that position. Of course you should not assume you are right, but you could likely ask directly or do some exploring by question that could discover the truth.

 

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