Based on the title, you’re going to assume that this is just another religion-bashing article. It isn’t. I hope you stick with reading it for long enough to see why.
Why would I choose this title, then? Because our countryâ€”our cultureâ€”needs to get past the point where saying “it’s my religious belief!” can be used as a tactic to end all discussion, and shut down all opposition. People have to stop believing that having a religious belief is an excuse to stop thinking. People have to stop thinking that other people must show respect for their belief simply because it is a “deeply-held religious belief”.
Having a deeply-held religious belief should be the beginning of thinking, and the beginning of questioning. No belief demands respect simply because it is “deeply held” or “religious”. Any belief might be stupid.
Some people have a very difficult time accepting, or even understanding, this idea. So let’s start more simply. Let’s not even start with the claim in the title of the piece. Let’s start with something even simpler than that.
Think about this statement: “Some religious beliefs (not necessarily yours) are stupid.”
Do you think that you can agree with that?
Plenty of people would argue that you should never say that to anyone, no matter what your opinion. Certainly, there are plenty of social and psychological reasons not to put that out there in a conversation. If you are trying to get someone to understand your point of view, calling their differing views “stupid” will not accomplish that goal. If you are trying to enact cultural change, labeling people’s religious beliefs “stupid” will accomplish nothing toward that goal.
So we can all agree that as a rhetorical tactic, it’s never wise or helpful to say to someone: “Your religious belief is stupid.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that there are no stupid religious beliefs.
You may still feel uncomfortable calling any religious beliefs “stupid”. After all, nobody’s religious beliefs are stupid to them. This is a question of empathy. You might say that we must take a more understanding tone, and acknowledge that a person who holds a belief will not feel that it’s stupid.
That is absolutely true. And when you are forming a social and emotional bond with someone, that psychological angle is important for you to acknowledge and address. You should always remember that no person ever thinks that his own religious beliefs are stupid.
But guess what? That still doesn’t mean there are no stupid religious beliefs.
Deep in your heart, you know that you think some religious beliefs are stupid. Just think of all of those old mythologies that we always think of as fanciful tales and silly stories. Greek myths, Norse myths, Egyptian myths. Gods turning into animals and having sex with giants, gods who could be tricked by witches and ogres, and gods who went to war. In today’s society, we think of them as (at best) a culture’s way of creating symbolic moralistic tales that pass on cultural traditions, or (at worst) crazy stories that people came up with to explain things in nature when they just didn’t know any better.
But we have to be careful about looking at mythology through that modern lens. There was a time in the past when there were people who truly believed these stories to be literal truth. These were the deeply held religious beliefs of those times.
So back to the question that I posed before. Setting aside the fact that it is insulting or “culturally insensitive” and whatnot, do you believe that three all-powerful immortal beings who were born out of the armpit of a giant created the first humans by breathing life into an ash tree and an alder tree on a hilltop one morning?
No, of course you don’t believe that. That’s stupid.
In fact, you probably don’t even have to go back to ancient mythology to stumble upon a religious belief that you think is stupid. If you are a devout Muslim, you may think that the devout Christian belief in a talking snake in the garden of Eden is stupid. (The Qur’an does contain the story of the garden of Eden, but Satan Himself tempts Eve and there is no mention of a snake.) If you are a devout Christian, you probably think the idea of the jinn, creatures made of a smokeless fire, is pretty fanciful and silly, even though they are described in the Qur’an.
No matter who you are, or what religion you may adhere to, there are almost certainly beliefs of at least some other deeply religious people out there that you don’t get. If you object to the word “stupid” because it sounds harsh, then you can at least admit that you think they are silly, they are outrageous, they are fanciful and bizarre.
And you can explain it by saying that the people of those “other religions” are mentally ill, or fooled by Satan, or culturally indoctrinated, or anything else, but the end result is the same. However you want to word it, you think they have a deeply-held religious belief that is stupid.
But here is the problem: you’re human. Just like those “other people” who believe those “other things” are human. Which means that if they can have a deeply-held religious belief that is stupid…. then you might, as well.
Naturally, you don’t believe that your own deeply-held religious beliefs are stupid. You think your own beliefs are sensible and true… that’s what it means for them to be your beliefs.
But one of the most amazing intellectual capacities that human beings have is the ability to admit that they might be wrong, even when they think they are not. This is an ability that all people have, even if some people don’t exercise that ability nearly often enough.
Unfortunately, many people seem to think that saying “I might be wrong” is an admission of weakness. They think it is somehow an admission of a lack of faith or confidence. They think that saying “I might be wrong” somehow implies that the strength of their belief is less.
But none of those things is true. Saying “I might be wrong” is a simple objective fact about the nature of humanity. There is no reason to feel squeamish or awkward about acknowledging that you might be wrong about something… even if you are absolutely certain that you are not.
I believe in evolution. Is it possible that I’m wrong? Of course it is possible. I don’t think I am wrong. But as a scientist, and as a human being, the only possible true and honest answer to the question “is it possible that you are wrong?” must be “yes.”
Yes, I might be wrong in my belief that humans evolved from other species. Yes, I might be wrong that the earth is more than 6,000 years old.
I’m sure that I’m not wrong. I am in no way hemming-and-hawing, or being “squishy” on whether I believe in evolution. I really, really believe it. I know it’s true. I’m certain it’s true.
But it’s also possible that I’m wrong. I could be impossibly, ridiculously wrong. I could be absurdly wrong. At some point in the future, we might find out that we are all just a computer simulation in someone else’s machine and all of my beliefs about evolution and quantum mechanics and cell biology were not only wrong but downright stupid.
Sure. Maybe. I don’t think so. But it’s possible.
To admit that I might be ridiculously, stupidly wrong about nearly anything is to do nothing more than admit that I’m human.
And you are, too.
It is important for you to know that some of your beliefs might be stupid. It makes you a better person, whether you are a theist or an atheist. And if you are devout, I believe that it even makes you a better religious person.
Why? Because if you can say, “I know for certain that I’m right, but it’s possible that I’m completely wrong” then you will approach your own religion more thoughtfully. I have close friends who are deeply devout, and they always struggle with their own understanding of God and scripture. Could I be wrong in the way I’m interpreting this scriptural passage? Could I be wrong in the way I think the ten commandments apply to my life? Could I be wrong in my understanding of this parable? Could I be wrong about what God is trying to tell me?
In the end, they may come out of it by simply answering: No, I don’t think I am wrong. I feel very strongly that I am right.Â And their faith is stronger, and more robust, as a result of going through that process.
By asking these questions, they show that they are on a quest to truly understand God. In that process, these friends of mine become confident and secure in their faith. They have no need to shut up other people, or shut down debate, because they have actually spent time thinking through their own beliefs, questioning themselves, and praying in order to better understand a truer vision of their God.
To them, the fact that a belief is a deeply held religious belief is not an answer to a question or a conclusion to a conversation. They are never afraid or angered when someone asks them “Why do you believe that?” They know that belief is just the beginning, not the end, of the conversation.
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|Foititus:||Do you believe in a higher power?|
|Didaskalus:||Higher? In what sense?|
|Foititus:||Do you believe in a power greater than yourself?|
|Didaskalus:||Absolutely! Gravity. Electromagnetism. That force that holds protons together in the nucleus of an atom…|
|Foititus:||No, I mean do you believe in a will, or a consciousness that is greater than yourself?|
|Didaskalus:||How do you measure the amount of consciousness that something has, to determine whose consciousness is greater? Do you have a greater consciousness than I have?|
|Foititus:||OK, let’s start over.|
|Foititus:||Do you believe that a consciousness is behind… all of the great complexity in the universe?|
|Didaskalus:||You are talking about the origins question, then?|
|Foititus:||Yes, I suppose I am.|
|Didaskalus:||Then you should just ask the origins question. All of this very vague bulshytte about “higher” and “greater” and “power” only muddies the conversation, and usually results in answers that are meaningless. It turns the conversation into a social exercise in agreement: two people can always agree on the topic of a “higher power” if they try hard enough, because the words “higher power” themselves are literally meaningless.|
|Foititus:||Friend Didaskalus, I think many people get the feeling that there must be some conscious organizing principle behind the universe, because they look outward and they perceive… such vastness! Such beauty! Such complexity! I think intuitively people feel that complexity and vastness of such a great magnitude must have a cause that is equal in complexity and magnitude.|
|Didaskalus:||I think you are correct that people feel that way. This is part of how the human mind is put together: we expect small, uninteresting causes to have small, uninteresting effects; and conversely, we expect great, interesting effects to come from great, interesting causes.|
|Foititus:||Is that so unreasonable?|
|Didaskalus:||Well, yes and no. We probably evolved to have that bias in the first place, because in our normal day-to-day lives is it fairly sensible. It isn’t true all of the time, certainly! After all, a leader of a country can die from choking on a cracker. But much of the time, it is a reasonable first guess to make.Â You see a big crater, you assume a strong impact.|
|Foititus:||So therefore, is it so unreasonable to assume that a cause of great complexity and power is behind the great complexity and vastness of the universe.|
|Didaskalus:||Well, I should like to correct you: my point is that this is a cognitive bias. It is not unexpected that people would assume this. If by “reasonable” you mean “is it possible to comprehend why someone would think that way?” then the answer is: of course it is reasonable. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s sensible or rational or correct.|
|Foititus:||So you are saying that we have a cognitive bias to assume that great complex effects come from great complex causes, but that that bias sometimes leads us astray.|
|Didaskalus:||That is true. In fact, it is that cognitive bias that leads to any number of conspiracy theories in politics. J. F. K. was a great man, and his death was a powerful and shocking event. As a result, people assume that there must have been some equally powerful evil force behind it… because it is emotionally unsatisfying to think that a mere crazy person with a gun could have such a strong and profound impact on such a great man.|
|Foititus:||I still am not convinced. I’m not sure that you have explained why I should not believe that a great consciousness was somehow involved in creating the universe as it appears today.|
|Didaskalus:||Because there isn’t any evidence that consciousness would be necessary to produce it.|
|Didaskalus:||No! There is no “why”. You don’t randomly believe things until you have a reason not to. If that is how you actually worked, on a day-to-day basis, you could easily believe a million contradictory things at any given moment. You could believe that China has been wiped out overnight by a plague, simply because nobody has proven to you that it wasn’t. That’s not only bad logic, but it reveals your own bias. People never reason that way unless they are trying to rationalize something that they can’t justify.|
|Didaskalus:||I will say, however, that we have slipped back into talking bulshytte. I should have caught it and stopped the conversation immediately when it happened, and I apologize for not doing so.|
|Foititus:||What part of that was bulshytte?|
|Didaskalus:||We were talking about “greater” and “powerful” causes and “vast” and “complex” effects, without ever defining those terms. Come to think of it, we never really defined “consciousness” well enough to even begin that conversation.|
|Foititus:||Can we not simply assume that we have an intuitive understanding of consciousness, for the sake of discussion?|
|Didaskalus:||Well, allow me to make this observation: if your contention is that you feel consciousness must be behind the vast beauty and complexity of the universe, then I completely agree with you!|
|Didaskalus:||Yes. The feeling of awe and inspiration and beauty that you get when observing the universe is the result of a consciousness… yours!|
|Foititus:||Well, now you are teasing me, friend Didaskalus. You know that is not what I mean when I talk about a consciousness being an organizing principle of the universe.|
|Didaskalus:||And yet, you should consider that maybe that is what is behind the feeling you have, even though you might have interpreted that feeling wrongly.|
|Foititus:||What do you mean?|
|Didaskalus:||Things like “complexity” and “vastness” and “beauty” are difficult to define, in part because they carry an emotional weight. They refer at least in part, not just to something “out there” that is being observed, but to the feeling that the observation produces in you, the observer. The fact of observation, and therefore consciousness, is an intrinsic part of the concept of “beauty”.|
|Foititus:||That makes sense. In a universe without conscious beings, the entire notion of “beauty” might not exist because there is nobody there to make that emotional judgment.|
|Didaskalus:||Exactly. But human beings are terrible about being self-reflective in this way. When you are filled with a sense of awe, a sense of overpowering wonder and oneness with the universe around you, you by definition are not analyzing that feeling in terms of the neurochemical reactions that are going on in your body to trigger the feeling.|
|Foititus:||Of course not. In fact, if you did that, it would destroy the feeling of “oneness” entirely. Instead of experiencing the universe, you’d just be theorizing about your own structure.|
|Didaskalus:||And yet the experience that you have of the universe is a direct consequence of your structure, whether you theorize it that way or not. Your sense of awe when you look up at the sky is mediated by the flow of neural firings and chemical releases that are triggered in your brain and body. You may feel like you are experiencing wonder at a universe that is “out there”, but what you are in fact experiencing is changes to your own body that are triggered by your senses.|
|Foititus:||That is all very interesting, and I suppose it is true as far as it goes. But I feel like this is a distraction from our main point. The universe is complex and vast, whether we think it is beautiful or not. Doesn’t that mean that we should be compelled to ask how it got to be so complex and vast?|
|Didaskalus:||Maybe. Or maybe we should be asking why our biology happens to be wired in such a way that we perceive the universe as complex and vast.Â And beautiful, for that matter.|
|Foititus:||Are you saying that the universe might not actually be complex and vast?|
|Didaskalus:||I’m saying that if the universe were any simpler, then weâ€”as beings inside the universeâ€”would also be simpler, and therefore would no doubt still consider the universe to be complex and vast.|
I added my newest digital painting to my DeviantArt profile under the title “Migration”, although I wasn’t totally satisfied with that name:
So, I decided to turn to social media to help me find something better. I posted the image to my Facebook profile, with this comment: “I have not decided on a title for this yet. What should I call it?”
The responses I got ranged from serious to hilarious. One friend thought it should be named “My managerial style” and another friend thought it should be called simply: “Dating”.
Most of the suggestions, though, followed a predictable theme: they assumed that the big creature with the red eyes was evil and either chasing or herding the Hello Kittys, probably intending them harm:
Matt: “Hello, Breakfast”
Alicia: “Goodbye, Kitty”
Tommy: “Stepping on little people”
Rick: “Oh no! He can’t kill the Kitty!”
Justin: “That monster is definitely trolling for Japanese schoolgirls….”
…were just some of the popular responses with this theme. And I will admit, when I was drawing this piece, that was what I had in mind as well: I just assumed that things were not going well for the Hello Kittys.
But then one friend of mine spoke up against this interpretation that the picture was showing something bad: “No this is a good thing. They are moving away from the evil!”
At that point, I had a kind of epiphany about my own artwork!
Why on earth was I assuming that just because there is a big dark, ugly creature with red eyes, that it is evil and malicious? Am I really that prejudiced? Isn’t it possible to look at this picture, and see the creature as… a loving caregiver, for example, watching over the Hello Kittys with affection?
Then, my friend Alex put another possible twist on it:
Alex: “I see the Hello Kitties as leading an outsider to their home.”
This blew my mind, because it took things one step further: maybe the big creature with the red eyes was the vulnerable one who needed to be protected!
Now, I look at this same picture – a picture that I created – and I can see it any number of different ways. Sure, the tall dark figure might be menacing: herding the Hello Kittys along for some dark purpose.
However, the large, dark figure with the red eyes might be frightened and lost, perhaps in an unfamiliar land… the Hello Kittys are generously leading him to safety. They are taking him home so that they can welcome him and take care of him!
Based on what you see in the picture alone, you really can’t tell, can you?
The most impressive and detailed analysis, however, came from my friend Una Smith, who enjoys dream interpretation, and pulled out all of the stops to interpret my digital painting.
So, I’ll finish this journal entry by simply letting you ponder her Jungian analysis of this picture. I don’t think it describes me, as the artist, particularly well. But what it describes is definitely something that I’ve seen in many people, and so in that sense perhaps there is some higher truth to the observation that it makes:
This picture depicts a Jungian polarity between innocence and depravity. By clinging stubbornly to identification only with extreme, naive innocence, the subject banishes the more nuanced, worldly-wise, suspicious, or other less-”desirable” characteristics of his/her personality into the Shadow. (Notice how the kitties have turned their backs on the dark figure.) The exiled characteristics of the personality cannot truly be killed, however; they live on in the unconscious, coagulating into a monster of horrific power that will end up subverting and sabotaging the person’s thoughts and efforts. The person may suffer from obsessive thoughts, nightmares, inability to create intimacy with others due to a judgmental attitude, or even hidden addictions. These are all indications of an unintegrated Shadow. Eventually, if this struggle is not resolved, the person’s life becomes a colorless wasteland. Only by facing the Shadow, and integrating both poles of this dichotomy into the Self can the subject achieve wholeness and vitality.
If I were the art therapist, I would ask the subject to envision these kitties turning around and talking to the dark figure, inviting it to have a picnic with them. Let the dark figure vent its rage at being exiled for so long, and then go about the business of building peace and restoration. Perhaps the dark figure will gobble up the kitties, and then magically transform into a new character, such as a centaur or any other image symbolizing wisdom and wholeness.