It’s a funny thing, belief. In many, if not most cases, it demands the suspension of rationale; something a surprisingly large number of people are quite prepared to do, despite their education running counter to that approach.
Belief comes in many shapes and sizes. As children, we believe in things like Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy, Elves at the bottom of the garden, all sorts of stuff. And that’s good. It allows for imagination to develop, and more importantly, as those children become older and better informed, it allows them to question what they’ve been told, and to challenge it, which is an important part of intellectual development. But those early days of wonder are, in many ways, important too. Part of the excitement and awe of discovering life.
I still remember with great clarity a time in 1957 when we were on our way back from Singapore by boat. Air travel was only for the wealthy back then, and all British Army personnel (of which my father was one) were transferred around the world by ship. We were in the Suez Canal, which had not long before been cleared for shipping, post Suez crisis. I recollect seeing several semi-submerged ships – funnels and masts akimbo – at the edges of the waterway, which were part of the aftermath of that conflict. Anyway, I digress. We’d docked at Port Said for a day or two, and lots of local traders in small boats swarmed around the ship, some of the traders scrambling on board to hawk their wares on the decks. One of the Egyptians who clambered aboard was an entertainer – a juggler / magician dressed in flowing robes and wearing a fez. A bunch of us kids gathered around to watch him perform his tricks, and at one point during the performance, he leaned forwards to me (I was standing in the front row), reached out to my head, and to my utter astonishment, produced an egg out of my ear! I was agog! Because I was still at an age where I didn’t really question what I saw. I Believed. The egg was real. His hand was empty when he leaned over to me. Ergo, he had somehow produced it out of my ear. Inevitably, a few years later as my intellect developed and I ceased to accept that something just ‘happened’, but wanted to know why and how it happened, it dawned on me that the egg incident had been in reality just a clever sleight-of-hand. But at the time, I was convinced.
About the same time I came to realise that I hadn’t really had an egg in my ear, I started to wonder about religion. Fortunately, my parents weren’t particularly religious – they only paid lip-service really, going to church just on high days and holidays, so I was never heavily indoctrinated. But in those days, religion was nevertheless a thread which ran through everyone’s life, and many of my peers and their parents were quite deeply involved.
And those people believed. Really believed. Despite all the anomalies, despite all the conflicting science, despite the sheer implausibility of it, they still believed.
And then we have the multiplicity of main religions; schisms within those religions; offshoots and sects from those schisms; sub-sub-sets of the offshoots, etc etc etc. And all those people who subscribe to one of those religions or offshoots or sects (and we’re talking about the vast majority of the population of the world here) believe that their particular version of the religion is the right one. They believe. Despite most of the people in the rest of the world disagreeing with them, despite the historical records being mostly hearsay, despite our knowledge of the sciences making many of the events in religious history highly unlikely (if not impossible), they still believe. And they will usually defend that belief to the bitter end.
As religion goes out of fashion in some sections of the west, it has been replaced by science / pseudoscience movements, like environmentalism and healthism; rejecting the ritual aspects of religion but nevertheless retaining all the evangelical fervour that comes with religious faith. And of course, the belief. The belief that they are right, and everyone else is wrong. And that those unbelievers need to be converted – for their own good and the good of the planet / human race. So new nirvanas have been created that we must now aspire to; Renewable Energy; zero industry; no pesticides; perfect bodies; maximum lifespan etc. And of course, new depictions of Hades, whither all sinners will be consigned, to live as modern day Morlocks; poor, unhealthy and short-lived in the darkness.
Naturally, all these aspirations of the new religions come at a price, but for the evangelists, it’s a price worth paying. And usually it’s the objects of their ministrations who do the paying anyway, so of course the price is worth paying. They believe. In fact, they believe so strongly that they will engage in all sorts of subterfuge in their efforts to impose their ideology on everyone else. They are immune to any conflicting facts that cast doubt on that ideology. They are immune to any negative consequences caused by their agenda. Because they believe. Like the old religions, they believe they are right. And that God (science) is on their side. And that anyone who disagrees with them is wrong, and is an agent of evil, taking filthy lucre from Big Oil, or Big Coal, or Big Food, or Big Tobacco, or Big Sugar; the new corporate manifestations of Lucifer. And they believe, with all the righteousness of the Inquisitors, that the ends justify the means on the road to their pastures of heaven.
They even have their ‘prophets’ and ‘saints’, now renamed as ‘experts’ and ‘academics’, who preach from the pulpits of lecture halls and the ubiquitous television screen; as well as their armies of ‘priests’ (teachers and doctors) whose goal is to spread ‘The Word’, and tear down the false prophets who preach evil; to excommunicate them and brand them ‘deniers’ and ‘deplorables’ or whatever the fashionable word might be, but essentially, heretics. Unbelievers. Blasphemers.
So it would seem that it is part of the human condition to need to have something to believe in – something which is beyond our knowledge and requires blind faith to maintain that belief against all odds.
But why? Why do we seem to have this need to believe in something intangible, preposterous, even? Why do we cling to those beliefs through thick and thin? Countless millions over the ages have died for their religion, and willingly. Why?
Generally speaking, the instincts and behaviours hard-wired into the human psyche can be traced back to: basic survival needs in a hostile environment; the need to eat and drink; and the need to procreate. So what function did the need for a belief in a religion / philosophy / ideology fulfill? Why did every pocket of humanity across the globe develop organised religion in one form or another?
Perhaps it is part of the survival instinct – as humans abandoned the nomadic, hunter-gatherer life for a settled life, the advantage of having large numbers of settlers became obvious, and what better to bind those disparate settlers together than the belief in a higher being who was all-powerful.
Or maybe it was part of the need to provide food. If you have a God to make sacrifices to, to aid you in your hunt, or to ensure your crops grow, then doing so will lend a sense of optimism to the venture, making success more likely.
It could even be linked to procreation, since most religions demand, if not monogamy, then at least fidelity. And if fidelity is demanded of you by your God, then you will stick around to provide for your offspring, thus giving them, and by extension the community, a better chance of survival.
But I continue to find it strange that we, in our modern, scientific iteration, still cling to the old Gods. And not only that, but create new ones before whom to prostrate ourselves and self-flagellate.
Yes, belief is a funny old thing.
And ending the year on that somewhat quizzical note, I’d like to wish everyone a happy, prosperous and stress-free 2018.