Inspired in part by ‘s discussion of how education is no longer a barrier to people believing in baloney, I spent my obligatory staring-at-the-inside-of-my-eyelids time today contemplating the nature of faith.
Somewhere in the vast potential archaelogical dig that is my closet, there are a couple of rocks. Several of them have ammonites, a type of shelled cephalopod, and one is a disk, tapering towards the middle, that used to be in the back of an icthyosaur. While I broke the ammonites out of strata myself, the icthyosaur vertebrae is a foundling–I literally reached down and picked it up off the surface of the ground as I was strolling through central Nevada. Because of this, my knowledge of it is not precise–given the region it was found, a good guess places it 150 million years old or so. I think. But because it was on the ground, and I no longer remember exactly the area, I can’t be absolutely certain. I know, however, that it must be between 250 and 90 million years old, because that’s the only time icthyosaurs were alive, and if I wanted to take the time to check up on what specific period of the Jurassic and early Cretaceous Nevada was a warm, wet sea, I could narrow it down considerably. But flat, cold, right now, I tell you, that rock is from between 250-90 mya, with the obligatory small margin for error.
I believe in that rock.
I believe in that rock with the sort of fundamental faith that I have in gravity. I would stake my life that my icthyosaur vertebrae was from that (admittedly huge) time period named (after first double checking to make sure it was what I thought it was, and that no recent research had extended the timeline on ’em, because I’m not a moron and I believe in the possibility of human error as strongly as I do my rock.) Because of the way it was found, and my own spotty memory of the region I picked it up in, there’s a good bit of room for error, but if you pointed a gun at my head and promised to let me go only if the age range of my icthyosaur fossil held up to rigorous scientific testing by impartial authorities (with obligatory re-testing in case of lab error), I would be seriously worried by the fact that you were holding guns to people’s heads over the ages of dead reptiles, but I wouldn’t worry about my fossil. I believe in that fossil.
And if you came to me politely and said “We’d like to test the age of your fossil to see if it’s in the age range you say it is,” assuming I could find the damn thing in my closet, I would say “Sure, have fun, bring it back when you’re done.” (Actually, this happened once–I loaned it to my buddy Zack for his typography of icthyosaur vertebrae for a report he was doing. Hmm, maybe that’s where it went. Anyway, he didn’t date them, I think he was studying how the little nubby bits get worn off or something. But I digress.) And possibly, as an afterthought, I would say “Let me know what exactly comes back, will you? Be good to know within a few million years.” And then I would go back to painting and think no more about it.
One thing that it would not occur to me to do is to protest and kick my feet and scream and say “NO! You may not touch my fossil, because I say it’s 250-90 myo, and that oughta be good enough for you!” First of all, that would be terribly ill-mannered of me, and secondly, because I believe, really, truly, deep down, believe in my fossil, it wouldn’t occur to me to even worry about it. You don’t believe my fossil? Happy to let you run it through any tests you like, just give it back when you’re done. It’s not even an issue.
Now, in my childhood I was a Catholic, and in my pre-adolescence a Protestant and in my teen years I was a Wiccan. Two of those I didn’t choose, one of ’em I did.
And I never, ever, believed in a single thing, not God, not Jesus, not magic or magick or the Goddess* or anything else with the same absolute not-even-worried-about-it belief that I believe in a slightly oddly shaped rock that I picked up in the middle of the desert.
I wanted to believe! I think every human on earth has wanted to believe in some spirituality, and I was no exception to any of it. I even thought that I DID believe, but like many people before and after me, my belief was the thin skin over the gnawing fear that it wasn’t true. I wanted to believe in God and Jesus and heaven and everything else. And later on, when I could no longer hack that, I wanted to believe in magic and gods and goddesses.
And because I wanted to believe, but did not, had someone come to me and offered to run a scientific test on anything I could offer–if they said “Look we’ll carbon date the Shroud of Turin” or “Look, we’ll run a set of double blinds on the supposed psychic powers at work here and see if it’s anything but head-games and the power of suggestion,” or even “Look, we’ll put a thingy in your ritual circle and see if there is absolutely any alteration of temperature, magnetism, or anything else we can measure, and we’ll hook these little thingies up to your temples and nipples and see if anything happens”–I would’ve resisted. I would probably have made long speeches about faith and mystery and spiritual needs and the lack of respect in secular science, and it all would’ve covered up the fact that I knew, deep in my heart of hearts, that probably none of it was real. And knowing this, even though I couldn’t admit it to myself, I was afraid that looking too closely at any of it would bring down the whole house of cards. And so, I invented all kinds of reasons to resist analyzing it, because I was happy in my house of cards. (Well, not that happy, or I wouldn’t have eventually kicked the door down myself, but y’know.)
I think this may be why a lot of educated people can believe–uneasily–in things like crop circles and dowsing and a young earth–because they know that their belief is fragile and lies over a deeper and fundamental fear, and thus they carefully turn all rational thought away. If I, as a Christian, had really, truly, believed in the Shroud of Turin with the same solidity that I believe in my fossil, I’d have been in the front row clamboring to get it tested, bring it on, because I believed. I cannot see in the reticence to get that done anything but a lack of faith that I’ve known all too well. If one truly, truly believed, one would not fear to have that belief validated. It is only when one secretly suspects the worst that one protests testing the truth.
The Dalai Lama is my favorite religious leader for a number of reasons–the fact that he’s got a sense of humor is a major one, but the other is–to quote his book “The World of Tibetan Buddhism,”: “I seriously think that it would be helpfu if, with due respect, scientific tests were carried out on the various relics that are believed to be genuine relics of the Buddha…Perhaps scientific experiments on those relics using sophisticated modern technology and chemicals could establish with greater accuracy the dates of the Buddha’s existence. This would be very helpful.” Compared to the hissy fits thrown by other religious leaders whenever the subject of dating or otherwise testing religious artifacts comes up, this bespeaks a faith that I find impressive. The Dalai Lama appears to have in Buddhism the same faith that I have in my rock. And having never believed in any spirituality half as much as I believe in my rock, this impresses the hell outta me.
And that brings me, and my rock, at last to my current stage, where I believe that you can believe anything you like about things that absolutely cannot be proved, but if you start claiming that they work in the real world, you better get your ducks in a row. If you wish to believe in re-incarnation, or gods, or anything else, knock yourself out. I believe in all kinds of godawful things, including that life is a big RPG played by bored deities to while away eternity (although not nearly as strongly as I believe in my rock.) Whatever makes you happy and provides a moral and ethical framework to live is fine by me. But as soon as the beliefs contradict the rocks, or cause you to believe in things that can be disproven they cease to become useful and become blinders on reality, and you should go sit in the desert and spend some quality time with a rock.
*Wicca’s a fine spirituality, by the way, and my intent is not to bash it, or the believers in it. Lot of great Wiccans out there, and while I may occasionally gag on people named things like “Fluttering Moonfeather” I’d rather have harmless flakes than screaming zealots anyday, and at least they’re all eco-friendly. Paganism’s a great spirituality, so far as I’m concerned, provided it doesn’t let it’s brains fall out. As handy metaphors to fill in archetypal spiritual needs, I still think gods and goddesses can’t be beat. I just don’t claim that they’re realer than rocks.