Just about every religion, scientific theory, political persuasion, philosophy, and commonly held set of beliefs can be shown to have some inconsistencies in the face of intense scrutiny. We’ve all heard atheists, and agnostics, tear The Holy Bible apart on a literal basis for centuries. We’ve heard the Book of Mormon, Dianetics, and all of the books, or collection of a religion’s beliefs that guide them, fall under some degree of intense scrutiny that has shown them to be inconsistent in ways large and small. It’s become something of a pastime, for some skeptics, to question the beliefs of others so often that it can be safer to simply believe in nothing to avoid having to face the scrutiny, and in some cases the ridicule, that nonbelievers subject believers to with their findings.
There’s nothing wrong with questioning one’s beliefs, of course. Some would suggest that some of the tenets of the founding of the United States was based on such skepticism, and the desire to feel free to believe in what one wants to believe in. A guiding belief in something has, however, had such a transformative and redemptive effect on so many lives that it could be called cruel, and condescending, to squash another person’s guiding principles in such a way that the recipient of this refutation can’t help but think that the essence of their transformative redemption may somehow be false.
We’ve deigned it necessary, as a society, to condemn all attempts to mock, or belittle, another’s culture, their lifestyle choices, and various other beliefs, but for some reason mocking and ridiculing one’s religious beliefs is still fair game. It’s grown so troubling that many wonder if there will ever be a tipping point?
When a celebrity donates to the cause célèbre of the moment, while being showered in flashbulbs and reporters’ questions, the cynical state that that moment was more about the publicity than charity. “At least they did it,” is the most common defense, “And the fact that they did it may lead others to do it.” This usually shuts the cynical types up. The cynical may try to say, but it wasn’t real, and people believe it was real. They may try to say that that celebrity doesn’t really care about the people to which they’ve donated their money. They may try to point to the fact that the celebrity’s publicist wants every talk show host to bring the charitable donation up every time that celebrity sits on a couch. They may try to say that if it were more about charity, the celebrity should just do it and not talk so much about it. In the end, though, the cynics are shut up because the celebrity did, in fact, do it.
Celebrities can get away with this, of course, because it’s the culture we live in, but when a militantly anti-religious person hears that an individual managed to escape the life-threatening bonds of alcoholism through religion, it’s not enough for them that that person just did it. It’s important to them how they did it, because it wasn’t real. When they hear that a lost individual managed to turn their lives around by finding God, it doesn’t matter that that life was transformed, because it should’ve involved something more substantive than a belief in something that is the “equivalent to a belief in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus”. The fact that these people found meaning in their lives means nothing to the militantly anti-religious, because to them that meaning will eventually implode in on itself based on their determination that “it’s not real”. Their concentration is devoted to squashing the beliefs of those that have found something to believe in, and they don’t care if the religious person is any happier, or any more fulfilled in their pursuit of religious thought.
“There are myths and miracles at the core of every belief system that, if held up to the harsh light of a scholar or an investigative reporter, could easily be passed off as lies,” Lawrence Wright writes in the epilogue of his book Going Clear.
Most belief systems have some “impossible to believe” myths and miracles, and the all-or-nothing contrarians hold up that one unprovable idea up as evidence of a flawed religion.
“How can you believe in this religion,” they ask, “If you have no answer to this one special little nugget that I’ve plucked from The Bible that can’t possibly be true?” The believer may argue that they don’t read The Bible literally, but that they use the lessons contained in each story, parable, and passage to form a philosophical foundation. “Did you know that The Bible states this …?” the contrarian will then ask. This particular quote will be some archaic notion that has no place in modernity. The believer could argue that much of The Bible was written before Christ, and that societal norms have changed so much in the last one hundred years that it’s somewhat acceptable to them that literature written thousands of years ago should be so different from our current ones. They could argue that if a reader parses every document written from that era, they would find many similarly archaic ideas, but that the philosophical discussions of human nature is where the true substance of The Bible is derived.
On the contrarians playing field, where well-substantiated arguments from the natural world are the norm, the traditional religious persons explanations don’t usually fare well. In that limited scope, the contrarian may believe that they have won the argument, and the religious person may fear that the contrarian thinks less of them. At that point, the religious believer can flip the playing field with one question:
“Okay, what do you believe in?”
The contrarian, that has spent so much of their time thwarting others’ beliefs, usually says something along the lines of: “Well, I don’t believe in that. Let me tell you that much.”
Spend enough time with a contrarian, and you’ll inevitably find something they believe in. Spend enough time, with enough contrarians, and you may even develop a laundry list of things that contrarians believe in that are as outlandish, if not more so, than anything in The Bible. You may even want to drop a line like “Have you ever heard the line: ‘Those that don’t believe in something, will believe in anything’?” at the conclusion of that list. They may fight you every step of the way, but they will eventually come around to something they believe in. When you then begin to dissect that something that they believe in, they get defensive and even combative, at times. The reason for the latter is that they’ve devoted so much of their thinking to squashing traditional beliefs that they’ve never really sat down to scrutinize the inconsistencies in their own beliefs, and a majority of traditional believers, don’t usually scrutinize avant garde thinkers with equal measure.
“What’s wrong with that?” the contrarian will ask when you trip upon that one thing of the laundry list that they have fully invested belief in. “That is scientifically proven to be factually true.”
“By some,” you respond, if you have the fortitude to venture down this path with them. “Others have poked holes in the theory with various claims, and some others now claim that that scientific theory is now so universally refuted that it is no longer accepted as factual.” The danger you face, by posing such refutation is that the collegial relationship you’ve built with them to that point may now be so tense that the casual nature of your conversation may be over. At this point, one of the two parties may either be silently stewing, competitive to the point of no return, or verbally confrontational. Most religious individuals are used to having their beliefs challenged, and they may challenge them as often as anyone else does, on a daily basis, but contrarians are usually not as accustomed to this role. They’re more accustomed, and more comfortable, being the challenger. All of their ducks are in line, waiting for you to defend yourself. They’re often not prepared for those normally consigned to defensive roles, to go on offense.
“If we’re talking about science in particular here, true science,” the truly daring will say in the face of a disgruntled contrarian that has given every biological clue, if not obvious verbal warnings, that you are not to venture further down this road, “Then we all know there’s no such thing as settled science. There is widely accepted science, based on best available evidence, but the adjective settled should never be used in conjunction with scientific theory. There are simply too many variables. Even the greatest theories Albert Einstein developed were widely accepted, based on best available evidence at the time, have been force to endure constant revision, and even rejection in some cases, by those using his theories as a premise. “True science,” we say if we have the courage to continue in the face of their now angry expression, “Involves endless amounts of proving and disproving, and anyone that suggests that any scientific theory is now proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, either has an agenda that that scientific theory serves, or they don’t know, or don’t care, how scientific theories work.”
With all these stewing and verbal condemnations percolating, some have found it necessary to find some peaceful, common ground within the mutual stances. “I hope that you didn’t enter into this discussion thinking that you would change my belief system, but that your goal was simply to challenge my way of thinking. With that said, I want you to know that I don’t think I can change the fundamental core of your belief system in anyway, but challenge it. Or, to get you to admit that your beliefs are, at least, as subjective as any religion, creed, or commonly held set of beliefs.”
Most of us are not combative people, and we do not seek confrontation. Most of us want to be considered nice guys, and we want to accumulate friends in life, not adversaries, so we qualify our statements with nice guy platitudes. Some nice guys even decide to remain silent in the face of contrarian arguments. We’ve spotted entry points that could illuminate our contrarian adversaries of the duality of their argument, but to keep all of our relationships harmonious, we decide to remain silent. There are moments in our lives, however, moments each person must decide for themselves, when our core set of beliefs are so fundamentally, and effectively, being challenged that a mounted defense is required.
At the end of such a discussion, that involves two equally well-informed individuals genuinely searching for greater truths, the two parties may eventually find that peaceful, common ground that suggests that neither opposing view is 100% right or wrong. While both parties may be equally disappointed by their failure to convince the other party of their truth, they will agree that neither belief is immune to the revelations that intense scrutiny can provide, and that both beliefs contain some measure of faith be it the contrarian’s faith in chosen people —be they politicians or philosophers— institutions, scientific theories, and ideas, or the religious person’s faith in a religious doctrine, or God.