Beyond Belief


I am, by nature, a skeptic.  I like scientific proof of things.   This doesn’t mean that there aren’t fantastic  things I’d like to believe in.  For example, I’d love for bigfoot, or here in Wisconsin, the beast of Bray Road, to turn out to be real, that nature could keep such things secrets for so long.  The skeptic in me, of course, reminds me that the odds of there being such things are thousands to one.  I put my trust in math and science, and although it’d be cool to discover that sasquatches do actually exist, the skeptic in me says, “don’t be ridiculous.” Yesterday, the New York Times reported that two separate teams of NASA scientists have determined that the west Antarctica ice sheets are in irreversible decline, and that in the upcoming centuries, ocean levels are going to rise three to ten feet, putting millions of coastal residents in jeopardy.   The science is, if you read the papers, mature and indisputable.  Yet there are a large number of people who remain convinced that climate change and global warming are monumental hoaxes, part of a vast conspiracy perpetrated by the left.  These people choose to believe the nonsensical ravings of right wing radio hosts and ignore near unanimous scientific consensus. It’s always fascinating to talk to the extremists from both sides.  The ultra conservative, tea partiers repeat verbatim the gospel that is espoused over the air waves.  Global warming and climate change are conspiracies intended to stifle capitalism.  Big corporations need more tax relief because they are the “job creators,” yet recent history shows that successful corporations have consistently used tax breaks to eliminate or move jobs and line their officers’ pockets. Welfare cheaters and labor unions are to blame for our economic woes, even though the amount spent on welfare is a fraction compared to the amount paid to subsidize successful corporations, and labor unions have been weakened to the point of near inconsequence.   Perhaps the most bizarre and fractured logic is the belief that more guns make us safer, and don’t, as reason and statistics tell us, result  in more gun deaths. The left isn’t immune from ideological idiocy, either.   The political correctness it’s foisted upon society has resulted in a hyper sensitivity and ridiculous euphemistic language.  “Used cars” are now “pre-owned vehicles,” an “illegal alien” is an “undocumented worker,” “swamps” are “wet lands.” So people believe in whatever idiotic things they want to.  What’s the big deal?  Isn’t it their right?  Being stupid isn’t illegal.  It doesn’t hurt anybody if I believe in bigfoot, or trickledown economics or UFOs or any other such nonsense. Well, it usually doesn’t hurt anyone.  But then there are those instances of extremism that are just wrong, like the nut jobs of the Westbro Baptist Church protesting gay rights at the funerals of American soldiers, or the Sandy Hook “truther” who recently stole a memorial dedicated to one of the victims of the shooting, and then told the mother that her murdered daughter  never existed.  What could make a person so dedicated to and entrenched in their beliefs to behave in such a hurtful manner?  When does believing in something become fanaticism? There’s an older guy who comes to my door about once a month and discusses his beliefs as a Jehovah ’s Witness with me.  He’s a nice guy, and so are the people who come with him.  They are always pleasant and polite and respectful.  I try my best to be the same.  I explain to them that when it comes to religion, I am very much a skeptic, and they try to explain to me why I should believe. They hand me the latest issue of the Watchtower, their monthly publication, and read selected verses from the Bible.  I’ve explained to them that I don’t believe the Bible is the literal word of God, and that I think it was written by men, and they reply “It was written by men.  Forty men, to be exact, who were selected by God to put down his words.” Yesterday, on my front porch with the man and one of his fellow believers, I was in a slightly more argumentative mood than I usually am.  They began by telling me there is only one God to believe in, and that if you believe in false prophecies, you will pay the price.  The example they gave was the Heaven’s Gate cult that committed mass suicide in 1997, believing it was the mechanism for them to be granted access to a UFO that was flying in the wake of the comet Hale-Bopp. We then discussed the bible again.  They insist on a literal interpretation of the book.  I asked about Noah’s Ark, how did they get all the animal species in the world on the ark, how did they all fit, and what of animals in North America, which hadn’t been discovered yet.  They had answers for all of my questions and more, including why the lions didn’t eat the lambs on the ark – apparently God injected all of the creature’s brains with an infusion of tolerance that suspended the lions’ meat eating instincts, and that for the year on the Ark the lions, like all the other animals, ate straw.   I asked why did God cause the flood in the first place, and the answer was that he was so upset with man and the violence he perpetuated that he was going to kill all living things, save for those on the Ark.  I then asked, as logic would dictate, why God didn’t just infuse everybody’s brain with the same level of tolerance he infused the animals on the ark with, if he could make the lion and the lamb live in harmony, couldn’t he make all the people live in harmony.   I didn’t get a good answer on this one.  Then I asked, how old is the earth, and the one man confidently shot back, “between three and six thousand years.”  I left this one alone, sensing where the conversation would take us, and instead accepted the latest issue of the Watchtower and Awake! publications.  The man asked if it was okay if he stopped by again next month and I said, sure, feel free to. After they left, I thought about it and felt kind of bad about telling the guy he could come back.  He’s such a nice guy, and he’s completely sincere and honest in his beliefs.  The sad truth is that he will never convert me – to me, the ideas of two of each animal in the world boarding an Ark and that the world is only 6,000 years old are just as crazy as committing mass suicide to gain entry to a heaven-bound UFO  – and I’m not going to convert him to a more reasonable, scientific view of the universe.  The truth is, I have no desire to convert the man. He is polite, courteous, and carries himself with decency.  I have no doubt that he is a good man. So I continue to struggle with this one.  I know what I believe in and what I don’t.  That part is easy.  The difficult thing is what do I do with these beliefs?  Do I try to convince others?   How do I respect the different or conflicting beliefs of others, even when I am convinced they are wrong?  And how do I keep an open enough mind to really listen when my beliefs are challenged?   What if I’m wrong? The only answer I can come up with is what is at the core of my beliefs, the most fundamental belief of all, and that is, respect.  I believe that every human being has, deep inside, the capacity for goodness and the ability to love.  The best I can do is to try and remember this, and treat everyone, no matter what they believe or don’t believe in, with the respect they deserve.  It sounds simple but it’s not.  I’ve fallen short more times than I can count.  That doesn’t make me wrong, or stop me from trying to do better going forward.

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