there is a brutal pandemic raging across the world and it appears unstoppable. there is a vaccine but people are obstinately refusing to get inoculated despite the side-effects being minimal and it being provided free. no. it’s not another coronavirus. it’s something far worse and this isn’t just a matter of life and death. it’s a matter of our existence as a species. what we are currently experiencing is the pandemic of belief compounded by the curious corollary of respect — in a world where people are so rarely respectful of each other, the reverence for belief systems is frankly staggering and this is contributing to the spread of the disease.
let’s begin with a few basic ideas — thought, opinion, belief, fact, knowledge. these are five words that are often tossed around in everyday speech without really looking at them but it’s important to understand the difference.
a thought is a basic idea. it is something that comes to mind. these often come without any particular purpose or direction but exist there until we do something with them. i think it’s sunny today. i think that’s an apple on the picnic table over there. having a thought is a trigger for more serious development — like forming an opinion or seeking knowledge.
an opinion is something you think. it can be justified or simply random. it’s thought plus direction but without the need for actual information or knowledge. if you have an opinion, it can be something based on experience or what you have learned. it can be biased or nearly-objective. while i have a thought about it being sunny, i have an opinion that sunny days are good. is this justified? well, sunny days encourage plants to grow and make my mind more alert and happy. so perhaps it is. is it knowledge? no. there’s nothing objectively-good about sunny days and rain is also necessary for plants. but my opinion is that sunny days are good. i think it’s an apple on the table but i’m not sure. my opinion, however, is, on reflection, it’s probably actually a pear. why? because it looks a little wider at the bottom. i can’t know. my opinion could be right or wrong — just because it has the potential to be proved one way or the other doesn’t mean it can’t be an opinion. i don’t have to hold my opinions for life. i can walk over and check. then i’ll know. but at the moment i’m just sitting here in the sun, enjoying the warm day and it doesn’t much matter if it’s an apple or a pear because i’m not hungry.
a belief is an opinion that can’t be proved (either true or false). human english-speakers have a curious way of talking about beliefs that imply they are a natural part of existence but they’re actually a consequence of some rather problematic social pressure and indoctrination that’s only existed for a couple of millennia, a short time in the development of human culture and knowledge. instead of saying “i believe this exists”, people often say “i believe in this”. this is just shorthand for an existence belief but it doesn’t feel quite as outrageous to the listener because it’s such a common statement. you will hear people say “i believe in ghosts” or “i believe in gods” meaning “i believe ghosts exist” or “i believe gods exist”. the statement is the same but the underlying sentiment is different — “i believe in…” carries the implication of “…and that’s totally normal so don’t judge me” while a statement of explicit existence tends to come with the idea of self-justification in the face of necessary objections. when someone in the west says “i believe in god”, it has the context of “…don’t you? if you don’t, you’re weird and stupid”, which is a very curious sentiment for anything, especially a declaration of unjustified belief. the important part at the moment, though, is that belief isn’t opinion. this isn’t “i like chocolate” or “dogs are beautiful” — it’s something that must be taken on faith without the possibility of discovering its truth or falseness.
fact is the opposite of belief. it can be positive or negative. it is something that must be proved. yes, in some cases “fact” can be almost-proved, something that is beyond reasonable doubt and potentially modified later. but it’s usually true in a demonstrable way. 1+1=2. gravity exists between two objects pulling them closer together. humans require oxygen for life. these are all facts. it’s important to remember you can’t “believe” a fact — or, for that matter, “believe in” a fact. it simply doesn’t make sense. your belief doesn’t matter to the fact. it exists independently of your awareness of it or acceptance. while it’s important for humans to accept all facts, whether they choose not to is irrelevant to the truth inherent in each. the difference between belief and fact isn’t a matter of degree. they are true opposites. something can be one or the other but never both. a thing can’t be “mostly fact” or “like a belief”. it’s one or the other with no room for overlap or grayness.
knowledge is the next step beyond fact. it is what happens when we accept fact and use it as the foundation for seeking more. the easiest way to think of knowledge is as a collection of facts followed by a series of thoughts — a certain type of thoughts, actually — questions. a simple example looks like this. i am aware humans require oxygen for survival. gravity holds massive objects together (all objects with mass, that is). oxygen at standard earth temperatures is a gas. humans currently live on the surface of earth. does this mean oxygen is held near earth’s surface because it has mass and gravity is keeping it there? well, yes. that’s knowledge. what about other planets? a good question. if there was oxygen being produced in sufficient quantities on mars, for example, through the implementation of vegetation there, the gravity (in combination with many other features) would create an atmosphere on mars much like on earth and humans would be able to breathe near the surface on the “red planet”, too. while we might not personally have proof of every step of that series of questions and answers yet, each statement is either something we certainly can prove or that someone else can prove. none of them are beliefs. they are all facts or potential-facts waiting to become facts or be showed false and become negative-facts. this is knowledge.
there has historically been a pair of developments throughout human existence — the pursuit of knowledge and the escapism and development of beliefs.
in ancient egypt, for example, these two coexisted in society. mathematics and engineering were constantly being developed — just look at the pyramids and the construction of the tombs in the valley of the kings if you haven’t thought of the egyptians as masters of number-processing and structure-creation. at the same time, these astonishing building-projects were invested with mythological silliness and rituals were regularly performed to please non-existent deities in the service of belief systems that developed over the millennia to answer questions whose answers were not yet available.
the greeks of antiquity, a bit later than most of the egyptian progress was made, had a similar dualistic approach to knowledge and belief. there was incredible development in science and philosophy (yes, science was referred to as “natural-philosophy” but it was definitely at least the precursor of physics, chemistry and biology as we know them today) but citizens of athens venerated athena (as an irrelevant aside, one of my closest friends had a beautiful husky puppy named athena so every time i think of the mythological entity i can’t help picturing her as the embodiment of fur barking her commands for the ancient greeks and, while that doesn’t make her any more real, it certainly makes her far more striking in my mind) and made pilgrimages and sacrifices to various, sundry and inexplicable mythological entities believed to be just as real as their neighbors and far more powerful. in a world where so much about daily life was not yet understood, much like in the egyptian case, this was perfectly-comprehensible. before the evolution of scientific method and serious discovery, it was possible to live without belief but deeply dissatisfying because so many questions were left unanswered. the fact that the answers they were given by belief were completely false and intensely misleading didn’t make them less satisfying. as people today are well-aware, that often makes them far easier to accept.
the point is that in ancient times, before about the fourth century of the common era, belief and knowledge were pursued as parallel tracks that weren’t seen as conflicting with each other. all of that changed in three-hundred-and-twenty-five. when the roman mystery cults decided to rebrand themselves using the revolutionary teacher jesus of nazareth as their figurehead and dominate the roman empire with forced-conversion and messianic hyperspirituality, belief and knowledge were placed on an intersecting crash-course with disastrous consequences for those existing at these meeting-points.
at first, there was no contest. the world simply didn’t have much in the way of available knowledge in most of the west. actual fact had been mostly wiped-out as the roman followup to the greek empire collapsed and its scientific, engineering-focused information disintegrated. common people simply didn’t know anything. they couldn’t read or write and existed in insular communities that functioned mostly as echo-chambers of cultural expectation and mythological self-delusion. not only did they not have any knowledge, they had no desire to acquire any. and, as with most undesirable things, it certainly wasn’t going to show-up on its own.
for the first thousand years of what we can think of as the “cult-christianity era”, belief had it all its own way. as with nearly all things, though, thankfully, it couldn’t last. the end of belief’s monopoly rule, though, comes from an odd place in western history — warfare. with the renaissance, the old greed of roman conquest times was finally being let loose again and conflicts like the hundred-years-war required something beyond pure, brutal strength as had been common for a millennium. it required technology for military superiority. and technology demands facts and knowledge, not belief. you can’t believe you’re going to hit a target or forge a better sword. it’s something you have to know. and you have to know it for a reason. with the weapons of war, a revolution in the minds of the masses was being very gradually kindled. then a few great thinkers fanned those flames and got rather badly burned by churches full of candles and hellfire.
from the theoretical inventions of leonardo da vinci to the practical calculations of galileo, the generalized satisfaction with belief as the only answer to questions was now being challenged. it’s not that people were suddenly asking more questions. they were always asking the questions. it’s that they weren’t happy with the answers being “we believe…” — they wanted “we know…” and religious cults and mythology don’t give those kinds of answers even if they use the words to give a sense of truth they can’t possibly emulate. galileo proved (not for the first time but for the first time publicly and blatantly in a while in the west) that the earth was not the center of the universe (or even the solar-system) but that everything visible in the sky, including our tiny planet, orbited the sun. we weren’t special in his eyes and he was right. sadly, this wasn’t a happy place for the church — if earth isn’t special, at the center of everything, why would a deity focus their attentions on it? he was imprisoned and eventually died for his “sins” of fighting against belief in favor of knowledge. he didn’t even demonstrate the rest of the obvious idiocy of belief. only one particular fact. one fact is enough to bring the whole edifice of belief crashing down, though. and those were (and are) some expensive churches and powerful priests.
galileo’s statements weren’t about daily life. they didn’t really have much potential for impact on average people or our place as humans in existence. a few centuries later, though, with the church still holding all the power in the balance between belief and knowledge, a new figure arrived on the scene to issue a challenge — without appearing to be aware of the potential results — to belief as the fundamental way to answer human questions. by the end of the nineteenth century, charles darwin’s discoveries about evolution had shifted the basic belief of humans as distinct from animals and biology as the result of an intelligent plan created by a deity to what we now know is the fact of natural-selection by adaptation over large-scale time. his “theory of evolution” took time to shift from theory to actual proved fact but no time at all to be understood as a massive shift in the fabric of human belief-structures. from then until today (and still ongoing for some curious reason), organized christianity (though, it appears, none of the other religions) decided to wage war on knowledge and face it head-on as the destroying force it obviously was and is. yes, knowledge shows religion to be the useless error it is. i suspect, though, it wouldn’t have made this nearly as obvious if religion hadn’t declared itself willing to fight.
in the modern age, though, this fight is nothing even resembling over. we live in a world completely controlled by technology and scientific progress. our daily lives are governed by the internet and we have meetings in virtual space, talk to each other by typing and share our visual experiences in realtime on social-media. we are obsessed with our technology. science is the foundation of our lives. we rely on modern medicine and transportation every day. there is no aspect of our lives that doesn’t rely completely on the development of logical, scientific fact.
but that hasn’t protected us from the pandemic of belief.
nationalist conservatism has raised its ugly head many times in the past — nazism under hitler, fascism under franco, exceptionalism under truman, free people under berlusconi and populism embodied in the national front and its leadership. it is not a figment of the past and continues to hold court today in much of the west with a seething hatred backing fear of change and desire to live in a belief-focused society. we see this primarily in the united states as depicted by trump, the united kingdom in boris johnson and various other movements throughout the west — canada’s people’s party, brazil’s social christians, australia’s one nation, japan’s ldp and a shocking number of movements in germany, austria and france to name only a few. how are these movements able to exist in a modern world? the answer is surprisingly simple.
humans are refusing to be inoculated against the disease of belief. they embrace it not as a contaminating, deadly virus but like a refreshing drink on a hot afternoon.
what is this inoculation? education. there is only room for one answer to questions. where do humans come from? the simple answer is that we are the evolutionary children of primates, descended from other mammals who can trace our lineages back to fish and, eventually, bacteria. this answer isn’t just true. it’s logical. but there’s an alternative answer. we were created by an intelligent, all-powerful deity. this answer is, of course, not just wrong but unthinkable. but that’s the point. it’s absolutely unthinkable. it avoids thought completely. if you are living a life where thought is not the goal but the enemy, this might be exactly the answer you’re looking for — one that relies only on belief, not knowledge. the important part about this is that there is only one cure for belief — replacing the beliefs with knowledge. once you already have an answer, you don’t go looking in dangerous places (like churches) for belief-based ones.
what we have been doing, though, is allowing these answers to thrive. each belief-based answer is a spore in the transmission of the virus of faith and it contributes to the spread of the pandemic of anti-knowledge. the answer is clear but unpopular, though i am still somewhat uncertain why. we must not respect these beliefs. we must accept things that are true. and accept things that are false. but things that are neither — things that are simply beliefs — must be treated as anathema, undesirable. we must call out these things for what they are — contaminants remaining in our existences from past eras before science had functional answers to these questions. they were wrong then. they’re still wrong now. but it was once preferable to have a wrong answer than no answer at all.
before darwin, for example, there were many potential answers to “where did we come from” but it was impossible to know which was correct. having an answer was comforting. it meant you didn’t have to wonder and continuously ask the question. you felt like you knew something. and that’s what’s happening today all across the western world. people are being spoon-fed (often force-fed) religious answers to questions as if they are scientific truth and they feel they know the answers, despite being no closer to fact than they were in their absences. with the proof of the evolutionary model, however, there was only one acceptable answer that could possibly satisfy — when truth is possible, it is necessary. when truth is not yet possible, any answer is a fantastic temporary port in the storm of daily life.
the problem we are seeing is a generalized expectation of respect for belief and opinion. it tends to manifest as “it’s ok if you believe something because it’s harmless”. we have to stop allowing that cultural error to persist. why is it so important?
the other pandemic gives us a clear demonstration.
in the united kingdom and the united states, bastions of systemic elimination of knowledge from general daily life and its replacement with opinion and belief-based non-facts mostly by organized christianity and conservative politics, infection rates continue to soar despite high vaccination rates. why? respect for belief.
what is the belief people are respecting? you can think of it as many possible things but the easiest way to see it is “personal choice about responsibility”. we know how to prevent the spread of a deadly pathogen — it’s simple. you wear protection. all the time. around everyone outside your home. and this has been proved to work not just for this disease but almost all other airborne contaminants — like the flu where it’s been known for centuries. the belief of “i have a choice whether to wear a mask” or “i don’t want to do that and it’s my life” is inherently flawed. if individual behavior only had individual repercussions, that would be fine. but personal choice leads to society-wide impacts (like a daily infection count in the tens or hundreds of thousands in these two countries). where do those beliefs come from?
ah. that’s where the real danger lies. when knowledge is seen as undesirable and education is understood to be optional and something not necessary for daily life, people don’t get the basic facts about disease transmission. they don’t know how a virus spreads, for example, so they don’t feel any need to take precautions like wearing masks properly and continuously. when they are fed stories about human or national exceptionalism, they translate those into larger meta-belief-systems where they are the centers of their own perceptual universes and others are irrelevant. there is nothing particularly christian or biblical about the idea of “what i want matters and i am the most important person” but, sadly, it’s certainly where the result lands for most conservative christians. i’d love someone to point to the passage in the bible where it tells you to sacrifice your neighbors for your own personal pleasure because i’m fairly certain abraham, moses, david and jesus would have been all for masking-up in the service of public safety.
and this brings us to an interesting point. the problem isn’t religion, really. practically speaking, religious organizations potentially have an incredible role to play in modern society. they could support those without voices. they could help those in need. they could encourage happiness and ethical behavior. they could create community feelings, connectedness and the beauty of interpersonal relationships that have been sadly lacking for the last century as families become more fractured and ethics are destroyed. but they’re not really doing any of these things — at least, most aren’t.
they are focused on antiquated belief systems and conservative social ideas and politics. they’re spending their time thinking about profit and avoiding necessary change when they could be doing what their founders and figureheads instructed them to do — go out and serve those in need and bring peace and comfort to the people. they’re obsessed with belief systems that are no longer necessary when their roles in a modern society are more important than ever. sure, this will require some change in how religions are practiced. a shift from declarations of belief and demonstrations of worship and veneration to social organizations devoted to helping individuals and groups fighting for happiness in and against oppressive and outdated societal structures.
the simple answer is we need to treat belief the way we were taught as children to treat drugs. just say no. don’t stay silent. don’t respect. don’t look at opinion and say it’s ok when it’s not. opinion is often harmless and necessary for life. for example, i like raspberries but not strawberries. my mother is a devoted strawberry aficionado. my father loves sports and i am slightly less interested in watching hockey than staring at dead grass lie on the ground for three hours. there’s no right answer about questions of personal opinion. but belief is different. and we inherently understand that — the question of “is there a god?” is one with an answer. of course not. “where did we come from?” has an answer. after more than a century of elaboration, the simple version is darwin’s evolutionary method. you can’t believe 1+1=3. you don’t get to believe when there is actual fact. respecting those who ignore fact isn’t good manners. it’s teaching a new generation it’s ok to be wrong. to decide to be wrong. to embrace ignorance.
and ignorance, as dr king said, is the path to darkness and hate. let’s not walk there. let’s look at belief and treat it like meth. just say no. may your day be full of discovery. thanks for your eyes.