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Out in the World of Non-Belief


By Jim Downard

Everybody has beliefs. We’d have to be a block of wood not to. In fact, we can be reasonably certain that blocks of wood don’t have beliefs. Not a one. And yet we do, lots of them.

Some of the beliefs we hold are true. If you believe the Earth is a spinning globe in space, for example, orbiting our sun, which is carrying our solar system along toward the constellation Hercules (or some such) at 40,000 mph or so, well, that’s pretty much a true thing to believe. So maybe we should use a different word for that. We have knowledge of that, and some people (pretty much most) accept that to be true as their belief.

But not all. Some believe the contrary: believing that we live on a flat Earth, unmoving, with twinkly lights overhead that are not actually thermonuclear furnaces (as science has determined) but something else. They’re kind of vague on all that, and none of those who believe such things can compile an eclipse predictor. We know that, as an observation.

Although there was a time when you could get into trouble proclaiming the belief that it is true knowledge that the Earth orbits the sun (cue Galileo), that no longer appears to be a big deal even among the Flat Earthers. No one’s been thrown off a parapet these days for declaring the Earth to be a sphere. But then Flat Earthers aren’t in a position to enforce their orthodoxy on the rest of us. Yet. Maybe never. Hopefully never.

But there are actual places in the world where you can get thrown off a parapet, or get your head chopped off … for being gay, or being a woman wanting to be educated, or an artist wanting to make a picture or music, or for the “crime” of declaring that the beliefs of some are just beliefs and are not really true. That’s what “blasphemy” is, and from the point of view of the non-believer, the idea that such a thing could be a crime is, well, rather a crime.

It should be a distinctly creepy thing to know that most of the people on Earth (we’re talking billions, remember) live in places where you can get into trouble that way, even to the point of having your head chopped off, for failing to believe the things their culture requires them to believe. We know that too, as an observation. That’s not a good thing to have to observe.

So is the non-believer in religions in the same mode as the non-believer in Flat Earth? To the extent that both draw on empirical observation and reason, yes, but not all religions fall into obvious conflict with observable reality as Flat Earth does. Religions involve supernatural entities or forces that by their nature cannot be seen by a lens or weighed on a scale (especially if they’re shy and decline personal appearances). They are believed to be real, but unless they are attributed with actions we can determine did not happen, are insulated from refutation.

But if such beliefs cannot be proven or disproven by such means, then can they ever be thought of as knowledge?  No, they cannot, and it is that attitude toward belief that sets the non-believer apart from the believer.

Some believers, for example, are certain they have a personal relationship with their supernatural entity. But does that mean they have nights out on the town with it? That they routinely play cards together, and have long chats into the night, as one can with human relationships?

No, they’re not claiming that (and indeed those who do, seem the least likely to be actually interacting with the entity, and tend to have acquaintances summon the medical authorities). This doesn’t mean they aren’t deeply feeling they have such a relationship. But from the non-believer’s point of view, they can no more claim such things to be knowledge than someone insisting they have a personal relationship with Sherlock Holmes, based ultimately only on what they have read or seen of the character of that name over the years, from the Conan Doyle stories to the many media depictions (from “Elementary” to Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett). As vivid and “real” as Sherlock Holmes has come to be for millions of people, Sherlock Holmes is a fiction. The same goes for Harry Potter.

Believers in certain supernatural entities do not think of their belief as being comparable to treating Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter as real, though. And in some places, the declaration of it may very well get you thrown off a parapet.

But that doesn’t change the equation from the point of view of the non-believer.

We non-believers are in a sea of such beliefs. We wonder at them, puzzle at them. Observe them. Try to make sense of them. Investigate what cognitive systems might underlie them. Even ponder whether there might have been an evolutionary dynamic to why such beliefs (mutually contradictory ones on close inspection) come so easily and commonly to humans.

And beliefs do evolve. Step back to early in our species, a couple hundred thousand years ago, and we’ll lay odds that not a single one of the specific supernatural entities currently believed in by name will have been believed in back then. Like Sherlock Holmes, it takes time to build up a good and vivid character.

This has a lot to do with how much we like to tell stories, to make sense of the world by them, even if the stories aren’t always true. Ah, but if the story should be true, would be wonderful if it were true, makes the believer feel so grand and comfortable and reassured by the believing of it.  Well, now there’s a possible dynamic, where cognitive architecture that facilitates such belief might thrive better than ones that cannot even imagine such things.

Ironically it was the atheist Ricky Gervais who hit on a vivid depiction of this relation between religion and storytelling.  “The Invention of Lying was more profound than it needed to be, but there it was.  A culture that cannot invent religion won’t have any fiction at all.  And that’s because all stories are lies.  And religion is a branch of storytelling.

They may be entertaining lies, necessary lies, wonderful and enticing lies, lies that we come to want to be true, so repeat them long enough and often enough that they come to be “true” and “real” in the way Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter are for some people.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.  So long as you can’t be thrown off a parapet for saying that, after all, it is still just a lie of sorts.

And that’s the view from the non-believer.

And it’s why some of us might be wary of getting near parapets.

Jim Downard is a panelist at the next SpokaneFāVS Coffee Talk, featuring our “Ask” columnists. The event will be at 10 a.m., Oct. 6 at Saranac Commons, 19 W. Main Ave.


Jim Downard

About Jim Downard

Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose.

He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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