“The Scriptures say that if you ask in faith,
If you ask God Himself he’ll know.
But you must ask Him without any doubt
And let your spirit grow…
I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob.
I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well.
And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri.
If you believe, the Lord will reveal it.
And you’ll know it’s all true. You’ll just feel it.
You’ll be a Mormon
And, by gosh!
A Mormon just believes!”
-The Book of Mormon, the Musical
(Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone)
“Beleive!” is one of those words that gets instagrammed over a sunset or a flying dove and shared around, or hung on a suburban front door in wooden angels with bells on them, or sold at a TJ Maxx as a piece of kitch written in kids’ blocks to collect dust on your shelf. Seems like everyone knows what it is and how to do it. But I keep learning that everyone I talk to believes in something slightly different than the last person I talked to. “Belief” becomes more and more of a nebulous concept the more people you ask. And if you don’t believe in anything, you wind up accidentally making people feel like their grandmothers are liars, or that you simply do not have the capacity to love.
I am not the kind of person to get in anyone’s way if they want to believe in something. Jesus builds people up enough to get them off drugs, out of jail, or get a job, and who am I to tell them that they should instead depend on their own inner strength rather than the strength of something divine? Whatever works. If you can’t walk down the street without feeling the urge to do terrible things to people, perhaps you need to believe in a Hell where you will go to be punished if you actually do anything terrible. In fact, if I simply can’t convince you (with my highbrow liberal education!) that a short skirt doesn’t mean the woman wants you to touch her, well, THANK YOU for figuring out a mechanism that keeps the people around you safe. Whatever works. I don’t think your grandmother is lying to you when she tells you that she saw a ghost. I think your grandmother is a perfectly lovely human being who believes she saw a ghost, which -having the same effect on her surroundings as actually seeing a factual ghost- is just as valid. And, yes, I do have the capacity to love, thank you. Just because love is a chemical reaction in the brain combined with a conscious decision to commit to something doesn’t make it any less magical than God putting two soulmates together. Not to me, anyway.
I am not going to rip the beard off of Santa Claus in the middle of a shopping mall because I’m frustrated that you’re lying to the children. (For the record, I AM frustrated that you’re lying to children, but being a jerk about it is not helpful.) I am not going to stand up while watching a children’s play and tell them all that the unicorn is not a unicorn, it’s my friend Tim in a suit. Mainly because I have confidence that the children can TELL that that is Tim in a suit, but they choose to believe that it is a unicorn, because that is more fun.
And there we have it – the choice to believe. As mentioned in the above lyrics, there are plenty of people in the world who consciously deny the truth of reality and implement their own ideas because it is more fun, or it simplifies things, or it makes them feel good or less afraid to do so. I’m discovering that actually, everyone does this, and it doesn’t hurt anyone. If you do yoga, your instructor will talk about chakras, because it’s easier to explain things with “energy flow” than go through the scientific explanation of the body chemistry going on. People sit through Tarot readings, and honestly, if someone says “I see a dark man in your life”, the first person you associate with that image probably IS very significant. If you have cancer, people pray for you, because it makes them feel like they have some modicum of control over a staggeringly tragic life event, and that feels good. If you are ill, there’s a lot of evidence that suggests positive thought (in any capacity) helps you a lot, if for no other reason than you don’t spend your sick days wallowing in sorrow. Believing you’ll get better if you have a terminal illness is perhaps a false hope, but I think most people would rather live with false hope than none at all. The Swamps of Sadness are vast, and Belief gets people through them. So it’s understandable that if a person doesn’t really have any beliefs outside of scientific fact, the people who Believe Very Hard will feel sorry for them as if they are watching someone sinking and drowning.
I am not drowning. And I understand that your Belief works, in a way. Not scientifically, perhaps, but we lived a long time without microscopes and space ships. You keep on believing. I get it. I just don’t do it. That doesn’t make me think you’re stupid. In fact, thinking you’re stupid because you have different beliefs than me? That’s what annoys me about a lot of people who get a lot of attention for Believing Very Hard.
Although no one is about to tell a child that Santa is a big fat lie in a red suit, you also wouldn’t let the kid really actually believe that that man in the mall is going to come down their chimney. Because then they would be a -and I think we all agree on this one- crazy person.
Often times in life I feel like I am standing in line for Santa, or watching a play, and I’m surrounded by people who believe that the Truth is that Santa is real and my friend Tim is really a unicorn. Belief and Truth are not mutually exclusive. Children can hold belief and truth in their minds simultaneously. At some point I guess we’re told that we just have to chose one, because one has to be Right which must make the other Wrong. And 99% of the people that I talk to chose Belief, in one way or another. I feel pretty outnumbered. And I often have to wear a mask and nod along when everyone in the bar is talking about their personal “I’ve seen a ghost” stories, or when the students I’m teaching are all supposed to be Catholic, or when someone asks me to please pray for a dying relative. I’m not automatically thinking you’re crazy or stupid, I’m just looking at your belief in a wider context – like we’re watching the same play, and I see the set and the lights and the paint and Tim in a costume, and you see something else. And I’m sitting here wondering if you think Tim is really actually a unicorn, or if you can hold Myth and Fact in your mind simultaneously. And then I start thinking, if you believe Tim is actually a unicorn, what else do you believe is real? I need to know what else you believe in, because you might get very angry with me if I ever bring up that I don’t believe those things are real, too.
But trust me, I’m not writing you off as crazy! Not right away. Crazy people let their belief override the facts of the reality in front of them, and then they hurt people because of it. They become politicians who really think the best way to hold power over people is if everyone simply believed what they do – which is not how politics work. They teach their belief in science class when they should be teaching it in a different building altogether. (Go call it Sunday School! It’s just as important and valid as science, it’s just not science!) Or they tell people that they are intrinsically, unarguably terrible people because of their beliefs. These are common problems. All around me. All the time. When people believe so hard that they can’t open up to even the idea that anyone else has the freedom to live in a way they believe is wrong, that’s a problem. (Ironically, the people I know who understand this concept the best have all gone to Theology school. Or they’re the Catholic students I teach. There’s a lot of great things about Catholic school, the foremost to me being that it teaches you how to pretend to be Catholic.)
I like to think that I have an open enough mind to let all sorts of people around me be MY version of wrong, or stupid, or crazy. Because letting people be wrong and stupid and crazy keeps people happy, and unafraid. Keeps people watching the play and having fun, and nobody thinks you’re a jerk. I just don’t know where my line in the sand is when it comes to my appropriate context for myth and belief. When do I stand up and say “Okay, Grandma, the gays are actually lovely people with feelings and they have rights now, so you can shut up about it.” Or “Actually, Timmy, that man in the suit isn’t really Santa, but it sure is fun to pretend he is, isn’t it?” Or “Welcome to the pub crawl ghost tour! I’ll be your guide. You won’t actually see any ghosts because that’s a bunch of bullshit, but do I have some awesome stories for you!”
I don’t think we have invented yet a term in our language for an athiest who loves and uses Myth as long as it is compartmentalized outside of laws and science. (“agnostic” sounds like I’m thoroughly confused, or that I’m open to the idea that Jesus MIGHT have been a magical zombie. “Theologian” sounds like I went to school for it.) Perhaps once we can circulate that word as easily as we say “athiest” or “christian” or “not religious but spiritual,” we’ll all get a lot more comfortable. Or, at the very least, I WILL BE.