Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Well, What Do You Believe In?

After explaining to someone recently that I simply did not believe in the existence of any gods, my companion confronted me—with a suggestion of smugness—by posing the question, "Well, what do you believe in?"
Tucked away in the question What do you believe in? is the insinuation that one must have faith in something beyond what the senses convey. To which we skeptics say, Why? How is it having faith in the unfathomable has become a prerequisite for finding meaning and purpose in life? Many would argue that acknowledging something greater than ourselves relieves us of our sense of self-importance, and that in so doing we achieve a genuine humility. Daring to speak for others, the entity greater than ourselves many of us skeptics look to is community—each other in the aggregate.
It seems the theist’s definition of “believe” implies that the object of belief must be beyond what our senses can convey and our ability to reason can affirm. Whereas, we who are constrained by rational thinking feel that anything worth believing in, by definition, should be precisely the things our senses can convey and our ability to reason can affirm.
In other words, my friend, I believe you are sitting in a chair across the table asking me questions. Why? Because my senses convey as much. I also believe that if I drop a stone from a tall building it will fall to the pavement. Why? Because I have reasoned that the effects of gravity suggest it is the likely outcome.
The feeling I so often get is that we who do not possess a blind faith in something beyond the rational are less deserving of the full complement of life's redeeming values, as if it were somehow morally advantageous to have faith in something beyond our ability to comprehend if not supernatural altogether. Yes, it is the morally condescending attitude so many religious people possess and convey that manages to infiltrate and disable our otherwise benign dispositions. Have faith in whatever you want, but understand that believing and knowing are two different things.
The closest thing to a blind faith I possess is what I believe about our capacity to love and our willingness to help those who have never been properly loved. It may be a stretch, but I do indeed believe love can make a difference. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Escaping Stockholm

In August of 1973 in the city of Stockholm, Sweden, two robbers held four bank employees hostage for six days. The hostages were strapped with dynamite and held in a vault. In an amazing twist, the captives became enamored of their captors and even defended them when their ordeal was over. The term “Stockholm Syndrome” was soon born, coined by psychiatrist Nils Bejerot.
The syndrome is marked by the denial of abuse by one’s captors and the staunch defense of one’s captors for all manor of psychological reasons. Oddly, an emotional bonding often occurs between captor and captive, abuser and abused; sometimes even between rapist and rape victim.
The Stockholm Syndrome dynamic could even apply to those who have been raised by overly zealous religious guardians. A blind loyalty to one’s religious manipulators often reveals a perverse bonding having taken place between these religious manipulators and their victims. When someone’s indoctrination into the cult of religiosity is so all-consuming it becomes the prism through which he measures all things in life, he may well come to value his deluded state so much he will go to great lengths to defend his intellectual and spiritual oppressors. And as long as the connection to his abusers’ religion undergoes regular maintenance through occasional church attendance, religious holidays, weddings, funerals, etc., he or she will want to continue to show his one-time captors loyalty and affection, thereby legitimizing his own status in the religious tribe otherwise known as family and friends.
Escaping this religious manifestation of the Stockholm Syndrome and its numbing effects entails the virtual deprogramming of the intellect. It also involves relearning—or learning for the first time—the value of independence and inquisitiveness in the free-thinking mind. This is no easy task. There’s a reason the Jesuits claim that if they have the attention of a child’s mind for the first seven years of life or thereabouts that child’s mind forever after belongs to them, and that reason is frighteningly clear: children want to please their guardians; they want the approval of those who feed them and clothe them—and ‘love’ them.
For a long time I was ‘stranded in Stockholm.’ Fortunately, my deprogramming ultimately succeeded, and I came to understand the nefarious nature of religious brainwashing. My captors, however, went on living the lie, believing it was their own failure that led to my escape. Little did they know, as long as they persisted in denying me intellectual freedom, they were destined to fail.