Beliefs and Reality

On this Halloween there are Christian forces out there warning against demons, since they apparently believe demons are real. For their definitions of “believe” and “real.” Which are not the same definitions that reality-based people use. My understanding of this distinction has become clarified in recent weeks.

Here is a point I’ve made before: religious people are more persuaded by conspiracy theories than others. Because religious people do not have an anchor in reality. They “believe” things that are not plausible given humanity’s understanding of the real world, built up over recent centuries. They believe in all sorts of outrageous myths, as long as it’s old enough. They are not part of the “reality-based community,” or adhere to Jonathan Rauch’s “Constitution of Knowledge,” either in government, or in science. This article makes this point precisely.

Salon, Amanda Marcotte, 31 Oct 2023: Mike Johnson’s Satanic panic: How evangelical delusions trained Republicans to love Trump’s lies, subtitled “If you believe Noah’s ark was real and demons come out of the TV, it’s just a small jump to embrace the Big Lie”

Ours is an age where once-hoary clichés have been given new life by the rise of right wing authoritarianism: “The banality of evil.” “First they came for the [fill in the blank].” “2+2=5.” Then there is the famous quote, translated from Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” That’s the one that popped into my mind when I read that newly-elected Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., believed demons were attacking his family through the TV set.

Johnson largely managed to keep his name out of the national news before his ascendance as the highest-ranking Republican on Capitol Hill. That’s why he won, as Republicans hoped to conceal his far-right radicalism under the veil of ignorance. But prior to the current unearthing of Johnson’s long history of creepy and fascistic behavior, he did get a small amount of national attention in September 2022 for posting an ’80s-style Satanic panic about a cartoon show on FX.

With examples. And the following, with an appeal to the foundational Carl Sagan book (reviewed here, which, I see now, appealed to both “the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights”, anticipating the Jonathan Rauch book):

I was reminded of a quote from Carl Sagan’s classic defense of science, “The Demon-Haunted World“: “The Bible is full of so many stories of contradictory moral purpose that every generation can find scriptural justification for nearly any action it proposes—from incest, slavery, and mass murder to the most refined love, courage, and self-sacrifice.”

As I argued on Monday, Johnson’s career is a perfect example. Johnson’s starting position is clearly a desire to prop up a patriarchal system that oppresses women and LGBTQ people. The Bible is backfill — there as rationalization, not reason.

It’s important to understand that most fundamentalists like Johnson “believe” that Noah’s ark was real or Satan controls Disney in a very different way than most people understand the word “believe.” It’s not an assertion about reality in the same sense as saying, for instance, that October 31 is Halloween. An assertion is valued for how it makes them feel or whether it helps them get power. Evangelical culture is full of these quasi-beliefs, from creationism to urban legends about everyday encounters with angels.

We can know they don’t really believe half the crap they say because they don’t act like people who believe it. When they get sick, most creationists go running to medical doctors, whose practice only works because the theory of evolution is true. Johnson wasn’t really afraid his TV was a portal for demonic possession, or he would have thrown the whole machine out. And certainly, no one literally believes Donald Trump is a Bible-believing Christian, but since it suits their purposes to claim he is, they will “believe” he is saved by the cleansing powers of Jesus Christ.


The Atlantic, Brian Klaas, 31 Oct 2023: Political Analysis Needs More Witchcraft, subtitled “You can’t understand politics just by being rational. Where would QAnon and sorcery fit in?”

The writer describes a visit to Madagascar, a culture saturated in supernatural thinking.

A decade ago, I arrived in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, for my first stint of field research into the island’s volatile politics. While unpacking in my hotel room, I heard sporadic celebrations erupting in the streets below. Confused, I asked a jubilant man what was going on.

“The army captured the militia’s sorcerer,” he told me. “The president just announced that soldiers seized all of the sorcerer’s diabolical objects—and they’ll soon be destroyed.”

Heavily armed criminal militias, known as the dahalo, had been terrorizing civilians in rural Madagascar. Now their sorcerer was in custody, and his talismans were broken and burned. The government and the public believed that the dahalo had suffered a severe blow, and that a more peaceful future was possible. The president, who had been in a precarious state politically, got a much-needed popularity boost.

And the key point:

The lesson was obvious: Whether the sorcerer or the talismans really had powers didn’t matter. What mattered was what people believed. Beliefs, true or false, rational or irrational, shape politics.

Exactly. My perennial theme: Human nature is not rational. It is prone to tribalistic thinking, and persuaded by intuitive thinking, and conclusions based on inaccurate perception of the real, objective, world. People and societies take on irrational thinking to bind them together. Is this sufficient for human survival? Only for tribal survival. It’s worked for most of human history. But now humans are filling up the planet. For survival in a world threatened by existential threats, only acknowledgement of the real world will save us. I am not confidant that this will happen.

Is there a path for objective, rational, understanding of the world, by humans? Perhaps; that is what Jonathan Rauch’s “constitution of knowledge”, applying both to government and science, is about. There is in fact a body of knowledge, built up by humans over the past 500 years or so, that has worked. It’s built the US’ constitutional democracy, and it’s built our modern society upon science and technology. Yet it’s always under fire by the by those with vested interests. Especially the religions.

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