FAITH: Placed or Misplaced
Believing is easier than Thinking, Reasoning and Fact Checking.
Missy would come to my office, usually without her husband, Mike. (not real names) He found our visits a bit uncomfortable. She didn’t like to make him uncomfortable. She loved Mike and she believed he loved her. And I guess, she was correct, since “love” is kind of undefinable in specific terms.
It upset Missy that Mike often came home late, very late, like three AM. But he always came home. She was also bothered by some of the other things he did, such as the gambling, cocaine and a few infidelities (only a few, and they didn’t mean anything). Still, Missy kept the family going. She took care of the three kids, worked part time at their school, spent a lot of time with her mother and sister, and treated Mike well when he was home. Her major complaint was that he didn’t spend enough time with the kids.
Many people would not think that this kind of marriage was acceptable. But, I also know that many people who feel that these kinds of relationships are bad put up with them anyway, for many different reason. Also, I know that many people who are caught in these kinds of relationships believe that their spouses (yes, it goes both ways) really do love them, and that this belief brings them comfort, and makes it easier for them to survive.
I thought about Missy, and the many other people like her whom I had seen over the years in my practice, when I read two articles in this Sunday’s papers. One was in the Boston Globe Magazine ( 5/28/17), written by Steve Almond. He writes about a concept called “epistemic closure,” which is what it is called when someone accepts a belief as true and that belief is unalterable, no matter how much evidence there is that contradicts it. Thus, it becomes more than a belief, it is taken on faith.
The other article is in the New York Times Magazine (5/28/17), written by Molly Young, called Empire of Dust. It’s about the company Moon Juice, and the entire ‘Wellness” industry. What this article also is really about is the wide acceptance of a belief that has very little, or no empirical support, but is so appealing that people want it to be true. They choose to accept it as true, and then they pay a lot of money to back up that choice. Again, they have faith in these products.
Soon after I read those pieces I found this report in the Guardian, after being directed their by Dave Pell. This article was a review of five studies of the effectiveness of placeboes. People were given pills and they were clearly told that these pills have no medically active ingredients. Still, when people were told to take them twice a day. many reported feeling better, often much better. Compared to a group of people who had no treatment at all, a group taking placeboes felt much better.
What is all of this telling us. It isn’t really telling us anything new. In 1970, Paul Simon gave us this lyric in The Boxer: “still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” He ends that song with the words “after changes upon changes we are more or less the same.”
Unfortunately, this is still true, and studies of how conspiracy theories can spread on-line has shown have difficult it is to get people to stop believing them once they have accepted them, despite how far-fetched, or even impossible they may be. There are also many studies of the people who do accept these kinds of ideas, and how they seem to be vulnerable to accepting many of them, even if some of them contradict the others.
Again, this isn’t new. There have always been wild ideas that have spread rapidly and stoked up crowds to lynch scapegoats, bring down governments or go to war. This is especially true during times of scarcity or inequality or change. The difference now is the rapidity and reach of our communications systems. A Tweet, an Instagram picture, a Facebook post can bring out a flash-mob that can close down a city. There can also be a post on any of these sites about a flash-mob that never really happened, but that can still incite others to retaliate against this unreal injustice.
So many of the flaws of human nature are now exaggerated and amplified by technology. There are web sites, such as The Blaze, that have become an echo chamber for racist comments and conspiracy theories. Many people who would never have joined a lynch mob, now feel free to anonymously post racist comments and violent threats, which get amplified by the responses. Although most of these comments are posted by people who use this as a release for their anger and frustration, it has led to some people, such as Jeremy Christian, to lose control and murder people, as he did in Portland, OR. While that is rare, it is more frequent now that the boundaries of what is acceptable have been loosened, and people who are angry and confused seek solace in simple solutions to complex problems.
It is clear that humans have always depended upon their emotional responses to protect them. People who could quickly assess the difference between friend or foe, food or danger were the ones who survived and passed on there genes. For millenniums the homily “He who hesitates is lost” held more sway than “Look before you Leap,”
But the world most of us now live in has changed. As Danial Kahneman has shown through many studies, “thinking slow” is now more beneficial than “thinking fast.” Our lives are rarely threatened by wild beasts or marauding invaders from the other side of the mountain. The dangers now are more complex and nuanced. They affect a great number of people but mainly by chipping away at their lifestyle and future, and less by direct physical threats. People are losing their jobs to robots. The earth’s atmosphere is changing (despite reports to the contrary), and that threatens habitats, lifestyles and political stability. Money moves instantly. legally and illegally in huge amounts, all around the world, making a few people very rich and leaving huge populations behind.
We are all becoming more dependent on electronics to guide us in finding our way, making decisions, keeping us healthy, bringing us energy, transacting all of our business, and communicating. Yet these electronics are vulnerable to hacking, spying, manipulations, and even destruction. There are many companies that know more about our lives than we do ourselves. They have used that information to sell us stuff, influence our opinions, and play on our weakness. Their first priorities are rarely to make our lives better. They mostly want to make a profit. Sadly, this seems particularly true for the machines, devices and apps that are designed to treat diseases, or help people stay healthy.Their first concern is their revenue stream, not our health. The older you get, the more you will be confronted with that. Or, just watch the commercials on CNN.
Most people in the developed world realize that these changes are sweeping rapidly across the globe and have disrupted everyone’s lives. Many have reacted with enthusiasm, eager to partake in what is new and exciting. Driverless cars, solar energy,, genetic modification, bring it on. But it has also brought a huge backlash. It has ripped open the fears that always come with change, especially when it is based on new information that upends old beliefs, the kind that made up the foundation of people’s lives: “What! Mike cheated on me again, after he promised he wouldn’t!? I can’t believe it.”
Remember that for centuries people just believed that the earth was the center of the universe. Then along came Copernicus and Galileo who proved that that was not true. How many people thought that idea was fascinating, and were able to change their views based on the new evidence. Not many. Certainly not the leading powers of the time; the church. Nope, God had made things the way they saw it, and disagreeing with their view could be costly, very costly.
This has been true for almost every revision of popular understanding. The idea that germs, something you couldn’t even see, could cause infections and death. Many people still question evolution and quantum physics, while others still deny climate change or believe in supply side economics.
“Don’t tell me what i know, and have always known, is wrong!” How can it be wrong when it’s always been true? It’s is tough to get you mind around it. The Big Bang and the inflation model? Gay marriage? Racial equality? The Patriot’’s came back and won the Super Bowl? I’m not buying all that.
Now we are living through the usual response to all of these changes, a scourge of anger, bigotry, ignorance and anti-intellectualism. It’s harmful, but it’s inevitable.
The world has changed. People who were once very comfortable, and who thought they understood the way things worked, now are anxious and have to learn new skills. Learning new skills is difficult and takes a great effort. The first choice is to get angry and to stop the changes from occurring.
A hundred and fifty-five years ago America depended upon horses for a lot of our transportation, and on slaves for a lot of manual labor. Those things have changed. At that time their was a Civil War, which was an attempt to stop change. Horses and slaves are mostly gone, but the divisiveness remains. Hopefully, we can all learn enough new skills before things get worse.
We can learn a lot of them by watching YouTube. The knowledge and technology are already easily available.