Everywhere I look, everywhere I go, I am bombarded with the message to “Just Believe.” These encouragements do not always seem religious in nature, though at the heart of them, they really are. Phrases like, “Don’t be afraid, just believe” and “Believe in the magic” or “Believe in your destiny” all imply that either we have some control over the physical world merely by thinking something into existence really hard, or that we should accept something without any evidence, and in some cases, accept things that defy natural laws and simply cannot be true. Yet, those of us who identify as skeptics, who simply want some facts to back up the claims, are scorned as cynical, or as lacking imagination or some more “desirable” ability to regress into a childlike state of belief in fairy tales.
Why would this state of mind be lauded and sought after more than a mind that withholds agreement until the proof is in? I can only guess that it might be that belief makes us feel good, makes us feel we have some control, or makes us happier, thinking we live in a world where anything is possible, at least anything we want is possible. Maybe we just want to explain the chaos, give meaning to it.
But being a skeptic in a world where belief in the unknown is not only encouraged, but is praised as an ideal way of living, causes quite a few uncomfortable experiences. For example, when someone loses a loved one, and friend after friend offers up promises of prayers, encouragements of faith, comforting thoughts that a strong sense of surety will bring them through, what are the skeptics supposed to say? “I’m so sorry,” or “I’m thinking of you” pales in comparison. And when a friend tells a skeptic that if they just believe, everything will be all right, how should they respond? Saying what they really think will seem rude and most likely start an argument.
We, as skeptics, may seem insensitive or even offensive if we explain that we would rather take real action than use our mental energy to make-believe help. Often, we can’t bring ourselves to offer up promises of words spoken to someone who is not there, no matter how comforting. It’s just too hypocritical when believing doesn’t do anything that matters to anyone but the person experiencing it, and even then, it’s simply a psychological placebo. And every time something good happens, faith in some magical experience is credited, but when the opposite of what is wished for happens, the answer seems to be that either the person just didn’t believe enough, or my personal favorite, “It just means something better will come of this.”
I am a compassionate person. I really care when something bad happens to someone, but I can’t pretend to believe that trusting in some magical rescue or that wishing, praying, or focusing on the positive is going to help, even if it makes someone feel better temporarily. I think we’d all be better off if we just dealt with things realistically, even if it hurts for a while.
So no, I can’t “just believe.” Could it be that we just have no control over some things? That some random things just happen and some things happen that are clearly cause and effect? You may believe that you are wishing your world into existence, but until someone can measure the brainpower affecting real change on the physical world, reproduce it in the lab, and explain it, I’m going to stick with “Shit happens.”—Christina Knowles
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