Six impossible things before breakfast, and a side of doubt

The comfort of cohesive ideologies

I have mixed feelings about religion. As a child I was fairly devout. But all that changed at age 15 when my father died. He too was a fairly devoted Catholic, and his sudden death sent me into an angst-ridden search for existential truth. “Why did bad things happen if God was so good?” I asked.

Within a few years I had found my truth – not in the comforting notion of God – but in the cold truth of evolutionary theory and science. After having read Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, I found myself among the staunchest of hardcore atheists. Religion to me was nothing but a fanciful fairy tale – Santa Claus for adults. I was never one to believe in imaginary friends.

And now? Inevitably, the passage of time and the pursuit of knowledge eventually eroded away this hard opinion. Even the cold hard facts of science reach their limit. I had replaced my quaint spirituality with an emphatic obsession with truth. But scientific truth is simply referential, never absolute. Now, after much reflection, I must concede I have become an agnostic. There is probably no God, but I can’t disprove God either. Dawkins might argue that I can’t disprove leprechauns either, and well, no, I can’t.

But whether God, Zeus, or leprechauns, it must be admitted that we humans have a tendency to believe in absolutely nonsensical things – nonexistent things. We all do this. Tell me, when was the last time you saw Democracy running down the street, or Marxism hanging out at the cafe? They remain ideologies separate from the physical world. Human beings live in a universe where things are always changing- nothing is constant. And in order to make sense of this flux, we posit true and absolute things to compare this changing world to – even if these things don’t exist at all.

You see, after having gone from absolute believer to absolute non-believer and halfway back again, I’ve discovered something: humans would rather believe in absolute nothingness than in nothing at all. Even nihilists believe in something – they simply skip the niceties of a posited truth, God, or belief system – and go strait to the nothingness. As finite beings, we must posit an absolute, in order to make sense of our finitude. Whether that be God, scientific truth, Marxism, or nothingness itself – we need something.

Scientists such as Michael Shermer, who is currently the editor in chief of Skeptic magazine, suggests we are hard-wired to believe in God, and even supernatural things. Anyone who remembers their childhood can see how easy it is to believe in imaginary friends, deceased relatives, fictional heroes, et cetera. Its only one small step further to superstition and religion on a basic level. I argue that even the staunchest atheists and nihilists retain these qualities to some extent. Even the most rationally trained mind occasionally slips into superstition or magical thinking. But we need the imaginary, if only to justify the real. We need an imagined absolute. As Voltaire said, “If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent him.”

The problem arises when we believe our absolutes absolutely. No matter how certain we are of Yahweh, Middle Earth, scientific truth, or Rastafarianism, we must always have a small amount of doubt to counteract this danger. And we know all too well the dangers that are posed by believing in an ideology absolutely, from Stalin’s purges, to Nazi Germany, and right into the events of September 11. Belief is not the problem – it’s inevitable. So let us have our “six impossible things before breakfast!” But let’s also be sure to spice them with a dose of doubt, because fanaticism begins where doubt ends.