“Probably I don’t believe in a lot of things that I used to believe in, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in anything.” White, atheistic and suicidal, to Black, in Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited.
When a person wants to believe something, he or she stops thinking.
That is more or less the conclusion of a whole new genre of bestselling books, such as Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, and Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman.
The popular interest in the psychology of self-deception might be a recent phenomenon, but the understanding of it is as old as the mountains. Cognitive psychologists have known for ages that conviction suspends reason.
So have the earliest philosophers. Millennia ago Demostenes said “Nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true.”
The effort to counter this strange peculiarity of the human race has led to a variety of therapeutic models, most notably Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Yet Ellis, whose influence eventually surpassed Freud’s, admitted that his therapy was not always successful. In April 2007, three months before his death, a colleague and friend of Ellis, Robin W. Thorburn, asked the ninety three year old psychologist “Why, despite rationally showing people and disputing their irrational beliefs, do they still hold onto their problems?” Ellis, who was hospitalized at the time, answered in a gruff voice: “They are addicted to them.”
If Thorburn were four years old he might have responded with a second “Why?”, but he didn’t. Regrettably.
That, in my mind, is the big question. Whilst Tavris and Aronson’s book comes close to offering an answer (the subscript reads Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts) I think we are all missing an essential point in the whole discussion.
It is this: We were designed to live by faith.
Yep. Faith is a stronger force than reason, and this is no accident. God intended it like that. The just shall not live by reason, but by faith. If that is the aim, then it follows quite naturally that humans were designed towards that aim.
We were designed to first believe, then to think. And so we believe first, and then we think. The type of thinking that follows our beliefs is oftentimes at such a depth that it amounts to no thinking at all, hence the introductory sentence to this article.
We are merely following our instincts when we believe before we think. We are merely acting out our raison d’etre. Even atheists like Aldous Huxley have admitted this. For a skeptical scholar of his caliber he was unfashionably honest when he confessed: “I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption.”
Note that Huxley was an atheist, but that he was also a believer. He had to first believe in order to disbelieve. Atheism, like all other isms, requires a primary faith-leap before it can be. Once you believe that everything is meaningless, all of nature will conspire to provide you with the proof. The conviction is primary, the logic secondary. We are first pledgers, then philosophers. We look for causes, not formulas. We indulge our passions, and then we explain why we have done so. We see the world not as it is, but as we are.
I suspect that this is what the Gospels mean when they tell us that our heart will be where our treasure is. We first identify a treasure, a source of worth, and then we are captivated. Once we detect value, we commit. Once we make this faith-commitment, we reason in accordance with it. Love is not only blind. It can sometimes also be pretty foolish.
If all this sounds suspicious to you, I suggest you read one of the books I mentioned earlier. Or visit David McRaney’s delightful blog You Are Not So Smart. They will make you painfully aware that you are not nearly as objective as you think. They will show you how your own brain manipulates data to make it fit your dearly held convictions. They will enforce the truth that information never reaches awareness until it has first passed through a cognitive filter where it is cut to pieces in the same way censor boards used to snip celluloid in the fifties.
In short, they will reinforce the truth that we first believe, and then think.
Ever heard the story of the man who went to see the psychiatrist?
“I am a corpse”, said he.
“A corpse?” The psychiatrist was taken aback. “So why are you here?”
“My wife asked me to come see you. She said you’d know what to do.”
The psychiatrist felt flattered. Indeed he knew. He reached into his drawer, produced a needle and asked: “So tell me, do corpses bleed?”
The reply came without hesitation: “No, they don’t.”
At this the psychiatrist grabbed the man’s hand and pricked his thumb with the needle. Immediately a drop of blood oozed out.
“What does that show you?” The tone in the psychiatrist’s voice was challenging.
The man stared at his finger in disbelief. His mouth gaped. “Doctor, you are a genius. You have shown me something no one has been able to. Thank you, thank you!”
The psychiatrist looked triumphant. “And what may that be?”
With a smile of wonder and amazement the man replied: “Corpses do bleed.”
We first believe, and then we think. And so it is mostly futile to argue with someone outside the scope of his or her beliefs. You will not get anywhere. Faith is like the primary loyalty that Chesterton speaks of. The patriot who is truly loyal to his or her country does not love it only when all is well, but especially when everything falls to pieces. The mother who is truly a mother loves all her children, but she especially loves the disabled one.
Primary loyalty does not decrease in the face of a challenge. It increases. Which is why your best effort to convert your Calvinistic neighbor to your Arminian ideas will usually only turn him into a bigger Calvinist.
It is a sad irony, but our attempts to resolve a situation oftentimes aggravate it. Social scientists speak of “force escalation”. The topic is a fascinating one, but I will refrain. Suffice it to say that the most insightful piece that I have ever come across in this regard is Dan Gilbert’s article He Who Cast the First Stone Probably Didn’t. I recommend it. Highly.
The fact that we believe before we think is a most magnificent trait. But it becomes a massive liability when we exclude God from our lives. In his absence we satisfy our faith-instinct by believing in things like politics, science and culture, or money and fame, or the psychobabble of the latest talk show host.
And then we stop thinking.
True faith, on the other hand, does not suspend reason. It births it, for it enables us to see reality as it really is: Through the eyes of God.
(This article appeared in an abbreviated form in Bloemnews 11 May 2012)