“People believe what they want to believe!”
— Randall Tiedt, July 2011
Recently a friend, in the midst of a turbulent debate over the causes or existence or meaning of global warming, reached his limits. Neither of us appeared to have a solid foundation for his case, in the eyes of the other. Evidence offered as conclusive proof by one side was blown off by the other as marginally relevant, or grossly misread. In fact, both of us often used the same piece of “evidence” to arrive at diametrically opposed conclusions. As I argued against his position he looked at me and said, “Look, we’re not getting anywhere. People believe what they want to believe.”
People believe what they want to believe.
It stopped me in my tracks, and initially I was shocked by his apparent display of cynicism. But the more I think about “belief,” and getting beyond it, the more I view his comment as a profoundly useful statement in helping me move this story forward.
My life is consumed thinking about belief. From my earliest days as a devout Catholic… when I believed as an altar boy that the crumbs the priest so delicately and thoroughly scraped from the chalice after Holy Communion were actually Jesus’ flesh and blood, (I wondered if Jesus would be angry if we let pieces of him fall on the floor?); through my teen years, when at 18 I entered the Irish Pallottine Fathers’ seminary in Dublin, Ireland, intent on becoming a priest. I held the near-certain belief that God had called me to “serve in the vineyard,” to become a “fisher of men.” Even after evolving to my current worldview… a more scientific, naturalistic approach… as I navigated my way through careers as a writer, filmmaker and computer consultant, I still find myself mulling over each and every new “belief” that I ask myself to assent to. Each is queried, measured, contrasted and tested to see how well it fits with my other beliefs.
To this day I am saturated in thoughts of belief, and I enjoy spinning a lot of mental cycles toward ironing out the conflicts and inconsistencies as they pop up. But do I just “believe what I want to believe” or do I choose to believe what is true, and true in what sense? Or do I do both: seek truth and WANT it? These questions lead into an interesting rabbit hole: What is belief? Can I “choose” to believe? Can I make choices at all (do I have “free will” to believe). It’s not a new rabbit hole. As I dove in I found tracks of hundreds of previous travelers, stretching back across millennia. But I explicitly do not want to turn this into a philosophy review. My target audience is not philosophers.
In my experience and thinking I have come to see “belief” from a number of new angles that one might consider as “art”: a communication between people in which the person expressing an idea causes the person receiving it to consider or see something very familiar in a new way, from a new angle that inspires the viewer to question assumptions, or change, or grow. And, with any luck, this new insight will divert them to new actions and successes. And since I can’t paint, I write.
Is it possible to represent “belief” in a new way that will allow us to escape some of the vexing conundrums plaguing current definition and use? I truly hope so, and this is my effort to achieve a little art with belief. Join me.