July 19, 2020

Skepticism and the Familiar Absurdities that Plague Us

forest in the fog

If we stopped and devoted some thought to many of the absurdities we encounter, I think we'd be much more likely to recognize them as absurd. Of course, familiar absurdities present a glaring exception to this, especially when they involve things we were taught to believe from an early age, repeatedly warned not to question, and which everybody we know seems to believe. In these cases, something we should easily recognize as absurd seems far too familiar to be absurd. That's how indoctrination works and at least part of the reason it remains as popular as it is.

If you heard the Christian Easter story for the first time as an adult, you'd have no trouble recognizing how absurd it was. In fact, you'd probably have a hard time believing that the person telling you about it could be serious. Your experience would not be that different from how you probably reacted the first time you heard what Scientologists or Mormons believe. The point is a simple one: we view religious traditions in which we were raised very differently from those with which we are unfamiliar. We have little trouble seeing the absurdities in those other religions. Look at how silly all those other religions are!

The fact that some people are able to overcome indoctrination and reach the point where they can recognize even the religious tradition in which they were raised as absurd is remarkable. It is a source of encouragement and something we atheists should celebrate. Those who have managed to do it should be proud that they were able to do so. Those who are frustrated with people who haven't yet done so should not be so quick to give up on others. Some of them will get there eventually.

When it comes to perpetuating false beliefs, it is difficult to think of anybody who has been more successful at it than religious believers. While they are far from the only groups who have accomplished this, they have perfected the methods over the centuries. When one looks at a modern religious cult or one of the many communities who become fanatic about unsolved mysteries, mythical creatures, paranormal phenomena, one finds many parallels with mainstream religious communities. Some are so subtle they are not always easy to spot at first.

Consider for a moment how powerful it is that the individual Bigfoot hunter probably knows several other people who share his unsupported belief in Bigfoot. Consider how much more normal the prospect of alien abduction must seem when the person who thinks she was abducted is surrounded by others who claim to have had similar experiences. Strange beliefs seem much less strange when one is part of a community that shares them.

Pro-nonsense communities of virtually any kind have a way of being self-reinforcing. The individual is surrounded by others who believe and subtly (or not so subtly) discouraged from interacting with those who do not. Non-believers don't get it, can't be trusted, and might lead them astray. The nonsense is quickly normalized. What might have started as the sort of thing most would recognize as an absurdity becomes a familiar absurdity.

I recently found myself watching one of the Bigfoot hunting shows that have become so popular lately. What struck me was how the Bigfoot of my youth has morphed into something very different. Today's Bigfoot has to have magic powers. It can harm humans from a distance with vibrations we cannot detect. It always sees us and manages to elude our efforts to detect it with an almost psychic precision. And of course, it is imbued with the sort of Native American spirituality and magic that should but doesn't seem to offend those who are usually quick to complain about racism. But what I find most notable is how freely the Bigfoot hunters talk about all these wild claims as if they are not even remotely controversial. Most of them claim to have seen Bigfoot creatures, so I guess they probably forget that most of us haven't.

When your entire circle of friends claims to have seen Bigfoot creatures, you have little reason to question the existence of Bigfoot creatures. The idea of them must seem perfectly normal. When your entire circle of friends claims to have felt the presence of some sort of god(s) or even communicated with one, you have little reason to question the existence of god(s). You probably take their existence for granted. I think we can all understand this, but that doesn't mean we should refrain from encouraging people to critically examine even the familiar absurdities they believe. And if we are adversely impacted by how they behave based on their belief in these absurdities, it could even be argued that we have a moral responsibility to do so.