|Toro Pensant. Barcelona. Click for photo credit.|
Knowing what the world is really like is, I'm quite convinced, important. After all, lots of harm has come from factual errors--think of the multitudes who have died from "cures" based on misunderstandings of the human body. Think of all the mentally ill people who have been imprisoned or killed because they were thought to be in league with, or possessed by, demons. I once read that as many as 30,000 people were killed between the 1520's and 1630's in Europe because they were suspected of being werewolves. Werewolves! This is in spite of the obvious fact that there's no such thing as a werewolf. That means those 30,000 people died--like so many others throughout history--due to tragic confusion about what's true and what isn't.
When falsehood is harmful, it's clear that truth is important. But what about cases where falsehood might not be harmful, or might even be less harmful than the truth? Is it better to cling to a belief you can't justify, and might even suspect to be wrong, if it gives you hope? Or should you reject it and be less hopeful, but closer to the truth? In other words, can truth clash with hope or optimism? I don't want to think so, but I know it can. There's a well-known phenomenon in psychology called depressive realism. If you ask people to rate how likeable, attractive, and smart they are to others, and then compare those ratings to the actual ratings of others, non-depressed people turn out to be too optimistic. Others aren't quite as impressed with them as they think. Only the depressed rate themselves accurately. I have to say, I find that fact a little depressing.
But psychological studies aren't what got me started thinking about this. The Easter season did. Christmas may celebrate the day the Christian Savior was born, but Easter celebrates the actual events that Christians believe give them salvation--the death of Jesus on Good Friday as atonement for the sins of humankind, and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. Easter, then, is the day you hear Christians talk most about the core tenets of their faith. Every year, I hear them and think, "I'm sorry, but I simply can't believe that." And every year, I feel like the Grinch scowling down on Whoville. I think, "If those beliefs give people hope, who am I to contest them?" And then I think, "But it MATTERS whether it's true or not, and that just doesn't sound true." (Bear with me. If I sound cocky now, I won't later.)
I've written elsewhere about why different aspects of Christian doctrine don't ring true for me. Here, I want to focus on one idea in particular: that God, and his Son (who is in some sense God himself) loved us so much that he saved us from death; saved us, in fact, from the eternal torment Christians think we deserve (based on original sin.) Every Easter I hear people express their awe for God's love--the love that led him to sacrifice his Son--and led his Son to allow himself to be sacrificed--all for our sake. I would be in awe too, if I could accept the reasoning. But I can't. I can't help thinking people aren't considering the whole equation. They're only focusing on the uplifting part of the story.
Let's accept for the sake of argument that God loves us and did actually give his Son to save us. Who is he saving us from, and who is he sacrificing his Son to? The only possible answer, as far as I can tell, is God himself. After all, who but God could have decided that the appropriate punishment for Adam and Eve's original sin was death and damnation? Who but God could have ruled that this punishment wouldn't just be for those two, but for all their descendants as well?* It seems to me you can't credit God for his love in saving us and stop there. You also have to credit him with creating the situation he is saving us from. Yes, it sounds inspiring and hopeful to talk about how God loved us so much that he sacrificed his son to save us. But it sounds a lot less inspiring when you say, "God loved us so much that he sacrificed his son, to himself, to save us from...himself." But that's the situation, isn't it? (If it isn't, please enlighten me.) Does it make sense to give God credit only for the warm and inspiring stuff, and not the horrifying stuff? "Horrifying" may sound like a strong word, but what else can you call the idea that a single sin should be punished by eternal torment for the sinners and their descendents?
Here's another example of this kind of unconscious deck-stacking. Often you'll hear how someone got an awful disease which looked like it might kill them. If they recover even partially, people say, "God is great!" But why are they crediting God with the cure, and not the initial disease? And what if the sick person doesn't recover? You don't often hear people say, "God let him die." But why not? Why isn't that just as plausible as "God saved him"? Why shouldn't God be just as responsible for the bad as the good? This kind of thinking is like an accountant adding up all of a company's assets and declaring it a red letter year, without bothering to subtract all the liabilities. That's faulty accounting, and I can't help thinking it's faulty reasoning.
But then, what if crediting God with the good, and not with the bad, gives people hope? What if makes their lives happier? What if it even makes them kinder to others? Let's assume--and this is a big assumption--that it does no harm otherwise.** If I'm right that this kind of thinking is cockeyed optimism (and I might be wrong), what's so wrong with it? If it helps people get through an undeniably tough world, can it be that bad? What if that kind of hope and optimism actually makes them better people, capable of doing more good than the depressive realists of the world? I'll be the first to admit I know religious people who are better and stronger people than me, and I think part of what makes them that way is their faith in ideas I cannot accept as true. How's that for a conundrum?
I want to think that truth and optimism and hope are all compatible. But it's possible they aren't, at least entirely. It may very well be that the truth is tough to face--tougher, even, than we already know it to be. If that's the case, then what side should we err on? For myself, I have to err on the side of truth and evidence. In fact, I think it's possible to maintain hope even in the face of hard truths--it might be easier for me to be happy if I believed in heaven, but it's not necessary. But if others err on the side of hope and optimism, and if it does no harm otherwise, then I'm not going to fight them about it. Who knows? They might even be right.
* I know there's the idea that they had free will, so it was their choice to make, but if God is truly omniscient he would have known what they would choose before he ever created them. And setting that aside, God is still the one who decided what their punishment would be (unless you want to say he had no choice, and then he isn't omnipotent.)
** In the case of salvation from hell, the idea that we are born deserving eternal damnation--if false-- seems pretty harmful to me.
Werewolf statistics from The Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained