ELAYNE RIGGS: I want to believe
"We’re never gonna beat this if belief is what we’re fighting for." – John Mayer
As Americans gather today to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence 231 years ago, many of us find ourselves in quite a different place than we believe our founders envisioned for this country. Each day brings more tragic results of the radicals currently in power thumbing their nose continually at Benjamin Franklin’s observation that "Those that would give up essential liberty in pursuit of a little temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security" and frightening the populace into constant submission so they can retain this ill-gotten power. (Hang on — creating a climate of fear, isn’t that what terrorists try to do? Guess that means They’re Winning.) And without the assurance that our government will (or even can) do its job of seeing to the well-being of its citizens, many Americans do what people in their situation have done for centuries — they turn to institutions they believe will care for them, mostly institutions that "answer to a higher authority" in which they believe.
We’ve been talking a lot about perception and belief on ComicMix this past week. First Mike Gold tackled how people misperceive personal threats to their way of life when no such threats exist. For the life of me, I cannot imagine how these ideas get into their heads, and neither can anyone in the all-pervasive corporate-sponsored conservative-pandering media. Then I talked more about subjectivity and how some folks amazingly find the exact "evidence" to support their pet beliefs, rather than the other way around (using actual scientific procedure to observe first and then create a theory based on those observations). And the capper was John Ostrander’s column about dogma, rigid belief systems (whether religious or no) whose adherents will brook no dissenting opinions. The danger of dogma is the same as that of any fanaticism — that subjective perceptions are suddenly presented as objective ones, and individual beliefs replace reason and compromise with authoritarian systems such as theocracies.
And it ought to be obvious that theocracies are not Good Things in pluralistic societies because they leave no room for diversity of opinion.
On the other hand, belief itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I don’t actually assign a positive or negative value to belief, because I think it’s a part of being human. Everyone believes something. Some things I believe are probably accepted as fairly universal, and some beliefs I keep to myself because I have no supporting evidence or they may sound silly to others or they’re none of anyone else’s business. But I recognize that we all have different belief systems at our cores, and trying to force our beliefs on others never, ever works out well. Particularly when you talk about the Big G.
I grew up Jewish in a largely Catholic neighborhood, so I’m used to being the minority religion and dealing with the accompanying reactions to that, ranging from curiosity and misuconceptions to prejudicial disgust and violence. Having others mindlessly attack the belief system you’re taught as a child for no other reason than it doesn’t match theirs has a way of entrenching you as you dig your heels in defiantly. Having people who share your general upbringing then reject your individual differences because they don’t mesh with every single tenet tends to deal a double blow, but in my case I view the latter experience with gratitude because it helped me break out of a dogmatic mindset much sooner than I might otherwise have done. I was able to accumulate new friends with vastly different life experiences and interests and beliefs, every bit as as valid as my own. And I learned to cherish a plurality of opinion. I could see the beauty in others’ belief systems even though to me they were just cool allegorical stories.
The real breakthrough for me came when I finally realized even my own ever-evolving religious beliefs were just cool fairy tales as well. And that was okay. Because it’s all about imagination anyway. Imagination fuels belief, and as long as those beliefs aren’t imposed upon others, who’s to say definitively that any of them are wrong or harmful? If I want to believe in magic and in things unseen, is that really so different than believing in the existence of the Garden of Eden or the Great Flood or the Exodus from Egypt? Is it so far-fetched to imagine that very little written in the Bible actually happened, but that the stories therein exist because they contain desired object lessons collectively agreed upon as useful to the societies at the time? And that believing in their reality is okay, as long as you don’t make others share your beliefs?
I believe fervently in the First Amendment, that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. I believe that obeying laws that allow people greater freedom of imagination is a good thing. I’m fortunate that, in this case, enough other people believe it’s a good thing that the First Amendment has become the cornerstone of American democracy, and has allowed our republic to flourish these 231 years. And I like to believe that same Amendment, like any law that seeks to increase liberty rather than restrict it, is stronger than the dogmatic forces that seek to shut it down. Because most of all, I believe that, in the end, the good guys always win.
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix‘s news editor. This has been her contribution to the annual Blog Against Theocracy blogburst. She highly recommends Barbara O’Brien’s Wisdom of Doubt series for further thoughts on this topic.