Monday, January 10, 2005

talking to people who believe weird things

I've found myself in a bit of an odd situation, and I'm still wondering just how to deal with it. In my activities in my Unitarian church, I've made friends with several people who believe things that I think are just weird. Astrology, and psychic powers and universal consciousness and that sort of thing. Now don't get me wrong, these all seem to be very intelligent and educated people--you can tell just by talking with them for a while. After talking to one lady there, I even seriously reconsidered my views on astrology, but I can't help coming to the same conclusion that I always have: there is no possible way I can believe that stuff! It just doesn't pass the test of skepticism, and I cannot in good conscience say "well, maybe it's true . . ."

But my worry is more about social issues than it is about the metaphysical. I'm worried about falling into the same trap as I would in a Sunday School class: challenging the popular opinion. If you are a freethinker who has every gone to a Bible study or Sunday School class in a typical evangelical protestant church, you may have found out quickly that they are not usually interesting in academic discussions that challenge their traditional religious views. They don't want to talk about things like, say, how paganism influenced the origins of Christianity. Or how perhaps the biblical author was mistaken, or how their agenda to convert people may have influenced their writing . . . NO! Just the mention of this sort of thing will get you some dirty looks, at the very least. And don't dare sit in Sunday School and say something like "As an atheist, this is how I understand ______." (fill in the blank).

But sometimes at the Unitarian meetings I still get that old familiar knot in my stomach, that feeling that I must not speak out what I'm really thinking, that I must sensor myself. I have gotten looks when expressing my skeptical views that seemed to say to me "Don't you dare even suggest that astrology, or near death experiences, or life after death, or whatever is not true!" I do get away with a whole lot more than I would at any evangelical church, I take it as a cost of inclusion that I must be able to tolerate the holders of some viewpoints that I think are totally bunk.

In the last SMART meeting I attended, the topic was "books that have influenced your life." One of the books I took was Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I wanted to read a passage aloud to the group but had a bit of difficulty finding something that would not offend believers in the paranormal too badly. This is a portion what I chose:

Science, Ann Druyan notes, is forever whispering in our ears, "Remember, you're very new at this. You might be mistaken. You've been wrong before." despite all the talk of humility, show me something comparable in religion. Scripture is said to be divinely inspired--a phrase with many meanings. But what if it is simply made up by fallible humans? Miracles are attested, but what if they are instead some mix of charlatanry, unfamiliar states of consciousness, misapprehensions of natural phenomena, and mental illness? No contemporary religion and no New Age belief seems to me to take sufficient account of the grandeur, magnificence, subtlety, and intricacy of the Universe revealed by science. The fact that so little of the findings of science is prefigured in Scripture to my mind casts further doubt on its divine inspiration.

But of course I might be wrong.

There was a moment of nervous sounding laughter after that last line. But I can't help it--I think Carl had it right.


Jason said...

This reminds me of a book that I never read, but it had a catchy title: "Everyone is Normal Until You Get to Know Them."

But citing books I haven't read is a cop-out, so I'll try a little harder.

I couldn't tell from your description whether the folks that you're talking with are really that hostile towards being challenged or if you're just afraid they are from past experiences in less open-minded forums. If they are genuinely hostile to people who disagree, I suppose that you will eventually face a choice: ignore their disapproval and carry on, or leave. I think that in a church, or anything like a church, resolving differences of belief isn't critical. What's more important is that you enjoy the process of talking about them, and learn a few things along the way.

As far as smart people believing in wierd things, I think a lot of people start by beleiving in what they want to and have a temendous capacity to rationalize from there. My hunch is that most of folks you are talking about believe in those odd things because on some level they just like the world better if they think those things exist. Most of them probably don't have really good reasons for it. I mean, does anyone there actually practice with their psychic powers? (If the answer is yes, then that's a whole other more interesting discussion.) Frankly, to be a bit snotty about it, discussions about things that people believe in but don't really think that hard about bore me. Maybe you find it interesting and maybe not, but there's no reason to get nervous about it.

Finally, don't be a afraid to stick to your guns when you believe in something and have thought it through enough to have some good reasons for it. I spend a lot of my time trying to convince people things they don't want to believe. That's part of being a trial attorney, and I like it. It's kind of liberating. If you impose stringent enough standards on your own thought processes, if you really value being honest and objective (and I think you do), don't feel bad about telling others what you think. They're just ideas. It's not like you're hitting people on the head with a stick or something.


coffee goddess said...

I think I interpreted your post a bit differently. I didn't sense so much anxiety over hostility as an aversion to being humiliated - guilt by association sort of thing. You find the extremity of some of these persons a little out-there and are perhaps concerned that, if you vocalize your own opinion, some might think the same of you?

I've never had the opportunity to worship at a UU church but had an amazing experience taking a lecture series/workshop sponsored by a UU congregation. It was a course entitled "Rise Up and Call Her Name - A Woman-honouring Journey into Global Earth-Bases Spiritualities" Anyway, it turned out I was the only non-congregation member there. Much to my surprise, I found that many of the participants were Christian (did not know what UU was then).

I found it really comforting that these people were so open minded and accepting to not only explore something distinctly other than their own mind-set but to recognise and respect 'us' as but one other alternative to sorting out and finding connection to a universal creative force.

Yeah, I'm sure there are some real flakes, and so what if some in the congregation might think you a flake too. However, I think the very nature of UU is not in its acceptance of different ideas rather its respect of differences. The real joy of the fellowship you might find there isn't so much the acceptance of what you are rather who you are.

I think I am rambling...but I enjoy the discourse!

Mikayla Starstuff said...

Well, given how people can be defensive about what they believe, I worry about just how much I should say. I don't want to appear close-minded or anything, but I am skeptical of a lot of "spiritual" and "metaphysical" claims. In fact, I have the distinct feeling that a lot of this stuff is bullshit, and can even be dangerous in certain circumstances (as in the case of alternative medicine). The apparent intellegence combined with the apparent lack of critical thinking is very frustrating to me. Along with the fact that I get this idea in my head that if I'm going to declare that I don't believe in something I have to defend my disbelief. But then, the burden of proof is not on the disbeliever, is it?

But it has been my experience that when you challenge someone's beliefs--suggest that they are likely not true--people do get defensive. Especially if they have feel that they gain a lot of hope from the beliefs. It is not my intent to offend people, particularly since these are friends of mine.

As a side note, I have not found this to be a problem in the UU church in general. As I've noted in past posts on this blog, I have found a very open an tolerant atmosphere there.

Sherry Austin said...

Mikel, I'd like to know more about your UU Church experience. I'd like to know how much of an issue all that astrology, etc. is in your congregation. I want to know because I'm close to joing a UU but I want to avoid that stuff. Your views of naturalistic pantheism match mine. Thanks, ---Sherry Austin. North Carolina. You may view my website at and email me thereby. I'm not likely to see this blog again because I came upon it by accident.