Mastering the Art of Misbelief


That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment,

which constitutes poetic faith -Coleridge

I wrote this in response to a question about why some denounce the existence of a deity, but then ascribe to even more outlandish conspiracy theories, alien intervention tales, and other implausible scenarios and belief systems.  It got me thinking about the nature of belief, and the art of storytelling and movie making. As storytellers, are we actually  “suspending disbelief” as Coleridge suggests, or now, as neuroscience and evolutionary psychology inform us called upon to master the art of misbelief?

Dr. Richard Carrier points out he is more often attacked by atheists for his scholarly reexamination of the Jesus story than by true believers. I’ve experienced it as well. I’m sure you most of us have in one form or another. When Sigmund Freud dared to turn his mythopoeic analysis to the Moses story, he was denounced as a self-hating Jew. When Joseph Campbell deconstructed the historical context of the Old Testament, he was viciously labeled an anti-Semite. One only needs to consider the intense rivalry between Jesus historist, Bart Ehrman, and mythicist, Carrier, to see how two atheists can disagree so vehemently.

As Carl Sagan wrote, “You can’t convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it’s based on a deep seated need to believe.”

The truth is we are all, non-believer and believer alike, subject to misbelief. We form false narratives about ourselves, family, ancestry, politics, history and the world at large. It is not a function of ignorance or brainwashing, as some will claim, but more of the result of “the side-effects of a suite of cognitive mechanisms adapted for other purposes. (Dennett and Mckay) In other words, human beings are neurologically and genetically predisposed to misbelief.

As Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggests in his wonderful essay “Suspension of Disbelief”, what we call belief or faith is neither belief nor faith, but promiscuous and prolific teleology and misbelief. Humans detect patterns and make shit up about them. Every storyteller, filmmaker, shaman, theologian, or priest throughout history knows their job is to “suspend disbelief”, or perhaps more correctly to master the art of misbelief.

 Prof. Matt McCormick details this at length in his Biases and Heuristics of Religious Thinking. The psychiatrist Dr. Andy Thomson delves deeply into this phenomenon in “Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith” So, no, just because one atheist has cast off a belief in a Supreme Creator, does not holus bolus relieve them of that evolutionary mandate. As we all have experienced, many atheists and theists, are equally prone to transfer the impulse to believe in one thing, but then readily and irrationally choose to misbelieve another. As theists typically claim that proof of god exists, because humans have always believed in some form of god, it is no doubt, they will be disappointed to learn that neurologically, as far as the evolution of the human nervous system, the exact opposite is true.

Cecil, We Hardly Knew Ye!


“Where are the legs with which you run?
Hurroo! hurroo!
Where are thy legs with which you run?
Hurroo! hurroo!
Where are the legs with which you run
When first you went to carry a gun?
Indeed, your dancing days are done!
Och, Johnny, I hardly knew ye!
With drums and guns, and guns and drums,
The enemy nearly slew ye;
My darling dear, you look so queer,
Och, Johnny, I hardly knew ye!

Traditional Irish Folk Ballad

There’s an interesting element to this that is not being discussed, and that is the notion of a tipping point, or cultural shift in the zeitgeist. The demise of the big game hunter, matador, the great white Bwana, or Raj, as the heroically rugged adventurer conqueror. Certainly we grew up reading or watching films where this archetype was lionized — everything from Edgar Rice Burroughs, to Isak Dinesen, to Hemmingway, to John Wayne’s Hatari. And then something remarkable happened, and I don’t think it can be laid at the feet of animal rights activists and conservationists. Something visceral shifted in the collective psyche where these characters morphed into anathemas; literally shrank from heroes to zeroes. To shift into the politics of this, when I hear the feckless whining of those who say we have bigger “game to hunt” than to lament for this poor great beast with a human name, they seem to miss the much larger point: human consciousness is moving on while they themselves are the Luddites of a rejected ideal the rest of us have committed to the dung heap of the past.