Tuesday, November 25, 2014

True Believers

I grew up in a small town that had something like twenty churches.

And for the proselytizers in all those churches I was fresh meat. I lived in one of the town’s few houses that was not associated with any church. For various reasons, my parents had not opted to join a church and have us attend weekly services.

So, spiritually speaking, my soul was like some kind of prize that was up for grabs. I became used to friends inviting me to come to their Sunday school or to go to church with them. As I got older, I became accustomed to one friend or another becoming serious and wanting to talk to me about how a relationship with Jesus had changed his or her life.

And you know what? The continual attempts to save my soul never bothered me. I always looked at them from my friends’ point of view. If they thought that accepting Jesus as one’s saviour was the only way to heaven and if they truly cared about me, of course they would want me to be saved. I was actually more worried about the religious friends who did not try to convert me. Did they want me to go to hell? Besides, being someone with an open mind, I wanted to hear all the arguments. After all, the person proselytizing me might be absolutely correct and, if so, I should try to find out.

So the bottom line is that, from any early age, I became attuned to the look and sound of the true believer. I was quick to recognize that look in someone’s eyes signaling that they had discovered The Truth and were anxious to share it. My ears could pick up very quickly when a conversation was going in the direction of trying to make me understand and accept The Truth.

After I left my home town, I attended a few universities and I lived abroad and eventually I settled into a couple of decades of living in and around Seattle. During that period of my life I learned that true believers are not found exclusively in Christian and other religious communities.

In my twenties I got involved in organizing a bargaining unit at the newspaper where I worked. I had no previous experience with unions, but the organizing effort was well under way by the time I was hired and my fellow employees seemed to think that I could be a non-controversial bridge between labor and management. So I agreed to be the employees’ spokesperson. I have never been so naive since. A stressful couple of years followed in which our bargaining unit was certified and a contract was negotiated.

A side effect of that experience was that I inadvertently became something of a working class hero to friends and acquaintances on the political left. That led to a volunteer gig on a non-profit community radio station that further immersed me in Seattle’s rich tapestry of various political movements. It was a time when I became so familiar with fringe politics that I could actually sort of grasp the nuances between, say, the Socialist Workers Party and the Freedom Socialist Party.

But as new and interesting as all of this was, something was still the same. I remember one day at the radio station when a bearded friend gave me a judgmental look and said disapprovingly, “I didn’t see you at the protest rally on Sunday.” He could just as easily been an older Baptist or Mennonite from my home town talking about Sunday church services. At the end of the day, it was still about people trying to get me to buy into the same belief system they had bought into—unconditionally.

And now it wasn’t just about saving the soul of a single person (me) but about rescuing the entire world from injustice. It was about an economic system (capitalism) that would inevitably collapse under its own weight—at the very latest, so I was frequently told—by the end of the 20th century. It was about helping the masses who were too dim to appreciate just how terrible their life was under the current system. It was a situation too dire to leave to the whims of ignorant voters and meaningless elections, which were rigged by a fundamentally corrupt system.

I knew these ideas were nuts, but somehow I managed to remain cordial and friendly with my leftist friends, just as I was always been able to get on with my Christian friends and conservative friends. And interestingly, the the leftist friends I kept in contact with over the years went on to live fairly conventional middle class lives and, in some cases, even work for big evil corporations. At some point, I guess, you start to feel like a sucker waiting around for the big economic and political collapse while your friends keep racking up higher balances for their retirement in their 401k investments.

These days, as I read news and blogs from the U.S. (not to mention Facebook and Twitter), I can see that the true believer is alive and well. People will always take comfort in a belief system that makes them feel good and which cannot be proved or disproved. Some of the current dominant ones, at least as evidenced by the major media outlets in North America and Europe, seem to the the church of Keynesian economics and the sect of environmental end days.

This is not to say that people who based their personal and political lives around these belief systems are wrong. I just find it interesting that people can become so evangelical about things that will amost certainly never be proved in our lifetimes.

The persistent testament of John Maynard Keynes is particularly intriguing to me. In the U.S. his ideas have gotten only two fairly good tests—during the 1930s and from 2008 to present—and both periods have coincided with very problematic economic conditions. The question is, which was the cause and which was the effect?

As for environmentalism, skeptics have long compared it to a conventional religion. After all, it offers a narrative of man versus nature, fall from grace, and prophesied doom. Climate change activists invoke “settled science” (an oxymoron if there ever was one) in the same way that religious fundamentalists justify their opinions with “because the Bible says so.” The comparison with religion only gets firmer when we see how individuals and governments promise to get right with the earth in treaties and conferences and then immediately go back to sinning at home the very next day.

Does that mean the Keynesians and the environmentalists are wrong? Not any more than any other true believer is necessarily wrong. Just because you believe in something faithfully and uncritically doesn’t mean that what you believe isn’t true.

In a way, I envy all the true believers. It must be comforting to believe in something so strongly that there is never any doubt—and not to be condemned to live out one’s days as a perpetual skeptic.

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