Sometimes it happens that two people have two completely opposing opinions about something. We can take identical lists of objective facts, filter them through a big variety of cultural conditioning, expectations, mores, and personal inclinations, and come out with an opinion that might totally differ from someone else with the same exact list of facts. Our opinions are not, themselves, factual. They’re what we do with facts. Our opinions ideally will be based on facts, though, which is why we don’t generally like it much when someone gets the same facts we think we got and yet still disagrees with us.
When those differing opinions regard religion, things can get so unpleasant, but it doesn’t just happen in religion.
I play stupid phone casual games (I am not ashamed of my love). In one of them, a young player I’d never encountered before was freaking out about a software application that she thought allowed pedophiles to make contact with young children, and she wanted to warn everybody she could reach not to use that software. I didn’t know her or how she’d come by her opinion, but I did what she clearly hadn’t bothered to do, which was take 20 seconds to Google this supposed threat. I came out with a Snopes article (among many others) saying that no, actually, the application wasn’t a problem at all. I took a second to tell her that she didn’t need to be afraid.
Her reaction was surprising: she got mad at me and insisted that we just had different opinions about the app and she was totally entitled to her opinion that this app was dangerous because it fed children’s contact information directly to pedophiles. In her mind, we could both be right in our ways, so I should just let her bother strangers forever.
I told her no, actually, we could not both be right. If I was saying it was harmless and she was saying it was a horrible threat, then no, we could not both be right about that; it was as stark as me saying that a day is 24 hours long, and her saying it was 48 hours long. The app’s danger level was a fairly objective thing. Either it was dangerous or it was not dangerous. One could quibble about how dangerous the word “dangerous” means, yes, but if the app was feeding contact information to pedophiles as claimed, I think we could all agree that the word meant in this case “pretty damned dangerous.”
And objectively, the app was harmless. It didn’t do that. Objectively, as in someone went and looked at its code and could say that definitively, the app did not in any way whatsoever feed contact information to anybody; it physically couldn’t do that. So my opinion was that it was nothing to fear. I told her that yes, I cared about children too and obviously I don’t ever want to see any child victimized by a pedophile, but this app was simply not a risk to anybody at all. I gently suggested she spend her emotional capital on stuff that actually was a risk to children and not worry so much about hoaxes, and maybe build her opinion on objective facts and do some investigation next time before pestering total strangers with scary Facebook forwards.
Never heard from her again. I don’t wonder why.
Somehow we’ve gotten the idea in our modern age that any opinion, even one formed by inaccurate facts, is sacred and cannot be touched. We’ve started thinking of opinions themselves as facts, untouchable and inviolable. I’ve lost count of how many young people in particular I’ve heard bleat “Well, that’s my opinion!” or “Well, that’s just your opinion!” in response to having one of their own questioned, but religious people like to do that too. They use “being totally against equal marriage is my opinion!” like it’s a magical shield, and hide behind “It’s just my opinion that people should not be given total control over what happens to their bodies!” like once they say the O-word that nobody can actually criticize them.
The problem is that most of these opinions are formed by shoddy science and junk history, as well as a heaping helping of simple propaganda and emotional manipulation. It’s no exaggeration to say that the “facts” that most religious zealots use to construct their worldviews don’t even bear a passing resemblance to real facts. I don’t think outsiders really understand just how thick the bubble’s walls can be. And if you start with shoddy facts, then you will come out with an opinion that is very badly formed and which can, indeed, be criticized and examined.
When we talk about objective, real-world stuff like vaccinations or evolution, it’s a lot easier to deal with shoddy facts. The scientific method does a great job of eliminating human biases and figuring out what is objectively factual. Shoddy facts like those put out by Answers in Genesis or the various anti-vaxxer groups can be quickly spotted and identified by objective scientists, which means that for the zealots involved in these groups, their task is twofold: to make their shoddy facts look like valid facts, and also to discredit and devalue the real facts put out by the real scientists. Thankfully, their adherents are only all too happy to let them do it. The opinions they form, then, are made with the shoddy facts they want so desperately to believe are true, which is why it can feel sometimes like we’re talking to space aliens when we try to engage people who parrot these poorly-formed opinions.
Here is where wingnuts really shine though. I remember on that episode of “Bullshit!” about vaccinations, there was this bizarre wild-eyed fundie dad who kept insisting that his goal was for all parents to “do the research, do the research,” and he was totally sure that anybody who did this “research” (by which he meant read a lot of anti-vaxxer blogs, I think; he admitted he couldn’t make heads or tails of the vaccinations’ handouts) would come out of it thinking that vaccinations were dangerous and shouldn’t be given. I hear that a lot from wingnuts–this idea that if I just “do the research” I will inevitably come out with the same ideas they do about whatever the topic is. When you tell them that you did the research and are convinced that vaccinations are necessary and a great part of being alive in the 21st century, they lose their shit because obviously you didn’t do the research correctly.
In this sense, when we’re dealing with objective facts forming opinions, then we can categorically call one opinion superior to another, better-formed, more correct. In this case, we can say “Where are you getting this opinion from?” and start looking at the facts that built that opinion. Having bad facts doesn’t always mean an opinion is wrong–one can totally mistake how exactly vaccines work but still know that they are not the danger anti-vaxxers envision. But when an opinion about an objective subject like vaccinations is wrong, chances are that the facts used to construct that opinion were either wrong or misinterpreted somehow.
When we start talking about subjective stuff like spirituality, though, things get a lot weirder. The problem is that no religion has ever been proven, objectively, to be true. Not a single one. Some religions fix that problem by just not making a lot of objective-truth claims and focusing on emotional development and discipline. Others shoot the finger to reality and just make stuff up as they go along. It’s not like anybody could disprove anything they’re saying, and nobody ever expects religious folks to prove anything they say is the truth. Until very recently they were all but immune from such examination.
If one person thinks that we live only one life, and that after that life is done there is only one way to get into Heaven and that is through kowtowing sufficiently to Jesus Christ, and another person thinks that there is no Heaven at all much less a savior to kowtow to, but that we are reborn eternally to learn lessons, which of them is right? They literally can’t both be right. They can’t be further apart from each other, opinion-wise. If one of them is right, then the other, by definition, cannot be. It’s as simple as one of them thinking the day is 24 hours long and the other thinking it’s 48 hours long; even on a metaphorical “mythic true” scale, their ideas are diametrically opposed. It’s possible that both people are wrong, but there is absolutely no way that both of them are right.
I’m all for someone having an opinion, even a terrible one. I just don’t want that person to mistake their opinion as utter fact, or to insist that their opinion trumps mine when it comes to stuff none of us actually knows for sure. So when religious zealots tell me to “do the research,” usually by ingesting stuff they have thrust at me to read or watch, I know that they are expecting me to come to the same conclusions they have about whatever it is they think is true. But when I don’t, they don’t question the “facts” they gave me but rather how I “did the research” and why I didn’t “want” to come to the same conclusion they did.
Until someone has actual, honest-to-goodness facts to back up a religious opinion, in the end, all we can do is evaluate the claims based on what we know about morality and progress. It can be a lot more subtle than evaluating claims based on real facts. When these materials get thrust at me to study, I’m a lot less interested in what they say are “facts” (because I know they aren’t) and a lot more interested in what those fake facts have done for the person thrusting materials in my face.
Does this opinion devalue those who don’t hold the same opinion? Does it try to say that it is the absolute factual truth? Does it claim objective knowledge of the afterlife or spirituality? Does it use fear or emotional manipulation to win converts? Because if any of those are “yes,” then I know that this opinion is not only probably objectively wrong but also harmful to me and society at large.
Especially if this opinion involves a fear-based decision or claims serious punishments for not buying into the same opinion, or if the “facts” behind the opinion could be just as easily used to construct a diametrically-opposed opinion, I step very carefully indeed. And if the list of “facts” involves a deity that is supposed to have divinely-written or inspired the holy sourcebooks the religious viewpoint uses, especially if that deity is supposed to talk to humans, then you can bet I’m going to hold opinions based upon those facts to a much higher standard of scrutiny than I might other sorts of opinions.
That’s one reason I just can’t take Christianity seriously. With 41,000 denominations, obviously there’s going to be a lot of contradiction between flavors of the religion. From the very beginning, Christians argued about stuff about their religion: who should they appeal to, only Palestinian Jews or Jews outside the area or pagans who weren’t Jews at all? Was Jesus really divine, and if so, was he half-divine or all-divine? Was he immaculately conceived or not? Do they circumcise babies and keep kosher or not? What did his Crucifixion mean in the first place? Which books should go into the Bible’s Old and New Testaments? And it only got worse from there: should priests be celibate or not? How much emphasis should be laid upon the Bible versus religious scholarship? Was the Pope really fallible or not?
At this point, there seems to me to be as much distance between a Roman Catholic and a snake-handling Pentecostal as there is between that Pentecostal and any eclectic Wiccan. Christianity’s filled with doctrinal contradictions: water baptism or sprinkling? What magical formula gets chanted over the person being baptized? Baby baptisms: yes or no? Does the denomination go in for trinitarianism, Oneness, or some weird blend of the two? Do women get to hold leadership positions or not, and why? Are people’s afterlife fates pre-determined or not? Patriarchy or something more egalitarian?
And you can bet on one thing: Every single one of the people holding every single one of these opinions thinks that he or she is basing that opinion 100% off reliable facts. It’s a running joke among non-believers by now that Christians can literally use the Bible to construct any moral position whatsoever, though this joke turns very macabre when one sees a Christian earnestly, laboriously try to explain, in a blog post thousands of words long, why “Biblical” slavery is actually totes fine and wonderful and treated slaves so awesomely well and was soooo fair, like I had to see not long ago from the sole fundagelical on my Facebook friends list (obviously, he is not on the list now.. talk about something that chills you to the bone). You can also bet that every one of the people holding every single one of these opinions is convinced that he or she knows the real scoop–that everybody else with differing opinions is not only wrong but potentially about to send their souls to eternal torment for having those wrong opinions. And last, you can bet that every one of the people holding every single one of these opinions is convinced that their opinion is the only one that could reasonably be drawn by honestly “doing the research” (like they did).
I don’t need us all to have the same opinion of religious stuff. I’d almost rather we didn’t. We just need to recognize that none of us really knows what’s going on, and retain a little humility when it comes to our opinions formed by these non-facts. And we need to remember that we could not all be right. That said, we could all be wrong. That’s why it is so important to do our best to treat each other as best we can. We’ll mess up from time to time, sure, I do all the time, but we learn and apologize and move on and as long as we’re doing that, we’ll all move ahead.
But when we’ve got a bunch of zealots convinced that their opinions are the only valid opinions, then there’s going to be trouble for everybody. Zealots don’t care about real facts; they only want to be right and dominant–and moreso, they want to be more right than everybody else, thereby more “deserving” of dominance. That can lead to a lot of abusive behavior, not the least of which is elevating non-facts to the status of facts and losing the ability to think clearly and objectively about even things that have nothing to do with religion–like vaccinations and evolution. It can lead to a lot of defensiveness, too, as these zealots’ opinions get unexpectedly examined and criticized (I’ve rarely seen one react well to their opinions and “facts” being questioned). Zealots don’t like being wrong; being wrong threatens not only their worldview but their self-perception as being superior to other people with differing opinions. Wrong people don’t get to control other people.
And in the end, that might be the most important reason of all to be really careful about allowing religious opinions to carry too much sway in society.