[In honor of the unfortunate passing of John and Alicia Nash, today I’m reposting my article about A Beautiful Mind and the way that it illustrates how we all struggle with our own beautiful minds, learning to separate fact from fiction.]
Just because I self-identify as an atheist doesn’t mean I consider opposing all forms of religion a worthwhile use of my time. For me it depends on which species of religion we’re discussing. Personally, I’ve come to oppose Fundamentalism (Christian or otherwise) because I see it doing the most harm in people’s lives. Sometimes you’ll notice I also lump Evangelicalism in with Christian Fundamentalism because I’ve come to see that it often takes the exact same beliefs and merely restates them in bigger words. The difference is primarily stylistic. It seems to me the watershed issue is whether or not you consider a book (whether the Bible, the Qur’an, or the Book of Mormon, etc) above reproach. The thought processes which accompany that single belief are unhealthy, and they ultimately require a suspension of critical thinking skills. The implication is always that people aren’t fit to think for themselves, so they have to just “trust and obey.” I smell coercion and control in that mentality, and the only reason everyone else doesn’t is because their noses have become too accustomed to the scent to detect it any longer. Because I see evidence of real harm among the adherents of such religion, I’ve decided to speak out against it. My next post tomorrow will be about the absurdity of believing in an inerrant book.
But that doesn’t mean I’m going to spend much time trying to convince people who believe in a Supreme Being that he/she/it doesn’t even exist. You want to know why? Because I spent many years believing in a Supreme Being myself, and I know by experience that I myself was the active agent in my experience of this person, who I had convinced myself was real. In other words, I created my creator myself. It wasn’t always easy, either. It takes years to learn how to do it well. It also works best if you are taught how to do it at a very young age. You learn how to listen to the Bible, both written and spoken aloud, as if hearing God himself speak (it usually has to be male, for some reason). You learn to take at least some of the words of your pastors as the words of God himself. You learn to interpret as a message from God the warm fuzzy feelings you get when you hear beautiful music. You even learn how to decipher your own thoughts as if they are laced with instructions from the creator of the universe. How very flattering! How utterly subjective, too, and yet how very convincing to those who believe it. It’s as if you’re performing a magic trick on yourself; only in this trick, you do such a good job of it that you forget it’s really a trick. Only you could fool yourself that completely, which is why I know better than to spend much time trying to convince people that they’re just imagining things that aren’t really there. They’re the one creating the illusion.
Each of Us Has A Beautiful Mind
In A Beautiful Mind, the protagonist John Nash [**Spoiler Alert**] spent years laboring under the delusion that he was working for a top secret government agency tracking encoded Russian communications embedded in magazines and newspaper articles. He was a brilliant mathematician and could spot patterns even amidst apparent randomness and chaos. At one point in the movie, it appears that he may have legitimately been called in to decipher a communique for the military, but from that point on, his own brain began to generate all the excitement. His delusions gave a sense of eminent importance to his life, which otherwise had become mundane, tedious, and seemingly insignificant. What he did not realize was that he was developing schizophrenia, and the exciting adventures and classified conversations he was having were all just inside his head. He spent years cultivating relationships with people who weren’t even there. They were the creation of his own brain. But they served a crucial psychological function for Nash, which made them very stubborn: They gave him steady companionship as well as a sense of crucial national importance. Eventually others tried to tell him he was imagining things but he wouldn’t hear of it. The delusions had their own protective mechanisms (they always do) and they taught him to view as a hostile enemy anyone who challenged the authority and the credibility of the delusions.
The turning point finally came when Nash was sufficiently motivated to ask the hard questions about his delusions. He frightened his wife one day and she threatened to leave him. This crisis finally forced him to take a harder look at these friends of his to whom he had grown so attached, and he finally asked himself a question that broke the spell: Why don’t they age? All other people age, but these three friends never do, even after decades. That means they’re not real. It finally dawned on him that these were hallucinations. But nobody else could tell him that. He had to get to a place in his life where he was desperate enough to ask himself those kinds of questions and not shy away from the answers. Boy, can I identify with that!
I’ve written before of how I had already begun to ask myself the hard questions about supernatural things several years before my deconversion but I couldn’t bring myself to follow the questions through to their logical conclusions. The emotional cost was just too high. I had to eventually get to a place in my life where my hunger for reality and for objectivity outweighed my need for psychological security and peace. That day eventually came, but I had to be ready for it. If someone had come to me and tried to push me through that door before I was ready, I would have just pushed back (and I can be stubborn as hell). No one else but me could have made me face those hard questions head-on. That’s why I don’t try to convince people that the person they believe in isn’t real. Since they make him real, there’s no use in telling them that he is not.And yet…
Even Beautiful Minds Can Be Changed
A reddit commenter made an excellent point not too long ago in response to my post about Toy Story. He said:
While Buzz was not convinced by Woody’s frustrated attempts to get him to see reason…Woody did plant the seed that helped Buzz figure out the truth for himself.
The number of upvotes that comment received tells me that others have discovered the same thing. It’s not a lost cause to plant seeds of discovery in the minds of others, even when they’re not yet ready for the full awareness of the truth. Because Woody had introduced the truth to Buzz before (“YOU…ARE…A TOY!!”), when he encountered the Buzz Lightyear toy commercial, instead of closing his eyes and ears (as many do when life experience contradicts their beliefs) he was able to process what he heard and he saw the truth much more quickly because of that. Woody’s input wasn’t in vain after all. The same holds true in A Beautiful Mind. Nash didn’t discover the truth about his hallucinations entirely by himself. People who cared about him had been telling him the truth for a long time. That foundation was there to build on when the time came. So I guess the lesson we learn from this is that you can’t push people too hard toward a discovery of the truth, but you can introduce the idea of it and let that simmer a while. It’s like Inception, which you can be sure I’ll be posting about again in the near future.
Religious belief is like learned schizophrenia, or as neurologist Robert Sapolsky calls it, “organized schizophrenia.” Nash’s hallucinations were natively generated by his aberrant brain chemistry. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are intentionally taught—imposed on people from sources external to them—and drilled into people’s minds, usually while they are still too young to evaluate the merits of the ideas for themselves. It’s best to get ‘em while they’re young. If you introduce an idea to a child early enough, it will stick with him his entire life. It will become his ideological bedrock, the default to which he will return whenever life overwhelms him. Unless he machetes his way through the jungle of protective rationalizations surrounding the dogma of his youth, stories about women turning to salt and men walking on water and coming back from the dead will always seem more intellectually valid than the alternatives.
But the good news is: If these beliefs were imposed on you to begin with, once you’ve made your way out of them, they no longer control your perception the way they once did. Nash had to live with his hallucinations for the rest of his life because they were based in his own peculiar neurochemistry. Discovering that they were fictitious didn’t make them go away. I find that religious belief dies a surer death when its time comes. There may be a transitional phase wherein you cling to things like prayer or a refusal to critique whatever other sacred cows you were taught to revere. But most who seriously critique the fantastical beliefs of their youth do not find these things hounding them later in life because the beliefs were originally imposed on them from the outside after all. They labored to maintain their own delusions (“God spoke to me today”) but this was a learned behavior, which means it can be unlearned as well.
We Are All Meaning Makers
One more interesting aspect of Nash’s psychology aptly illustrates something which we all do but don’t all recognize. Nash could find patterns even where there were none at all. He could decipher (or rather create) messages in random arrangements of words and make them mean something. In a charming romantic moment which hindsight surely revealed was an early warning sign, Nash showed his future wife how he could find any shape she chose in the random arrangement of the stars above them. In reality, any patterns we see above are subjective impositions of order and structure where there is none in reality. If we were to stand at another vantage point in our own galaxy, the arrangement of the same stars would look completely different.
I wrote about this very ability just the other day (see “Let the Stars Be My Guide“). We are experts at superimposing order where there is none, as Nash’s unconventional brilliance illustrates in stark relief. I’ll leave you with the most salient portion of that post here:
What we do to the stars we also do to our own lives–we superimpose order and design where there isn’t any at all. We look back and see countless experiences blending together to make us precisely who we are today. From this perspective looking back, everything seems perfectly arranged to produce who we are now, as if by deliberate design or fate. But the appearance of design is an optical illusion produced by the backward glance itself. If different things had happened to us along the way, we would have become slightly different people and would thus have viewed those alternate events with the same nostalgic reverence as the original ones. That’s just the way memory and human personality work. This tendency brings us comfort, of course, which explains its persistence. But it’s a quirk of consciousness and shouldn’t be too easily trusted if we are to ever learn to deal with the world as it really is.
[Image credit: Dreamworks SKG]
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