I have pointed out before that conservatives are all for preserving the status quo. Obviously the people who are doing best in this state are the most ardent about “keeping what they got.” There are things in the worldview of conservatives that drive people like me nuts. For example consider this, from the poet and writer Wallace Stevens:
“In an age of disbelief, in a time that is largely humanistic (much the same thing), in one sense or another, it is for the poet to supply the benefits of belief…. I think of it as a role of the utmost seriousness. It is for one thing, a spiritual role…. To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences. It is not as though they had gone over the horizon to disappear for a time; nor as if they had been overcome by other gods of greater power and profounder knowledge. It is simply that they came to nothing….”
What struck me about this statement was not the viewpoint that we had outgrown the need for gods, but that the “benefits of belief” needed to be replaced by something. I am still struggling grasping the concept of the “benefits of belief,” because “belief” in a religious context is belief in things that cannot be proven or, really, even argued from fact. As a scientist I am loathe to believe in things that are not true, and this is with a full understanding that all I think I know is only “provisionally true.” Scientific concepts are wrecked and replaced at a fantastic pace; we know that they are temporary constructs, waiting for ones more fully shaped. Still, each of those constructs has a core of truth. For example, when we learn that Aristotle taught that the four elements of physical things were fire, air, earth, and water, our modern minds can only laugh at his naïveté. But really, he was on to something: fire is a manifestation of energy, air is a stand-in for gases, earth for solids, and water for liquids. So, when we now say that matter is composed of solids, liquids, and gases we are saying much the same thing as did Aristotle.
My main point is that the arc of science is to expose our own errors and mistakes and correct them, coming ever closer to a view of nature that allows for us to make ever more accurate predictions. Religious belief is the antithesis of that: belief is not to be examined, facts are irrelevant, faith is not to be “corrected.” (I am always fascinated that Catholics believe their Popes are infallible and yet from time to time, those very same Popes admit mistakes and correct doctrine (as in being wrong). It is hard to accept both without questioning. Such acceptance, though has been turned into a virtue in Catholic circles.)
So, someone like me finds it incomprehensible that there are “benefits of belief” when the belief is in something that is unverifiable. This is not something trivial like believing that the Earth is round (spherical). The Earth is roughly spherical but because it is spinning and somewhat plastic, it is wider from side to side on the equator than at the poles and, of course, the surface is not flat, some points stick out and others are tucked down.
What we are talking about here is a belief in “invisible friends.” If a child has an invisible friend at the age of six, we are charmed (think of Winnie-the-Pooh and Christopher Robin), but if that same child has invisible friends while in high school, we take him to a psychologist. Religious people, though, insist as adults that they have an invisible friend, with super powers!
So, clearly I am missing something. Yes, I see that church goers benefit from the society that their church creates (mostly), but social clubs and service organizations supply the same thing. My father was a member of a stamp club. What bonded the members together was the joys of stamp collecting. Churches are celebrating a shared belief in the same invisible friend.
What I am missing is that conservatives place a high value on their beliefs, and the more those beliefs are indefensible, the better. And there must be benefits from those beliefs. This is elevating, for example, disbelief in climate change to religious belief status. Maintaining a disbelief in climate change when the facts all argue the other direction, proclaims conservatives as being people of faith, strong faith.
But this seems to me to be like one’s crazy uncle who believes all kinds of nonsense and staunchly defends his beliefs to the disbelief of all of the relatives. What separates being stubborn from being strong in one’s faith? Heck, what separates being stupid from being strong in one’s faith? Is it just the support of others who have the same beliefs?
The ultimate nail in the coffin of these “benefits of belief” comes in the person of Donald Trump. Mr. Trump’s life stands for everything evangelical Christians say they are against, yet Mr. Trump is #1 in the presidential polls amongst self-described evangelicals.
Basically, conservatives are saying, “if you believe the same stupid shit I do, then you are my brother” with the proviso that each conservative gets to choose his own topics upon which to exercise this choice. Evangelicals get to ignore the fact Mr. Trump is twice divorced, that he never consults god (except himself) when making important decisions, that he uses profane language in public, and any other foibles they want as long as they agree with him on….
They are indeed strong in their faith and the benefits … well, the rich get tax cuts and we just lose our jobs. If we could only transfer their belief in things unreal to belief in things that are real. There is real joy there as opposed to the synthetic joy of religious and religious-like beliefs.