We like to think that, in Western culture, we're accepting and tolerant of others' beliefs – so long as they don't hurt anyone – but go online and give, for example, the merest hint that you support the theory of creation over the theory of evolution and watch for the abuse that's hurled in your direction. Because belief in a creator God is unacceptable in "intelligent society". You'll be treated like Harry Potter, trying to convince people that Voldemort has come back from the dead: "It can't be true, because that would interrupt our cushy lives and mean we'd have to do something about it; therefore, you are an idiot."
So, it seems we can't believe in an all-powerful God. Well, what about extra-terrestrial life? Stephen Hawking says They're Out There, so that's all right then, because he's, like, freaky-brainy and stuff. So we're justified in spending billions of dollars looking for intelligent life on other planets, instead of using that money to feed, clothe and educate the intelligent life on this one.
All too often, our death-grip on accepted scientific opinion lets plain old common sense slip through our fingers. What I mean is, we're perfectly willing to believe that little grey men with big eyes and anal probes are out there, somewhere, performing embarrassing exploratory surgery on unfortunate loners, but we don't wonder why an alien race that is sufficiently advanced to overcome the problem of infinite mass hasn't yet invented MRI.
(The funny thing is, ideas about alien life aren't exclusive to today's culture. Sure, it's now an acceptable proposition that super-advanced, powerful beings from another place – like us, but not like us – could interfere with our planet, probably with malicious intent, and change the course of the human race, but long ago the ancient Greeks and Romans believed the same thing. Only they called them the gods.
But that's getting a bit too Stargate for this post.)
It's not just UFOlogists who Pick 'n' Mix. The religious – man, that's become an ugly word lately – and/or spiritualists do it too. Your average Muslim will take the early teachings of the Koran about love and understanding and ignore (thankfully) the bits about killing the infidels to gain their heavenly rewards. The New Ager (and Church of Oprah member) will take the most lovey-dovey bits of every world religion and glue them together, ignoring the contradictions at their cores. Christians these days have a tendency to focus on Jesus meeting their needs and forget all the uncomfortable bits like, “You will be persecuted and killed because of Me.” Darwinists conveniently forget that natural selection and evolution are two very different beasts—the former observable and re-creatable in a laboratory; the latter unobserved and un-re-created.
So it would seem that the intelligent way to look at everything is to believe in the directly observable, and treat everything else with a heaping helping of scepticism, right?
Actually, that would be the most blinded, misinformed and ultimately destructive way to live.
And it's just about impossible to do.
To quote John Mayer (not something that should be done on a regular basis), “Everyone believes.” Whether you're an atheist or an agnostic, a Hari Krishna or a Hindu, a Muslim or a Mormon, a Jesus Freak or a Jedi, a member of the Church of Scientology or a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you believe in something.
Well, the simple answer is “because we want to”, or, more accurately, “because we need to”. We're built that way. We're wired up to think creatively, beyond the bounds of what we see, hear, taste, smell and touch. To attempt to deny this is to put common sense in the grave (something our society is already in danger of doing).
Ever have that feeling you're being watched, and turn around to find that you are? (Usually by your cat.) Ever look at someone you've never met and just know they're dodgy, five seconds before they start following you down the road? Ever have that uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach that says, “Don't sign that contract,” or, “Don't lend that person money,” or, “He's lying to you”? Soldiers will tell you that they rely on this sixth sense in combat. Musicians experience a similar thing when a song “writes itself”. You can talk to me all you want about the brain making inferences and calculations at an extraordinary rate based on training, past experiences, a reading of body language and the “evolutionary instinct for survival”, but ultimately there are things in life that you just can't attribute to spending too much time at Hogwarts.
Why do we believe what we believe? Is it because that's what we've been taught? Is it because our beliefs best line up with the evidence? Is it because we've seen it for ourselves? Is it because everybody with an ounce of intelligence knows that it's true? Or is it because we're afraid of the repercussions if we're wrong?
Yes, we should question things—not for the sake of being cynical, or proving our superior intelligence over someone else, but so that we can truly SEE. So that we don't operate out of ignorance and blindness.
To all you snotty internet commentators out there: isn't it time to stop regurgitating those so-called scientific facts you've been taught, lay down your sense of superiority and have an honest think about things? Try directing your cynicism down a different path and see what it comes up with. You might be surprised.
To those of us who do believe in a world beyond human explanation: please remember to keep off the Dirigible Plums.