Saturday, November 29, 2008

Understand the Impulse to Believe

About an hour and a half south of where I live is a place called the Mystery Spot, whose name I hesitated to type for fear that even a single reader will be inspired to go there and waste his or her time and money like I did. There are many like it around the world - a few months ago someone insisted on showing me a place where cars appear to roll uphill southwest of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala - but this one is the best developed as a tourist attraction. For eight dollars, some excited young man will take you up the steep hillside to structures and houses that lean oddly on the sides of unimaginably steep hills. They'll regale you with tales of birds getting disoriented and dropping from the trees, of visitors vomiting immediately on entering the Mystery Zone, and of the supposed measurements that show the bizarre physics of the area.

Of course, if you live in an area of dramatic geology, you should already know that structures built on the side of very steep hills do start to look like they're not quite at right angles to the vertical, even when they are - I remember once watching a workman on the side of a hill check and re-check his bubble-level because he believed his own skewed sense more than his (until-then infallible) tool. This is a common quirk of our perception of up, down and horizontal. Now, having known this, I can't claim any profound disillusionment that day; I had assumed going in that it was all chicanery, and indeed after the day was out I concluded the only mystery about the Mystery Spot was the mystery of why was my wallet eight dollars lighter.

But there was an odd moment during the "tour". Younger and ruder in those days, I had gone there with another highly skeptical fellow intending on "exposing" the Spot for what it was in full earshot of the other visitors (my partner in crime was a grad student in chemistry and, interestingly enough in this story, a devout Christian). It never occurred to our young and cluelessly arrogant selves that we surely weren't the first smartasses to try this, and yet somehow the Mystery Spot was still going strong. On the tour up the steep forest slope into the Zone, as we asked more and more questions, we found ourselves increasingly being separated from the group. When we asked our guides what they thought the cause of the Mystery Spot's effect was, they threw out any number of impressive terms about trapped singularities, local increases in density in the Earth's crust - and that it could be the broken-but-still-functioning antigravity drive of a buried alien ship.

Here was the odd moment. Having read more than a healthy share of science fiction, and standing here on a hill that did indeed to our senses seem to be twisting the direction of gravity, and being told with a straight face by our host that there was an alien ship under us, my "WOW!" receptors fired for a good five seconds. "Maybe this was it, maybe there really was a starship underneath us, and until now -" And then the critical-thought circuitry came online. "No. No, that's ridiculous. It's a steep hill, all their answers were either evasive or mundane, and if there was a ship under here maybe someone else would've come out to look at it before, other than as a side trip from the beach." My friend and I took leave of the Mystery Spot, relieved of the burden of sixteen excess dollars between us.

I'm embarrassed it took even that many seconds for the reason-neurons to fire up, but I'm nothing else if not romantic. I wanted to believe there was an alien ship under us - that would be utterly world-transforming - and the earnest demeanor of the person telling me was the armor-piercing round that got right past my cortex and into my limbic system.

If we're honest, we admit we've all had episodes like this, even in our adult lives. Fellow atheists, we're not that special - we have the same screwy cognitive hardware that everybody else does, including the faithful. It's just that we've learned the trick of examining and rejecting ideas before they build nests by (literally) rerouting more and more axons into themselves. It's that technique we have to spread and deepen. It's easiest with kids (the nests aren't firmly lodged yet); with adults you can at least sow seeds of doubt in all but the most militant ideologist (be they religious or political).

The take-home is that in our discussions and actions with believers whose minds we think we can change, just remember how good it feels to shut off the critical faculties and let in the junk thought. Keeping that dangerously warm feeling in mind will go a long way to avoiding being confrontational and condescending, and therefore to being more effective at deversion.

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