I’m an atheist, but for social reasons I occasionally have to sit through a church service. This past Easter, I did it again, and found the sermon particularly interesting, though not in the way the pastor intended. Visiting a common theme, she talked about how preposterous Easter is: the idea of someone rising from the dead, the shortage of witnesses to the event, and the questionable credibility of the few who did supposedly see it. The lesson was supposed to be that only someone of great faith would believe such a story, thus proving that Christians are the most pious people.
Instead of a religious epiphany, though, I had an anthropological one. Believing in something absurd is a good way to be ridiculed – and that’s exactly the point. By professing their beliefs, the faithful are not really trying to convince outsiders of anything. The entire purpose is to incur derision, so that they can point to it as proof of their faith.
“Look at what I endured for our beliefs,” they want to say. It cements their position in the community of their faith, and also challenges others in that community to outdo them. Someone else then professes the absurd beliefs to an even larger crowd, incurring even more ridicule, and earning even more esteem among the faithful. If they make enough of a nuisance of themselves to get arrested, injured, or killed, they’ll be made into saints.
Arguing with these faith-based absurdities is not only unproductive, it’s actively counterproductive. Believers want to hear someone elaborate all the ways their beliefs are wrong. They thrive on the rational disproofs of their position. They crave the scorn.
As interesting as that insight was, I didn’t think it applied to anything beyond traditional organized religion. This week, I suddenly realized that an entirely new kind of religion has quietly sprouted over the past few years, and that its tendrils now extend into a wide range of scientific topics. I don’t have a name for these new religions yet – maybe Forum Faiths, or E-tribes, or Chatroom Counterfactuals would work. Regardless of the terminology, the pattern is always the same.
Start with a controversial but completely testable statement – a hypothesis. This frames the discussion as a scientific one, even though you have no intention of pursuing it scientifically. Say that vaccines cause autism, or that a newly discovered retrovirus causes chronic fatigue syndrome, or that people with delusional parasitosis are actually infected with real parasites. The specifics don’t matter, all that matters is that you pick a topic someone will care about, and make a surprising claim that some people will want to believe.
Now present a tiny shred of data supporting the hypothesis, but tell everyone that you’re sure it’s going to turn out to be true. This establishes the faith. True believers will immediately sort themselves out from the crowd, latching onto the hypothesis and proclaiming it as fact, even though (or perhaps especially because) the data are so scanty.
From that point forward, every new piece of evidence against the hypothesis will only reinforce the faith. Some of the early adopters, who were misled by thinking this was an actual scientific exercise, will abandon the group once the new data come along. The true believers, though, will become more adamant. They’ll meet in online forums every time a new refutation comes along, so they can agree on talking points to answer it. They will then spam every blog, forum, and news site with comments that appear to be arguments, but which are actually protestations of their faith.
As unbelievers respond to those comments, the believers will persist until their arguments are completely absurd. Then they’ll be ridiculed for their irrationality, at which point they’ve won. They can return to their groups and point to the suffering they’ve felt for the faith. Their esteem among the faithful will rise, even as the rest of the world considers them idiots.
Meanwhile, the charismatic leader of the faith – The One who originally presented the shred of data – will follow the same pattern but in the professional world. He or she will argue with the scientists whose data don’t support the hypothesis, until the arguments become absurd. The scientific community will then marginalize and ignore The One, because they don’t have time to deal with willful idiocy. Of course, to the faithful this only proves that The One is a true martyr, and that the unbelievers are conspiring against them.
I don’t have a solution to this. Ignoring these counterfactual religions won’t work, particularly when they make claims that can profoundly affect public health, and arguing with them obviously isn’t going to help either. Science is ultimately self-correcting, so poorly-controlled, fraudulent, or simply erroneous results will eventually be expunged and most of the world will move on. The true believers, isolated in their little cul-de-sacs of falsehood, may gradually dwindle over time. All that will be left will be the damage: kids maimed and killed by vaccine-preventable diseases, sick patients made sicker from drugs that never could have helped them, families destroyed by untreated psychoses.
As religious casualties go, I suppose it could be worse. But in the twenty-first century, I wish we could do better.