I used to wonder why people went to war over religion. So what if you bow to the elephant with 17 heads, and I worship a burning bush? Why does anyone care? But that was before I read Charles Peirce’s “Fixation Of Belief.”
In it he argues being uncertain, i.e., having a doubt, is a kind of discomfort or dissatisfaction. It’s unpleasant and irritating not to know, and just like an itch calls out for a scratch, a doubt calls out for its own kind of relief. That relief comes in the form of a belief.
A belief fills the uncomfortable void of doubt and puts one at ease — at least with respect to that particular decision or uncertainty. In my prior job, this dynamic could not have been clearer to me. The phone lines would light up during our “Chances To Win” radio segment wherein I would speculate on each caller’s likelihood of getting enough points (or his opponent failing to get enough) on Monday Night Football. Never mind the callers knew I was just making it up, and never mind that the game would go as it was always going to go, and nothing I said could change that. They lined up to hear their odds so they could quantify and therefore affix a belief to their chances, replacing the void of nebulous doubt and anxiety. Virtually no segment on the entire channel received so many calls.
If uncertainty for a few hours about one week of fantasy football could motivate so many to queue up on the off chance we’d get to their call, imagine the stakes when we’re talking about religion! Religion spans the gamut from how the universe came to be to where you might spend eternity. From the meaning of life to the proper way to raise your children. The doubt religion placates runs deeper than the Marianas Trench. Man has historically gone to great lengths and suffered immensely to affix durable religious beliefs over the cavernous uncertainties in his soul.
So if you, seemingly prosperous, intelligent and healthy person differ from me in certain core beliefs, you are a threat. Not only to turn others against me, but worse, to erode the beliefs I took such pains to affix over the dreaded void in my soul. If what you believe might be true, then what I believe might be false. And *might be* is a massive problem because it takes from me the hard-earned certainty that undergirds my entire life’s purpose.
Unless I upend my entire worldview (something of which few are capable/willing), I have no other choice but to destroy you. But because my self-identification as a good person forbids violence except in self-defense, first I must conjure up some grave offense you have committed against me. I am not thinking this consciously — in my mind, I am merely responding to an acute threat I feel in my bones and revulsion I experience when confronted with your unbelievably selfish and evil beliefs. The stakes are so high my brain manufactures the offense effortlessly. Your views are a violation, your existence a problem, and if I can’t kill you, at least I can shut you up or see to it you are excommunicated and viewed as a terrible person to whom no one would listen.
In 2022, at least in the west, many people do not subscribe to what we think of as religions per se. They might be nominally Catholic or Jewish, but those traditions only peripherally inform the most important pillars of their reality. Instead, many take their worldviews from their social, economic and political tribes, where things like for whom you voted, your views on masking or whether you took Pfizer’s latest have bizarrely become meaningful. (The particulars of what has significance are often dictated by mass media, and they could be, and increasingly are, arbitrary.) It sounds insane, but merely hearing that someone does not believe the new Pfizer shots are necessary, or that one prefers a different politician in office will often be perceived as a grave offense. “You are killing people with this tweet,” seems correct not because there is good (or any) evidence of a tweet killing people, but because “killing people” is the only language strong enough to match the emotion felt by the person reading it.
When we realize what’s at stake in this battle of worldviews — the fixation of beliefs to stem the dreadful uncertainty in a time of rapid and unsettling change, during which there has been a collapse of trust in institutions and an information ecosystem so polarized people often cannot even agree on the most basic premises — seemingly insane and inexplicable behavior makes more sense.
The person seeking to destroy you is revealing his own desperation. He needs to reaffirm his increasingly fragile sense of the world, and he feels he’s being righteous not only for himself but by protecting the epistemic foundations of his likeminded peers. He is on a crusade of sorts. The tell for religious fanatics on a crusade is that the end always justifies the means, for the end is the glory of God, so to speak, the triumph of what’s right and true and necessary, lest the whole world be plunged into the darkness, and by the darkness, I mean unfathomable, awesome, soul-destroying doubt from which we desperately seek r(b)elief.
If someone makes false claims about others, advocates for censorship, or argues others must be coerced to take medicine for the greater good, it is a tell. The reason citizens in western democracies have rights is precisely that this religious mindset, to which people are prone, has historically caused so much damage. Rights act as a failsafe, firm lines which, no matter the urgency of the cause, must not be crossed. In the end, we all want to assuage our doubts. We all want to be correct about our worldviews and the moral frameworks that allow us to view ourselves sympathetically. We want to feel good about ourselves, while navigating our lives in uncertain times.
But the difference between an earnest, openminded person and a dangerous fanatic is the willingness to suffer doubt, to face the anxiety that arises when others have different, even what we deem counterproductive or abhorrent, views. That doesn’t mean anyone likes it — tolerant people are invested in their beliefs too — but the threat to his worldview by competing ones is a discomfort to be borne by him, not a scourge by which to be offended and marked for eradication.
Tolerance, then, is literally a kind of emotional pain tolerance — the capacity to suffer through the prospect of doubt rather than stamping it out at all costs. And discomfort notwithstanding, an encounter with a dissident view is also an opportunity to ask oneself an important question, perhaps the most important if one wants to adapt and survive in the real world rather than simply optimize for emotional comfort: What if I’m wrong?