Tuesday, March 06, 2007
The Downside Of Faith

Okay... let's take a look at this from a different perspective. There's this new thing that's apparently all the rage with the kids (if by "kids" you mean gullible middle-aged people) called The Secret that's this year's What The Bleep Do We Know? It's suddenly especially popular because Oprah said it was good. And everyone knows that Oprah is the final arbiter of taste and intellect in America today, right? I mean, she likes Toni Morrison; are you seriously going to question her judgment?

Anyway, setting Oprah aside, "the secret" turns out to be another re-hash of the law of attraction, which says, in a nutshell, that wishes are indeed ponies, and if you don't have a pony, it's only because you're not wishing hard enough. The film obviously pads that out a bit, but it's just bullshit to confuse you. The bottom line is wishes=ponies.

The only person I've known so far who actually attempted to live the law of attraction was a filmmaker with whom I did some work a few years ago -- if you know where to look, you could find a few posts about that shoot. He was annoying at the time, but in the last year he's reached a whole new level of irritating. He's discovered his spirituality, in the most Deepak-Chopra, woo-woo sense possible. He gave up church for a coven. He once ranted about Penn and Teller's Bullshit for an hour, talking about what bad people they were for attacking people's beliefs (to which I didn't respond -- I think you know how I feel about that, but the guy wasn't even close to being up to a real discussion on the subject, and I didn't feel like wasting my energy.)

Anyway, last time I talked to him, he'd just sent his film off to Sundance. He told me that every night, he was spending time visualizing his film being accepted. He visualized the selection committee watching his film and loving it. He visualized the head of the festival personally calling to invite him. He visualized his great critical success. He visualized the distributors who would approach him and offer him buckets of cash for the right to make his film famous. He knew that if he just generated enough of the right energy, he would draw Sundance success to him.

So you'll never guess how it turned out: the people at Sundance completely ignored him -- but they still kept his entry fee. I guess the Sundance folks haven't heard about how they're cosmically obligated to screen the films of people who really, really want them to.

Or to look at the same thing from slightly different angle: a couple of nights ago I was indulging in one of my guilty pleasures, a show on A&E called "Intervention." It doubtless has something to do with my own first-hand experience with a drug user, but I just can't turn away from the train-wreck of addiction. Anyway, this particular show dealt with a young woman who had been sexually abused for a number of years as a child, and had subsequently grown up to be an addict and a cutter. At one point during her intervention, her parents, committed evangelical Christians, admitted that at the time they'd hoped that the church would help their daughter get over her shame and humiliation. Her mother explicitly said that she'd hoped that God would take care of her, would "fix" her after she'd been broken. The addict's parents had completely abdicated responsibility for their child's well-being in the belief that their god would do their job for them. In their minds, action was optional; prayer was their only obligation. And they didn't seem to be able to comprehend how such faithful Christian parents could end up with a sliced-up junkie for a daughter.

This is my problem with faith, whether in a Judeo-Christian god or in new-age woo: it encourages you to believe that belief is enough. Faith, by definition, is belief without proof; and so no lack of proof or evidence to the contrary can convince you that your beliefs are false. By the same token, it tells you that you already know all you really need to know, so further thought and investigation is unnecessary at best and destructive at worst. You don't need to try to act or respond when things become more difficult than you can manage, whether that means a problem you can't cope with or a question you can't answer. Put your faith in the Big Invisible Power, and it'll take care of everything.

It can convince you that someone else will take care of your damaged kid, that you can make others bend to your will, that you can have anything you want without cost. I was unsurprised to learn that one of the figures at the center of this film was a former Amway bigwig; the basic concept is the same: you can have everything you want with no effort. And like Amway, it downplays and even ignores the raw truth that somewhere down the line, someone has to absorb the expense of whatever good things come to you -- and that that person can either be you, through work and constructive effort, or someone else through less justifiable means. I was equally unsurprised to learn that the purported "author" of this work claims that it's in accordance with and supported by Christian doctrine. "Faith" and "the secret" are the same premise by different names.

I have been thinking about something someone said to me this weekend. And that is, "Maybe very few people are capable of not believing in God." And I was so arrested by that comment and I have been chewing on it for the last two days. Hmmm... maybe very few people are capable of not believing in God. I have to say; I think I agree at this point. But I hate that so much. It makes me feel elitist. I cringe at the thought, and I am automatically recoiling at that idea.

Except, I might... sorta... agree.

I said to this person who said this, "But what about Sweden or all those Scandinavian countries where hardly anyone believes in God." And he said, "Well, yeah. But I guess what I mean is supernatural ideas too, or New Age-y ideas or basically a reluctance to look at the world squarely without divine influence. You have no idea what those people (the non-religious Scandinavians) believe besides not believing in God. Maybe they don't believe in God but they believe in faeries, like they do in Iceland, or that the 'universe' 'means' for them to do this or that, or that when they put a gnome under their pillow it always rains. Maybe people are just superstitious, or religious. Maybe that's what humans just are."

Then I said, "But I cannot come to that conclusion. To come to that conclusion means that I am the silent superior one and I have no hope for humanity. It puts me in the most arrogant position. I don't want to feel this way about those people -- about people in general!" And my friend said, "You don't think the people who are religious or New Agey don't look down on you? You don't think they feel arrogantly towards you?"

And he is right.


I think this came up because this weekend -- with several friends -- I watched "The Secret." This is the movie that Oprah has been promoting on her show. Everywhere I drove last week, I saw ads on billboards for... The Secret. Basically the film takes the perfectly good ideas of "The Power Of Positive Thinking" but ads a lot of mumbo jumbo to it. Like giving the Universe a personality that wants "abundance" for us and "feels" the energy of our thoughts and puts a whole supernatural schpiritual schpin on the whole thing. It was so awful, it was so insufferable, it was so excruciating, I could barely watch any of it. If I had any energy I would go through the whole movie point by point. But I cannot. All I can say is, I thought Oprah was smarter than that. Not smart, mind you. But smarter.

(Julia Sweeney)

Faith tells you that you can stop looking, that you have the answer. To my mind, the only sin is to turn away from the one function we fulfill throughout our lives, the role we somehow uniquely (as far as we know) evolved to play: to experience, to think, to question, to try to understand. And that purpose requires that we never settle on faith. As soon as you think you've got the big questions settled, you have to set your answers aside and start all over again, because feeling certain that you know the truth is the surest sign that you've succumbed to the temptations of the easy answer. Faith is a cheap shortcut to complacency that we can't afford to take. It's hard to try to deal with the world as it is and not as we wish it could be, and that extends to gods and cosmic laws of attraction. It's uncomfortable. It would be so much easier if we could the hard problems and the impossible questions to someone bigger and smarter than us like we did when we were children, but to do so means staying a child forever. This is the hard lesson of being an adult in this reality: wishing for a pony doesn't make a pony appear; spending hours and days and weeks visualizing your acceptance to Sundance doesn't get you in; praying to God to fix your wounded child doesn't help them heal after they've been violated.

You won't find the secret to life in The Secret, despite what it says on the box. You won't find it in the Bible, either. There's no secret to find, and anyone who says otherwise is selling something. All we have is our limited ability to see and feel and understand, and a painfully finite span of time in which to use it. I, for one, am not going to waste this short interlude of consciousness inexplicably granted me sitting around making wishes.

PS: So far, Jello Biafra seems to be a thoroughly decent person, and no whinier than any of the rest of us around here. Maybe I'll get to dodge disillusionment this time (not like with that Monkees debacle.)

update: He was actually really cool. In spite of some early reports of whininess, once he got to the Co-op he was cordial and seemed very interested in giving his audience their money's worth. And he talked for the best part of four hours, so I think we can give him full marks for that one. And while a lot of his material I'd heard before, it comes off better in person -- less aggressive, and carrying more of a sense of comradeship -- than it does in audio alone. He's almost 50 now, and gelling into one of those cool, crotchety old guys who has a lot of interesting things to say. As abrasive as he can be, it's nice to see someone you admired when you were young become someone you can still like and respect when you're older. It's more than most of my generation's heroes can claim.

Anyway, it was a good show.
5:03 PM ::
Amy :: permalink