Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why We Believe What We Believe (And How)

Over the summer, I saw Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull because I love Indiana Jones, I love Harrison Ford, I love Shia LaBeouf, and I had faith that Steven Spielberg would be able to stop George Lucas from doing anything that would destroy the Indiana franchise. And I enjoyed it. I mean, I wasn't enamored; but at the same time I didn't have as adverse a reaction to it as I did to Episode II, where I sat in the theatre with the silently horrified thought of, "I don't like this. Tell me I don't like this. Are the other ones like this? The other ones can't be like this" racing on repeat through my head. This may not sound like a ringing endorsement of The Crystal Skull, and it isn't. On my personal list of Indy films, it comes in before Temple of Doom sheerly because Temple of Doom was gross, boring, and had a heroine whose main purpose seemed to be to perforate my eardrums. There are iconic moments to Temple of Doom, but those aren't enough to make me ever want to see the movie again.

But I started really thinking about why Crystal Skull didn't match up to Raiders or Last Crusade. And although there are many reasons for it to not measure up, the major one, for me, is the suspension of disbelief. It was harder for me to believe that there were supreme alien life forms who came down to earth and left their crystal skulls that hummed and could impart knowledge to humans than it was for me to believe that there was a chest that could kill anyone who did not avert their eyes or a wooden chalice that could take ordinary water and make it the elixir of everlasting life that could also heal a bullet wound. Those two ideas have a weight, a gravitas, a solemn power, to them - whereas alien life forms just seem silly. And this differentiation would make sense, if I weren't an atheist. I'm an atheist born to atheist parents, who did their best to allow me to pick my own path. That meant doing things like sending me to Catholic kindergarden, which profoundly messed with my ability to tell my right from my left (because everyone writes with their right hand, even if they happened to be, as I am, left handed). But the religion thing didn't stick; and I didn't become an anti-theist. For the most part, I'm not even straight up atheist; that's not to say I'm agnostic. The closest thing that really defines what I am is an apatheist, because I don't believe in anything, and more importantly I don't care. I don't want to infringe on anyone else's beliefs, but I don't want to be inundated with them either. Whether or not there is a God or alien life doesn't really impact my every day life, and I go days without the thought of God or there not being a God, and weeks without contemplating the alien question.

So the idea that certain forms of belief in the supernatural deserve more weight and respect than others is a little strange to me, and yet I find myself subconsciously doing just that. Those culturally appropriate beliefs in the supernatural garner more respect than others. How often do we react with sympathy or respect to someone who claims they've been 'visited' by the spirit of a loved one who has passed on? How often do we offer that same sympathy or respect to someone who claims to 'know' that the truth is out there, Mulder-style? The same sort of thing goes down when we are discussing different religions. One of the recent community posts at Feministing is by a Mormon feminist, who discusses her feelings of duality and also her reaction to the protests of her church by gay rights activists. It is an interesting post, but what is also interesting are many of the comments left there. Some comments question the ability to be part of a patriarchal religion that oppresses the rights of women and homosexuals and be a feminist at the same time. Others outright state the inability to marry both. But what is interesting are the comments that mirror OhMissJulie's struggle to be both Mormon and feminist and Muslim feminists who undergo the same sort of balancing act. And while there are those who were calling for OhMissJulie to renounce Mormonism, calling for someone to renounce their Islamic faith would not be so readily acceptable. And I think part of that stems from how we see Mormonism in this country; for the most part, Mormonism is still seen as something of a crack religion. We can still make jokes about Mormons like we do about Scientologists. We don't grant them access to the same tier as "respectable" religions, just as we don't grant the same respect to the theory that aliens could exist and sustain human contact as we do the idea that a man who had been dead for three days could rise again.

Why I find this interesting, aside from being on the outside looking in at this phenomena than holding allegiance to any one religion or alien theory, is that new scientific research suggests that all of these impulses stem from the same place, brain activity-wise. In a Newsweek article, "Why We Believe", scientists examine why we not only place our faith in the supernatural, but also often actually and actively see and feel the paranormal - things like the hairs raising on the back of your neck when you're out for a walk or seeing the Virgin Mary's face on a slice of toast. According to scientists, one answer lays in the evolutionary function of the "hypersensitive agency-detection device"; the theory being that the presence of a living being is "something we default to when what we perceive could be alive or inanimate." Or, "Whether it's a rock formation or a hungry bear, it's better to assume it's a hungry bear". We believe in the feeling of being watched because it was safer to do so than to assume we were being paranoid. We see faces on toast because our brain instinctively seeks out faces, and also habitually "takes messy, incomplete input and turns it into a meaningful, complete picture".

All of this suggests that those who believe that aliens are real, do abduct people, and did help build Stonehenge and were the inspiration for the sculptures on Easter Island are not crazy; their belief stems from the same place as someone who believes angels are among us. It is our cultural reaction to those different beliefs that place them in the "acceptable" or "not acceptable" columns. And that suggests that crystal skulls should be just as plausible to an atheist as chalices that can heal and arks that can destroy. And yet, I imagine that it will be quite a while before that is true, even with articles like Newsweek explaining the phenomena of false positives and how the brain is to blame for our belief in the irrational.


John said...

Hey, I liked Temple of Doom (mostly because I saw it when I was still young enough to look up to Short Round, who makes that movie watchable.)

As for why one is more believable than the other, at least the Ark and the Grail make some measure of logical sense given their histories. There was a reason for their creation and a reason why they had power (even if those reasons were based in Scripture.) The alien thing just didn't make any gorram sense, even from a sci-fi perspective! I still don't understand anything that happened after they reached the temple, other than the usual plot motions (Bad guys steal McGuffin, McGuffin kills bad guys, McGuffin razes set, Indy & Co. barely escape.)

I still don't see why my hypothetical neighbor's belief in a vengeful and angry God who sends those who think impure thoughts to Hell (where they will experience torment unimaginable for countless lifetimes) is any more valid than my hypothetical belief in the power of the Old Ones, who will bring horrible madness and doom to all things living (the pure and the sinful alike) when they wake from their extradimensional slumber. Ia Ia Cthulhu Ftaghn!

petpluto said...

"Hey, I liked Temple of Doom"

You would. (I joke.)

"As for why one is more believable than the other, at least the Ark and the Grail make some measure of logical sense given their histories. There was a reason for their creation and a reason why they had power (even if those reasons were based in Scripture.) The alien thing just didn't make any gorram sense, even from a sci-fi perspective!"

Oh, you're totally right. I was just off the train once there WAS an alien crystal skull. I was like, really? That's what you expect me to swallow? And then later it occurred to me that being a heathen atheist, I should have found the other stuff difficult to swallow as well, and yet did not.