Atheists are fond of describing religious believers as deluded. I know and sympathise because I do so myself. People who believe in religions are deluded. They are not the only ones, of course, and there is a whole slew of fantastical beliefs that people routinely profess which only a sadly deluded person could possibly accept.
People are not deluded only with respect to the supernatural but in other areas as well. Have you never responded to an offer that you knew was “too good to be true” and turned out to be precisely that? Or take politics: do you support a particular party through thick and thin, never doubting that it is the only party that is fit to govern? Then you are severely deluded. Practically a basket-case.
Or do you believe that you can clear the wax from your ears with Hopi candles or that turning over your silver at New Moon will bring luck for the ensuing month? Such silly little fantasies don’t do any good but possibly don’t do much harm, either (apart from scalding your ears with hot wax), but what of the greater delusions?
We atheists, wearing our rationalist hats, like to think we are clear-eyed and clear thinking, led by experience, not by self-serving myths; that we are, in a word, realists. But is this true? Can any of us lay our hand on our heart and swear that this is completely and absolutely true? Of course not. Atheists, freethinkers, rationalists – call us what you will -, we are as prone to delusion as the common run of humanity. The hope is that we know this, acknowledge it and do our best at all times to see through the delusion instead of clutching it to our bosom and worshipping it.
One of the greatest sources of delusion is words. This of course puts us in a grave situation because we rely on words not only to express our thoughts but also to think them in the first place. It is so easy to be carried away by words, not only other people’s but also our own. How often, in an argument, for example, have you become inflamed by your own rhetoric and ended up saying things you should never have said and that you truly regret saying, because you temporarily believed your own words, despite knowing them to be false?
Modern politics has given us a basketful of words and phrases. Two of these are “spin” and “being economical with the truth”. Both mean deliberately setting out to delude people, usually us, the public. This is at its most cynical when the perpetrators don’t really expect us to believe what they say but to act as though we do. The whole ID card debate is based on this, the idea that the government can get us to behave as though ID cards will protect us from terrorists, prevent benefit fraud, etc. etc. when the government itself has admitted that it will do none of these things.
“Disinformation”, “spin”, “economy with the truth”, etc., all represent great dangers because they delude us and cloud reality, confusing us and sending us off on the wrong track, like sheep panicked into running over a cliff by the howling of wolves. It is enough that others seek to delude us; we must not join in the game by deluding ourselves.
But how are we to avoid this? It is not easy, I agree. I believe that logic and critical thinking should be taught in school so that children learn at an early age to see through the deceits of politicians, quacks, evangelists and all manner of snake-oil salesmen. It’s unlikely to happen, though, because government, industry and commerce have a vested interest in keeping us gullible. We are going to have to teach ourselves.
Fortunately, there are clear-eyed, clear-thinking people out there. My hero A.C. Grayling is one but there are others too. We must learn from their wise words but also watch our own. Next time you hear yourself say “I don’t believe I just said that!” take the lesson and take it to heart.
Only bigots never learn from their mistakes and never change their minds when they are wrong.