But how? Part 21: Assertion

So, I started this category many moons ago with the idea that it would be used to answer (mostly unasked) questions that religious folk like to pose towards atheists, essentially showing how a secular standpoint covers more bases than it’s usually given credit for. At times since, the structure of posing an initial question hasn’t really worked, yet I still felt that the topic fit in with the overall theme. We’re going to completely subvert the concept with this one, because today’s topic is assertion, which is about as far removed from seeking answers as one can get.

The vast majority of religions rely distinctly on assertions – statements of supposed Truth™ that come without any supporting evidence or even rationale. At best, there are references to scripture, which is a term used for stories that are asserted as being not just true, but divinely-inspired – in complete disregard of the entire concept of fiction, including the bare fact that it’s thousands of times easier to write than absolute truth. Challenge any religious person to provide support at all for the idea that their scripture is factual, and the vast majority of the times all you’ll hear is, “Because it says so right inside!” It’s extremely hard to treat such claims with dignity rather than blurting out, “You’re just not grasping how fiction works, are you?”

Much worse, however, are the millions of direct claims made without even the support of scripture, ranging from what was really meant to radical reinterpretations and, at times, completely unrelated statements. While most of the major religions rely on a specific set of scripture, they somehow manage to section off into thousands of variations, each with their own sets of rules and truths. If you think about it, scripture should certainly be able to stand on its own, without any authority figure to express or interpret it – no priests or rabbis or imams or other holy folk – but this is hardly the case, is it? And from these myriad religious leaders comes a huge selection of verities, many at remarkable odds to one another despite supposedly coming from the same source. Saying nothing, naturally, of the wide variety of religions the world over, all laying claim to truth and purity.

Overall, though, it’s not hard to see why assertion is even used in the first place. Our nature as a species is to puzzle things out, to seek answers, and we especially don’t like uncertainty – there are strong indications that uncertainty sets up negative reactions in our brains. The physical world isn’t very accommodating in such regards; lots of things that we deal with have no certainty to them, no absolutes, no clear demarcations. Nature has but a few laws, and beyond those constraints everything exists in a vast grey area. We are the ones that impose names and numbers, that rely on Olympics and Guinness Books, that determine species and states and speed limits, that even have a concept of best. The only comparisons in nature take place on extremely limited scales, determining what’s better right at the moment. While there may be a fastest springbok in the world, the sole thing that matters is if any of them are fast enough to avoid the predator currently bearing down.

Yet, with all this plainly evident around us, we take solace in absolutes; we want answers that will remain the same regardless, so we never have to compare, never have to think about them again. And we want this bad enough that we’ll actually fall for assertions, readily ignoring the fact that there is no method of absolute certainty, and no examples of such. We even use worthless shortcuts in our thinking to produce such states, believing, for instance, that the most expensive product is the best. Advertisers, restricted by laws against fraud or unsubstantiated claims, nevertheless find ways to assure us of their product’s superiority with such statements as, “the most efficient in its class,” never telling us what the class consists of or exactly how few others inhabit it. Time and again, we’re told to speak confidently – it will help us in public speaking, in sales pitches, in interactions with potential mates; we’re almost never told to back up our claims, just to sound like we’re assured of ourselves. Such a simple and transparent thing, and we’ve been relying on it for centuries, if not millennia.

There’s more to it than that, however. We’re also ridiculously prone to following the flock, eschewing individuality of thought and decision in favor of group acceptance and support. If enough other people believe it, then hey, it must be true, assuming unconsciously that they’ve done the legwork, at least. Conformity and social dynamics takes precedence, far too often, over rational consideration, making us more afraid of standing out than of making a wrong decision. Churches, unsurprisingly, prey on this, usually requiring weekly (at least) devotionals in the biggest roomful of people they can manage – with commensurate fees, of course. While we can receive schooling in our youth and somehow, miraculously, retain most of this throughout our lives, basic ethical guidelines from a single set of scripture seem to flee our minds within days. Funny, that.

It is interesting comparing this approach with that used within most forms of schooling, and maintained throughout all scientific endeavor. Certainty is considered unattainable, and truth is a lie; we have only what we can demonstrate, the effects that stem from the causes. The binary yes/no, true/false ideology is ignored in favor of probability, the confidence we can have in seeing the same results over and over again. No one has to assure us that heat will dissipate among its surroundings, or assert that gravity really exists; there’s no point to it because it’s readily observable. Questioning is just fine, even encouraged, and usually results in answers and demonstrations – no faith is necessary nor requested. In fact, this callback to our school days is informative in itself, because the worst teachers were the ones that asserted and failed to explain. Aside from that, it was the bullies that shouted to try and drive their points home, unable to make a plausible case and too insecure to consider other alternatives. How many among them were trying to drown out not just the voices of dissent among the others, but the voices of uncertainty within their own heads?

When it comes to religious ‘discussions,’ especially online and anonymous, the assertions come flying fast and thick. It’s easy to understand why so many religious folk find it necessary to separate the schooling of their children from the public offerings, and easy to spot those that have received this little gift. The only thing that one can do with an assertion is repeat it, more forcefully if necessary – who hasn’t seen the ALL CAPS tactic? – or perhaps buttressed with the threats of damnation. It’s unfortunate that too many adults fail to perceive of the disservice they do to children in this regard, terrified of the possibility of ‘straying’ or perhaps assured that this was the best way, but those who cannot handle a logical chain of thought, that know only how to repeat, cannot fare well in countless aspects of our culture; bearing a self-imposed title of superiority isn’t one percent as useful as being functional and able to think on one’s own.

More numerous are the ones who straddle the fence, willing to engage in actual discussion but unable to relinquish the hold of the assertion. Faced with the myriad things imparted to them in their religious schooling that are not reflected in any form in our physical world, they cannot entertain the thought that the assertions were dead wrong, but instead try to find ways to excuse the discrepancies, often creating entirely new assertions just to shore up the original ones. From such tactics we have the oft-repeated ideas that the vast fossil record is a test of faith, or that the six days of creation were metaphorical days (because, you know, we feeble-minded humans needed an easier term to grasp than, “thousands of years.”) Very frequently, these new explanations, springing only from the imagination of those proposing them, are then treated as unassailable facts, instead of just one of many thousands of possible explanations for the discrepancies. It’s commendable to be open-minded, as we are often urged, and consider other explanations – but this should also (if we are being honest and truly open-minded) include explanations that do not support the assertions, rather than whatever one works best to shore up the faith, all others be damned. Moreover, there isn’t a lot of value to considering the thousands of different explanations, unless we actually stop and consider which ones fit best, and especially, which predict future results; this is probability, the functional application of considering the options, because it serves to start selecting out the unlikely ones and culling our options down to the fewest possible.

That ‘future use’ bit is the primary and overriding benefit of knowledge. If we learn something that can tell us what will happen, it’s hard to argue the usefulness of this, isn’t it? Religion and scripture are notoriously bad about this, the vast majority of predictions related through them having already failed to occur (and still conveniently dodged with even more assertions.) As we learned about physical laws and properties, we put them to continual and ever-expanding use, improving our living conditions hugely, and even informing us of what can go wrong – while religion has been attempting to guide mankind in moral and behavioral manners for centuries to millennia with remarkably little to show for it. Instead, most of what assertion accomplishes is the indulgence of the religious individual, permitting them to avoid ever having to admit to being wrong, denying the value of certainty through dependable results and replacing it with certainty by declaration, all evidence to the contrary being dismissed. And all that this accomplishes is a sop to their own ego.

We, as a species, have a hard time admitting to being wrong, a peculiar facet of competition and social judgment. The ugly truth is, we simply cannot avoid being wrong – it’s going to happen, every day in fact. We can deny that this occurs, or we can learn from it, using it to guide our future selves into more accurate and useful decisions – and this is actually the way our brains work, their primary purpose in fact. Sometimes it’s easy; sometimes it takes a lot of thought. Yet nothing about thinking is actually hard – the only hard part is not getting the answer right away, the indulgence that we desire (especially one that panders to our egos.) But, you tell me: is it better to work for this indulgence, and arrive at answers that provide future benefit, or is it better to find ways to fake it just for the immediate gratification?

And finally, a simple observation: truth should be plainly self-evident – I mean, how could it not? Yet if we ever have to insist that this is how things must be – if we ever have to assert a state of affairs to convince others because the evidence simply doesn’t support it – how can we, in any manner, consider this truth? Why would such a thing even be necessary?

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