The Worst Deception
'The worst deception a man suffers," said Leonardo DaVinci, 'is from his own opinions."
But you're special. And I'm special. We're all born special. As infants we're each the center of the universe. As teenagers most of us think we're immortal. As aging baby-boomers three-fourths of us believe that we look and act younger than our peers. What makes us all think we're so special?
The answer, as usual, is survival: "Think of it," says Robert Wright in The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, 'zillions and zillions of organisms running around, each under the hypnotic spell of a single truth, all these truths identical, and all logically incompatible with one another: 'my hereditary material is the most important material on earth; its survival justifies your frustration, pain, even death.' And you are one of these organisms, living your life in the thrall of a logical absurdity.'
Being self-centered has tremendous survival value. But while selfishness may be a virtue in infancy, it is much less so as an adult. In fact, maturity could fairly he defined as the awakening to the needs and wants of others. If not for personal growth beyond selfishness, how could children be raised and how could society ever survive?
Religions also go through a similar maturing process. Infant religions (i.e., 'cults,' such as Jonestown and Heaven's Gate) tend toward total selfishness and are often totally oblivious to other beliefs. Adolescent religions (e.g., medieval Moslem and Christian Crusaders and modern evangelical fundamentalists) strive to dominate and to convert the entire world to their beliefs. Mature religions (e.g., Tibetan Buddhism) promote freedom and well being for everyone.
Is there any real difference between a belief and an opinion? No. And my childhood beliefs/opinions (that my mother, my hometown, my heroes, my teams, and my religion were all the best) were probably exactly the same as yours. Rationally we know that thousands of mutually exclusive opinions cannot be correct, yet the emotional power of childhood beliefs is difficult to overcome.
In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., 'We are all tattooed in our cradles with the beliefs of our tribe; the record may seem superficial, but it is indelible. You cannot educate a man wholly out of the superstitious fears which were implanted in his imagination, no matter how utterly his reason may reject them.'
If we factor in the eons of superstitious cultures with the eternity of childhood gullibility, we're bound to become burdened with some very strange customs and beliefs. For example, what rational adult would ever start believing stories of miraculous superpowers of elves, demons, or ghosts, or even of Zeus, Krishna, or Jesus if they had not been indoctrinated as children?
Religions are based on emotional needs, and most religions fulfill the great tribal need to belong to something larger and more powerful than ourselves. With the sole exception of pure science, objective truth will usually be sacrificed in favor of personal and tribal emotional needs.
So what are we to make of each other's beliefs? For the sake of truth
I suggest we heed the words of Leonardo DaVinci (above). And for the sake
of love, perhaps we should stop taking ourselves so seriously, instead
remembering H. L. Mencken's advice that 'we must respect the other fellow's
religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory
that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.'
"The Worst Deception" is copyright © 2001 by Charles W. Webb, M.D.
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