Belief is a weird thing.
It doesn't matter if the truth is in front of you, stark, bare and ugly, if someone wishes to believe that what is in front of them is not true, then lo and behold, it is not true.
If I want to believe that a brown teapot revolves around the sun, and that on some planet far, far away and far, far ago live a race of unicorns that fart pink glitter, then who are you to disprove me, you bloody heretic?
Belief shouldn't really work, yet it does. Faith really does move mountains. Sometimes, these mountains might be heaped piles of heads, yet faith moves them.
Regular readers of this blog may recall my aversion to peas, my young encounter with an advert for said legume and the disastrous outcome of believing the hype. Ever since then, I have had a difficulty with belief and faith of any kind, but in particular with the following:
Anyone who says they have a 'passion' for something or other while wearing a suit.
Advertising and advertisers.
A certain kind of 'religious' person.
What do they all have in common? Well, they're all out to flog something or other to people, and in return relieve others of their money, or their vote, or their humanity, or their soul. I should know: I used to sell car number plates, a long, long time ago, and believe me on this, there are few jobs more soul-destroying than telesales, selling bloody car number plates. It was a relentless treadmill of drudgery, where a little electronic beep in my earpiece would induce a Pavlovian reaction as I put on my best smiley voice and soothingly sold a little dream in the form of a number plate to adorn the cars of Great Britain.
Strangely, for many callers (Yes! They actually called ME), this dream consisted of having a number plate that said something like A 5 HIT, or A 5 LAG, or K 11 NTS. Seriously. Even celebrities from TV were avid for the damn things - Jim Bowen was a regular punter, for example. I never understood the allure, but here's the thing: I was damn good at selling the bloody things. I could fill the most drab and tedious of numbers with a hidden allure, just by using my best telephone manner. I could make people believe in what they were buying. I sounded as if I believed, as if I had a passion for selling what was in reality something rather worthless, that I could imbue a few numbers and letters with a mystic power significant only to the person I was in communion with, and make them believe.
And, three minutes later, anything up to £500 poorer.
I know what belief sounds like, because I can make the noises myself, and so I am never very easily convinced by those who would have me believe that they have my best interests at heart, that their product will make my life tangibly better just by being in my possession, that their policies will be all the better for my vote, that my soul will shine all the brighter if I just follow them.
You might think, from all I've just said, that I'm an out-and-out atheist, but actually I'm agnostic - I cannot demonstrate that God, as a being beyond the known universe, doesn't exist - although I don't think the God that seems to have a surprisingly narrow moral and ethical agenda that looks suspiciously like the anthropocentric concerns of humanity is for real.
Blimey, that was a long sentence.
Anyway, I am generally agnostic on most issues, as you will have seen from my entries on the Scottish referendum. I largely remain to be convinced on a lot of things - I immediately want to know where the evidence is, or what research backs a statement up, or how such and such can be justified.
This is all very good for academic work, but it does tend to send my nearest and dearest up the wall when we talk, to put it mildly, as I can come over as wilfully contrarian.
Which I'm not.
Having said all that, however, it has become inescapably evident to me over the years that we do need faith, we do need belief, we need hope and dreams, not just for ourselves, but in order to live, to cooperate, and to thrive in this world. It might be the invisible belief that things will just work when we need them to, or the faith that the bits of metal and paper we carry round in our pocket actually have a kind of value that can be used to buy things. It might be the beliefs we develop over a lifetime, that one political party is better and more likely to be on our side than the other, or that wearing ties makes you stupid (I'll explain this one in a later entry). Or indeed, the faith that beyond this waking world is another land of eternal bliss - or eternal punishment.
We need to believe in order to live, and the problem with this is that it's eminently exploitable, whether it is by the boss of a company saying he or she has a passion for, let's say, manufacturing wingnuts, or an advertisement for a fast car, or a politician saying he'll deliver on his promises for, let's say, national independence, or for the preacher who says he can shepherd your soul into the Maker's fold.
A lot of the time, faith and belief is a good thing: It's a cohesive device that binds families, communities, societies and nations, yet it is also so, so easily abused.
As we have seen through the entire Middle East, the cradle of the Three Faiths that dominate the Earth, belief can be a raven, from Tony Blair and George W Bush selling the world the myth of the 'weapons of Mass Destruction' in 2003, to the iron belief of Israeli prime ministers taht they can attack civilian populations with impunity, to the murderous, vile, apostate faith of IS in Iraq and Syria at present.
You don't catch many agnostics bombing the hell out of a nation, or beheading someone for their lack of agnosticism.
And yet, for all the ill that belief and faith can do, still we must have some kind of belief, have some kind of faith - not one that says 'I am right and they are wrong', but one that says that things can get better and that people can be, in essence, good.
Anyway, that is the faith I will hold: Given a choice of direction, people will generally opt for the good, and that it's everyone's job to help where they can.