You can always find a way to believe anything. That “always” is strict—the magic of belief, like a card trick with a gaffed deck, can always be worked. But just as important is the root “believe.” To believe means to hold something true. And true means certain: it does not mean almost certain, or highly likely, or any other words short of absolute concreteness.
I cannot emphasize enough that I do not use the word true in its colloquial sense. I use it specifically: there is no more precise word. True means there is no possibility of being false.
James Alcock, a psychologist who investigates the minds of UFO aficionados, calls our brains “Belief Engines, ” and has developed a theory why this is so. He speaks of learning and yearning, of input and emotional response units, and so forth. Whether this alienist is right about why “abductees” believe as they do is unimportant. It is clear that people are good at trusting themselves and that they excel at believing.
For example, if I want to believe “Socrates is mortal” all I need do is dig up enough evidence which makes this statement true. It is not difficult to supply. For example, if I accept that “All men are mortal” and also that “Socrates is a man”, then my statement is true.
I may now confidently announce to the world that “Socrates is mortal.” Further, since time is short, I can clip the premises. Besides, since I am already convinced—my belief is true—I assume the world cannot but agree with me. I will expect people to reason that I would not have announced my truth if it weren’t true.
I no longer need worry about the premises, I may jettison them and speak only of my truth. So how will I react to the person who points out that one of my premises is not certain? “How do you know that all men are mortal?” he might ask. To him, I would say, “It is obvious that Socrates is mortal. My belief is true.” I will dismiss him as an enemy of the truth if he persists pestering me. Besides, even if he can talk me out of a premise, I can always find ready replacements.
Think of the average, non-scientist global-warming-is-doom believer. The premises which lead him to his belief appear to be few in number. “Scientists told me it is so” is the main, but alone it is insufficient. It must be married to “What scientists say is true.” If what scientists say is true, and scientists say that global warming will bring doom, death, and destruction, then it is true that the end is nigh. (A rapture is only possible if we “End our dependence on oil” via fiat.)
It will do no good to question the premise and to show that scientists are often wrong, especially when speaking of far future events. If you do not accept the “truth,” if you question the premises, you are a denier. To deny is to lie.
The problems with the Godly are so notorious to the modern mind that we needn’t consider them. But take the average atheist, a person who believes the truth of “There is no God.” What premises does he employ? For the average atheist, none beyond, “It is silly to believe in God” or “No intelligent person I know believes in God,” or perhaps “Religion is evil” or a variant.
None of these alone can make the conclusion true; each is logically independent of that conclusion. Thus, each must be married to at least one more premise such that the conclusion “There is no God” may be validly inferred.
For the first two, the additional premise must be along the lines of “Intelligent people, who are never silly, can figure out conclusively whether or not God exists.” Questioning that premise, by showing that intelligent people are often wrong, labels you a fool or, paradoxically, a “believer.”
We must join “Religion is evil” with at least something like “If God exists, He would not allow evil”, and then the argument becomes one of the traditional lines of attack on theology. But if you question this premise by noting that if God exists and gave us free will, which we have, thus evil is possible and thus so is God, then you face ridicule and contempt—you will at least make people uncomfortable—because to those who hold with the spiritual vacuum, the belief is just true.
On this most important question, i.e. whether God exists, I do not think there any premises short of “God exists” or “God does not exist” that are convincing. Each must taken on faith. Whether this is coincidental with the major premise of the Christian religion, I leave for you to decide.
The lesson, if there is one, is one of the things Ayn Rand got right: always check your premises.