The price of beliefAugust 6, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
In the Chronicles of Narnia, there is a story of how two children and a “marsh wiggle” named Puddleglum travel deep into underground realms to rescue a kidnapped prince from the clutches of an evil witch. Using gentle music, and some strange, narcotic herbs thrown into the fire, the witch begins to enchant the three of them, telling them there is no sun, no sky, and above all no Aslan (the messianic Lion who is the real hero of Narnia). Just when the enchantment is almost complete, Puddleglum rallies, stomps on the fire, and tells the witch that even if there is no sun, sky, or Aslan, he’d rather believe in them all anyway because they’re a darn sight nicer that what the witch is telling them.
You hear the same argument from people in real life. Suppose there is no God (or at least no Christian God). Suppose the Gospel really is just a myth. But it’s such a nice story. What’s wrong with just believing in it anyway? If the fable is pleasant and comfortable, and the truth seems unappealing, why not go ahead and believe the fable anyway? What’s the harm?
I’m always a bit aghast at the attitude behind such questions. I like fantasy games as much as the next geek, and when my kids were little, my wife and I taught them the story of Santa Claus and told them it was a game we play at Christmas. They got just as much “magic” and fun out of the game as they would have if we’d lied to them and told them Santa was real, just like I enjoy a good role-playing session even knowing that it’s all a fake. But I would never for a moment suggest that the pleasurable qualities of fiction should be a reason to deceive yourself and/or others into thinking the fiction were real.
Truth is when what’s in your head matches what’s in the world around you. Any time there’s a disconnect between belief and reality, you have a blind spot, a vulnerability. And if you have to constantly train yourself not to notice your own blind spots (in order to protect your beliefs), then you’re even more vulnerable. In the story I linked to above, an elderly millionaire was robbed and eventually murdered by a pastor, not suddenly, but over the course of a long relationship. Does it really matter whether we know the truth or not? I think it matters a great deal.
Any time you systematically lie to yourself, you train yourself to overlook the little inconsistencies that ought to be telling you there’s a problem. By repeatedly defending what you wish were true, and justifying it in your own mind, you impair your own ability to respond appropriately to the objective reality of the situation you are facing. Your pleasant and comfortable faith might just be lulling you into complacency on your way to disaster. Faith turns off the fire alarms instead of putting out the fire.
“Oh,” some people will say, “but that’s a rare case. There is usually no harm in believing.” The thing is, you don’t know, do you? Maybe you’re the next rare case, maybe you aren’t. But wouldn’t it be better not to voluntarily cripple your own ability to tell the difference? If your future happiness and well-being depends on knowing the truth about your situation, isn’t it better to have a clear and unbiased knowledge of what the truth is?
You don’t need to drive yourself to abject gullibility in order to experience the benefits of faith. My kids got everything out of the Santa game that the true believers did except the big disappointment at the end. If you like the God game, you can play that game too. If you feel like praying, pray to Alethea—you’ll get the same answers as Christians do, only you’ll have a better understanding of why God “works in mysterious ways” and seems to favor the prayers that are accompanied by hard work, careful timing, and wise planning.
Belief is not a bad thing, provided it is based on the real world. But belief based on denying reality is always harmful, even if it doesn’t lead directly to overt disaster. You may have been lucky thus far, but you’re walking into the future with one eye closed and the other eye blurry. That kind of cognitive handicap is too high a price to pay for the pleasures and comforts of mere fiction.