Acting As If, Fairies and Gods

I have some news for you. There are invisible mischievous magic fairies living at the bottom of my garden. They leave no trace, no evidence that they exist. But, when things go missing, like my car keys, I suspect they have been coming into the house and moving them around, just for kicks. Sometimes, when I find my car keys, I remember that I had left them in that place. Other times, when I do not remember leaving them where they are found, but rather have a distinct memory of putting them on the hook in the hall, then I know that either the fairies moved them, or that my memory was mistaken.

Acting as if it’s so, that there are such fairies, or as if it’s not so, causes socially different outcomes, but no difference to the reality behind the acting out.

Acting as if it’s not so, when it is so, or when it isn’t, makes no difference to the reality, or the social outcomes. I go about my life dismissing the occasions when I have misremembered where I left my keys as just that, an error of memory on my part. If a fairy believer asks how I know fairies didn’t move the keys, I reply I don’t, but since I can’t distinguish between misremembering and the act of fairies, what does it matter? If there are really fairies moving my keys I and the world remain indifferent to it, as there is no evidence of it that could not be explained by an error of memory. That a believer in fairies might demand, “How can you not see that it was obviously fairies that moved your keys,” isn’t convincing.

However, acting as if it’s so, when it’s not so, just means I’m a bit loopy. If I tell lots of people about this story, I’m going to get some funny looks, except from people who also believe and act out that it’s so. We believers might get a lot of comfort from believing that fairies move our keys. We don’t have to suffer the indignity of memory loss, and I can bear the social stigma from non-believers, because we believers get together and provide the support we need in the face of doubters.

To believers in gods this story might sound childishly foolish. What grown intelligent adult would believe in such fairies?

I’m sorry to tell you, believers in gods, but that’s just how your beliefs look to atheists. You might find that insulting, offensive, but is it any more offensive than your attitude to believers in fairies, to Scientologists, Fly Spaghetti Monster followers? I know, because I’ve seen it said, that some believers in the Abrahamic god find the blue gods of India comical, ‘unbelievable’. Yet you believe in a zombie Jesus, or a flying horse riding Mohammed, or a sea parting Moses?

And, you agnostics, are you ‘agnostic’ about the fairies in my story?

The only difference between your gods and the gods, aliens and fairies you don’t believe in is your particular commitment to a story you have been convinced of – from childhood indoctrination for many, through a deep seated need to believe by adults that change or find religion.

This acting ‘as if’ something is so, whether it is or not, has a name in a religious. Praxis: the engagement in accepted customs and practices.

For more on the benefits and dangers of Praxis, acting ‘as if’, see this older post: The Dangers of Praxis – Acting ‘As If’

The Dangers of Praxis – Acting ‘As If’

Richard Wiseman has put up a post on a youtube video on The Power of Acting ‘As If’ (the video is here).

This seems to be the basis upon which various forms of Rationalism succeed in being so convincing to their proponents. By acting ‘as if’ what you think is true, is actually true, you can start to behave is if it is actually true (and eventually believe it is actually true). Even if there is no basis in reality, other than the reality that is one’s own imagination.

Praxis – the religious behaviour of performing rituals and acting as if your spiritual beliefs are actually representing a reality. It can make the beliefs seem even more true; so much so that to the proponent they ‘become’ true.

Though Richard presents some positive uses of praxis, as a means of overcoming procrastination, for example, it seems to be a dangerous tool if used indiscriminately. It seems to lie behind the success of political propaganda and prejudice. Act as if other people are different, and to you their difference becomes real. And if the supposed differences are a threat to you, then those other people become the embodiment of a real threat. In the 1930’s how did a nation come to believe that a particular religious sect, the Jews, where the embodiment of evil and the cause of the nation’s problems? How do similar beliefs sustain themselves across populations today? To what extent does acting out a belief make it seem true, even if the evidence is counter to it?

We can see the benefit to the individual in using ‘as if’ to overcome procrastination. This seems to be a benign method of changing one reality into another: he who was once a procrastinator overcomes that fault (assuming he considered it a fault) and changes, in time, into a different person in this respect.

We can see a benefit to humans generally if they act ‘as if’ we are all part of the one human race, if we all owe each other love and kindness. We can see the benefit of acting ‘as if’ our love and empathy is more powerful than our fear and hatred of others. But there is a danger in being naive about this. We have to be on our guard. We are not naturally wholly loving and empathetic. We each have other animal instincts within us; and some of us have stronger detrimental selfish intuitions than do others. We have to guard against some of our own animal instincts, and we have to avoid being too naive in seeing only good in others as we act ‘as if’ we are all good.

The effectiveness is true in the less benign cases, in that the person does indeed change into another: the unbeliever can become a true believer. The person changes. But the reality of what they come to believe does not. We can make our personalities, change because they are fluid. There is a wide range of social behaviour that human animals are capable of. But we cannot change the laws of nature we discover, into ones we would prefer. Our false beliefs in reality come unstuck by evidence, or the lack of it: eugenics, geocentrism, astrology. Whatever our social group or culture comes to believe is not in itself an indication of the reality underlying that belief. Empirical evidence is what really determines what is real – at least as far as humans are capable of doing empiricism well.

Even whole societies may change, from a capitalist to a communist state, for example. But it is still the people that have changed their beliefs and their personalities. The realities that underlie their existence does not change. The communist ideal sounded like a good idea, but it required ideal citizens to pull it off. But the citizens could not escape their stronger natural behaviour – they could only change so far.

This praxis can be oppressive and self-affirming. Take Turkey, for example. Despite its otherwise democratic capitalist changes over the last few decades, there are subsumed beneath the surface extreme Islamic forces. Listen here. Though some supporters of AKP stress the pragmatism (but then Islam has never been opposed to commerce), other voices express the concerns about the direction Turkey is taking. They tell us about how the oppressive nature of Islam forces people to act ‘as if’ they are more Islamic than they are – closing store shutters ‘as if’ the owner is attending to his prayers, whether he is or not, or the attack on individuals who break rules of Ramadan, or the increased wearing of the head scarf by women, whether they want to or not. Praxis can hide true beliefs and can oppress.

Note that religious praxis can have subtle political effects. Read this from the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Where are the comments on the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey? Ignored? Well, an international faith foundation can hardly be expected to be too critical of a particular faith, can it. In practising his faith Blair is blind to the problems of faith: Is Faith Rational.

While it is true that if they are lucky enough (lucky for the rest of us that is) many religious people can become better people, toward themselves and others by believing in something for which there is no evidential support whatsoever, it is also true that many can end up interpreting their belief system in all sorts of unhealthy ways (unhealthy for them, perhaps, but certainly unhealthy for the rest of us). Praxis, acting ‘as if’, has its dangers. It’s a consensual change to one’s mental outlook; and it need not reflect any known reality but the pseudo-reality it constructs for itself.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. When we act ‘as if’ we belong to a well meaning loving democratic nation we should acknowledge that it is a struggle to maintain that outlook. Once we are locked in, it does become easier. But as we look around the world we see many examples where seething fear and hatred is just below the superficial surface. Some nations are struggling to act ‘as if’ they are democratic. We in many Western states may feel we are doing better – we’ve had longer to act ‘as if’ we are democracies. But there are many natural human animal forces within us that could easily come out in different circumstances. We are evolved humans. The few hundred years that Western Europe has eased itself into democracy is too short a time for evolutionary changes to have made us naturally totally ‘good’ democratic people.

It would be foolish to take our current expressed nature, of secular liberal democracies, for granted. While we can blame influencing systems like Islam for the state of affairs in many nations at the moment, they are dealing with a religious system that is no more brutal than other religions have been from time to time. It seems that the loving nature of Christianity has something going for it – even if the figure upon which it was based is either merely mortal or almost entirely fictional. As a system it is sort of going in the right direction, away from the viscous god of the Old Testament and of Islam. But Christianity, particularly in Roman Catholicism and some other churches, still has its fair share of hell and damnation and persecution of ‘sinners’.

The religious right in the USA are still a reprehensible force for the discrimination and persecution of those that don’t see things their Godly way. And that’s in what could have been the worlds first true fully democratic republic – the intentions of the founding fathers are about as humanistic as we’ve ever seen. As it is, religion, personal capitalist greed and military power have a far greater role than one might wish.

There’s a lot of acting ‘as if’ going on in the USA that isn’t quite in tune with reality. And that’s the case in other nations too – including here in the UK. It’s tough changing our cultural habits when we have these damned evolved innate biological devils on our shoulders.

Evolutionary biology tells us how we are. It caused both the good stuff in us and the bad. It’s no use wishing evolution were not true, or acting ‘as if’ it were not true, or ‘as if’ it’s responsible only for the ‘red in tooth and claw’ stuff, or acting ‘as if’ some imagined God is the source of our goodness.

Update: From WEIT: Oliver Sacks debunks near-death and out-of-body experiences, as well as religious “revelations”. Interesting post that includes some good sources.

Update 2016: There’s a lot of acting ‘as if’ ISIS has ‘Nothing to do with Islam’ going on at the moment.

Update 2021: While racism, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny are real and present, there’s currently a lot of acting ‘as if’ they are worse than they are, which, ironically, is making things worse than they were – there’s a lot of acting ‘as if’ that’s making it so. Trump in the USA and Brexit in Europe, has caused divisions where many supposedly sensible liberals have exposed themselves as pseudo-liberal authoritarians willing to engage in cancel culture because they think it’s justified to to punish ‘microaggressions’ severely. Now, homosexual people, and feminists can be transphobes for not having quite the right thoughts about the complexities of transgenderism; and everyone that won’t play the game is a racist fascist Nazi … or rather the Woke faithful are acting ‘as if’ this is the case. It turns out that the accusers, in acting ‘as if’, are becoming what they are looking for.