Opinion Columns & Blogs

Pick, choose beliefs

I once asked my Aunt Mary what her beliefs were on the subject of life after death. She said: "Whatever Jews believe, that's what I believe."

Aunt Mary's view was that there were people whose job it was to consider such things. She was not such a person herself, but she was completely confident that the guys assigned that task were doing their job, and it was all written down in a book somewhere. If you were sufficiently interested, you could look it up.

This view is in decline. A new poll by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life concludes: "Large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions. Many also blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects. And sizable minorities of all major U.S. religious groups say they have experienced supernatural phenomena, such as being in touch with the dead or with ghosts."

What is striking about the Pew study is not the prevalence of superstition and hocus-pocus, alarming as that is. It is the feeling that we are free to choose from a broad, cafeteria-style menu of superstitious hocus-pocus.

Christians, for example, do not believe in reincarnation. At least not according to theology classes in the seminaries. But the population likes the idea. And people like the idea of being Christians, too. So they just choose to believe in both. It is a kind of democratization. But what are its limits?

I'm thinking of the story of an elementary school classroom that couldn't determine the gender of the class bunny rabbit and decided to resolve the question by vote.

The point of the bunny story is that some questions do not belong to the class of issues that can be resolved by vote. Their answer is not a matter of opinion, even majority opinion. There is a "fact of the matter." You don't get to make it up.

But now the whole notion of a fact of the matter appears to be going away. We no longer trust the guys in the seminaries to determine which ideas are inside and outside the community of faith. We feel entitled to make our own decisions.

Fair enough; the facts with respect to spiritual matters always have been somewhat elusive. But now many of us feel entitled to decide which scientific ideas to accept.

Scientists have their ideas about, say, the age of the Earth or evolution by natural selection, and other people have other ideas. According to this new view, neither has any more claim to legitimacy than the other. There is no fact of the matter.

This is genuinely scary. And it's scary in a new way.

For the past several thousand years, large groups of human beings enjoyed consensus about the big questions. Today it is not just the beliefs that are crumbling; the whole idea of agreement is crumbling.

As the cliche goes, people are entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts. The problem is we have no agreement on what constitutes a fact. Ghosts? Astrology? Global warming? Evolution? How about communication with the dead?

We used to be a nation with a broad consensus. If you had a religious question, you asked a religious leader. If you had a scientific question, you asked a scientist.

Today, if you have a question, say, about whether your enthusiasm for vibrational healing gong baths is well-placed, you ask another gong bath enthusiast. There is no fringe so far out it doesn't have a Web site, and you can find it in milliseconds.

We are becoming a nation of fruitcakes.