Tuesday, November 13, 2007

False Piety and Perceptions of Status

Lots of poll results get quoted on atheist blogs and during debates like the Gallup poll that reported 45% of Americans believe that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so; or the Harris poll that reports 90% of all Americans believe in God. Then there's the Pew Research poll that reports 20% of American Christians are sure that Jesus Christ will return in their lifetimes.

As startling as these figures are, one point of fact regarding them that is rarely discussed is this: the methodologies of the polls themselves do not allow for an accurate reflection of what those polled actually believe. At best, it can only be said that those polled claim to hold these particular beliefs. What percentage of those polled gave the answers they did because of how they want to be perceived rather than based on what they actually think? I remember once a speech many years ago in which the speaker quoted a Chinese philosopher, perhaps Lao Tzu (though I've been unable to find the source of this), who said that we each have Five Faces:

The face we see of ourselves;
The face we want to see of ourselves;
The face we want others to see of ourselves;
The face that others see;
And the face we actually wear.

I'm not a big fan of Chinese philosophy and I've never been able to find the actual source of that Lao Tzu quote (hell, I'm not even sure it was Lao Tzu), but I've always felt that there was something to this. It would be no intellectual leap or revelation to say that humans have a tendency to "present an image" of themselves that they deem favorable or desirable. Rappers and hip-hop artists have the "gansta" image. Politicians like to be seen as the common man. Living in the south, I've known many a smart man that pretended to be a dumb redneck. Truly stupid people seem to demand acknowledgement of their mental superiority. And so on.

Among these "images" that people present of themselves is also one of piety. What large workplace isn't littered with little religious symbols, bibles on desks, printouts of short scriptures, etc.? In my office, I walk past a half dozen or so bibles on desks just to go to the restroom. Several of the readers of these bibles can be seen taking notes and highlighting their bibles. Another desk has a blanket on the back of a chair with various names of the Judeo-Christian god embroidered on it. I can't count the number of scriptural sayings and quotes that are pinned to cubical walls. And their owners always seem eager to announce their church plans on Sunday; what church they attend; the goings on at this or that church; churches they once attended and why they no longer attend it. My own boss raves about the new Starbucks at his BFC (Big Frickin' Church). Each of these people works at a call center. Nearly every one ends their call with "have a blessed day." In fact, religious jargon litters their vernacular in a way that they may hope seems natural and genuine, but I can't help but think it is all contrived. Perhaps habitual, but contrived nonetheless.

In sports, this is very evident. How many times have you observed a boxer kneel in his corner and sign the cross? I've even watched fights on pay-per-view where both fighters kneel simultaneously and make the same pious gesture! How does that work? Does their god flip a divine coin to choose his winner? What about the baseball player that gives a post-game interview in which he attributes his team's recent win to divine favor? When that team doesn't make it through the playoffs, does that indicate his god has a favorite team; did his god suddenly find disfavor with his team; or did football season start and God changed his channel?

One conclusion that can be drawn from these public displays of piety among sports figures and co-workers is that they are mini-advertisements for their religion. For some or, possibly, many, this may be the case. In most cases, however, I think that these displays are appeals to popularity. Remember the percentages in the first paragraph? Americans are generally given to appealing to popularity anyway, which can be seen in the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, and the music we turn up loud. An appeal to popularity gives group acceptance and provides some status within the group.

It makes me conclude, then, that the percentages I mentioned above aren't what people actually believe, but what they want others to believe about them. If that's the case, then the number of people who actually believe the world to be 10,000 years old may be less. And the number of people who actually believe in God to the degree they claim could be fewer. If this is so, continuing to be vocal about the rational and reasoned point of view about religion and religious beliefs may prove to be effective in marginalizing religious dogma and bringing rational thought into the mainstream.

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