One of the particularly brilliant things about the 1990s sci-fi espionage thriller The X-Files is how it rewarded faith. Only in the world of Fox Mulder could his suspicions – “I don’t know, Scully, sometimes human evolution does take a great leap forward” – voiced somewhere in the second act, actually be one hundred percent true. Of course, they had to be true – there wasn’t enough time in a single episode (especially the monster-of-the-week episodes) for Mulder to develop a theory. No, his theories had the weight of exposition. They didn’t just describe the world of The X-Files, they defined the world of The X-Files (insert whistling theme music here).
I believe a lot of things, some of them more far-fetched than other. Par for the course. I believe in gravity (I can test it). I believe in evolution (also test-able, though not on so large a scale as required for it to be accepted as “law”). I believe some traditionally “conservative” things: the government is only mediocre at best at solving problems; that liberal social policies will be abused by people who take advantage of the letter of the law; that people tend to care more about things they own than about things to which they have access; that the second amendment to the Constitution is a good thing. I believe some traditionally “liberal” things: it is smart to minimize the wage gap; racism in particular and discrimination in general are social ills that need constant addressing; that the first amendment to the Constitution is a good thing.
Big deal, so what.
The problem is that when I say “believe” there is a suggestion – somewhere buried between my words – that I believe in facts. Because I'm a reasonable person, and you're a reasonable person, and you also believe in facts. It doesn't always shake out this way, though, and there are a couple of consequences.
When we dispute somthing (is there such a thing as global warming, should the Skylight have fired Bill Theisen, can there ever be a moral justification for abortion), we marshal facts as well as opinions that have the weight of facts. In other words, our opinions start to feel like reality. Our being gets tied up into the argument. Am I smart or dumb to believe what I do? I believe in facts – according to me. According to you, I believe in fanciful superstition. Suddenly what I believe becomes a marker for what kind of person I am. Barack Obama can never satisfactorily defend the fact of his birth in Hawai’i, because to Birthers this is only a “fact,” a statement without defense. What Birthers want to believe is that Obama was not born in the U.S., and therefore, constitutionally, not eligible to be president. No amount of facts (or “facts”) will ever be enough to convince them, because their belief is an article of faith.
I want to believe, and by wanting to believe, I deny any other options.
When we argue, we like to think that we rely on logic. We use causality, deduction, induction – but we also argue from a particular perspective that helps to define our facts. What the Greeks knew, what politicians and the media know, is that argumentation or persuasion is only partially about logic and facts. Logic and facts are simply tools in my persuasive arsenal. The real clincher is emotion, which connects to faith.
The summer before my senior year of university I went with three other friends to Ohio to try and start up a theater enterprise. Logic told us that it would be difficult to land jobs, but we wanted to believe that we were skilled enough, resourceful enough, to find something. Logic told us that we were fighting an uphill battle for audiences, for ability, for talent, but we wanted to believe that we could pull it off. Our rendition of The Mystery of Irma Vep, was, I believe, fairly awful – but I have trouble remembering because my left wrist was in a cast for the fracture I’d received several days before when I slipped climbing through a trap door. It came as a relief when our second show, Mississippi Nude was censored because we’d wanted to use some Robert Mapplethorpe photos that were, at the time, controversial (hard to believe now). It was ill-fated from the start, but we wanted to believe, we wanted our dream to be true, to be successful.
I want to believe, and because I want to believe, I will fly in the face of many things I know to be true, to be good ideas, to be smart.
What do you want to believe?