The Trouble is, We Believe

Belief is something humans do.

Beliefism is belief metastasized — belief unmoored, unhinged, runaway, with no object but its own self-referenced purification.

Every belief carries the seed of beliefism– the potential to grow into something toxic, with no purpose but to propagate more of itself.

Which is why…

Belief is a clear and present danger.

Belief should come with a warning — “Handle With Care.” But it doesn’t, and so we don’t — we just go around believing things like it’s no big deal. What we believe is a big deal. We should be more careful.

We’re probably careless because belief makes life feel better. It provides purpose and meaning and mission, lays out incentives and rewards, hypes us into feeling inspired and enthusiastic, fired up to do great things.

Belief is how we get to act like God.

Belief is how we create worlds, build civilizations, found nations. Belief anchors us in collective and individual identity, defines who’s us and who’s them, carves out space for us in the world. Our brains are wired to value those things.

Our brains are wired to believe.

Belief is indiscriminate. It doesn’t care what’s believed, what’s fact or fake. As far as belief is concerned, all reality is alternate reality. Our brains have a bad case of “whatever.” If we want to believe it, they’re good with it.

Belief isn’t choosy.

Belief doesn’t distinguish fact from fiction, truth from madness, clarity from delusion. It’s amoral, indiscriminate, undiscerning. Belief only makes self-referential judgments — what conforms to the thing believed and what doesn’t, what to encourage and promote vs. what to punish and ban.

Our brains don’t discriminate.

Our brains readily swap belief in this for belief in that — religion, science, humanism, capitalism, fascism, extraterrestrials, self-help, past lives… they’re all the same.

Belief is fun.

Beliefism is about getting inspired, believing impossible dreams, going for it, realizing your unique calling, becoming your authentic self – all those things that make Hollywood and self-helpers and entrepreneurial heroes rich and famous.

Sound familiar?

Belief has been king in the New World for 400 years. The New World brought it from the Old World, where it was king for millennia. Belief is America’s root religion. It gave us the Puritans. Now it gives us the self-helpers, alternative healers, life coaches, and evangelizing Christians and atheists. We do belief in the USA. We’re belief experts. We got it down.

But there’s more:  belief morphs into beliefism.

Beliefism is when belief goes public. It’s the Unicorn IPO, the blockbuster premiered. In psychological terms, beliefism is when belief emerges – moves beyond internal subjectivity and takes on form and substance in external human reality, becomes ideology, builds institutions, develops its own mythology and metaphors, becomes law and economics, dictates cultural norms.

Beliefism turns what’s believed into knowledge.

Beliefism is evident in a street evangelist’s pitch for Creationism. “The universe is way too complicated for me to understand,” he said, “so there must be a God who does.” He could have understood but he didn’t. He took a shortcut – he believed instead of knowing. Then he reversed the order:  his belief became knowledge — he knew what he believed.

Beliefism is unethical.

Belief creates worldview, worldview creates reality, and reality is whatever belief makes it. Beliefism has no ethics – it runs in a circle; there’s no outside reference, no checks and balances, nothing to keep it honest, nothing to validate it. Belief is unaccountable, therefore unethical.

Beliefism polarizes.

Beliefism separates who belongs and who doesn’t, who’s friend and who’s foe. It manages entrances and exits, reinforces conformity, and punishes dissent.

Beliefism radicalizes.

Once it’s got a cause, beliefism takes it to an extreme. Belief becomes fundamentalism. If you’re not with us you’re against us. No neutrality. You go to the edge or you suffer and die.

Beliefism trends to fundamentalism

Fundamentalism decrees doctrine, prescribes ritual; banishes and punishes discourse, doubt, and dissent. It builds silos and hunkers down; lobs bombs at them. Fundamentalism can be religious or secular – same dynamics either way.

Beliefism practices mind control.

Beliefism runs on brain conformity – for the sake of personal identity and survival, for group cohesiveness. Cults are built on mind control. Every belief-fueled cause is a cult in the making. Nations, corporations, religions, academic disciplines, societal institutions… they’re all built on mind control. None of them exist if we don’t believe them into existence. The process of entering and sustaining membership is the same no matter what.

Beliefism lives in our blind spots.

Beliefism runs in stealth mode. Like a friend of mine used to say, “The trouble with blind spots is you can’t see them.” We don’t notice or examine what beliefism is doing to our perspective, worldview, reality — we just know the reality that emerges from it.

Beliefism promotes delusional thinking.

Beliefism removes belief from examination and critical thinking. Unmoored belief trends to delusion. You become a danger to yourself and others. Your risk/return matrix warps. You drink the Kool-Aid. You storm the Capitol. You flock to super spreader events.

There’s good neuroscience behind beliefism.

Beliefism works because we’re biological beings. We’re powered by hormones, chemicals, electrical charges. We believe from the inside out — our bodies and brains construct our reality from what’s around us, including how other people are constructing reality. We share perspective with each other and a shared reality emerges. We build things together to support and perpetuate that reality — institutions, architecture, art, economics, law, government, religion, norms and customs, rituals and practices, metaphors and icons. The “higher” portions of our brains dream all this up, the “lower” portions keep it rolling.

That warning label idea is no joke.

Beliefism has hurt a lot a people for a long time. It still does. It hurt me. It might be hurting you.

Maybe we should talk about it.

That Dirty S-Word

An anti-masker holds up a sign — “Covid is about Socialist Control.” Betsy DeVos calls free college education “a socialist takeover of higher education.”[1] They’re mental and strategic twins. Don’t like something? Call it “socialist.” Instant photo-op. Instant sound byte.

This is post-truth in action:  gut words of meaning; inflame, don’t inform; stoke the rage.

It’s intellectually and ethically irresponsible – if you believe there ought to be some standard of knowing what you’re talking about. Some people do –they do their homework, actually think about it before they rebut or support.[2]

But never mind. Nobody reads that stuff. Only people who already agree with them.

If you’re an S-word user, all you need to know is that’s what the Nazis and Soviets called themselves. The Soviets called their country the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” The Nazis were the “National Socialist German Workers Party.” (How do you get Nazi out of that? In German it’s “Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei.“ N-a-z-i is there, in that first word.)

There!

Any questions?

Bernie didn’t help. He didn’t explain what he meant. Maybe he thought people would work it out on their own. Wrong. You got Stalin, you got Hitler, we’re outta here.

The Democratic Socialists of America hope it helps to put “Democratic” in front of it.[3] Theydo their homework, too:  historical socialism isn’t the same thing as democratic socialism, and neither of those is communism.

Too bad they’re polishing a turd.

Same for the people at Jacobin. I recently requested a sample copy from the library – the public library – if anybody gets “Democratic” it’s the public library. The public library declined my request -– the magazine didn’t “meet their standards.” We’re talking Jacobin, not Porn Today. (I don’t know if there is a “Porn Today.” I don’t want to find out.) If the public library thinks socialist is a bad word, it’s a bad word – an irredeemably bad word — a turd word.

I thought about trying for Monthly Review, but there it is, right on the masthead:  “An Independent Socialist Magazine.” What do you suppose are the odds Monthly Review meets the public library’s standards?

Monthly Review creator Nathan Robinson wrote a book with a bold full-disclosure title:  Why You Should Be A Socialist. The subtitle reached out to those who still might be willing to think: “A primer on Democratic Socialism for those who are extremely skeptical of it.” Nathan Robinson is trying, but again, what do you suppose are the odds?

I like how he approaches defining the S-word:

“More than half of millennials describe themselves as more sympathetic to socialism than capitalism. What do they mean by these terms? What are they actually endorsing? Do they want to live in the Soviet Union? Do they want a centrally planned economy in which there is a government bureau for every product and the type of cheese you are able to  buy depends on what the Bureau of Cheese has decided to make available this week?

“I haven’t asked them all, but I suspect this is not what they want. Instead, I think they are socialists of Terry Eagleton’s description:  people who are simply unable to get over the unfairness and brutality of the world, and who refuse to accept intellectual rationalizations for greed, bigotry, and hierarchy. They don’t like how undemocratic and unequal the world is, and they refuse to accept that this is the best we can do.”

“That, in and of itself, is not an endorsement of a specific “alternate” economic system. Instead, it’s a kind of instinct:  an instinct of solidarity and a disagreement with a number of consensus beliefs about how wondrous and fair certain features of capitalism are.

“You will find that if you speak to these young people, many of them will have a difficult time articulating what exactly they mean by socialism. That’s not because they’re stupid. It’s because they are looking for a term that embraces a wide number of different feelings they have and allows them to show how disgusted they are with economic and political life in the twenty-first century.

“Twenty-first century socialism expresses a commitment to a certain set of values, values that are diametrically opposed to the dog-eat-dog, laissez-faire capitalism that both the Democratic and Republican parties seem to have fully embraced. It’s an expression of horror at “avoidable misery” – at long hours with low pay, at dying because you can’t afford medical treatment, at police shootings, at families being separated at the border.”[4]

That doesn’t sound too horrible. I mean, how bad could it be to avoid avoidable misery?

Really bad, apparently — if you’ve been infected with the “Free” strain that’s been going around. “Free” is another word that’s been gutted of its meaning. “Free” now means “everything that’s not the S-word.” The longer version is “I’ll take all of that avoidable misery – all those long hours with low pay, all that dying because I can’t afford medical treatment, all those police shootings, all those families being separated at the border… because at least I won’t have some socialist telling me what to do.”

“Free” like that is Libertarianism – the reigning intellectual capital of the post-truth world. Free in that world means “free no matter what.” But that leaves the Libertarians with the same problem as the Democratic Socialists:  look too closely and it’s got a lot of explaining to do, so they have caveats like the “nonaggressive axiom” to tone it down?[5] To the average Freemonger, “free” means you’re on your own to the point that misery becomes unavoidable, and that’s a good thing.

“A certain kind of thinking on the right goes like this:  if you’re sad, it’s because you’re weak; if you’re poor, it’s because you’re stupid; if you’re marginalized, it’s because you’re culturally dysfunctional; if you’re being screwed over, you shouldn’t have signed the contract; if you did something horrible, it’s because you’re evil; if you’re angry, it’s because you’re resentful; if you’re sentimental, it’s because you’re not a man.”[6]

Pretty wussy stuff, if you’re a Freemonger. I imagine Nathan Robinson taking a deep breath and writing on.

“I have to admit, I hate that kind of thinking, in part because all my life, I have had to resist it in order to maintain my self-confidence. When you start to believe that all of your problems are your own fault, you can begin to hate yourself. As important as it is to take responsibility for our actions, it’s also important to acknowledge that many things are beyond our control…. We can decide how to make use of what we are given, but it’s not an ‘ideology of victimhood’ to say that many people are, well, victims. Some people are destinated to try their hardest and still fail, and suggesting that they didn’t is adding insult to injury, tormenting them  by making them feel not of the pain of deprivation but guilt and shame. (And they say the left likes shaming people.)”

“Some people think socialists have a naïve view of human nature, that we think people are naturally good, and that once our horrible economic system is replaced, our inner perfection will be set free. This is not what we think. In fact, it’s because we recognize the everyone is a mixture of greed and goodness that we want to make sure greed doesn’t triumph. We went to encourage people’s best and most community-spirited impulses and discourage their nasties and most callous ones…. If you play a game in which selfishness increases your chances of winning, and notice that every seems to be behaving extremely selfishly, this is not proof that people are naturally inclined toward selfishness.”[7]

Never mind that the U.S. Constitution was written in part to “promote the general Welfare.” Trouble is, everybody knows that one person’s “general welfare” is another’s “don’t tread on me.” To a Freemonger, “general welfare” has “socialism” written all over it. Plus, if you’re a Freemonger who thinks – a Libertarian – you know that all this socialist touchy-feely-ism doesn’t work.

“Well-designed institutions don’t necessarily make people good, but they can incentivize constructive social behavior. Take the theory of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons.’ In a famous 1968 article, Garrett Hardin envisaged a situation in which village herdsmen use an unowned pasture for grazing. If everyone uses only the amount of land necessary to keep the land sustainable, there is not problem. But, Hardin said, ‘as a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain,” and “each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit.’ This means that each herdsman’s cows will gobble up more and more of the pasture, ultimately leading to the destruction of the commons that could have served everyone fairly well.”[8]

Oh I get it. Socialism doesn’t work because the Freemongers will ruin it for everybody else,

Except they won’t:

“In fact, as it turns out, that this is not what happens to commonly owned land. Elinor Ostrom’s fascinating Nobel Prize-winning work Governing the Commons goes beyond theory and empirically outlines the ways in which people actually manage public commons to ensure that they aren’t destroyed.”[9]

So what do we do? Stop using the S-word? Take another shot at educating and learning, at ethical knowing and speaking and sign-making?

Or how about if we think of it this way: “social” – you know, as “being sociable,” as in you and me trying to get along together?

Okay?

On never mind.


[1] Binckley, Collin, Devos Says Free College Amounts To A ‘Socialist Takeover’, AP (Dec. 1, 2020).

[2] The Hill, Forbes, New York Post, Market Watch, Black Enterprise, Washington Examiner, The Independent.

[3] “What is Democratic Socialism?” Democratic Socialists of America.

[4] Robinson, Nathan, Why You Should Be A Socialist (2020)..

[5] Britannica – Libertarianism.

[6] Robinson, op cit.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

A Talk at the Rock: How to Instantly Polarize a Crowd and End a Discussion

AreopaguslImage from Wikipedia

The Areopagus is a large rock outcropping in Athens, not far from the Acropolis, where in ancient times various legal, economic, and religious issues got a hearing. A Bible story about something that happened there two thousand years ago provides surprising insight on today’s hyper-polarized world.

Backstory:  A Dualistic Worldview

In the 17th Century, Frenchman René Descartes sorted reality into two categories: (1) the natural, physical world and (2) the unseen world of ideas, feelings, and beliefs. This duality was born of the times:

“Toward the end of the Renaissance period, a radical epistemological and metaphysical shift overcame the Western psyche. The advances of Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei and Francis Bacon posed a serious problem for Christian dogma and its dominion over the natural world.

“In the 17th century, René Descartes’s dualism of matter and mind was an ingenious solution to the problem this created. ‘The ideas’ that had hitherto been understood as inhering in nature as ‘God’s thoughts’ were rescued from the advancing army of empirical science and withdrawn into the safety of a separate domain, ‘the mind’.

“On the one hand, this maintained a dimension proper to God, and on the other, served to ‘make the intellectual world safe for Copernicus and Galileo’, as the American philosopher Richard Rorty put it in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979).

“In one fell swoop, God’s substance-divinity was protected, while empirical science was given reign over nature-as-mechanism – something ungodly and therefore free game.”[1]

Descartes articulated this dualistic framework, but it had been around from prehistoric antiquity. It still persists today, and neurological research suggests the human brain comes pre-wired for it. This is from Psychology Today[2]:

“Recent research suggests that our brains may be pre-wired for dichotomized thinking. That’s a fancy name for thinking and perceiving in terms of two – and only two – opposing possibilities.

“Neurologists explored the activity of certain key regions of the human forebrain – the frontal lobe – trying to understand how the brain switches between tasks. Scientists generally accept the idea that the brain can only consciously manage one task at a time….

“However, some researchers are now suggesting that our brains can keep tabs on two tasks at a time, by sending each one to a different side of the brain. Apparently, we toggle back and forth, with one task being primary and the other on standby.

“Add a third task, however, and one of the others has to drop off the to-do list. Scans of brain activity during this task switching have led to the hypothesis that the brain actually likes handling things in pairs. Indeed, the brain itself is subdivided into two distinct half-brains, or hemispheres.

“Some researchers are now extending this reasoning to suggest that the brain has a built-in tendency, when confronted by complex propositions, to selfishly reduce the set of choices to just two.

“The popular vocabulary routinely signals this dichotomizing mental habit: ‘Are you with us, or against us?’ ‘If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.’

“These research findings might help explain how and why the public discourse of our culture has become so polarized and rancorous, and how we might be able to replace it with a more intelligent conversation.

“One of our popular clichés is ‘Well, there are two sides to every story.’ Why only two? Maybe the less sophisticated and less rational members of our society are caught up in duplex thinking, because the combination of a polarized brain and unexamined emotional reflexes keep them there.”

“Less sophisticating and less rational” … the author’s ideological bias is showing, but the “unexamined emotional reflexes” finger points at both ends of the polarized spectrum. And because our brains love status quo and resist change, we hunker down on our assumptions and biases. True, the balance can shift more gradually, over time – the way objectivity ascended during the 18th Century’s Age of Enlightenment, but Romanticism pushed back in the 19th — but usually it takes something drastic like disruptive innovation, tragedy, violence, etc. to knock us off our equilibrium. Absent that, we’re usually not up for the examination required to separate what we objectively know from what we subjectively believe — it’s all just reality, and as long as it’s working, we’re good. If we’re forced to examine and adjust, we’ll most likely take our cues from our cultural context:

“Each of us conducts our lives according to a set of assumptions about how things work: how our society functions, its relationship with the natural world, what’s valuable, and what’s possible. This is our worldview, which often remains unquestioned and unstated but is deeply felt and underlies many of the choices we make in our lives. We form our worldview implicitly as we grow up, from our family, friends, and culture, and, once it’s set, we’re barely aware of it unless we’re presented with a different worldview for comparison. The unconscious origin of our worldview makes it quite inflexible.

“There is [a] potent force shaping the particular patterns we perceive around us. It’s what anthropologists call culture. Just as language shapes the perception of an infant as she listens to the patterns of sounds around her, so the mythic patterns of thought informing the culture a child is born into will literally shape how that child constructs meaning in the world. Every culture holds its own worldview: a complex and comprehensive model of how the universe works and how to act within it. This network of beliefs and values determines the way in which each child in that culture makes sense of the universe.”[3]

Culture has been sculpting the human brain ever since our earliest ancestors began living complex social lives millions of years ago. It’s only when the cultural balance runs off the rails that our brains scramble to reset, and we’re stressed while they’re at it. We would do well not to wait until then, and learn how to embrace both ends of the dualistic spectrum, argues one computational biologist[4]:

“Neuroscience was part of the dinner conversation in my family, often a prerequisite for truth. Want to talk about art? Not without neuroscience. Interested in justice? You can’t judge someone’s sanity without parsing scans of the brain. But though science helps us refine our thinking, we’re hindered by its limits: outside of mathematics, after all, no view of reality can achieve absolute certainty. Progress creates the illusion that we are moving toward deeper knowledge when, in fact, imperfect theories constantly lead us astray.

“The conflict is relevant in this age of anti-science, with far-Right activists questioning climate change, evolution and other current finds. In his book Enlightenment Now (2018), Steven Pinker describes a second assault on science from within mainstream scholarship and the arts. But is that really bad? Nineteenth-century Romanticism was the first movement to take on the Enlightenment – and we still see its effects in such areas as environmentalism, asceticism and the ethical exercise of conscience.

“In our new era of Enlightenment, we need Romanticism again. In his speech ‘Politics and Conscience’ (1984), the Czech dissident Václav Havel, discussing factories and smokestacks on the horizon, explained just why: ‘People thought they could explain and conquer nature – yet … they destroyed it and disinherited themselves from it.’ Havel was not against industry, he was just for labour relations and protection of the environment.

“The issues persist. From use of GMO seeds and aquaculture to assert control over the food chain to military strategies for gene-engineering bioweapons, power is asserted though patents and financial control over basic aspects of life. The French philosopher Michel Foucault in The Will to Knowledge (1976) referred to such advancements as ‘techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations’. With winners and losers in the new arena, it only makes sense that some folks are going to push back.

“We are now on the verge of a new revolution in control over life through the gene-editing tool Crispr-Cas9, which has given us the ability to tinker with the colour of butterfly wings and alter the heritable genetic code of humans. In this uncharted territory, where ethical issues are rife, we can get blindsided by sinking too much of our faith into science, and losing our sense of humanity or belief in human rights.

“Science should inform values such as vaccine and climate policy, but it must not determine all values…. With science becoming a brutal game of market forces and patent controls, the skeptics and Romantics among us must weigh in, and we already are.”

That’s probably good advice, but we need to push through a lot of cultural status quo to get there. That’s especially true because the 20th Century brought us change at ever-accelerating rates — objective reality went spinning away and we crashed into the extreme belief end of the spectrum:

“Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. What’s problematic is going overboard — letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts.

“The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts.

“Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.”[5]

When we can agree that our conflict is a matter of my data vs. yours, we can debate rationally. But when it’s my beliefs vs. yours, what used to be discourse dissolves into stonewalling and shouting. Belief seeks its own perfection by eliminating doubt, and therefore devolves into fundamentalism, where discussion is a sign of doubt, punishable as heresy. Fundamentalism can be secular or religious – it’s the dynamic, not the content, that matters

“Fundamentalism is a mind-set. The iconography and language it employs can be either religious or secular or both, but because it dismisses all alternative viewpoints as inferior and unworthy of consideration it is anti-thought. This is part of its attraction. It fills a human desire for self-importance, for hope and the dream of finally attaining paradise. It creates a binary world of absolutes, of good and evil. It provides a comforting emotional certitude. It is used to elevate our cultural, social, and economic systems above others. It is used to justify imperial hubris, war, intolerance and repression as a regrettable necessity in the march of human progress. The fundamentalist murders, plunders and subjugates in the name of humankind’s most exalted ideals. Those who oppose the fundamentalists are dismissed as savages, condemned as lesser breeds of human beings, miscreants led astray by Satan or on the wrong side of Western civilization. The nation is endowed with power and military prowess, fundamentalists argue, because God or our higher form of civilization makes us superior. It is our right to dominate and rule. The core belief systems of these secular and religious antagonists are identical. They are utopian. They will lead us out of the wilderness to the land of milk and honey.”[6]

Fundamentalism is where the open mind goes into lockdown. Objectivity loses its grip and the question “Are you with us, or against us?” gives way to its declarative version, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”[7] Dualistic thinking ceases to be more than a source of “popular clichés,” and becomes instead a rigid disincentive to public discourse, as competing polarized beliefs dig in for a grinding, maddening war of attrition. What used to be public discourse is lost in a no-man’s land of intellectual wreckage created by each side’s incessant lobbing of ideological bombs at the other’s entrenched subjective positions. Each side is convinced it has a God’s-eye view of reality, therefore God is on its side, which motivates securing its position by all necessary means.

A Talk at the Rock

The Christian scriptures illustrate how all this works in a story from one of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys.

“Now while Paul was… at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So, he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.  And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.’[8]

The Epicureans and Stoics were the materialists of their day – their thinking leaned toward the objective side of the dualism. When Paul came to town advocating ideas (the subjective end of the dualism), their brain patterning couldn’t process Paul’s worldview. They needed time, so they invited Paul to a Talk at the Rock (the Areopagus).

At this point, the author of the story –- widely believed to be the same “Luke the beloved physician”[9] who wrote the Gospel of Luke – inserts a biased editorial comment that signals that nothing’s going to come of this because “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”[10] I.e., reasonable consideration — public discourse – was going to be a waste of time. But Paul had prepared some culturally sensitive opening remarks:

“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: To the unknown god. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’”

He then offers up the idea of substituting his ‘foreign god’ for the Athenians’ statuary, altars, and temples:

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.”

You can sense the crowd’s restless murmuring and shuffling feet, but then Paul goes back to cultural bridge-building:

“Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ [referring to a passage from Epimenides of Crete], and as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’[{From Aratus’s poem Phainomena].”

Nice recovery, Paul. So far so good. This feels like discourse, what the Rock is for. But Paul believes that the Athenians’ practice of blending the unseen world of their gods with their physical craftmanship of statuary, altars, and temples (a practice the church would later perfect) is idolatry, and in his religious culture back home, idolatry had been on the outs since the Golden Calf.[11] At this point, Paul takes off the cultural kit gloves and goes fundamentalist:

“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

That’s precisely the point where he loses the crowd — well, most of them, there were some who were willing to give him another shot, and even a couple fresh converts:

“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”

“Some men joined him and believed….” That’s all there was left for them to do: believe or not believe. You’re either with us or against us.

Paul had violated the cultural ethics of a Talk at the Rock. It was about reasonable discourse; he made it a matter of belief, saying in effect. “forget your social customs and ethics, my God is going to hurt you if you keep it up.” With that, the conclave became irretrievably polarized, and the session was over.

Paul triggered this cultural dynamic constantly on his journeys – for example a few years later, when the Ephesus idol-building guild figured out the economic implications of Paul’s belief system[12]:

“About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way.  For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, ‘Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.’ When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’”

Jesus had previously taken a whip to the merchants in the Temple in Jerusalem.[13] Apparently Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen saw the same thing coming to them, and made a preemptive strike. The scene quickly spiraled out of control:

“So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel.  But when Paul wished to go in among the crowd, the disciples would not let him. And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater. Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.”

A local official finally quelled the riot:

“Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward. And Alexander, motioning with his hand, wanted to make a defense to the crowd. But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’

“And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, ‘Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly. For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” and when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly.”[14]

It Still Happens Today

I spent years in the evangelical church – we were fundamentalists, but didn’t want to admit it – where Paul’s Talk at the Rock was held up as the way not to “share your faith.” Forget the public discourse — you can’t just “spend [your] time in nothing except telling or hearing something new,” you need to lay the truth on them so they can believe or not believe, and if they don’t, you need to “shake the dust off your feet”[15] and get out of there. These days, we see both secular and religious cultural institutions following that advice.

Will we ever learn?

[1]How The Dualism Of Descartes Ruined Our Mental HealthMedium (May 10, 2019)

[2] Karl Albrecht, “The Tyranny of Two,” Psychology Today (Aug 18, 2010)

[3] Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning (2017)

[4] Jim Kozubek, “The Enlightenment Rationality Is Not Enough: We Need A New Romanticism,” Aeon (Apr. 18, 2018)

[5] Andersen, Kurt, Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History (2017)

[6] Hedges, Chris, I Don’t Believe in Atheists: The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist (2008)

[7] The latter came from Jesus himself – see the Gospels of Matthew 21: 12-13, and John 2: 13-16. Jesus was a belief man through and through. More on that another time.

[8] The Acts of the Apostles 17: 17-20.

[9] Paul’s letter to the Colossians 4: 14.

[10] Acts 17: 21.

[11] Exodus 32.

[12] Acts 19: 23-41

[13] Mathew 21: 12-17; John 2: 13-21

[14] Acts: 23-42

[15] Matthew 10:14.