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The Worst Deception

‘The worst deception a man suffers,” said Leonardo DaVinci,
‘is from his own opinions.”
But you’re special. And I’m special. We’re all born special. As infants
we’re each the center of the universe. As teenagers most of us think we’re
immortal. As aging baby-boomers three-fourths of us believe that we look
and act younger than our peers. What makes us all think we’re so special?
The answer, as usual, is survival: “Think of it,” says Robert
Wright in TheMoral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of EvolutionaryPsychology, ‘zillions and zillions of organisms running around,
each under the hypnotic spell of a single truth, all these truths identical,
and all logically incompatible with one another: ‘my hereditary material
is the most important material on earth; its survival justifies your frustration,
pain, even death.’ And you are one of these organisms, living your life
in the thrall of a logical absurdity.’

Being self-centered has tremendous survival value. But while selfishness
may be a virtue in infancy, it is much less so as an adult. In fact, maturity
could fairly he defined as the awakening to the needs and wants of others.
If not for personal growth beyond selfishness, how could children be raised
and how could society ever survive?
Religions also go through a similar maturing process. Infant religions
(i.e., ‘cults,’ such as Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate) tend toward
total selfishness and are often totally oblivious to other beliefs. Adolescent
religions (e.g., medieval Moslem and Christian Crusaders and modern evangelical
fundamentalists) strive to dominate and to convert the entire world to
their beliefs. Mature religions (e.g., Tibetan Buddhism) promote freedom
and well being for everyone.
Is there any real difference between a belief and an opinion? No. And
my childhood beliefs/opinions (that my mother, my hometown, my heroes,
my teams, and my religion were all the best) were probably exactly the
same as yours. Rationally we know that thousands of mutually exclusive
opinions cannot be correct, yet the emotional power of childhood beliefs
is difficult to overcome.
In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., ‘We are all tattooed
in our cradles with the beliefs of our tribe; the record may seem superficial,
but it is indelible. You cannot educate a man wholly out of the superstitious
fears which were implanted in his imagination, no matter how utterly his
reason may reject them.’

If we factor in the eons of superstitious cultures with the eternity
of childhood gullibility, we’re bound to become burdened with some very
strange customs and beliefs. For example, what rational adult would ever
start believing stories of miraculous superpowers of elves, demons, or
ghosts, or even of Zeus, Krishna, or Jesus if they had not been indoctrinated
as children?
Religions are based on emotional needs, and most religions fulfill the
great tribal need to belong to something larger and more powerful than
ourselves. With the sole exception of pure science, objective truth will
usually be sacrificed in favor of personal and tribal emotional needs.
So what are we to make of each other’s beliefs? For the sake of truth
I suggest we heed the words of Leonardo DaVinci (above). And for the sake
of love, perhaps we should stop taking ourselves so seriously, instead
remembering H. L. Mencken’s advice that ‘we must respect the other fellow’s
religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory
that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.’

“The Worst Deception” is copyright © 2001 by Charles W. Webb, M.D.

The electronic version is copyright © 2001 Internet Infidels.

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