5 Popular Beliefs That Are Holding Humanity Back
Humans believe in a lot of stupid shit, and we do something stupid as a result of those beliefs about, oh, once every five seconds. And sure, most of you reading this are educated types who don't believe in Bigfoot or psychic readings, but there are a whole bunch of equally stupid/harmful superstitions out there that are so commonly held that we don't even think of them as such. Very few of us don't fall victim to at least a few of them.
In fact, I'm something of an expert on this because I believe literally hundreds of idiotic things, and also because I wrote a ridiculous best-seller about an apocalypse brought about by people believing in apocalypses. And I say that, in order to keep humanity from imploding, we have to give up believing ...
That We're Fulfilling a Prophecy
The headlines will make a lot more sense to you once you understand one simple fact: About 60 percent of Americans believe that Jesus Christ and his angels will descend from heaven and destroy the planet, and about 40 percent of Americans think it will happen within the next few decades.
Every decision they make, and every vote they cast, is done with this in mind. For instance, there is no reason not to drill all of the oil now, because who are we saving it for? The unsaved, who'll be left behind when the demons roam free? Those heathens can walk.
I am not trying to disrespect anyone's religion (and they're not the only ones with apocalypse fever -- more on that in a moment), but personally, I do think that's kind of weird.
And this affects your life. They -- that is, most people you pass on the street -- believe that the precursor to God tearing open the sky will be a sequence of political and military upheavals in the Middle East, mostly revolving around Israel, and that it is America's role to facilitate those events. And again, they vote accordingly. For example, have you been following the whole situation in Syria? To you it might seem like the Middle Eastern War of the Week, but 1 in 4 Americans thinks that U.S. intervention could lead to the apocalypse, in fulfillment of a prophecy from the book of Isaiah stating that the Syrian city of Damascus would be left in ruins prior to Armageddon. (Note: Islam's prophecy says the opposite.)
This voting bloc is also the reason why, if you're running for national office in the USA, criticizing Israel is political suicide. Many Christians believe the formation of the current state of Israel is the fulfillment of another biblical prophecy. That's why you have evangelical leaders urging Israel not to negotiate -- any lasting peace in the region would render the prophecy null and void.
At this point my young atheist readers are saying, "Exactly! Religion is a dangerous fairy tale we must all leave behind, Wong! I'll buy your book right now, and a tip of the fedora to you, sir!" but that's not the point, either -- there are lots of religious people who don't believe we're playing out a prophetic checklist, and lots of non-religious people who do.
Look at our pop culture -- how many futuristic movies automatically assume an impending collapse of human society? Just this year we've had Elysium (about an apocalyptic economic collapse), World War Z (zombie apocalypse), Oblivion (alien apocalypse), After Earth (environmental apocalypse), Pacific Rim (giant monster apocalypse), The Host (alien apocalypse), Dredd (societal breakdown in the wake of Armageddon), and The Purge (violent societal breakdown). On TV you've got The Walking Dead (zombie apocalypse) and Revolution (a world torn apart by a nonsensical plot and two-dimensional characters). None of those are Christian shows, yet all assume that we're living in the end times.
So in an era when things are going better than ever, we all assume it's about to fall apart. And we also vote accordingly. Check out any poll about what issues voters are most worried about. At the top you find things like the economy, health care, and the situation in the Middle East. What you find waaaay down at the bottom (if at all) are issues about the environment, natural resources, and education. Because those things only affect the future world our children will live in, and that world is a savage wasteland anyway. It has been foretold, either by the Bible or by RoboCop.
And I think it's bullshit.
I think you could have made a much better case for impending Armageddon 100 years ago (1913 -- the brink of World War I!) or 100 years before that (1813 -- the entire world at war, thanks to the man many believed to be the Antichrist, Napoleon!). Shit, go all the way back to 1363 and you find the Black Death, a plague that killed 75 million fucking people. A dude walking around back then with a sandwich board proclaiming the end times would have been impossible to argue with. Yet, 650 years later, here we still are, bitch.
So, with all due respect, fuck the apocalypse and everyone who believes in it. Let's try to fix the world instead. But that isn't easy, since most of us believe ...
That the Ghost of a Different Person Is Living Inside Us
Nope, I'm not talking about demon possession here, or even belief in a soul. I'm talking about the thing you, the reader, believe in, regardless of religion (or lack of). Here, I'll show you.
Stand up, wherever you are, and describe out loud the worst thing you've ever done. OK, sit back down. Unless you were in public and have been asked to leave, in which case you'll need to progress to another location to finish reading the article. Now, I bet for most of you, the story sounded something like this:
"One time, when I was drunk, I cheated on my wife."
"A year ago, when I was short on cash, I stole from my roommate."
"During an argument in high school, I totally lost it and beat my best friend so bad, he had to go to the hospital."
"I ate another man's flesh while infected with a mind-controlling brain parasite."
Do you spot the key phrases there? "When I was drunk." "When I was short on cash." "I totally lost it." "Brain parasite." It's not just that we make excuses for our behavior, it's that we make a really specific excuse: That the person who did the bad thing wasn't the "real" us.
"Man, it's a good thing we only steal things ironically."
Hell, go find any celebrity's scandal apology. Mel Gibson repeatedly rants about Jews, then says it was done "in a moment of insanity" and insists "I am not a bigot." Michael Vick's torturing and killing of dogs was due to immaturity. Tiger Woods announced he was getting therapy for whatever strange disease of the brain caused him to have sex with lots of beautiful women.
What a sick, crazy bastard.
In each case, the message is clear: This isn't who I "really" am on the inside. And we usually phrase it that way: "On the inside." As if there's another, real person living inside our meaty body who remains pure despite what the body does.
And I think that if aliens from another planet were examining the human race, this would make them think our goddamned brains were broken. This idea of the "ghost in the machine" lets us excuse anything we do (or more importantly, not do) and invent an identity for ourselves that has nothing to do with reality. "Sure, I've got six domestic battery convictions on my record, but it's not like I'm some wife beater." "I know I haven't been completely honest with you, but don't treat me like I'm some kind of liar." "Yeah, I took the sales job to make ends meet, but I'm not some salesman."*
*Note: He took the sales job 35 years ago.
Gloom is his only currency.
Here's the deal: That "real," perfect you on the inside is a figment of your imagination. Specifically, it's a flimsy excuse told by a squishy part of your brain that wants to get out of doing work. "Don't worry about what we did or didn't do, what matters is that the invisible 'real' person inside us remains perfect and above reproach."
And what makes it even weirder is that when it comes to other people, we still think ...
That Evil Is Something We Can Kill
I mentioned RoboCop a moment ago (or I probably did, knowing me). I was 12 when I saw the below scene, and at the time it seemed like a perfect solution to the nation's drug problem:
That is RoboCop shooting the shit out of a cocaine processing facility, killing the people who make the cocaine so that addicts won't buy cocaine anymore. In 1987 we were losing the War on Drugs, and according to the movies, this was what we were doing wrong: The real cops didn't have the kind of firepower or bullet proofing necessary to successfully murder all of the criminals.
Laugh all you want, but the assumption these movies are based on -- that we can fix evil if we throw enough bullets at the problem -- is one that our entire culture still revolves around. We have mentioned elsewhere that the reason our generation is obsessed with zombies is because they are simple: This is an enemy you can only fight by killing. No negotiation, no compromise, no guilt. And every man's dream is to have a problem whose only solution is murder.
So while lots of you laugh when the NRA guy says, "The best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun," we still completely agree with him on a fundamental level -- even heroes who abstain from killing, like Batman, are still all about violencing the problem away. Bruce Wayne defeats crime because he is so much better at violence than the bad guys that he doesn't have to kill them. We still want to see him beat the shit out of the Joker and his crew, rather than see economic conditions and mental illness intervention improve to the point that the Joker doesn't exist at all.
"So, what, you're saying you don't believe in evil? That all the bad guys need is a hug and a therapist?" No, imaginary person who is objecting to my article. I agree that the Nazis were evil, and I hope Osama bin Laden's body got eaten by a shark, then shit out and eaten again by a shit-eating squid. But we're at the point where, if we are denied the chance to whip out the guns, we get pissed.
We just want so badly for what worked in RoboCop to work in real life, to be able to exterminate evil as if it were a bedbug infestation. But holy shit, would life be simple if you could actually solve problems this way. We'd have rid society of evil like 10,000 years ago. And it's not for lack of trying -- we went to war against the infidels, drowned the witches, and burned the heretics, and thousands of years later we're still saying, "Well, shit, maybe we just didn't kill the right people? Or kill them hard enough?" If you suggest that maybe that basic method is flawed, then you're weak. Soft.
And it's so terrifying for us to think that "evil" is this nebulous collection of bad impulses and short-term, selfish behavior that exists in all of us, because that would mean evil isn't something we can blow up with a rocket launcher. But we're going to have to get over that eventually. It just isn't working.
But ... gun boners.
But really, this just plays to an even more common belief ...
That Most of the Humans in the World Aren't People
Let's talk about overpopulation and 1980s cartoons for a moment. Let's say a time traveler comes back from 500 years in the future and brings good news: Human civilization has not only survived, but thrived -- sickness is a thing of the past, mankind is colonizing the stars, poverty is no more. Yay!
Also, he says, the future world population is made up entirely of Arab Muslims.
You'd be OK with that, right? If not, why not? Remember, we just said everyone is happy.
We'll come back to that. Here's something that always bothered me in the movies I watched as a kid. The evil Stormtroopers would always cover their faces:
But the heroic good guys wouldn't:
Even in situations where both sides are doing something that should require a mask (that is, flying at altitude), the good guys all let us see their eyes:
But the bad guys all keep their visors down:
In G.I. Joe, the Cobra soldiers were masked:
The Joes were not, for the most part:
Whoa, I just now realized how shitty the animation was on that show. Anyway, obviously the idea is to make the bad guys less sympathetic and easier to kill -- if the guy Tom Cruise shoots down has flirty blue eyes or a kind smile, we might start wondering if that guy had a flamboyant personality, and a sexy love triangle, and daddy issues, and an entire internal universe of hopes, dreams, and loves that died with him. And who could bear killing a Stormtrooper if he was as cool as Han Solo? No, you cover their faces because they're the bad guys. They don't get faces. Only humans get those. If you think about it, that's a hardcore goddamned lesson to teach a 10-year-old.
Which brings us back to the prospect of an all-Muslim future, as warned about in this hilariously bigoted video:
Hopefully most of you reading this can recognize that as scare-mongering for hateful dipshits. But here's the thing: Many of you do worry about overpopulation in general. But that's just common sense, right? Too many people, not enough food, water, and fuel to take care of them all -- we need to cut back. But do me a favor: Picture, in your mind, what the excess population in the world looks like. Imagine the people who, in a perfectly population-controlled world, wouldn't be there.
Are you picturing yourself, and your friends, and your family? I bet you're not. I bet you're picturing hordes of dirty, starving kids in Africa, even though they use only a tenth of the resources we do. If our time-traveling scientist suggested going back in time and preventing the births of the heaviest resource users (that is, us) by jumping out of a time portal and slapping away our fathers' boners at the last second, we'd tell him to stop that shit. After all, the world is clearly better off with smart, compassionate, loving, charming human beings like us. When we said we wanted fewer people, we weren't picturing faces, we were picturing dirty, hungry mouths. You know ... like they have in those ... brown countries.
See how easy it is to fall into that trap? Even when we think we're being thoughtful and responsible, it's still done with the utterly insane yet unspoken belief that those masses outside of our tribe aren't people. It's not your fault. This superstition is built in -- we evolved to function in tribes, and to believe that only one tribe can "win." And I think we, as a species, have to get past that before this shit turns really ugly.
Bizarrely, you can see pop culture clumsily struggling with this. I mentioned Star Wars Stormtroopers above -- in the original trilogy, it's assumed that they're just people, conscripts or whatever. But in the prequels, they're clones, and the rest of the cannon fodder are robots -- apparently mowing down hundreds of human beings wasn't considered kid-friendly anymore. But whether a sentient clone or even a sentient robot also has a right to life is something you could spend the rest of the month thinking about (along with sentient aliens, or Orcs, or vampires). So, instead they cover their faces or otherwise make them look inhuman specifically so you don't think about it. Numbing your conscience, like the dentist rubbing that paste on your jaw so you don't feel the needle go in.
And, if you've made it this far and are proud to see that you subscribe to none of the silly beliefs listed above, you're at risk of maybe the most dangerous belief of all ...
That Being Smart Means Believing in Nothing
Hey, remember the Double Rainbow guy? The guy who made that YouTube video where he got so excited about a pair of rainbows that most of us thought he was having a stroke or something?
Now let's compare that to another clip, that of evangelical Christian children reacting in the same way, this time in response to a hardcore fundamentalist sermon:
I'm going to bet that lots of you find that first clip amusing and that second clip terrifying. Likewise, some of you find this massive crowd of Muslims converging on Mecca at least a little unsettling:
Whereas this crowd of college football fans is harmless:
In other words, we're fine with people reacting in awe of something as long as that thing is inconsequential. We have no problem with people traveling large distances and gathering en masse while all wearing the same outfit as long as the thing they're doing it for is frivolous. A bunch of young males screaming and thrashing around in a mosh pit? We could be friends with those dudes. A bunch of young males screaming and thrashing around as part of a cult ritual? That's goddamned apocalyptic.
It's obvious why -- we've seen enough terrorists, suicide cults, and hateful fundamentalists to know that zealots are bad news. Fervent belief in something -- whether it's a religion or a soccer team -- shuts down the thinking part of your brain and makes you start rioting in the streets. So clearly a smart person does whatever the opposite of that is. Right?
Probably The Lord of the Rings.
Usually this involves taking whatever other people are excited about and putting the word "just" in front of it. Like:
"It's just a couple of rainbows!"
"It's just a game!"
"It's just a religious sermon!"
"It's just an election!"
"It's just a job!"
"It's just the summoning of Nyarlathotep, the Dark God of Crawling Chaos!"
And there's the problem. The logical part of the human brain has turned out to be a horrible motivator. The gut-level awe part of the brain is a fantastic motivator. It's just the way we're built. Those zealots are high on dopamine, which is the brain chemical that motivates us to act. But you knew that -- Braveheart didn't rush into war for some logical political calculation. He did it because they murdered the love of his life. Motivation comes from the gut, not the brain.
"Wait. This increasingly seems like a bad idea."
This is why Alcoholics Anonymous members, even the atheists, submit to a "higher power" as part of the recovery (note: The higher power can be anything -- if not a god, then family, friends, etc.). Basically it comes down to: "Create something in your mind that is an absolute -- a force for good that is bigger, better, and beyond what we are, that you can absolutely defer to." Something you can be in awe of. It's a way of deflating your ego and letting go.
Logically, nothing deserves this. The cowboy hat patriot who worships the flag is failing to rationally deconstruct all of the flaws of his nation's political and economic system. The fundamentalist fails to see any other beliefs as valid or honestly held. But try to take away our targets of awe, and by God, we will create new ones. Stupid ones. We will create tribes and pilgrimages around what brand of electronics we buy. Hell, compare the reaction of the kids in the Jesus Camp video above to these kids getting a visit from Justin Bieber:
You need something to be in awe of. You, the person reading this. If you don't have something, you'll create it. You'll obsess over a girl or a guy, you'll obsess over money, you'll obsess over World of Warcraft. You will be defined by what you choose to worship, but you will worship something, and your whole life will be a steady parade of various people trying to convince you that they or their product are just the thing to fill that void. Buy my book.
David Wong is the Executive Editor of Cracked.com and a NYT bestselling author. His long-awaited new novel is out right now at Amazon, your local bookstore, or anywhere else books are sold!
Related Reading: Some crazy beliefs are just straight-up awesome- like the Tiwi belief that men father children in their dreams. And did you know genius Isaac Newton believed in alchemy, long after everyone else realized how dumb it was? Last, restore some of your faith in belief with these ancient ones that turned out to be true.
Check out the movie version of David Wong's first book John Dies at the End, starring Paul Giamatti.
What the Hell Did I Just Read: A Novel of Cosmic Horror, the third book in David Wong's John Dies at the End series, is available now!