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What Is Real?

When I was very young, not even in school, a recurring nightmare troubled my sleep. A wolf with demonic eyes would stand on its hind legs and chase me relentlessly. I still feel the shadow of fear to this day when I think about it.

I shared my nightmares with my mother. She suggested that I pray about it, asking Heavenly Father to remove the nightmares. I prayed as she suggested, and the nightmares went away. I felt comforted that God was answering my prayers.

I now sit in church meetings as an outside observer. I often ponder on what brings people to sit in church for three hours on a Sunday. There must be some real benefits to induce them. What is real about the religious experience despite the unreality of God?

Comfort is one answer. There is real comfort available in religion. I received comfort when I prayed that my nightmares would end. Mourners receive real comfort when they imagine their deceased loved ones received into a paradisaical afterlife where they in turn will meet their dead when their time comes. It is reassuring to believe that an all-powerful being is directing our lives for our good.

Community is another answer. We flock with birds of a feather. Religion brings like-minded people together on a regular basis and encourages them to become a community. Human beings are communal creatures, and religion helps to fulfill our need to feel connected with others.

Transcendent experiences are a third answer. Adherents of religions throughout the world have real experiences involving overwhelming peace and a sense of connection and transcendence. These experiences fulfill our innate need to find a greater meaning for our life than brute survival and reproduction.

Answers to our questions are yet another benefit of religion. Curious by nature, we hate not knowing the answer to a question. Real, truthful answers are hard to come by, but we can be sated with answers that have the semblance of reality. Why does the universe exist? No one rightly knows, but it’s nice to have an answer that assuages our curiosity as long as we don’t scrutinize it too closely.

Direction is the final answer that I will mention. Without goals to work toward, life becomes a tedium of recurring cycles without end. Without purpose, we languish in a meandering existence that goes nowhere in particular. If our life doesn’t serve a greater purpose, then why live at all? Religion gives us ready-made goals to work for. We don’t have to scrounge around for our own.

Religion provides real benefits irrespective of the truthfulness of its claims. The faithful often cite these benefits as evidence in favor of those claims. A placebo has no curative benefit beyond the patient’s belief therein. The benefits of religion cannot easily be ascribed to the existence of deity. Perhaps belief in something—any plausible lie—will do.

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Red Pill, Blue Pill

Many of you are probably familiar with The Matrix. Neo, the main character of this movie, lives in a virtual world. He believes that it is the real world, but his real body lives in a vat where it is fed nutrients and hallucinations of a world that exists only in a computer and in his mind. Inside this virtual world, Neo is led to a mysterious figure named Morpheus who shows him how to escape the hallucination known as the Matrix:

Morpheus: I imagine that right now you’re feeling a bit like Alice. Tumbling down the rabbit hole?
Neo: You could say that.

Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere, it is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, or when go to church or when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind.… Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back.
[In his left hand, Morpheus shows a blue pill.]
Morpheus: You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.
[A red pill is shown in his other hand.]
Morpheus: You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
[After a long pause, Neo begins to reach for the red pill]
Morpheus: Remember—all I am offering is the truth, nothing more.

Essays have been written about this compelling choice between the red pill and the blue pill. Neo must choose between world as he knows it, and learning the truth—essentially between comfort and knowledge of the truth.

The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear. (Herbert Agar)

The tension between truth and comfort has come up several times in discussions here. Truths exist which tend to make us unhappy. How much happiness will we sacrifice to know the truth? Speaking hypothetically:

  • You love ice cream, but it’s going to give you early heart disease, do want to know the truth so you can prolong your life, or do you just want to enjoy your ice cream while life lasts?
  • Some of your friends think you’re terribly boring. They only hang out with you because they like your mutual friends. Would you like to know their true feelings?
  • Your spouse is having an affair that you don’t know about, but you have an otherwise happy marriage. Would you prefer to know the truth, or would you choose to be blissfully ignorant?
  • Your child is going to die tomorrow from a sudden illness that the child doesn’t know about and that you can do nothing to prevent. Do you tell the child so they can spend their last hours knowing the truth, or do you want to spare your child the fear of impending death?
  • Your belief in a loving God and your hope for an afterlife comfort you, but you find little objective reason to justify your beliefs. Do you choose to believe just because you want it to be true?

I have a lot of faith in the truth. I believe that it is usually better to know the truth even if the truth will make us unhappy. I trust that the sorrow that comes from knowing the truth will usually not last long, that greater peace and happiness flow from knowing the truth. Further, leading willfully ignorant lives because we fear knowing the truth doesn’t appear to lead to true happiness.

On this blog, the tension between happiness and truth most often comes up in the context of religious beliefs. Some commenters seem to imply believing in a probably false religion which makes us happy is better than knowing the depressing truth. This is a personal choice, but there are reasons to believe that this strategy does not bring optimal happiness.

For one example, medical science has healed more of the sick than religious faith. Our relatively disease free lives are thanks to science, not religion. Medical science has been advanced by those who were willing to set aside religious beliefs when they contradicted evidence. We are all much better off because of those who defied religious injunctions against desecrating the bodies of the dead in order to learn human anatomy, because of the germ theory of disease instead of believing that disease is caused by spirits or demons as the Holy Scriptures teach, and because of the theory of evolution which permeates modern biology but contradicts the creation myth in Genesis. So you could say that we are as healthy as we are in spite of religion.

The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. (George Bernard Shaw)

We are all faced with red pill/blue pill choices. It is our right to decide. I have chosen to err consistently on the side of truth unless there is a compelling reason to choose comfort. I hope that helps to explain why I am critical of what I see as false beliefs, why I can’t leave others’ religious beliefs alone. Truth for me is more important than personal discomfort.

So which do you choose: the blue pill… or the red pill?

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