Monday, November 10, 2008

The Marlboro Man In The Sky

The simple fact is that an absolute conviction of something which cannot be proven is, inherently, stupid. A sufficient degree of intellect and education renders such stupidity willful, thus magnifying it into the realm of the consciously stupid, which is of course the stupidest form of stupidity there is.

While many people will find the above statement palatable and even laudable when applied to, for example, a belief in the existence of unicorns or that the earth is flat, when it is  a currently acceptable and traditional belief such as religion (but generally only their own brand) being discussed, the same people will bridle at the perceived insult. The irony of this diametrically opposed set of standards is apparently lost on such people. In fact, they will often call the issuer of such a statement “arrogant”, “condescending”, and “bigoted”, ignoring that these are the very symptoms of those clinging to such insubstantial fantasies in the first place!  Worse, they usually will shrug off the validity of the argument on the merits of their general intellectual capacities, which are often quite good. “It can’t be stupid because I’m not stupid” is a remarkably common such attempt at logic. 

All of this begs a simple question: are otherwise intelligent people capable of behaving stupidly in a particular area while not being generally stupid? The answer is a resounding yes! I will give you an easy example. I happen to have an IQ that registers in the upper one percent of the general populace. I also smoke cigarettes. This can only be called a stupid behavior. What’s more, I know it’s stupid, and continue to do it anyway, multiple times per day in fact. That is willful, conscious stupidity, or what I have heard aptly referred to as “powerful stupid”. Does this behavior obviate my otherwise fine intellectual capacity? I think not. Rather, it merely proves that intelligent people are not immune to stupidity, and thus generally “smart” people don’t get to use that as a defense against the accusation that something they do, say, or think is indeed stupid. Larger importance or the intensely emotional nature of an issue does not make assumptions about it more or less stupid either. It only makes stupidity more costly. It bears mentioning that strong emotional attachment to something radically increases the chances of behaving in a reduced state of intellectual clarity. Ask anyone who’s been in love.

But why would otherwise bright people choose to engage in chronic stupidity? Getting back to my beloved cigarettes, I smoke because it’s enjoyable and comforting, I’m addicted, I’m habituated, and more or less I find people allow me to engage in the behavior without completely ostracizing me from the social collective (although that has changed to a substantial degree over the last several years). It can also be said that smoking fills several voids, such as nervousness, fatigue, irritability, or even simple boredom. It’s a crutch, without which I’d have to surmount these obstacles both large and small in a more engaged and constructive manner. In the process of pacifying myself, I’m displaying a dizzying amount of self-destructive laziness. The difference is that I am fully capable of recognizing and admitting this, and I don’t try to make you feel inadequate and damned if you don’t choose to share my stupid custom. That’s because I can logically determine that my cigarette habit is an unreasonable action based primarily on emotion and other primitive urges.

Now I wouldn’t be equating belief in god to smoking, would I? I concede that they do appear somewhat different in scope, at least initially. But there are quite a few corollaries. Suppose I told you that if you smoke cigarettes religiously (pun fully intended), when you died you would go to a very pleasant smokers lounge, where you would be treated to the finest Cuban cigars and exotic tobaccos for ever and ever, without ever being subjected to the slightest cough or wheeze? Sounds…well… stupid, doesn’t it? 

The fact is people DO believe in God for a lot of the same reasons they smoke, namely to fill a void that they would otherwise be at a loss to fill (this is usually where I hear the loudest  cries of condescension, but not a lot of strong rebuttals of the premise). It is comforting and enjoyable (Who doesn’t enjoy thinking they are an important cog in the greater universe? Or that when you die, you’re not simply gone?). It is traditional (a fancy word for a longstanding group habit). Consider also the fact that condemned prisoners have historically been offered both a cigarette and a clergyman, for the identical purpose, and you might begin to see the similarities. 

Needing meaning is a void certainly filled by faith in “the divine”, but the void itself is not demonstrable proof that any such meaning really exists, anymore than the existence of a question pre-supposes an answer, much less any particular one. Filling that void is just as likely, if not more likely, the simple process of self-absorbed mollification as any noble quest for real truth. The devout are stubbornly unaware that they are merely separated by the caprices of time and location from calling the object of their worship Zeus or Baal, or any number of other names. When confronted with this fact, they almost universally respond with the caveat that humanity is so much more advanced than “back then”, which of course begs the question: “how many years of advancement do you think it will take before your superstition is relegated to the mythological scrap heap?” Better yet, how long until we stop manufacturing deities altogether? I’m guessing long after we quit smoking cigarettes, which is sad really, because cigarettes have killed far fewer people than have “god’s people”.

I submit to you that in the grand scheme of things a fundamental belief in the existence of a particular deity is more harmful than smoking. Sure, your cigarette habit will likely shorten your life, and possibly those of some of the people around you, if the research on that subject is accurate (a completely different can of worms!). It probably won’t, however, cause you to curb your intellectual curiosity and the application of reason in other areas of your life. Nor will the Marlboro smokers likely undertake to murder the Camel-smoking infidels any time soon. There will be no bloody fratricidal schism over the validity of menthol cigarettes. Smoking won’t cause you to theorize about the flaming death of all non-smokers at the hands of the almighty ashtray either. It’s entirely improbable that smokers will teach their children to hate gum-chewers, or that female smokers will be determined to be less important than and servile to the males. Smoking will not lead to pedophilia at the hands of smoking instructors, circumcision, forced conversion or torture of non-smokers, discrimination against minorities or homosexuals, or the shooting of doctors who prescribe smoking-cessation aids. It will not lead smokers to assume a smug stance of moral superiority. It will not start wars. Poor smokers will not be required to build monuments to the tobacco companies. Smokers will not engage in the bombing, suicidal or not, of the practitioners of rival addictions. They will not demand the inclusion of the word “tobacco” in the pledge of allegiance. Left to their own devices, smokers will merely gather in groups of various sizes, contentedly send puffs of smoke skyward, and gossip. Okay, the more careless will occasionally catch something on fire, although at least it will not be an anti-smoking activist tied to a stake!

So, comparatively speaking, smoking is merely dumb on my part. And yet, while a full-scale assault is being waged on the practice, religion, the world’s runaway leading killer, is being happily taught by parents to their children the world over, and with society’s blessing to boot. Is it any wonder that I feel the need for another cigarette?

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