Religious beliefs demonstrate that even the most outrageous and bizarre stories can come to feel perfectly normal and plausible when they have settled deeply enough into the background of cultural familiarity. When we hear something often enough because too few people are willing to speak up, the absurd becomes common sense. The terms of the discussion get set to a new default, and people who might have reacted critically are discouraged or diverted by the shifting baseline. We end up talking about how best to be religious rather than whether we should be religious at all. We end up debating pointlessly about whether or not we support our troops, rather than whether or not we should be at war. In time, if a story is repeated often enough and if it comes to be believed by enough people, raising fundamental questions about it are scarcely tolerated. It may not be overtly banned, but subtle social pressures evince self-censoring that we are scarcely aware of. Non-believers, skeptics, and doubters are made to feel as if they are doing something untoward, socially inappropriate, rude, or even dirty by even asking the simplest questions.
Sam Harris has made this point remarkably well: consider going to a public speech by Presidential candidate Mitt Romney who is an avowed Mormon and going to the microphone and asking this question: “Mr.Romney, do you believe that Jesus is going to come back to earth very soon and build a temple near the courthouse in Independence, Missouri?” The question is a perfectly fair one: it’s a standard part of Mormon doctrine. But we all know that to even ask it in public would be remarkably embarrassing for the questioner, Mr. Romney, and everyone present. Most likely, even asking such a question would get one quickly thrown out of the meeting. The central question is, why would it be so embarrassing? And on the other side, we must also ask why no one was embarrassed at all at a recent Republican candidate forum where several of the candidates proudly stood up and announced that they do not believe in evolution.
The repeated complaints in critical reviews against recent atheist authors like Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens about their tone, their hostility, and their intolerance, instead of addressing the real content of their arguments speaks volumes about how the baseline of accepted discussion of religion has crept up on all of us. The critics are either too blinkered by their affection for religion to even acknowledge the root criticisms of religious belief, or the part of them that secretly appreciate the atheist’s case has been eclipsed by their embarrassment that masquerades as personal indignation, and blustery, moral outrage.
We’ve all been blinkered by it. The prevalence of religious stories in our fiction, our stories, our schools, and our families has deadened our acuteness. And our affection and need for religious belief has a soporific affect on our common sense. Here’s how deep it’s gotten into our heads, and how comfortable the preposterous has become. Consider this first bit of Bible speak that will slide comfortably through most of our brains with hardly a hitch:
Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, sacrificed himself on the cross in order to give us salvation for our sins. God loved us so much that he gave his only son so that we could have eternal life.
And consider this revision that captures the same ideas with terms that are not part of the familiar and mesmerizing dogma:
A magical being who cares about our welfare used his supernatural powers to authorize another, lesser magical being to come to us and arrange for us to have an eternal existence if we agree to perform certain acts. That lesser being was given a choice to either allow himself to be executed by some humans or not, and through the prior arrangement with the superior magical being, choosing to allow himself to be executed would authorize the agreement for eternal existence. But the option whether or not to accept this agreement still stays with the humans who can choose to be obedient and loving towards these magical beings or not. If they do accept the deal, then they get to go to a magical place after they die and live forever with the super beings.