Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Alternative Facts

Reacting to side-by-side photographs released by PBS contrasting the massive crowds of Barack Obama's inauguration to the poorly-attended inauguration of Donald Trump (as well as other data provided by crowd scientists), White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer declared that Trump had the "largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period." When Meet the Press's Chuck Todd asked Trump's counselor Kellyanne Conway why Spicer would "utter a provable falsehood," Conway dismissed Todd and said that Spicer was merely providing "alternative facts."

This little story would be all fine and hilarious, except that "alternative facts" seem to be winning the day. During the Obama administration, we had conspiracy theorists convinced that Obama was a "secret Muslim" (whatever that means) who was born in Kenya, intent on taking our guns and forcing Sharia Law on America. During the Bush years, Stephen Colbert had to invent a new word -- "truthiness" -- to describe the phenomenon of "feeling" the truth rather than relying on facts.

If our newest incarnation of the battle for reality is frustrating to you, then you have a pretty good idea of how atheists feel most of the time.

It's easy to make fun of Kellyane Conway's phrase "alternative facts," but it happens to have essentially the same definition as the word "supernatural," the idea that there can be something beyond nature itself: an alternative to the real world. As Chuck Todd said, "Alternative facts are not facts. They're falsehoods." Similarly, super-nature is not nature; it, too, is a another apologetic name for a falsehood.

The supernatural is what we are expected to believe in when the actual facts are stubbornly not available. There is no evidence for God, but he is apparently beyond evidence. He is beyond nature, beyond science, beyond our comprehension. He is not accessible in the same way facts are. We are simply supposed to "feel" God, to "know deep down in our hearts" that he exists. We are meant to have "faith" in him, to go against all reason, logic, and common sense and "just believe."

Trump wants desperately to believe that he had a large crowd at his inauguration. He needs to believe it, similar to many theists. ("I want to believe," as Mulder says.) "Trump is a very popular president" is part of the grand story he is telling himself, the false universe he has created. Because his ego is so large and delicate, he is attempting to force this false narrative and alternate universe onto all of us. He needs us to believe as well. Trump claims that any news (including polls) contrary to his personal belief is "fake news." He tweets out what he wants us to think the truth is, attempting to contradict and circumvent reality itself. To erase it and replace it.

If you are curious what the successful end result of such an aggressive reality-altering strategy is, you could read Nineteen Eighty-Four, I suppose, but that is just a book. For an actual example, just look around you. Religion has already created a functioning alternative reality, often having used (or still using) the harsh methods described by George Orwell in his novel. After these methods are successful, believers -- now feeling that they are only under the influence of their own decisions -- are happy to evangelize so that the false reality becomes self-replicating. Belief in the supernatural becomes so widespread and part of the texture that it becomes "normalized."

But it isn't normal. Nonsense is still nonsense, even if the majority believes in it. We all know Trump is speaking nonsense when he claims that millions of people voted illegally. We wouldn't dare swallow such unfounded statements. Yet we can easily swallow the even more nonsensical claim that humans have inherited this thing called "sin" that can only be removed by believing that a god-man died and came back to life three days later and that we can all go live with him in the sky (or an alternate dimension), in a paradisal afterlife. If we're taking bets on which of the above could be proven first, I'd bet on Trump's claim.

Belief in the religiously supernatural is one of the few delusions humans can have and not be called insane. Even many secular people, who don't "believe" any of this, will accept it as normal human behavior. Many simply prefer not to think about religion at all, even though it affects their everyday lives in profound ways, just as many citizens prefer not to think about politics.

So I do try to think about it, about how weird it is that people are functioning as if invisible creatures are all around us, about how abnormal it is that there's a church everywhere I look in my town, established to promote and sustain these peculiar anti-factual traditions, people singing songs and raising hands to something that -- by all objective appearances -- is not there.

I know what it's like to live in a fake reality, because I lived in one most of my life. Like most people, I was handed my deeply-held beliefs at birth, and it took me over thirty years to claw my way out of the made-up world of gods, demons, ghosts, spirits, and angels. After I escaped, I realized that I hadn't been just living in a pretend world; I was living in someone else's pretend world. At least Donald Trump gets to live in a land of his own make-believe. The fantasy world I lived in was created thousands of years ago by ancient religious cultures, shaped and refined by time and place, saving itself from extinction over and over through adaptation and aggression. This evolving survival machine called "God" found a place for me and tried its best to make me comfortable so that I would never leave it. I nearly never did.

Even after struggle, I didn't really escape religion entirely. No one does. I still have to play by its rules, still have to survive within the structures religious people have created. As the saying goes, it's their world; I'm just living in it. For a harmless example, I am expected to behave as if it is perfectly normal when someone closes their eyes and says they are about to speak to the creator of the universe, when of course no such thing is really happening. I am expected to behave this way, in part, out of politeness and respect. For a more serious example, we all have to deal with those who hate, discriminate, destroy our environment, deny science, misunderstand reproduction, and all the other garbage we have to deal with from the worst segment of religious people, all because of something they "believe," eternal "truths" they "know," based on knowledge that is about as real as the alternative fact that Donald Trump has been on the cover of Time magazine more than anyone else.

Because of Trump (and those who promote and believe his false narratives), we are currently involved in a fight for reality itself. It's pretty serious, and the consequences if we lose the fight are severe. So will we be able to live based on observable facts, or will we give in to a fiction created by the state? Will two plus two equal four, or will it -- as I'm hearing it from a lot of people now, big league -- equal five?

I don't know, but I can't say I'm hopeful. In the meantime, atheists are already used to this kind of gaslighting. Atheists say (often rather quietly) that God doesn't exist, and a majority of the country responds (sometimes lovingly, sometimes not) with "What if you're wrong?" or "You're just thinking about God in the wrong way" and makes every attempt to call us the crazy ones devoid of morality: you know, the ones who don't believe in the invisible guy whose idea of social order was murdering our neighbors with rocks.

If it weren't such a painful experience to be subjected to yet another round of post-factual politics and Orwellian absurdity under Donald Trump (the worst case I've seen in my lifetime), I might even say it's refreshing that someone else gets to experience what a forced alternate reality feels for a change.