But then, no one should ever promise that the truth will be comforting. People insist that it should be, though, and I think it’s important to note how that warps their perceptions of reality.
I am increasingly convinced that humanity has not evolved to care about the truth (nor have media markets, I should add) — sure, having some extremely vague idea about some basic truths has survival value: where the big rocks are, who likes you, who’s trying to eat you, that sort of thing. Get even a smidgen past those bare survival needs, though, and I think the human brain quickly loses interest in an accurate picture of reality and starts focusing instead on entertainment and wishful thinking. Further, I think most people’s brains tend to alight naturally upon the beliefs most comforting to them in the short run — not necessarily because they are the ideas that promise the happiest ending or depict the happiest world but because they “sit well,” in an almost aesthetic sense, in the believer’s brain, providing a sort of intellectual equilibrium — often precisely because the beliefs oversimplify the universe and exaggerate its fundamental harmony. This may be the source of most political ideology, religion, excessive use of simple algebraic constructs in economics, and many taboos and social generalizations, not to mention many people’s groundless sense of optimism.
The truth about the world, I think, is both dark and complex (surely I’m not the only person aside from a couple assassins who read Catcher in the Rye as a teen, not knowing how dark it was meant to be, and thought “This Holden Caulfield fellow is doing a fine job of exposing all the phonies in the world — we could use a few more fellows like him in this world”) and, crucially, much of social bonding depends upon respecting the tacit agreement not to mention this fact. Whether it’s a “community of faith,” a “shared political vision,” the pretense that most countries in the U.N. are not authoritarian and savage, or a willingness to listen without giggling while old Uncle Ed finishes telling his UFO abduction story, the human project devotes an immense portion of its intellectual energy to shoring up the bullshit by which we pretend to have to a really good thing going here (even when we don’t).
D’Souza’s specific attack on atheists at this most tasteless of times reminds me, in its cold-bloodedness, of a religious friend of a former co-worker of mine who not only condemned two of their acquaintances for engaging in premarital sex — a standard enough religious posture, and not entirely unreasonable — but went on to say, in an e-mail, that the two acquaintances must feel they are “in love,” with scare quotes. The two acquaintances are now happily married, by the way, and I would have thought it was the Stalinists who look icily down their noses at romance, dismissing it as a bourgeois illusion if it gets in the way of ideological purity. But religious fanatics are capable of that sort of inhuman lack of empathy too, and I suspect D’Souza (whose most recent book suggests that American conservatives should make common cause with traditional Muslims overseas instead of Western liberals) comes closer to this sort of sociopathic inability to recognize emotions in others than do the atheists he criticizes.
I always used to think that the common leftist complaint that the religiously devout are closed-minded jerks was beside the point — the (much less heated) question is merely whether they are philosophically mistaken, not whether they have nasty motives. But I’m starting to wonder. Indeed, this outburst from D’Souza almost alleviates the guilt I (an atheist) have long felt over accidentally stiffing him and some of his entourage for drinks once.