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The Virtue of Doubt

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The Virtue of Doubt

James Warren Jones was a charismatic minister of a church where he built up a congregation by specifically appealing to minorities, the unemployed, and homeless people. He sometimes called his congregation his “Rainbow Family” due to its racial and class diversity — something highly novel in the US in the 50s and 60s. He also had strong socialist political leanings, calling for extremely progressive governmental policies to try and bring more help to the needy and oppressed.

By all appearances, he was an admirable man.

By the 1970s, Jones had become an influential figure in San Francisco politics. His church had thousands of members and they could be mobilized at the drop of a hat to help campaign for candidates. As a result, leftist candidates of the time relied upon Jones to help them win office. He was involved in Harvey Milk’s famous campaign to be the first openly homosexual person elected to public office. He helped George Moscone become mayor of San Francisco in 1975. He even had some private chats with then-vice-president Walter Mondale and First Lady Rosalynn Carter.

But what all of these people somehow missed was that Jones believed he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

No, seriously.

Jones said this regularly in his sermons, that people should treat him both as their father and as their God, that he was charged with creating a new Garden of Eden because the apocalypse was going to happen any second now. This new Eden would be just up highway 101 a few dozen miles, just turn left at the diner with the hot dog on the sign.

Now, this might surprise you, but towards the end of the 1970s, it became known that Jones was physically and sexually abusing his congregation members. I know — surprise.

Jim Jones. January, 1977 Photo by Nancy Wong
Jim Jones. January 1977
Photo by Nancy Wong

But fortunately for Jones, angels came to him and told him that actually, that whole new Garden of Eden thing wasn’t supposed to be in Northern California after all. See, they had made a mistake, turned the map sideways, and actually, Jones was supposed to lead his chosen people to the Garden of Eden in nearby… *drumroll* Guyana… which, by coincidence, had no extradition laws with the US.

So Jones headed for Guyana. And brought 1,000 of his favorite church members with him.

In Guyana, Jones promised salvation from the apocalypse that was seriously going to start, like, any second now. His settlement, aptly dubbed “Jonestown,” would be an egalitarian community where everything would be shared equally and everybody would be treated as equals. There would be no fear or violence or any of that horrible stuff that existed in the US. It would be a utopia, as it were. A perfect little plot on earth. And we all know how utopias usually turn out…

As you can imagine, the US government wasn’t a huge fan of this “utopia” thing or of Jones himself. So a Congressman named Leo Ryan organized a delegation of politicians and journalists to go check in on this whole Jonestown thing.

The welcome was warm and cheery. The church members were friendly and seemed happy and healthy. But then a Jonestown member slipped a note to the NBC news correspondent. “Please help us leave,” it read. Soon, other members were making secretive gestures towards the delegation as well, cornering the visitors in quiet rooms, whispering of their desperate desire to leave.

Thoroughly creeped out at this point, Ryan rounded up 14 members who expressed a desire to leave and set off for the airstrip. But before he could board the plane, a truck full of Jones’ “security team” pulled up next to the plane and began shooting at the delegation and the defectors. They injured nine and killed five, including Congressman Ryan. In the end, they shot the congressman 21 times, including once point blank in the face.

Meanwhile, back in the Jonestown compound, Jim Jones took to the loudspeaker and announced that time had come to commit “revolutionary suicide.” The members of Jonestown had trained and rehearsed for this — a final group death, designed to escape the grips of sin as God’s chosen people before the arrival of The End Times. That evening, the members, including dozens of children, gathered and all drank Kool-Aid laced with cyanide, committing the largest mass suicide that you and I have likely ever heard of. In total, 909 people took their own lives that day, shortly after murdering five others.

And for what? Some whacked out belief in the apocalypse and end times?

The Dangers of Super Beliefs

I have a concept that I made up called “Super Beliefs.” Super Beliefs are beliefs that are so big and abstract that they encompass all other beliefs and experiences that could potentially contradict them. As a result, Super Beliefs cannot be proven or disproven, since all experience falls under their umbrella.

Whether we realize it or not, we all have our own Super Beliefs. They’re incredibly common. And we tend to cling to them as though our lives depended on it.

“Everything happens for a reason,” is a Super Belief. It’s so all-encompassing that it can explain every single thought or idea you have in response to it. Therefore, it’s impossible to ever disprove it or show contrary evidence to it.

“Something is only true if there is evidence to support it,” is another Super Belief. “God has a plan for everyone,” is another. “We are all spiritually connected and one with the universe,” is another.

“We all live in a computer-generated virtual reality and are enslaved by machines,” is another super belief. Any argument proposed against it will simply reinforce it. If I try to point out that there’s no evidence that this is a hyper-realistic form of virtual reality, someone can just say, “Yeah, because the machines programmed it that way.” You either believe it or you don’t. Such are all Super Beliefs.

Super beliefs are so common that they define a lot of our culture. Some believe that people always deserve whatever happens to them, that if they suffer through life it’s because they’re lazy or stupid or just not trying hard enough. Others believe people suffer due to karma — i.e., what goes around comes around. Others believe that people suffer because humans are inherently sinful and God is punishing them for not repenting. These are all common, everyday Super Beliefs that have very real consequences on the social order.

We must doubt the beliefs we've held onto for so long

If you look at political beliefs. People on the left tend to believe that people are inherently good and pure and corrupted by the oppressive society around them. People on the right tend to believe that people are inherently selfish and mean and the rules and structure of society are the only things that can save us from ourselves.

As a kind of societal Rorschach test, Super Beliefs explain why two people with completely opposite points of view can witness the same event and both believe that it supports their position. One person may see a homeless man and see them as a person who is oppressed and victimized by society. Another person may see the same homeless man and see a person who has succumbed to his baser instincts and deserves the suffering he’s brought upon himself. Because Super Beliefs can explain all experience, all experience, therefore, reinforces the Super Belief.

Super Beliefs can be benign (“Everything happens for a reason”), useful, (“All knowledge must be verified and tested to be believed”), benevolent (“The meaning of life is to ease the suffering of all living beings”), or just plain fucking mean (“Death to all non-believers!”).

You may not be aware of them at the moment, but you carry Super Beliefs around with you everywhere you go. They are the foundation on which you’ve built your whole understanding of the universe and everything in it. As a result, Super Beliefs are often hard to spot because they feel so obviously true to us that we never think to question them.

But as time goes on, you’ll notice your Super Beliefs, and the super beliefs of others, poking their dirty heads up, derailing reasonable conversations, putting a roadblock up to any discourse or progress. And it’s in those moments where Super Beliefs emerge that they must be challenged.

When people do horrible things, they don’t do it because they’re uncertain in themselves or they feel as though they are wrong or damaged in some way. It’s actually the opposite. People who do horrible things do them because they are so sure in their own moral superiority. They are so confident that they are right and others are wrong that they feel justified in imposing their own beliefs on others through force.

Whether we’re talking about Hitler, Mao, napalming half the South China Sea, or honor killing a Pakistani woman for showing her ankles in public, people who do awful shit do it because they are certain in their own moral righteousness, and that moral righteousness is usually the product of some Super Belief which cannot be verified or concretely challenged.

Jim Jones took people in desperate situations and people with mental illness and convinced them to buy into the Super Belief that he was God and he was their only salvation. From there, as with most cults, it was all downhill. Once the followers buy into that initial Super Belief, then convincing them to give away their possessions, disown their families, or even to move to the jungles of Guyana feels like a no-brainer to them.

The Only True Belief

The only true Super Belief is that no Super Belief is completely true. That is, the only certainty is that nothing is certain.

This is the only “safe” Super Belief as it limits your ability to force your certainty onto others, while simultaneously always leaving you open to new and improved ideas. It keeps you open to new experiences and capable of coping with whatever pain may arise in a realistic and safe way. It also just makes you less of an asshole.

A lot is said these days about being “sure” of yourself. That you need to have faith in yourself and your ideas. These platitudes are usually regurgitated as a way to encourage people to feel a bit more confident about themselves. You are worried about your performance at work, so you try to muster up some certainty that you really are a cold-calling bad ass. Or you start to feel uncomfortable with how your relationship is going so you fall back on the old “everything happens for a reason” Super Belief to feel a bit more at ease about the situation.

Gazing at the stars

Super Beliefs relieve the anxiety caused by uncertainty. But they do so by creating mental constructs that can lead down dark and dangerous paths.

But in our “feel good” culture today, many of us have forgotten a simple and important truth: that anxiety is useful.

Anxiety evolved to protect us from doing stupid shit that got us killed. See a bear in the woods? You get anxious. There’s a reason for that. If humans were totally chilled out and relaxed and one-with-the-universe with a grizzly bear roaming around, well, there wouldn’t be many humans left.

Anxiety is designed to alert us that we are potentially doing something stupid. Doubting ourselves similarly generates anxiety because it forces us to acknowledge that we may be believing in something stupid that might get us (or others) killed as well. But instead of learning to become comfortable with doubt, our culture has instead decided to get rid of the anxiety and be as certain in our half-baked ideas as possible.

Doubt is healthy. Doubt is a virtue. Just like lifting heavy weights breaks down bone and muscle to make them stronger, the same is true with doubt and one’s ideas and beliefs.

There is no such thing as faith without doubt. Doubt is necessary to test the faith and make it stronger. There is no confidence without doubt. Without doubt, there is nothing to persevere against. There is no brilliant idea without doubt, as doubt and criticism and failure is what slowly chisels an OK idea into the brilliant result the world ends up seeing.

Cultivate doubt in your life. Always be unsure. Because being unsure leads to testing and discovering and learning and improving. It leads to dialogue and tolerance and acceptance and all that good happiness crap.

Doubt makes you smarter. It makes you more resilient. And if done correctly, it should make you more curious.

Doubt today is more important than ever. With ever-dwindling attention available for each issue, with a glut of information and contrary information available, with the ease in which the internet allows us to surround ourselves with only those who agree with us, the ability to hold onto doubt will become a virtue in our 21st-century society. It will distinguish those who are able to reason and synthesize information from those who will lash out and go with the day’s biggest trend. It will differentiate those who can find their own way in a sea of opportunity and haze of information and those who drown in the digital noise.

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