An atheist says that there are no deities. One may not believe that Allah exists, but closing one’s eyes and saying, “Allah does not exist,” is not likely to be an effective way of dealing with an approaching suicide bomber. To the suicide bomber, Allah is very real. And that means that Allah exists in our world, because the force that Allah projects through his followers is, in every way that we can measure, a force to be reckoned with.
The Tet Offensive was, by any military metric, a devastating setback for the North Vietnamese. But American media decided that it was a defeat for US forces, and what “should have been” a victory led to a comprehensive defeat. Merely being “right” is never, ever, enough.
People who are correct about What Really Happened, but who fail to make the case, always end up embittered and bewildered. It does not matter that Israel treats Arabs better than any other country in the region, if people do not believe it. And if people are not concerned, it does not matter that a government who targets of people for their political views is a tyranny.
The vast majority of people in the world are merely consumers when it comes to beliefs. They act in relatively predictable ways. They believe it when the dictator says everything is the fault of the United States, or the Jews. They vote based on name recognition, which means that campaign spending directly correlates to success at the voting booth. People care about what the media tells them to care about. They identify with a tribe, a region, a sports team if for no other reason than accident of birth. They can even be readily manipulated to support candidates and causes that are counter to their own interests.
People act based on their impressions, on their perceptions. But those perceptions did not just happen: they are created by someone else, someone with the force of will to project their own version of a story. The people who shape and change the world are those who create the reality in which other people live. They do it with a variety of tools that are well understood by any student of propaganda: clever control of the Media, the Big Lie, flattering the audience, etc. The story can be told in such a way that up becomes down, that black becomes white.
I would even go so far as to say that this is not a bug, but a feature. The world in which we live is one where perception is, in the end, the only thing that matters for anything having to do with human interactions. Beliefs always trump “reality.” Every scandal is only a scandal if people believe it to be one.
A dictator tells a story, and people believe it. That dictator creates the reality in his own world, because he creates it in the eyes of the vast majority of his people. A War on the Worlds broadcast can induce panic across the land because words create reality in the minds of people, and people react to those perceptions.
Whether we like it or not, marketing is much more important than any underlying set of facts. And what is truly remarkable about this fact is that at the same time as it discourages truth-seekers, it also makes people, potentially, far more powerful and capable than they otherwise would be. The ability of man to create things in his own mind can cut both ways.
The Torah tells us that there is only One G-d. But it also tells us that we should not put any other gods first, which means that the Torah is telling us that something that we worship is a deity, even if it has no underlying power in itself beyond what we lend it. It is man who makes G-d powerful in the eyes of other men, just as Allah is a force with whom we must reckon, even if there is no “real” Allah.
For thousands of years people have believed in the famous allegory of Plato’s Cave. It tells us about the “Real” world, accessible not through observation, but through the mental exercises of extremely bright people. The reader, appropriately flattered, is sucked into the vision, the mirage that we call “Reality.” And so they believe, paradoxically, that their belief in Reality is independent of any religious faith. [Usage note: “Reality”: the thing in itself; “reality”: what we think it is]
The joke, though, is that the tools developed through science and engineering tell us otherwise. In every way we can measure, there is no Reality. The observer always influences the observed, so that each person truly lives in their own world.
Science leads to engineering, and our lives are made better through technology. And even as science and engineering lead us to advanced creations, advanced technologies that surely are “real” in the sense that we can use them to communicate and share knowledge as never before, they merely lubricate human interactions, accelerating the ways in which ideas and beliefs spread around the world. Our ability to predict how powerful people will behave has not improved at all.
And anything that cannot be proven or disproven through observation is a religion. Which means that Reality is, itself, a faith-system. Those who worship Reality see it as the opponent of religion, when in fact they are merely practitioners of a competing worldview.
In a world without Reality, what do we have left? Beyond those things in the physical world that we can measure and manipulate, we are left with what we create in our own minds, our own specific realities. Religions are powerful because we can number their practitioners, measure the effects of the religion on literacy rates, or the creation of orphanages and hospitals, the number of scientific discoveries or engineering innovations. We can measure the impact and influence of suicide bombers.
There is only religion. And everybody has one. Greens worship Nature, and Atheists worship Reality just as surely as Muslims worship Allah. Only someone whose self-awareness is below that of a human child can have no religious belief.
And what is the goal of virtually every religion in the world? To get everyone else to acknowledge that it is True. So religions proselytize – Muslims and Catholics and Greens and Atheists all feel it is very important to convince other people to agree with them. Indeed, the success of the religion in the world is an objective measurement of the strength of those sets of beliefs. People instinctively understand that it matters whether other people agree with them. Even Plato, who would have denied it, sought to spread the religion of Reality even as he engaged in sharing his ideas. We spread our religion by convincing others to agree with us.
But we should not be confused into thinking that it does not matter to which religion one ascribes! The worldview that comes from a religion has a self-fulfilling component. People who believe that the world is governed by Fate (which includes both Hindus and Atheists who believe the future can be predicted from a present Reality with the use of sophisticated-enough computer models) are much less likely to be Creators in their own right. They tend to be reactive instead of proactive.
Those who think that a deity (whether Reality or Allah) is the only source of absolute truth and power tend to limit their ambitions. Those who read Ecclesiastes and believe that “there is nothing new under the sun,” won’t be inventing a time machine. Others who read Genesis and conclude that they are empowered with G-d’s own spirit, capable of emulating G-d by creating entirely new worlds, can do so.
Regardless of one’s religion, it is observationally and objectively true that people who aim high have a better chance of success. The question one might ask is: which religions lead people to aim high?
To some extent, all people absorb the reality of others. Just as concepts of beauty have changed through the ages, women have considered themselves beautiful or ugly based on how they appear in their own eyes, as well as the eyes of others. It is rare to find someone who is secure in being beautiful when those around them are repelled by them.
But the differences between the few people in this world who can (and do) change it, and the 6+ billion people who will live and die without leaving more than a fleeting impression on the minds of those they knew, come down to this: powerful people change the way other people see the world. Projection is reality.