There is no zeal like the newly converted. I should know, I always seem to find myself among them.
Not that I want to, of course. I know that you seldom find the truth by being a zealot: the truth is seldom that simplistic. And even when you do fight for truth, even when your newfound belief really is the truth, the most likely outcome of your zealotism is to make others even more antagonistic.
When I converted to barefoot running some years ago, I was one of those who called shoes “foot coffins” and shuddered when I saw a runner heel-strike. Whenever I got the opportunity, I would preach the gospel of barefootism. (Whenever I didn’t get the opportunity as well.) We went on a visit to a friend on a rainy day and I had to wash my feet in our friend’s bathtub: my feet were muddy. I read books about barefootness, and web pages, and whenever I read something which went against my newfound belief, I would shut my ears and shout LALALALALA.
Of course, I still believe that barefoot is best, and that your feet will thank you for ditching your shoes. And I still refuse to run with shoes. But now it’s a personal choice: I like running barefoot. What others do, is none of my business. As long as I (and others) can walk barefoot whenever I want, I don’t mind if others choose to wear shoes. And as for barefoot running, I will explain the thinking behind it to anyone who wants to listen. But only if they ask me to.
When I was a teenager, religion was my thing. Or rather, anti-religion. If anyone dared to suggest that religion could be right, or that religious feelings have some place in any society, or that they had the right to cling on to their irrational beliefs, I would be all over them, explaining why they were wrong and how stupid they were to be that wrong. And if they refused to explain themselves to me, to explain why they were religious, I would be even more adamant: you must explain that, it’s important, how can you base your deepest beliefs on something so flimsy, don’t you want to test your beliefs to see whether they are true? I know I do!
I am still very much non-religious, and most of my heroes are non-religious as well. (Richard Dawkins: Clearheadedness incarnated.) But I don’t force myself into discussion. Some family members are religious, new age or traditional, but if they don’t want to talk about it, I won’t either. Some friends of ours gave us a paper crib for Christmas, but I didn’t make a scene. Why should I? Some paper figures on our table, a silly little myth depicted in thin cardboard, what’s the harm? And anyway, they didn’t survive very long.
In a way, it’s the disease of teenagers to be a zealot, especially about music or sports. When I was 12 or 13, I thought Another Day in Paradise was the best song ever, and I wrote as much in all my school books. Phil Collins rules!!!!! It didn’t last long, a month later I didn’t like it at all, I’m glad to say. I used to compare basketball with all other sports to prove, once and for all, that basketball was the best sport ever. (Lo and behold, no sport came even close to basketball’s awesomeness.) Occasionally, I even became a sports fan: Sparta, Detroit Pistons, and even, for some unknown reason, Port Vale. Whenever I met a fan of Stjernen, I would accuse him of selling out and not realising the Truth about the world — and although I knew it was a bizarre thing to say, in some deep corners of my mind, I still believed it. Because everything I saw, confirmed my belief that Sparta was The Team.
Many older people feel the same way with diets. They choose one diet, usually the one trending at the moment, and they stick religiously to it — if they lose weight, it’s because of the diet, if they don’t, it’s because of their weak will. Some relatives of mine follow the 5:2-diet religiously, even though they’re both educated as chemists. They might be right, of course, and it might be true that this particular diet is something else — but if the Wikipedia page is correct, all scientific evidence so far indicates that it’s not true, and that this fad diet is just that: a fad.
(If you believe in a God who has given us ability to reason, wouldn’t he be happier with atheists than believers on Doomsday? At least atheists use that God-given reason! In the same way, a wise man would rather not believe something which goes against all evidence, even if it turns out to be true in the end. Even if all the evidence suddenly shows that the 5:2-diet is The Answer, I would feel much better about myself if I were skeptical at first. One’s beliefs should be according to the best possible evidence at the time, but one should always test other hypotheses and assume that one might be wrong. Be prepared to change your beliefs, but only if evidence propels you to.)
We all do this, of course. We’re all hardwired to confirm our own biases. When I say that it’s a disease of the young, it’s because I’m not young anymore. When I was a teenager, I said the same thing about grown-ups: they don’t change, they don’t listen to arguments, they’re stuck in their own narrow-minded little world.
I confirm my own biases every day even now, it’s so much easier that way. It’s hard to realise that you have been wrong all along, and it’s difficult to see where you could be wrong anyway. And even when someone, say someone’s wife, points out exactly where you are wrong and how you could be right, it takes time for you to act accordingly and change your mindset. Usually it takes another source as well: it’s much easier to change your beliefs if you have found these new beliefs yourself. (My wife told me years ago that clunky basketball shoes aren’t good for your feet. I didn’t believe her. I even bought shoes for our oldest son before he could walk. (“Nike can’t be wrong.”) It wasn’t until I found information by myself, read books and articles she didn’t know about, that I became convinced that it was best to be barefoot.
Of course, I had to become a barefoot zealot. I couldn’t be reasonable and moderate, my wife already had that position.
It’s important to know that you might fool yourself, that you almost inevitably will look for information confirming your own position, and that the truth is often (but not always) more relativistic than you think. The wise thing to do, is to be less sure about your beliefs: being a zealot often hurts your cause more than it helps it. And remember: the flimsier the evidence, the more zealots; the more zealots, the more war of words; the more war of words, the less truth.
In other words: one should doubt one’s own opinions more.
OK, my opinion is that Russell is onto something here, but I will doubt my opinion, and so assume he is just wrong. Doubt is not the fundamental cause of any kind of trouble.