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In which Hank discusses that all too common question and why he doesn't like it and so rarely answers it.

What does the answer tell you? Really? Is it like a blind man asking my skin color? Is it someone trying to legitimize their own beliefs? Is it built into our genes?

Don't get me wrong, we're built to categorize. Being truly exceptional pattern recognizers is one of the reasons why we are the dominant species on the planet. We seek patterns my nature, but it's something that we should work against. When we are going out of our way to pull data points so that we can more easily shove people into little boxes, that's even worse than your normal sort of prejudice.

Frankly, upon meeting someone, I'd rather not know their politics, their religion, their upbringing.

We build our vision of other people from scratch, and when we pull these flawed first impressions from pattern bias, prejudice, and in-group / out-group bias, we do ourselves and those people significant disservice.


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Good morning, John. Thank you so much for your video on Monday. It felt like there was this hole, and Nerdfighteria had been asking us this question for so long, and we had left it unanswered, and it felt very... it felt kinda wrong. It felt kinda like a gap in our body of work. And it points out that often, asking questions about the questions that we want to ask is far more useful than answering the questions themselves. So for example, interesting question about the phrase "belief in God." There are more words that are hard to define in that sentence than words are easy to define. For example, "God"? Even people who go to the same church, ostensibly believe in the same god, all have different visions of what God is in their head. Everyone is always going to have a slightly different perception of what that thing-- he, she, it, is. But at the same time, it's a very particular thing to each particular person. And then you have the word "belief." Interestingly, uh, the question of what the difference between belief and knowledge is is not just a philosophical question; it is an entire branch of philosophy called epistemology. So obviously, uh, not something to cover in a video blog, but the longest-running definition is that knowledge is belief that is true. Which is kinda strange to get your head around, which is why there is an entire branch of philosophy, uh, concerning it. When we believe something, we accept that there is a chance that it's not true, but we have faith nonetheless that it is true. Like it's weird to talk about having faith in things that you know, like I know that this water is not going to poison me if I drink it. Whereas, if I say that I have faith that this water will not kill me if I drink it, now I'm not so sure I'm gonna drink it. But what really bugs me about the question "do you believe in God?" is not that there are many more interesting questions surrounding that question, like "why do we ask it?" and "what does 'believe' mean?" --is the motivation behind asking that question. People who have asked that question to me, or to other people, I'm just curious, why do you want to know? Because it seems like there's really only two reasons to want to know the answer to that question. One: Because you're not sure yourself, and you're trying to inform your opinion, and you think that I'm some kind of authority. To those people, I say: Thank you for thinking that I'm an authority on this. I am not, and that's going to have to be something that you figure out on your own. And if anybody's telling you different, uh, then they're wrong. This is a question for you to answer for yourself. There's kind of a 1.5 here, which is that you want to reinforce your beliefs, and you wanna feel like, "Oh Hank, he believes the same thing as me, so now I feel better about my beliefs." Well that's not actually going to work, uh, for you; you have to feel good about your beliefs for your own sake. So basically 1 and 1.5, I'm not gonna help you with that, uh, you gotta have to figure it out on your own. And the second reason to ask if someone is, believes in God is kind of a shortcut to think that you know more about that person because of a very simple answer, which is dangerous. This is the kind of pattern recognition that we do constantly as people: we try to categorize things. And that's usually really useful - until you start dealing with people. Sometimes I feel like when someone asks me if I believe in God, it's like a blind person asking if I'm black so that they can put me in the right category. People are constantly searching for little things that they can use as markers to identify how and what people are. Like, "gay people are all like this," "Christians are all like this," "atheists are all like this." And that is - I mean, duh - that's really dangerous! So that's my biggest fear, that people are asking because they want to inform their opinions of me with this little one-word answer that says so very little about who I actually am. After you've formed a strong opinion of who I am and understand how I live my life, that's when I'll be comfortable telling you about my beliefs and practices, which is that I am a Satan worshipper who feeds on the blood of newborn unicorns. John, I will see you on Friday.