The Will to Believe … and to Make-Believe

If you were born in the 1950’s or even a bit later, you more or less grew up with her. She wasn’t an outlier; Jeane Dixon was a syndicated newspaper personality. She graced the covers of popular magazines and floated on the airwaves of radio and TV. Her presence wasn’t confined to the masses; she was consulted by the elite, including at least one U.S. President (Richard Nixon) and possibly influenced a second (Ronald Reagan). She claimed a transcendent ability to see future events and her predictions were actively followed for decades.

It’s not likely you grew up with Edgar Cayce, but it is likely you’ve read or heard about him. He died (1945) about ten years before the beginning of Jeane Dixon’s ascent in popular awareness. Like Dixon, Cayce claimed a transcendental gift that allowed him to see what others couldn’t and was widely acclaimed in his day (and still is).

Long before Cayce, there was the renowned Nostradamus, whose 16th century allegoric quatrains are still perused for meaningful application. Arguably, Nostradamus is considered the greatest seer of all time. His volumes of poetic allegory provide an endless resource for transcendental treasure hunters.

Perhaps more widely scrutinized than Nostradamus is the Biblical book of Revelation. Authorship may be disputed, but is most popularly accredited to John the Apostle. Its allegorical verse has been interpreted and reinterpreted for centuries and continues to be parsed for present and futuristic insight, most notably for end of the world scenarios and the second coming of Christ.

There were, and continue to be, others who profess special accessibility to “spiritual” contact and unfolding future events. Not all achieve national and international recognition, but mystical practitioners are always around. The world is never without those who claim the gift of “seeing” beyond what’s visible. It goes hand in hand with the gift of “hearing” beyond what’s audible – as in assertions of privileged access to the voice of God or other spiritual entities. Both claims provide a pedestal from which to be seen and heard.

It’s woven into our social fabric. We seemingly can’t get enough of those who profess special psychic abilities or claim that God has singled them out to receive exclusive messages. Through 5,000 years of recorded history, we’ve eagerly consulted with and listened to their pleas, declarations, and mandates.

If not in our DNA, it’s certainly come to be institutionalized. Our religions teach and even demand that we accede to the proclamations of endorsed prophets who claim to be recipients of privileged communications. Beyond religious settings, our popular media outlets sensationalize claims of paranormal psychic ability. We were taught to believe, we teach our children to believe, and we require our political leaders to at least appear compliant with culturally recognized seers and prophets. It’s our normalcy. We live in a world that’s eager to accept “acceptable” assertions of paranormal intimacy and privileged knowledge.

“Acceptable” is the key word. Religious and cultural tradition usually dictates the boundaries of acceptable “seeing.” New arrivals are first viewed with suspicion and require vetting. If the seer’s visions or proclamations run counter to established tradition or doctrine, they’re apt to be shunned or declared heretical. It’s somewhat like trying to enter an exclusive nightclub; recognition and proper attire is required.

QAnon is fresh on the scene and doesn’t quite cut it with the established elite. It has aspirations, but is tackily dressed and unconnected. It was met at the door with, “Sorry, no admission, take it to another place.” And so, they did. The “Avengers” comic book version of Biblical prophesying took it down the street. The unconnected are dancing, just like the hoity-toity, but in a cheap pub having no bouncer or cover charge.

It’s to the same music. Sure, they dance with more abandon, but are they really that much different? Is QAnon willingness to believe the claims of a mysterious prophetic voice any different than Christian (or other) willingness to do the same? Is it more gullible or dangerous?

Over the course of recent months, QAnon voices predicted former president Trump’s return to power multiple times. When one such date passed without his reinstatement, another was quickly established. Over the course of centuries, Christian voices have continued to forecast the year of Christ’s second coming (nearly fifty times, thus far). When each stated year passes without incident, another prominent voice comes along to recalculate his return. Who is more gullible?

When QAnon followers (among others) stormed the Capital Building on January 6th, 2021, six people died and hundreds were injured. In 2003, President George Bush referenced the book of Revelation to rally international support for the invasion of Iraq. Thus far,  well more than half a million deaths have occurred and as many as two million have been severely injured. Who is more dangerous?

Believing is acceptance, no matter the tradition or cultural weight behind it. Accepting the primacy of mystical writings from a prophet who lived 2,000 years ago involves the same “surrender” that takes place when one accedes to a present-day mystical internet voice: the will and perception of another becomes one’s own.

More than a hundred years ago, William James lectured on “The Will to Believe.” He suggested that upon meeting certain criteria, it’s advisable to believe in the face of uncertainty when the risk/reward ratio of believing is better than the risk/reward ratio of not believing. He exampled Christianity: If its tenets are true and you believe in them, you go to heaven. If you don’t believe, you go to hell. If Christianity is a false narrative that you believe in, you don’t go to heaven, but neither do you go to hell. So, one might as well believe. At best, it might get you into heaven. At worst, it won’t.

Again, believing is acceptance, but how well does QAnon’s belief fit the James’s rationale for rational acceptance? Not very well, it would seem. Much of QAnon’s conviction centers on Trump’s triumphant return to power, presumably as President of The United States. If the QAnon tenet is true and you believe in it, you go to “Trump world” (What fresh heaven is that?). If it’s true, and you don’t believe in it, you still go to “Trump world” (and what fresh hell is this?). So, if skeptical of QAnon, one might as well remain skeptical. At best it won’t get you into “heaven.” At worst, it might.

That it can’t stand up to the William James rationale for acceptance doesn’t make QAnon less believable; it only means that there’s too little reward or punishment involved to meet James’s criteria for rational belief. Unaddressed is consideration of whether the “will to believe” is actually a calculated decision whose repercussions apply only to one’s self.

If “believing” was a lone endeavor, the William James assessment might carry more weight. “Believing” though, often means believing in someone, and usually it means believing in someone as part of a collective. If it’s religious, it means believing the declarations of one who claims special access to God. If it’s not quite religious, if it’s merely psychic or mystical, it still means believing the declarations of one who claims special access to information inaccessible to others: a spirit world or perhaps visions of future events. It requires acceding one’s perception to another who claims a higher perception. When we do so as a collective, our combined influence or power is surrendered to an entity that then wields it for us. At best, the power will be used to facilitate humanitarian deeds. At worst, it won’t be, and one has only to view a news site or open a history book to see how hellish that can be.

Beyond thoughts of heaven or hell, the “will” to believe allows for collective action that might be constructive, but it also leaves one vulnerable to deception and manipulation. It sets the stage for a perilous Yin Yang duality: a “will to believe” binding with a “will to make-believe.” For both Yin and Yang, “will” is the “craving,” while “believe” and “make-believe” are the “sugars.” The believer’s “will” is to be a part of something bigger than one’s self (it needn’t always be so alluring as heaven). The make-believer’s “will” is to be the center of something bigger than one’s self. When conjoined, it’s a symbiotic relationship; believer and make-believer sweeten and validate each other.

Ancient prophets, new world spiritualists, and modern-day metaphysical internet voices share the same old dynamic: the desire to appear empowered with extraordinary capabilities. If the dynamic wasn’t real, their need would go unnoticed. But it is noticed; they dramatically reach for an audience while declaring primacy to God’s word, to spiritual contact, to mystical visions, or to some sort of privileged knowledge. They have to have it. An audience grants the necessary validation; an audience is proof that one is special; an audience is empowerment.

The “will to believe” is also the same as it ever was: the desire to “belong to” or to be a part of something bigger than one’s self. It doesn’t have to be conjoined with the “will to make-believe,” but the desire leaves it vulnerable to such voices; voices that often claim special knowledge or access to God. The “will to believe” a mysterious internet voice revealing the existence of a satanic global cabal of perverts in the basement of a pizza parlor isn’t new. It’s the same as the “will to believe” in mysterious Biblical allegories portending the second coming of Christ or the dawning of The New Age. Jake Angeli and President George W. Bush shared the same “will to believe.” Jake listened to QAnon, donned a furry horned cap, and invaded the Capital Building. George listened to John the Apostle, donned a respectable suit and tie, and invaded Iraq.

We all seem to have it, the “will to believe,” the “will” to be a part of something greater than our selves. It doesn’t have to meet the William James rationale for acceptance (we have the creative ability to make any held belief seem reasonable). It doesn’t have to be of eternal consequence (we’re willing to believe for less than that). It doesn’t have to be enculturated (though it’s certainly less scrutinized and more “acceptable” if it is). It doesn’t have to be a “make-believe” voice (but it certainly can be).  It doesn’t take too much; it just has to offer something beyond the confines of our limited selves. We’re vulnerable. We’re low-hanging fruit with a need to believe, primed to believe an intriguing voice. One always seems to come along; a voice with a need of its own; a voice that finds us ripe for the picking.

Vern Loomis lives in the Detroit area and occasionally likes to comment on news and events that interest him in whatever capacity available. Some of his other musings can be found at Transcend Media Service, ZNetwork, CounterPunch, The Humanist, and The Apathetic Agnostic. Read other articles by Vern.