G.K. Chesterton is purported to have said that “When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.” And although there is no record that he actually said it, the truth of the aphorism is becoming ever clearer in this post-Christian age in the West.
A version of the same idea was offered by Catholic French philosopher Chantal Delsol in an essay entitled The End of Christianity. She argued that when people stop believing in Christianity, they do not turn to atheism or nihilism. The religious impulse in humanity is too strong, too deep, for that. They find other beliefs and spiritualities.
Looking at the Western world today, it seems that the religious impulse for those who do not accept established religious doctrines, and even for some who do identify, at least culturally, as Christians, is increasingly being channelled into the embrace of what I call “fantastical beliefs.”
What are fantastical beliefs?
These are beliefs that, while not metaphysical, are irrational. That is, they are beliefs that not only cannot be justified by evidence but which also, in many cases, seem contradicted by all available evidence. Typically, they are deeply held. However, they are not based on a religious faith and cannot therefore be defended, as the New Testament writer to the Hebrews did, as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see”.
QAnon The United States provides various examples of irrational beliefs that are embraced with a religious zeal. Most prominent, in recent years, has been the QAnon movement. To the extent it has any coherence at all, it holds a couple of core beliefs. The first is that the government, media, and financial worlds in the US are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping paedophiles. The second is that there is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites and restore the rightful leaders. A survey conducted in March 2021 by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 15 percent of all Americans, including 23 percent of Republican-identifying respondents, accepted the first proposition. The second proposition was endorsed by 20 percent of all Americans, including 28 percent of Republican-identifying respondents. They were almost evenly split between male and female respondents, and relatively evenly distributed across all age bands.
The stolen presidential election Another obvious example of a fantastical belief in the United States of America is the idea that the 2020 election was “stolen” from Donald Trump. One year and nine months on from the inauguration of President Biden, 61 percent of Republicans continued to believe that the election win was procured fraudulently. Not only is there no evidence that any results of the presidential election were the result of fraud on the industrial scale that would have been required to achieve that outcome, but also multiple court cases, recounts, and other inquiries have demonstrated the opposite. All the evidence points to the conclusion that nothing of the kind happened.
Of course, the idea that an electoral result could be achieved by fraud is not, of itself, irrational. After all, many a dictator has managed to be re-elected with a resounding majority because he controls the voting booths and counting machines. What takes this belief into the category of fantastical is the assumption that if an electoral system were so prone to corruption or fraud, only the Democratic Party would engage in electoral misconduct and not the Trump-led Republicans. After all, the Republicans controlled many of the state electoral processes.
For those of us outside the United States, these beliefs are obviously fantastical. Many who hold them identify culturally with evangelical Christianity, even if they rarely darken the doors of churches. This is a peculiarly American phenomenon. Evangelicals who rarely attend church disproportionately identify as Republican. Other kinds of fantastical beliefs, though, are more clearly identified with the progressive movement, and here they seem to represent an alternative kind of faith to Christianity—an alternative source of meaning, purpose, and belonging.
The quest for net zero Take parts of the environmental movement. In the Australian context, one prominent candidate for a fantastical belief is that Australia can get to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, or any other random date. This goal has now been enshrined in legislation. The idea that a country could get to net zero is not, in itself, fantastical. Not at all. A country that already has considerable baseload power from nuclear energy and scope for more hydroelectric capacity, as well as wind and solar, could well reach such a goal within a reasonable time frame. France, for example, is well on the way, deriving 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. Norway derives more than 90 percent of its electricity from hydropower.
However, Australia, while prone at times to extraordinary floods, is for the most part a dry continent with few new options for hydroelectric power. It also has a large agricultural sector that generates substantial greenhouse gas emissions. Can it really reach net zero without any reliance on nuclear energy? Former Australian chief scientist Alan Finkel has laid out a roadmap of how it could be achieved with heavy reliance on hydrogen. Yet even Finkel acknowledges how extraordinarily difficult it would be to achieve the last 15 percent of reductions. The currently published government plan relies substantially on new technologies that have yet to be developed. It sounds very much like a fantastical belief that Australia could reach net zero by 2050 given its self-imposed constraints regarding nuclear energy. Even more fantastical is the government’s claim that net zero emissions can be achieved by that date “without jeopardising our economy, jobs, prosperity or way of life.”
Fantastical beliefs about sex and gender The transgender movement provides other examples of quite fantastical beliefs. In Australia, some have made their way into legislation. In the Australian state of Victoria, for example, it is possible to register a change of sex, described as an “acknowledgement of sex,” without any period of living as the other sex. Nor is there a need for any form of assessment by a medical practitioner. The registration of a different sex changes the person’s birth certificate and takes effect for all legal purposes in Victorian law. The only constraint is that you cannot change your birth certificate more than once per year. Scotland has recently had a major row about its gender recognition certificate legislation, but it is the epitome of conservatism compared to Victoria.
Of course, the idea that someone could be transgender is not fantastical. The medical profession has long recognised that there are those who, while being anatomically and chromosomally either male or female without any disorder of sexual development, have so strongly identified as being of the opposite sex that they have eventually taken steps to identify publicly as having a different gender. Compelling personal stories have helped the general public understand this phenomenon. In the past, a substantial majority of transsexuals were born male, and their gender incongruences were manifested in various ways from early childhood. Some have described it as being “born in the wrong body.” To date, a physiological cause for this has eluded researchers, although a genetic or hormonal explanation for at least some transgender identification may yet be found.
So, transgender identification from early childhood may be mysterious, but it is not fantastical. What is fantastical about the way in which transgender identification is enshrined in Victorian law is that the choices of sex that could be registered are not confined to male, female, or even “intersex.” The applicant may choose any description for their sex that they feel comfortable with, as long as it is not obscene or offensive. They might, for example, describe their sex as “non-binary,” “genderqueer,” “agender,” “bigender,” or “intergender.” Queensland currently has a government bill before its parliament that largely copies Victoria’s legislation.
The consequence, under both Victorian law and the proposed Queensland law, if it is passed, is that a person who registers their sex as, say, agender, is legally neither a male nor a female in state law. Furthermore, because the new registration takes the form of amending their birth certificate, the law endorses a belief that they never were male or female, not even at birth. This despite a conventional anatomical and chromosomal presentation at birth as a boy or girl.
The belief that a male or female who, in their teenage years or older, identifies as some version of “non-binary,” can be said to have been born neither male nor female, despite continuing in every medical sense to be either male or female, is truly fantastical. So, too, is the idea that we may change sex by internal identification alone. People may have a sex, and a gender identity that is incongruent with that sex, but they do not cease to have a sex because they register a different identity. Their body does not “disappear” in a world of legal make-believe. However much surgery she has, a transmale need never worry about prostate cancer. However much surgery he has, a transfemale need never have to cope with menstruation nor worry about falling pregnant.
Are fantastical beliefs religious?
Fantastical beliefs do not make their claims for acceptance on the basis of being a religious belief that is unprovable. Rather, they are presented as facts—that America is run by Satan-worshipping paedophiles, that the US presidential election was stolen, that “transwomen are women,” or that Australia can reach net zero greenhouse gases by 2050 without any negative impacts on the economy, jobs, or our way of life. Some of these, while expressed as facts, may be restated in such a way as to represent mere opinions; for example, that males who self-identify as females should be treated as women for all legal purposes. Others might be expressed as hopes, for example, that Australia can reach net zero at some stage in the coming decades without building a single nuclear power facility.
Opinions can be debated, and hopes can be evaluated against the sometimes brutal reality of facts; but what characterises fantastical beliefs is that there is strong resistance to debate. The certainty with which people hold such beliefs, however, is not factual but moral certainty, and this is where the comparison with religious beliefs is apt.
People with strong religious convictions tend to be rather certain about what is right and wrong morally, although they may not all share precisely the same moral code. However, their moral certainties are of a different kind from their factual certainties. If I consider sex outside marriage to be wrong, I am making a different kind of statement from saying that water consists of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Fantastical beliefs, on the other hand, allow moral certainty to displace factual certainty. The capacity of a country to reach net zero without relying on hydro or nuclear energy for baseload power is not open for debate because addressing climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero is the right thing to do. There can be no debate about even the strangest or most controversial beliefs of the transgender movement because “trans rights are human rights”, and “trans” people are a very vulnerable population.
In this way, moral certainty is deemed sufficient reason not to worry about facts. Those who have arguments to the contrary based on reason and evidence are demonised as immoral.
The harm of fantastical beliefs
Do fantastical beliefs matter? Much depends on how influential are the people who believe them. Arguably, the QAnon movement has done relatively little harm because most of its adherents are powerless people. One man was sentenced to four years’ jail after firing a rifle in a pizza restaurant out of which he believed a Satanic paedophile ring, including leading Democrat politicians, was operating. It might have led some others to acts of violence in which they would not otherwise have engaged. For the most part, though, QAnon has involved many people “doing their own research” in the privacy of their homes, speculating on the meaning of obscure clues, and finding fascinating topics for discussion with other people. If it made people less lonely for a while, but no more suspicious of government than they were already, perhaps it had some marginal benefits for a troubled and alienated sector of society.
However, other fantastical beliefs have far greater real-life consequences. Among those who believe former President Trump’s claim about the presidential election being stolen, their distrust of government has deepened. It has also made it much more difficult for Republican leaders to deal with members of their party who hold to fantastical beliefs or invent personal histories. As David French has put it, “when you create a post-truth party, it’s hardly surprising to see a post-truth person emerge.”
Another obvious example of potential harm is how governments pursue drastic reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases. Those consequences could be enormous for electricity prices, as well as having an adverse impact on various industries and giving rise to substantial new infrastructure costs. Fantastical beliefs about the path to net zero will have the most impact on the poor if power prices rise beyond their ability to pay them.
Women and girls are particularly at risk from the implementation in public policy of fantastical beliefs about sex and gender. The proposed new Queensland legislation is an example. People 16 years old and over can change their birth certificate and record a new sex with nothing more than a letter of support from a friend to the effect that the application is being made in good faith. The requirements for those under 16 are not that much more onerous. While some people who choose to register a change of sex will be those who have long lived having identified as being of a different sex to their birth, the legislation provides no screening process for mental health or criminal history. A substantial proportion of the teenagers who now identify as “trans” or non-binary and seek help from gender clinics to alter their bodies are mentally very unwell, and some unwell individuals will no doubt find meaning, acceptance, and community if they identify as “trans.”
Most mentally ill men, of course, represent no threat to women’s safety; but encountering them in what is meant to be a female-only space, including a space where women may undress, could be deeply upsetting for many women and girls. They might, properly, describe the man as “creepy.” Unfortunately, there is the possibility that some mentally unwell men may be more dangerous than this.
The proposed Queensland legislation offers no safeguards to protect women’s single-sex spaces, other than in relation to current prisoners and a small number of potentially dangerous ex-prisoners. Women’s gyms will be able to be sued for unlawful discrimination on the basis of “sex characteristics” if they exclude a female by registration who is anatomically a male. The same applies to women’s refuges, women’s wards in hospitals, public swimming pools that segregate changing rooms by sex, and all other single-sex facilities.
Even if there are not many who change their sex on their birth certificates by registration, the wider harm from self-ID laws is that it will become risky to object to any man in a women’s changing room or toilet facility, since they might have a legal right to be regarded as female. Women’s rights to bodily privacy will be seriously eroded. Men’s, too, of course; but that is less of an issue.
Defending fantastical beliefs
Because fantastical beliefs cannot successfully be defended with evidence and reason, those who hold them tend to resort to two other responses. The first is to deny there is any reason for concern. Nothing to see here. The second is to use moral pressure or threats of violence to silence dissenters. Rosie Duffield, a British Labour MP, has written movingly of her sense of isolation within her own party and her experience of “a tsunami of online vitriol” when she sought to explain the adverse impact of transgender self-ID laws on women and girls.
Other forms of pressure are only marginally less abusive. In the United States, Republicans in Congress were largely cowed into silence by the threats of disendorsement in a future primary if they refused to accept the fantastical belief that the presidential election was stolen. On climate change, the arguments have been led by a teenage Swedish girl who is said to represent the interests of future generations and who must therefore be right. Whatever the form of pressure adopted, the goal is to silence debate rather than engage in it. The vehemence with which people seek to crush dissent is in inverse proportion to their confidence that their truth is self-evident.
The new divide: between reason and emotion
And so, in a situation where fantastical beliefs and magical thinking seem to be everywhere, a new divide is emerging. It is not between the Right and the Left. Instead of these old divisions, the new conflicts are between those who hold fantastical beliefs with enormous certainty and those who approach complex or difficult issues by engaging in dispassionate inquiry, looking at the available evidence, and acknowledging their uncertainties.
This divide confounds the usual left and right categorisations. Feminists who would all identify with the left of politics find themselves divided by a common language, unable to discuss issues because the linguistic terms have a different meaning on each side. Political parties are divided between true believers and those who would give in to moral pressure on one side and sceptics on the other. Those non-true believers suffer from the “disadvantage” that they can appreciate more than one point of view. Precisely because those who rely on reason and evidence come to nuanced and complex positions, they are greatly disadvantaged in such debates.
In essence, what we have now is a divide between reason and emotion. Fantastical beliefs provide meaning and belonging. Conversely, nuanced policy positions that recognise competing claims and seek to find evidence-based ways forward do not inspire devotion. For that reason, Western democracies are in trouble when it comes to devising wise laws and public policies.
If people have a faith to believe in and to inspire them, they can address issues of science and public policy with dispassionate reason, because this is not ultimately what gives them meaning and purpose. Without a faith, people must find new sources of meaning, new congregations to which they can belong. In this brave new world, G.K. Chesterton’s aphorism is surely correct. There are those who come to believe, not in nothing, but in anything.