Long and scholarly dissertations on the topic of belief can, and have been written by those far better equipped than I am to do so. The subject has come up in a couple of movies I've watched recently though. A blog post on that level might just be within my scope. Before I get to the two films, I coincidentally came across an article at Salon the other day about five religious leaders who have lost their belief and have become outspoken atheists. That article led me to recall reading of an astrologer who, when interviewed for Garry Phillipson's book Astrology in the Year Zero (2000) described his feelings when retreating from his professional capacity, due to loss of belief. (See HERE) It does appear, however, that much later on the astrologer in question, David Hamblin, did decide to give astrology another spin - see his website HERE. Another lapsed astrologer was mentioned in a post of mine in February 2011: Rudolf Smit.
It would seem that any belief, however strongly held, is capable of being reversed. Conversely any disbelief, however strong, is capable of being transformed into belief. That is at the the crux of the two movies I've mentioned: K-PAX (2001) and The Man from Earth (2007). K-PAX was adapted from a novel by Gene Brewer; The Man from Earth has a screenplay co-written by science fiction novelist Jerome Bixby (his last piece of writing before he died, in fact.)
In K-PAX a psychiatric patient, after claiming he is an extraterrestrial from the planet 'K-PAX', 1,000 light years away in the Lyra constellation. His name is prot (uncapitalized and rhyming with "goat"). He is committed to the Psychiatric Institute of Manhattan. There, psychiatrist Dr. Mark Powell attempts to cure him of his apparent delusions. However, prot shows himself able to provide cogent answers to questions about himself, K-PAX his home planet and its civilization. Dr. Powell introduces him to a group of astrophysicists, to whom prot displays a level of knowledge that leaves them aghast. Prot also exhibits easy influence over the other patients at the Institute. They each come to believe that he is indeed from K-PAX. Prot, who claims to have journeyed to Earth by means of "light-travel", explains that he can take one person with him when he instantaneously returns on a pre-selected date.
That brief synopsis based on Wiki's page is all I'll add, so as not to spoil the movie should anyone who reads this wish to see it. The film leaves one still wondering, should the characters have believed; would I, could I, have believed his amazing story?
The same question came up after watching The Man from Earth. This is a wordier, more deeply thought-provoking film than K-PAX, but in much the same "ballpark". Here a group of university academics gather in a country cabin to say farewell to a colleague (John Oldman) who has unexpectedly decided to up-sticks and move on. The cabin is the only setting we see, scenes moving only from a single room and fireside to just outside the door once or twice. The film was very quickly and cheaply made, but is certainly none the worse for that. It could quite easily be performed on stage, and has been.
Again, so as not to spoil things for others, only a brief synopsis: some lines from Wiki:
As John's colleagues continue to pressure him for the reason for his departure, John slowly, and somewhat reluctantly, reveals that he is a prehistoric "caveman" who has lived for more than 14 millennia and that he relocates every 10 years to keep others from realizing that he does not age. He begins his story under the guise of a possible science-fiction story, but he eventually stops speaking in hypotheticals and begins answering questions from a first-person perspective. His colleagues refuse to believe his story. John continues his tale, stating that he was once a Sumerian for 2000 years, then a Babylonian under Hammurabi, then a disciple of Gautama Buddha. He claims to have known Christopher Columbus, Van Gogh (he owns a painting which was a gift from the artist), and other famous historical figures. John's colleagues question his story according to their specialties: Harry, the biologist, discusses the possibility of a human living for so long. Art, the archaeologist, questions John about events in prehistory; he exclaims that John's answers, though correct, could have come from any textbook, to which John points out the nature of knowledge, as he can only put his memories together with modern science after he learnt the new ideas with the rest of humanity. When the discussion turns to the topic of religion, John mentions that he is not a follower of a particular religion; though he does not necessarily believe in an omnipotent God, he does not discount the possibility of such a being's existence................................No more!
So, was K-PAX's prot really a delusional psychiatric patient with a savant-like level of knowledge, or.........? What about John Oldman? He, being a university professor had plenty of brain power, sufficient to answer all queries about a 14,000 year life span, and deflect any confrontational argument. He had a certain charisma too, gentle yet persuasive, never bombastic. What could his motive have been to so deceive his friends? Was he simply, what in today's parlance might be termed, "an attention whore"? He didn't come across that way - but do they ever?
I particularly enjoyed the part of the conversation relating to religion, but can say no more about that without revealing too much.
Though I could find myself wishing otherwise, it has to be kept in mind that this was all pure fiction. Both authors had nifty, if frustrating, endings up their sleeves too.
I'll say thank you, here, to commenter "DC" for recommending The Man from Earth to me in a comment a short time ago. I enjoyed the movie a lot, shall probably watch it again.