(cont.) "To me, it's okay to believe in something that to most people probably seems impossible, illogical, unscientific, or just stupid." "As long as what you believe isn't hurting anyone. Like I wouldn't ever condone a 'belief' -- if that's what it even is -- that groups of people are less worthy than others, or less human." "Because that's a belief that results in discrimination, which at the very minimum is a bummer but more seriously provokes a lot of violence and hatred that rips apart the fabric of society." "When you look at these things in isolation, it's maybe not such a big deal. Like who cares if some pizza shop owners in Whereversville don't want to serve gays or blacks or Jews or single mothers or whoever else violates their sense of what's right and proper. They might even belong to a religion that says that God disapproves of two men fucking, so being 'observant' means that they don't want to serve pizza to two men who they know are fucking. Am I allowed to say that in here? (Laughs.) I wouldn't want to give them my business anyway, and it's not like pizza is a scarce commodity." "So anyway, I don't want to get all political, but I'm not a supporter of beliefs that elevate one person above another. Which I think is an important clarification to make these days because so many people -- because of the First Amendment -- think that anything they happen to believe entitles them to act in a way that's possibly illegal, definitely discriminatory, and -- like I said before -- the sort of thing that can fester and accumulate. Like one day it's a shop turning away a customer and the next you have someone slaughtering people in these random acts of violence." "Because the thing about belief or faith -- and by thing I mean 'double-edged sword' -- is that there's no proving it one way or the other. So if you have someone who believes gays are evil and inhuman, nothing's going to change their mind. Like you can't just show them a slide show of all of the amazing gays throughout history and expect them to be like 'oh wow, you mean Leonardo da Vinci and Abraham Lincoln and Greta Garbo were gay? I guess I was wrong about my beliefs.' " "It's interesting to think about where these 'bad' beliefs arise, though, and why some people really latch onto them and others refute them. Like I grew up with two sisters -- twins -- and one of them became a 'fundamentalist Christian' and the other one is a lesbian social worker who helps poor people with HIV and AIDS get housing. Guess which one I like better? (Laughs.) But seriously, how could two people with exactly the same DNA be so different?"
"At the same time, though, it's not like all belief is bad." "I think there's often a lot of arrogance among people who act like believers are idiots. It creates a lot of antagonism." "And I understand the arrogance, because if you go to school, you learn that for example the earth is billions of years old and life evolved out of a stew of chemicals in the ocean and so forth, which means that when someone says with utter conviction that 'the earth was created by God seven or eight thousand years ago' you want to laugh in their face and be like 'what century are you living in?' " "But at the same time, if you step back and think about it, chances are -- unless you're a robot -- you probably believe some pretty dumb things too. Or that might not seem dumb now but in twenty years will seem totally crazy." "Like what? I don't know. Think about asbestos. Fifty years ago everyone thought -- or believed -- it was a great way to insulate your house, but nobody believes that anymore. Or what about cell phones? Now you hear how the radiation is giving everyone problems, which makes you wonder if we should be walking around with something like that pressed against our head all the time." "Of course these are 'beliefs' that will ultimately be proved or disproved by science, so maybe they're not the best example." "Okay, but here's one for you. I believe that there are intelligent life forms in the ocean that we can't detect or see, but whose presence we sometimes feel. Or at least I did when I used to go scuba diving. I know it's 'crazy' and there's no 'evidence' that these beings exist, but I don't care. It's not like I'm hurting anyone and it makes the ocean seem that much more interesting to me." "When I was a kid, there weren't many gay people around either." "Sometimes you saw one on television or in a magazine, but I didn't know anyone who was gay. So the existence of gay people was for me almost like a belief or a faith." "And that kind of benign hope is important to people, and if you try to take it away by saying that it doesn't and can't ever exist, it can make someone desperate and dangerous. And for what? So that you can be 'right'? I'm just saying people sometimes need to hold up the mirror when they start criticizing each other." "So to get back to your original question, I'm not entirely sure what I saw in the forest, but I know I'm not the only one, either. Yes, I believe in the gods. I admit it. Am I stupid? Maybe, but why shouldn't I? I'm not hurting anyone and it makes life more interesting to me. Which isn't that the whole point?" Pictures taken in Fort Tryon Park on July 9 and July 16, 2016. Text excerpted from The #Gods Project: A Training Manual (Section 2, "Interviews with the Institutionalized.")