What’s the difference between a talent and a handicap? Your first reaction to that question might be some sort of a snort, mixed with a duh, and finished with a fine spray of pfffft. Clearly, talents are useful skills while handicaps involve limits that are imposed on us.
But is it really that clear?
It’s the rare sculptor, musician, or actor who finds a career to match his or her talent. It’s far more typical for a wannabe actor to be waiting tables, and a wannabe landscape artist to have a day job in the insurance industry. My best guess is that 99% of all supposed talent has no use whatsoever. In fact, talent probably distracts wannabe artists and prevents them from putting their full efforts into something more useful.
Handicaps are hard to define too. If only two humans existed in the universe, it could be said that each has handicaps relative to the other. Perhaps one runs relatively slowly and the other is relatively bad at spelling. It’s no wonder the term “differently abled” has become fashionable. It’s more accurate and less judgy.
Recently I have been thinking about talents versus handicaps in the context of religious belief. Research indicates that some people are born with a natural inclination for belief and some are not. I’m firmly in the “not” category. Would it be fair to say I have a talent for skepticism? Or is it more accurate to say I have a handicap when it comes to belief? How do I label my condition?
I could start by asking if belief is useful. Based on my personal observation, and what I have read on the topic, religious people are generally healthier and happier than others. That’s the ultimate form of usefulness. Belief passes the utility test even if you factor in the occasional inquisition, terrorist attack, religious war, and whatnot. Those are the exceptions, and have more to do with power than religion. In most modern societies, the vast majority of religious people aren’t causing trouble for anyone.
When it comes to usefulness, I would rank religious belief higher than most other talents, including, for example, yodeling, line dancing, juggling, and so on.
Our gut feeling is that “truth” has to be important in this discussion. With so many different and mutually exclusive religious beliefs, either all of them are false or, in the best possible case, all but one of them is false. Arguably, whichever subset of believers has the “right” understanding of reality has the most useful talent of all, especially if it leads to an eternity of bliss in heaven, or paradise, or an awesome new life after reincarnation.
As a non-believer, part of the package is that I don’t believe my mind is delivering to me an accurate picture of reality. I can’t rule out the possibility that we’re all living in our own illusions, in which case the atheist and the believer are both so completely wrong that their differences are immaterial. If you add 2 plus 2 and your answer is orange, you can’t say you had a better answer than the guy who added 2 plus 2 and got zebra.
The bottom line is that I’m a non-believer who is strongly pro-religion because of what I perceive as its usefulness. And I think my genetic inability to believe is more of a “differently abled” situation than a talent.