On the Nature of Belief

by Lanny Goodman on September 10, 2009


Everyone has them.  They are essential to our ability to function.  We have to believe the sun will come up tomorrow.  We have to believe there is some logic behind life’s mysteries and tragedies.  

But the last few months in the United States, we have seen appalling evidence of how badly people believe.  We have seen senior Senators and Congresspeople lying through their teeth because legislation is being proposed that violates their beliefs.  We have seen so called Town Hall meetings turn into near riots because people appear to be terrified that something will be done that violates their beliefs.  TV and radio personalities have been spewing an astonishing and revolting litany of fear and hatred because they feel their beliefs are being threatened.

All these examples are symptoms of people who do not believe well.  

What is believing well?

It’s simple.  We believe well when we have the courage to acknowledge that believing something doesn’t make it true.

This statement may appear paradoxical, that of course if we believe something to be true, to us it’s true.  Yes, that is the nature of belief.  But I could believe the sun circles the earth and that the earth is flat, and for centuries, intelligent, educated people believed both those things.  Those beliefs did not reflect the reality.  

Catholics believe their God is different from that of the Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians and so on.  The Jews have their own God, the Muslims theirs, the Hindus a whole panoply of Gods.  All firmly believe their God is the only true God.  I’m sorry, but they can’t all be right.

Our beliefs in “ultimate reality” are where we go astray in our belief process.  More trivial items are easy to deal with.  I believe Joe’s Pizza is at the corner of Main and Oak Streets.  My friend believes it’s in the next block.  Am I going to destroy my friendship over the matter?  Of course not.  I’m willing to acknowledge that just because I believe that Joe’s is at Main and Oak, I may be wrong.  I understand that my belief is not equal to objective, verifiable truth and I remain open to the alternate possibility.  That’s easy.

But the problem with ultimate reality is there is no objective, verifiable truth.  Every religion tries to make its case for verifiability, but the hard reality is that what happens after death, what’s beyond the universe, why are we born, age and die, are we alone in the universe, why do life, time, entropy, the expansion of the universe exist are all questions to which we have no answers.  We only have beliefs.

The difficulty in believing well is acknowledging that there may not be a heaven or hell, Christ may not have been the Son of God, Mohammed may have just been a great salesman, and the great teachers and “saints” of the east may be as deluded as the rest of us requires courage and the willingness to live in existential ambiguity.  

Where is there any evidence that human beings even have the capacity to perceive ultimate reality?  Even the Buddhists and Vedic mystics acknowledge in their framework that the highest levels of consciousness are not sustainable in a human body.

What believing well gives us is an open mind and an open heart.  Having worked through the fear of living with life’s existential ambiguity, we can live in freedom from the known and therefore be able to see and assess without the constraint of a belief system that does not permit us to even consider alternatives.  In fact, we immediately (and rightly) become intensely suspicious of anyone who tries to sell us a belief system in which all other options are taboo.

When we believe well, we are also disinclined to kill and maim our fellow human beings because they believe something different from ourselves.  When we have acknowledged life’s fundamental ambiguity, it is clear that we have no right to deny others their beliefs since we have no way of verifying that we are in fact right and they are in fact wrong.

When life is viewed from this point of view, the rabid reactions that so many human beings manifest when they feel their beliefs are being threatened are easily understood.  They are manifestations of fear.  At some level, existential terror is not an overstatement.  

One could say that fear is a part of life, it’s biological and unavoidable and in many cases desirable.  I disagree wholeheartedly.  I have known fear, I have known what it means to have one’s life circumscribed by fear and I have known life with very nominal and completely manageable fear.  There is no intrinsic benefit to fear.  It robs us of our ability to be proactive.  Fear is like a computer virus of the mind that locks us in an endless loop.  It is stressful to the physiology.  In fear we lose our autonomy, our ability to listen and hear, our ability to learn, our ability to expand and grow, even our ability to love.  

Fear causes us to close down, shut off our minds, our reason, our intuition.  It causes us to close our hearts lest we be hurt.  None of these things are life affirming, life supporting or help us becoming more conscious and aware.  Further, fear triggers violence.  History shows us that more wars have been fought over religion than any other cause.  How much suffering in the world has our beliefs caused?  It is incalculable.  

You may believe that global warming is a hoax.  A lot of intelligent people do.  You may equally adamantly feel it is the greatest threat humanity has ever faced.  How are we to move forward as a species if we remain intransigent in our beliefs?  Are the changes necessary to minimize our footprint on the planet so terrifying?  Are the consequences of failing to do so, so terrifying?  At some level, the answers to both questions are legitimately, “yes”.  At another level, it doesn’t take belief to understand cause and effect is a property of manifest reality.  That is easily verifiable.  Either way we respond to the environmental situation will produce effects that everyone on the planet will have to live with.  

So what?

Yes, people’s lives will be disrupted, in some cases tragically so.  This is also true of crossing the street.  As human beings, we struggle to understand what is going on around us and to instigate causes that produce desirable effects.  

The big New York banks created causes that for many people in the world have created tragic effects.  Bernie Madhoff created causes that produced hugely dislocating effects for hundreds, probably thousands of families.  An airplane goes down and hundreds of lives are snuffed out in a second.  A car bomb decimates a marketplace in microseconds.  Someone wins the lottery who has never had two nickels to rub together in their lives.

My point is this, we are all leaves tossed on an unpredictable sea of cause and effect.  We cannot know from one minute to the next if we will be struck down physically, financially, professionally, emotionally, relationally or that the person standing next to us will be.  Beliefs are our bulwarks against this uncertainty.  But when we grasp onto these beliefs because really assimilating the reality that our lives are truly “dust in the wind”, we become closed, violent, entropic.  We breed fear in others and worst of all, become easy prey for those demagogs who resonate with our beliefs but encourage us to be closed to serve their own ends.

Should we have beliefs?  Of course.  Should we o
rder our lives around those beliefs?  Again, of course.  Should we work and strive to persuade others to share our beliefs?  Yes.  But we should also acknowledge that believing something does not make it so.  Then we can be passionate, but not violent, we can be persuasive, but honor the integrity of others.  We can act in ways that further the influence of our beliefs, but we will be less inclined to lie, manipulate, and disrupt movement when we acknowledge the limitations of our own beliefs.

One of the symptoms we see in the US of not believing well is that political dialogue has become virtually non-existent.  It is taboo in American society to discuss politics and religion, because politics has become religion.  Conservatives believe that the unfettered market is God and Milton Friedman is his prophet.  Liberals feel that compassion for the less well off is the soul of goodness and that society should be geared to the lowest common denominator (as long as it doesn’t effect their lifestyle).  Driven by these beliefs, which cannot be questioned, cannot be assessed critically, the flaws, strengths and weaknesses cannot be rationally explored and dialogue is impossible.  

The result is ranting and raving, deceit, violence where more than ever before is needed alignment, consensus, collaboration.  From Aesop to Patrick Henry, the phrase “united we stand, divided we fall” has never been more true.  Believing badly is the barrier that makes a  United States, a United Nations, a Global Village difficult and perhaps ultimately impossible.  

We will live well as a species only when we believe well.  We will believe well only when we have conquered our fears.  

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

George February 14, 2010 at 8:09 pm

“Catholics believe their God is different from that of the Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians and so on. ”

The above is not a true statement. These churches all have the same God, the one true God. They all believe that Christ died for our sins, which is the basis of the Christian religion; they each just worship in a slightly different manner.

Lanny March 8, 2010 at 7:33 pm

Theoretically what you say is true.

Historically however, Catholics and Protestants have never hesitated to persecute and slaughter each other if they had the opportunity. That doesn’t suggest they agree that, “These churches all have the same God, the one true God. They all believe that Christ died for our sins, which is the basis of the Christian religion; they each just worship in a slightly different manner.”

Further, the notion of “one true God” just validates my point. As soon as I decide that I’ve figured out the “one true God” and you worship some other “true God”, how long will it be before we’re at each other’s throats? History suggests, not very long.

Of course, the problem with organized religion is that it is, among other things, an institution for social control and therefore inseparable from politics and economics which underlies religious conflicts much more than beliefs. If we believed well, we would not imbue these institutions with either the economic or political power they have. We would neither need nor want to impose our beliefs on society at large, but would expect each individual to find their own spiritual truths and live by them.

Thanks for the comment.

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