Thoughts on Belief

We all have beliefs, and they have a significant influence on our lives. They are intensely personal, but they are also a tool that is used to subjugate us. It may be difficult to understand why we hold certain beliefs, but we need to question their validity.

To begin with, we humans have natural inclinations that guide us (if not compel us) to our convictions. They include tendencies toward provincialism and a will-to-believe. We must look at these traits to understand how we form our opinions.

Discussing the will-to-believe risks being side-tracked into the questions of predestination and free-will. Neither is germane. Not only have they been debated for centuries without resolution, they are partisan issues, used to bolster a point of view; they add nothing to the search for truth. In the context of the will-to-believe, they are meaningless.

The significance of the will-to-believe is not readily apparent, yet it ranks close to the will-to-survive in its influence on our lives. The will-to-believe is not a doctrine, it is a human trait. It is a part of what we are. Since we can't know everything, we believe what we are told about matters beyond our ken. Current instances abound, but more remote examples illustrate the force of this trait with greater clarity, thus:

  • If we are that told our emperor descends from the sun god, we believe it.
  • If we are told to dance in a certain way to please the rain god, we dance.
  • If we are told our king rules by divine right, we accept that doctrine. Not all of us, perhaps, but enough of us that the force of our combined belief is palpable.

Why do we believe these things? We don't believe them because they are self-evident, we believe them because they are not. We believe such things because they are given to us as explanations for some of the inexplicable phenomena that surround us. We do not understand the phenomena ourselves, but we are willing to assume others more gifted than ourselves do understand matters that baffle us. We accept their assertions, in part, because we haven't the knowledge to refute them.

You may not, in 'modern' times, believe in an emperors' divinity, or the power of the rain dance, or the divine right of kings. But you do know that such ideas had a profound influence when they were in vogue. To understand why they were so influential, you must imagine yourself living when these ideas were accepted dogma.

If you had lived in the American Southwest 600 years ago, would you have danced for the rain god? Were you a Japanese citizen in 900 A.D., would you have worshiped your emperor? Were you a Parisian in the 14th century, would you have accepted the divine right of kings? In each case, almost certainly so.

More than dance or worship or endorse, you would have believed. You would have 'known' the customs and beliefs of your time were right and proper. If your dance failed to bring forth rain, you would have been sure, not that your belief was wrong, but that you and your people had failed to please the rain god.

The strength of a belief is not dependent upon the soundness of the precept but on the intensity of the will-to-believe. While one may quibble with the label 'a will-to-believe', I've been unable to find a better term to explain the driving force behind Nazis, witch hunters, jihadists, followers of the Reverend Jones, Kamikaze pilots, and those imbued with religious fervor.

The will-to-believe is not only powerful, it is strange. It tends to be accompanied by an absolute certainty that which is believed is also true. We start exercising our will-to-believe to fill the gap formed by our lack of knowledge, and then leap directly from ignorance to absolute certainty.

It is even stranger that this progression from lack of knowledge continues on through absolute certainty to destructiveness. For it would be hard to imagine greater destructive force than that wielded by Nazis, witch hunters, jihadists, followers of the Reverend Jones, Kamikaze pilots, and those imbued with religious fervor.

The result of their terrible certainty is havoc and death; the destruction of themselves and the destruction of others. In fact, the most destructive words in any language are:

I BELIEVE!!!

Another trait affecting our attitudes is provincialism; we tend to adopt the mores of our time and place. People rarely stray far from their heritage, and then only with great effort. In fact, the effort is so great they are much more likely to yield to their provincial bias and let their will-to-believe solidify their convictions.

In the rain dance analogy, if dancing didn't bring forth rain, conventional wisdom would hold that you failed to please the rain god. As you matured, you may have questioned the efficacy of the dance but that would be unlikely, unless you examined your bias. And, even if you were willing to examine it, it would have been a frightening struggle to do so.

When the welfare of your people depends on rain and your culture hypothesizes a rain god, suggesting there is no rain god would be blasphemous. Most of us would dance as long as there was the slightest possibility the dance might summon rain, because of the huge penalty for offending the rain god - if one exists.

When examining the nature of belief, examining religious beliefs offers the advantage of being a topic that is widely divergent yet commonly held. Sadly, such examinations can be very, very difficult.

This is starkly portrayed when we consider, for example, Moslems and Christians. Both are influenced (if not controlled) by their heritage. Both believe they worship the One True God, both quote sacred scripture to support their convictions, and both go to extreme lengths in the name of their vision of God. As a result of their provincialism and their will-to-believe, they are both infused with an absolute certainty, not only that their belief is right, but that all other beliefs are wrong.

The human characteristics which form our convictions are not, in and of themselves, religious. They are traits. They only attain religiosity when we endow them with the force of our egos. When they do become religious, however, the 'terrible certainty' which is the genesis of so much horror and destruction, blooms.

Religious examples make the role of belief easier to see, but the real danger to society lays in the belief we put in our political systems. Belief is a powerful machine for political control. We see this frequently, but often don't recognize the role public belief played in it.

One obvious example is the belief in National Socialism generated in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. We lay the tragedy that followed at the door of a dictator, but that looks right past the fact that the dictator could not have gained power if the majority of the people had not believed in his teaching.

In the United States, the people's belief that their country is democratic blinds them to the fact that their government is controlled by the small group of people who finance the major political parties.

Evidence that the U. S. is an oligarchy is available, but the commonly accepted believe is, "It's our government. We voted for it." as if voting for candidates selected by political parties gave the people real choices. The people accept it, not because it's true, but because they have a will-to-believe it. This circumstance lets huge concentrations of money control the nation's political system with barely a murmur of discontent.

Difficult though the task may be, if we want to improve our world, we must begin by looking at ourselves. We must start the very difficult task of examinng our belief in our own political system. We must face the bitter truth that, no matter how strongly we believe we live in a democracy, we don't.

Over one hundred years ago, Robert Michels warned us that party organizations "conceal from the mass a danger which really threatens democracy." At last, even academia is re-examining its views. In a 2014 study, Gilens and Page found "... that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts."

If we are to free our government from the control of big money, we must recognize how big money is using our belief in our political system to control us. We must understand that we won't have government of the people, by the people, for the people until we build a bottom-up political infrastructure that lets the people actively participate in the conduct of, and impress their moral sense on, their government.