Monday, February 20, 9995


What is a belief?  An idea that one chooses to accept as true, even though there is no conclusive evidence to support it. Religion and politics are good examples. Belief should not be confused with knowledge, which is something that we know to be true from direct experience, such as that fire will cause us pain (we’ve all been burned). Beliefs, because they are based on hearsay and/or incomplete evidence, are always tenuous, unascertainable, and subject to revision.

We live without complete knowledge of the Universe. This can be frightening because we never know when death, disease, injury, financial loss, or some other unpleasant calamity will occur. Many people cannot handle the state of not-knowing, so they would rather believe something that has not been proved than not believe anything at all. This pushes some people to make up stories, and other people to believe them, in order to fill the knowledge void and give them a sense of certainty and comfort in an uncertain and uncomfortable world. Beliefs are therefore a security blanket. For example, religion makes people secure in “knowing” that they are headed for a posthumous utopia after they die, and politics makes people secure in “knowing” that social and economic problems can be solved merely by electing certain politicians.

Belief can be thought of as a lens that we all look through. Our beliefs thus color our world. We see everything in terms of what we believe, not necessarily what is true. This is why two people can look at the same thing and see two different “realities”. A Republican looks at Barack Obama and sees a moron; a Democrat looks at Obama and sees a wise man. An atheist enjoys a ham sandwich; a Muslim won’t dare touch it because he’s afraid he’ll be punished by a judgmental deity. Anyone who stubbornly holds onto any belief cannot possibly see reality because he will reinterpret what he sees or hears in a way that fits his preconceived notions. That is, no matter what input he receives, he will twist it in such a way that it makes what he already believes seem true. Thus there will never be any learning or growth.

Any belief system is a mental prison. It limits what and how people think. If only people would drop their beliefs, their not-knowing would set them free to see things with fresh eyes and make their own assessments instead of dishonestly conforming to a set of notions that they accepted earlier in their lives.

People are most susceptible to being brainwashed into believing something when they haven't yet developed any other beliefs. If someone is told from an early age that, for example, his particular form of Islam is the one and only correct religion and that all who disagree should be murdered, then he might come to accept that as absolute truth. This same person could also be convinced that Christianity, or Judaism, or Buddhism, is the one correct religion, if he just happened to be taught one of those beliefs from a young age. But people can’t see this because they have had their particular beliefs drilled into them from before they can even remember, so these beliefs have become unquestionable “givens” and they cannot fathom that they could possibly believe anything different. There is no logic or proof for what they believe -- they simply have faith that what their parents and community have told them is true, because the thought that they've been duped is too horrible to bear. They prefer comfortable lies over uncomfortable truths.

The only chance we have to perceive reality, find truth, and grow, is to live without beliefs. We must make sure that nothing “interprets” reality for us. Knowledge, on the other hand, should be kept, because hard evidence proves it to be true. For example, if we learn that fire burns us, then it would be foolish to approach every new fire without any preconceived notions, for if we did, we would keep getting burned.

Religion and politics are the two subjects that people become the most defensive about because 1) they identify with their belief (i.e., they make a false self out of it), and 2) they cannot prove that their belief is correct (so they are not 100% sure that it's true). If you question their belief, they will be reminded of their own doubts and insecurity, which are painful, and they will erroneously blame you for their pain. They will perceive your questioning as a threat not only to their belief but also to their very selves, since the false self cannot survive without the belief it is based upon. In what they perceive as self-defense they will argue vehemently against you, ignoring or discounting any evidence that suggests that they're wrong. 

One of the most often used excuses for violence and hatred is religious belief. Christianity and Islam are by far the most violence- and hatred-producing belief systems because they are based mostly on fear. They are black-and-white constructs that relegate each person to eternity in either a good place (for believers) or a bad place (for non-believers). Any belief system that makes threats in order to gain converts is a miserable one. It is for cowards who can be scared into believing something merely by adding “or else!” to it. The threat of posthumous punishment makes people afraid to not believe their religious teachings. If they begin to look at these teachings logically, which causes doubts about the stories they’ve heard and read (because there is no proof that they are true), an inner conflict arises, causing emotional pain. This can cause them to resent non-believers out of jealousy that those “heathens” are getting more enjoyment from life. The ego needs to feel superior to others, so when a religious fanatic sees someone else enjoying life more than he is, his ego experiences pain. In response, the egoic person tries to make himself feel superior by criticizing non-believers for taking a different road (which, although less painful, is still “wrong”), or by causing them to suffer more than he does (e.g., committing violence against them).

Political extremists adopt a set of black-and-white beliefs about gun control, abortion, welfare, immigration, defense spending, etc, and refuse to budge, because to admit that there are gray areas or that their views could be wrong would be tantamount to ego-suicide. They will not admit that a politician from their own party could possibly make mistakes because they fear that it would make them look mistaken. Meanwhile they will villainize politicians from other parties, sometimes making fearmongering statements such as, “President So-and-So is ruining this country!”, in order to make themselves look “right” by claiming that others are “wrong”.

Why is it that other beliefs don’t cause such desperate clinging? For example, why doesn’t anyone react with pain when someone questions the idea that Earth revolves around the Sun, or that smoking is unhealthful? Because we are 100% sure that it is correct. No one who claims otherwise can shake this belief, so there is no possibility of being wrong and therefore no threat to the ego. Thus, if someone becomes upset when you oppose his belief, it shows that he is not very sure of that belief. Many religious and political extremists are not really sure that they are right, so out of frustration they argue, yell, threaten, and/or commit violence in an attempt to “win” by silencing any opposition.

The less sure one is about one’s belief, the more imperative it is to get others to believe it, the idea being that the more people believe it, the “truer” it must be. This is one reason that religious and political zealots often proclaim their beliefs in order to convince others to believe the same thing. The thought is, “Certainly all these people can’t be wrong.” Yes they can. There was a time when most people believed that Earth was flat and the Sun revolved around it.

Many people are proud of their beliefs because they believe that they have accomplished something by adopting them. Believing something is not an accomplishment. Beliefs are nothing more than opinions that we refuse to reconsider because we are afraid of finding out that we are wrong. Holding onto a belief regardless of evidential support is an ignorant, irresponsible evasion of truth for people who are too lazy and/or frightened to question the stories they’ve been told.