“Slow Your Roll”: The Problem With Belief

Have you noticed how, as human beings, we are constantly embroiled in some type of crisis of “belief”? This “belief” crisis is not about having to choose the “best” possible beliefs from the myriad of competing belief systems, but rather, it is the crisis created by the constant pressure of having to believe. Think about how often we are asked in the course of the day to “believe” certain things: beliefs about poverty, terrorism, nutrition, politics, and laundry soap. Every day we are under a relentless assault of propositions, propaganda and campaigns. We are surrounded by advertisers, advocates and “believers”, whose sole aim is to convert us to their viewpoint or their brand. The crisis comes when we stop to consider that there is no way to opt out of the “believing game”, since even unbelief still involves “believing”.

The real “crisis” comes from living in a world that demands our “buy in”, adherence, and our devotion. We need not make the mistake of thinking about “belief” and “believing” in terms of one of the “either/or”, A or B, binary oppositions such as:  ‘faith versus reason,’ ‘capitalist versus socialist,’ religious versus secular’, or that most absurd binary belief of all, the reductionist litmus test of, ‘for or against Clinton, Bush, Obama or Trump.’ Also, when we talk about the dangers associated with “belief” and “believing”, we tend to think in extreme examples, such as people surrendering their minds and their money to a cult leader, but this stereotype is not helpful for most of us, since we are merely looking at symptoms of belief and not the true nature of “believing.”   When we look at how belief works, in spite of the fact that people “believe” in a wide spectrum of “beliefs”, we discover that there is no essential difference in the mechanisms for how we go about forming and attaching to our various “beliefs.” Everyone is a “believer” not simply because we choose to believe, but because we need to believe.

It turns out that “believing” is how we maintain our equilibrium (sociological, psychological, economic etc.). The first step to getting a handle on “belief” is to accept our homo-religious condition, as those who “need to believe” (even atheism and nihilism are “belief systems”). The reason we find it so difficult to acknowledge this intrinsic “need” to believe is that the very admission of the fact represents the first crack in the edifice of our presumed objectivity and sense of certainty (“objectivity” is a modern myth and we are all pretty “certain” that things are pretty much as we imagine them to be). Thus, as “believers”, we are left to assume that the root of our societal problems lies with the uneducated and the unenlightened – but we would be wrong. In his book, UTOPIA FOR REALISTS , Rutger Bregman notes, “Researchers at Yale University have shown that educated people are more unshakable in their convictions than anybody. After all, an education gives you tools to defend your opinions. Intelligent people are highly practiced in finding arguments, experts, and studies that underpin their preexisting beliefs, and the Internet has made it easier than ever to be consumers of our own opinions, with another piece of evidence always just a mouse­click away.”

We not only overestimate the power of our reason and the veracity of our data, but we typically fancy ourselves as possessing the “best beliefs”, or the “least bad” beliefs. This, of course, is another belief – a belief about our beliefs. When taken together, our need to believe, along with believing that our “beliefs” are basically “good”, we have the raw material for convictions, those deeply held beliefs about what “should” and “should not” be. Our deepest convictions tend to be so foundational to our worldview that they fall under the category of “given”, which places them just beyond the reach of critical review. Consider the following excerpt from “Utopia” by Rutger Bregman.

Mind you, we tend to be quite flexible when it comes to practical matters. Most of us are even willing to accept advice on how to remove a grease stain or chop a cucumber. No, it’s when our political, ideological, or religious ideas are at stake that we get the most stubborn. We tend to dig in our heels when someone challenges our opinions about criminal punishment, premarital sex, or global warming. These are ideas to which people tend to get attached, and that makes it difficult to let them go. Doing so affects our sense of identity and position in social groups – in our churches or families or circles of friends.

From the time our cognitive faculties develop we begin collecting “beliefs” about the world around us, and over time we eventually organize our various “beliefs” into a coherent system or “world view.” Unfortunately, these ideological houses that we build for our habitation quickly turn into fortified castles, complete with moat and armed garrison. Like those castles of old, we are intent on protecting ourselves and “our people” from those cultural barbarians and vandals, whose view of the world poses a threat to our “way of life.” But most of us cannot afford a castle, so we end up settling for a more modest, “belief bunker.” Like the bomb shelters of the Cold War era, “bunker living” is inspired and maintained by a certain newsfeed, one that feeds our fears and enflames our outrage. Bergman’s description here is bang on, “A worldview is not a Lego set where a block is added here, removed there. It’s a fortress that is defended tooth and nail, with all possible reinforcements, until the pressure becomes so overpowering that the walls cave in.”

Today everyone has their own version(s) of, the “us versus them” saga. It is a curious thing that in the telling of our favorite “justice narrative,” we never cast ourselves in the role of the defendant, but only as, either the victim, the hero or the judge (there are some who cast themselves as both the defendant and the judge – I suspect “judge” is the dominant role). In other words, today everyone is demanding “justice”, but no one wants judgment. And to make matters worse, rather than practicing self-reflection by critiquing the material of our own “bunker mentality”, we find it easier to simply build bigger “bunkers” to include the people who happen to share our opinions, convictions and prejudices. “What we need around here is more ‘good people’, just like us.” Sadly, our “belief bunkers” not only insulate us from engaging the “other”, but they end up distorting reality to the point where we do not even understand ourselves.

It is no surprise then to discover that all these competing “belief bunkers” share the same chief organizing principle, a primal and somewhat involuntary form of logic, the “knowledge of good and evil.” The problem, of course, with this ancient “logic”, is not simply that it is often completely misguided; the biggest problem with the “good versus evil” binary code is that it deceives its users into believing that they are utterly exceptional in their moral vision and convictions. This explains why all the competing “belief bunkers” have the same essential confession: “We are those who affirm and share these ‘good beliefs’ and we stand over and against those misguided (ignorant, evil, homosexual, liberal, communist, fascist, homo-phobic etc.) folks who adhere to a ‘bad’ set of beliefs.” I am not saying that all ideas are created equal, but I am saying that there is a really good chance that you are overestimating the virtue of our your “worldview.” As Robert Burton wisely states in, “Our World Outsmarts Us”, “The best defense against runaway combative ideologies isn’t more facts, arguments and a relentless hammering away at contrary opinions, but rather a frank admission that there are limits to both our knowledge and our assessment of this knowledge.”

In short, the only way to negotiate our societal “belief crisis” is to “slow” our own “roll” concerning our personal level of certainty and incredulity for those who dare to dissent – intellectual humility is not an oxymoron. The question we must face is, what does it mean to live humbly and hospitably with our neighbor? The question comes back, “who is my neighbor?” As I shared with my friends and family the other day, “Christ may say, ‘love your enemy’, but the truth is that I can barely love my friends.”  I suspect that my statement, like the question about the identity of our neighbor, was a kind of diversion tactic. The truth is I have a problem admitting out loud that I have “adversarial” feelings toward my fundamentalist neighbor and my new-age co-worker? So before I can even flirt with Christ’s command to love my adversary, I am going to have to change the rules of engagement. It is time that we start defending our “adversaries” right to be heard, and the best way to do that is invite her over and learn how to listen.

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