Belief

By Robert Wheeler

We all have beliefs, and we all have faith.  Both involve assumptions that certain things will happen in certain situations with sufficient consistency that we can manage our lives with an acceptable degree of predictability and certainty.  Beliefs facilitate our ability to make decisions and take actions without cumbersome thought processes or analyses to consider relevant factors, a basis for decision that is immediately available.  The term belief is used in many different ways, but the accepted definition includes a state of mind or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing, a conviction of the truth.   They include short-range things like I believe it is going to rain tomorrow because Channel 5 News said so and I trust them, to long-range things like I believe that life was started by God because trusted people taught me that. Without such beliefs, our daily activities would be a chaotic struggle to meet immediate needs. The short and long range beliefs become incorporated into a worldview or philosophy of life that provides predictability, value, purpose, and meaning for daily activities.

Many things interplay to form beliefs. First are genetic characteristics called temperament in psychology. For some, why I am here is not as important as should I take an umbrella today. They are by nature more concerned with immediate needs than with whys and wherefores, and they would score lower on personality scales measuring openness and introversion. Others that would score higher on those measures would tend to be concerned with why the rainstorm is predicted and what is the meaning of my life. But, the greatest influence on one’s set of beliefs is social culture. When we come into this world as an infant our temperaments are pretty well formed, however our memory is empty  and strives for input. Early childhood experiences (learning) have a big impact, so our early environment readily forms our first beliefs. Being so dependent at that time on caregivers, makes their beliefs very impressionable. The caregiver’s beliefs and those of teachers and acquaintances are a function of those socially established by the community, called culture, and as we interact with the community its culture affects our expanding beliefs.

Despite differences in individuals, the local environment reflects the social culture that adds an important influence independent from early teachings. If one grows up in a Muslim home with belief that five prayers are required each day but lives in a Christian community, soon it is learned that maybe those five prayers are not required. Throughout known history societies have been dominated by cultural beliefs that usually were based on religious worldview.

Psychology, history, and anthropology indicate that humans have always had a need for explanations of their existence and experiences.  They search for and find patterns and consistencies enabling predictions that make their lives manageable, and store them away in recesses of memory as beliefs.  They are usually based on experience and reliable sources of knowledge.    But for fundamental questions like the influence of a divine power, reliable knowledge is not available so assumption, revelation, speculation, creativity, and imagination fill in.  Culture moves beyond reliable concrete knowledge into the realm of meta-physical knowledge.  Because of the nebulous nature of this realm, reliance is placed on more knowledgeable trusted people who have special insight and can supply esoteric revelations.  Thus, religious beliefs get established that are incorporated into the culture of the social group or nation.

Because of global communications and media accessibility, it is difficult to be unaware of the large number of different societies, each with different culture and religion. Even with the amazing sophistication in civilization resulting from shared cultures, religious based cultural beliefs have provided a vehicle and justification for competition and armed conflict.  Sunnis and Shiites are fighting in Iraq, Muslims and Hindus fight in India, Christians and Pagans fight in Nigeria, Jews and Palestinians fight in Gaza, Anglicans and Protestants fight in Ireland, and etc.  Why do people become so aggressive about their own society’s cultural worldview that it is used to justify violence against non-believers?  Even if their ideology is the true one, does the suffering caused by violence justify such proselyting attempts?  Since individual beliefs are heavily influenced by culture, conflicts in cultural belief creates conflicts in personal beliefs.  

Another impact of conflict in cultural beliefs is a state of confusion and anomie caused by the religion-science issue.  Religions have filled many human needs such as social support, belonging, unconditional acceptance, meaning and purpose, social support, immortality, and salvation, but most important is an explanation of the unknown.  Belief in a divine power such as God for explanation established religious dogma that has become questionable as knowledge about natural forces become available.  For example, thunder and lightning at one time were thought to be caused by a wrathful God showing displeasure.  Science shows now that thunder and lightning are caused by natural weather factors.  That does not rule out God who could still be the originating force, but it does eliminate the need for God to explain thunder and lightning.  Although science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, it has shown that many beliefs based on faith in religious teachings conflict with scientific findings.  The questioning of religious dogma has shaken the foundation of many churches in the United States and is a major reason for their decline in membership and lose of benefits and moral authority for many people. The decrease in religious beliefs is now recognized as the major increase in lawlessness, crime, and violence as well as mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and suicide. Increase in non-traditional churches and non-theistic organizations indicate that people still have a need for traditional benefits of religion but are unsatisfied with what is currently available.

 Personal beliefs and cultural belief are highly interdependent, and their roles affect all phases of human life from reason to carry the umbrella to reason for existence. Because of the inevitable difference in the personal beliefs of individuals and the cultural beliefs of societies there will be conflict. This situation needs to be recognized as a naturally occurring difference in societies that can be complimentary without damaging competition. How nice it would be if media, educators, politicians, and leaders emphasized this as a natural state of affairs and encourage tolerance for the differences and cooperation in belief development. Mental and behavior problems would decrease for individuals, and for societies violence and competition would decrease.