One small word has held so much power over people and civilizations. It has become the sword and shield for countless armies. It has formed governments, created nations and driven them to ruin at the same time. It has built man up and given him a pillar to stand on. It has drawn people together and separated them beyond the scope of what any other word could do. All this from six little letters…
What is belief? Well, by definition, it is an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists. Or, something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction. Not bad, right? I mean, we all have our firmly held opinions and there are certainly things that we hold as true, real or certainly existing. So how can this be a bad thing?
As with most things that leave people feeling like they trampled into that dark shadowy place, the word belief rarely starts out with any sort of negative connotation. Our beliefs are what give us structure and form in our world. We go about our days in relative peace and tranquility because he believe that certain things are in order. The force of gravity will be working all day. The planet will continue to spin on its course allowing us the schedule of night and day as well the beauty of seasonal change. Our lives will only minutely change throughout the day as the foundations we have created will still be holding strong for many years to come. Without certain beliefs, most of us would feel very lost and confused in our attempts to go about a normal daily life. Imagine for a minute, the mental chaos that would ensue if you honestly had no firm belief that the sun would rise again after you went to bed. Or the anxiety that could be generated from not knowing whether the route you drive everyday will take you home or not. Certain things in our lives are based on proven fact and have become accepted beliefs. Whether it is through our own scientific proof or that of others, there is measurable data that can prove certain laws of nature and allow us the comfort of knowing that these things are under control.
But let’s face it, not all of our beliefs are as well grounded as laws of nature and motion. I would love to say that as a society and a species, we have evolved to the point that we do not hold something in absolute truth until it can be proven to be infallible. However, I can’t and I am not certain I will ever be able to in my lifetime. One of the challenges with this is the idea that a belief has to be infallible. As we look back to the definition, we see that it is something that is accepted as true or real. This acceptance is often gripped with a firmly held opinion. But, as we have all heard in the old adage; opinions are like assholes, everyone has one and nobody wants to hear from it. Is it a good thing to hold onto our beliefs so tightly? Especially those beliefs that are not grounded in proven data. What if we are wrong?
In the first 30 or so years of my life, I was surrounded by a core set of beliefs that had been formed through my youth. These beliefs formed the basis of my religious structure, my societal standards and my ethical behavior. Many of these beliefs I will likely take to my grave as they have yet to be challenged and proven wrong. These include my beliefs in equality for all, loving your fellow man, working hard, playing just as hard and trying my best to be a good person. However, throughout the last 5 years my entire structure of belief has faced a number of shattering blows to its foundation. My thoughts on family values, religious structure, the power of the individual and so much more have been repeatedly challenged and I have been forced to choose between re-examining what I thought was true or holding tight to my opinions simply because it was what I had accepted.
Though it may seem cheesy, one of my favorite examples of this idea comes from the movie “Dogma“. There is a scene where Rufus, the thirteenth apostle, is explaining to Bethany about God’s view on humanity:
Rufus: He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets carried out in His name – wars, bigotry, televangelism. But especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.
Bethany: Having beliefs isn’t good?
Rufus: I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier…
When I first heard this, it was one of those light bulb moments for me. Sure, it was a line in a comedy movie that was ripping on nearly everything that the catholic church holds dear, but it also rang so very true.
Let’s look for a moment at the definition of the word “idea”. A thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action, or, a concept or mental impression.
When we look at the two words “Belief” and “Idea”, we see that there is considerably more room for flexibility in having an idea rather than having an belief. There is room for us to be wrong. Room for us to grow and change. When we sit ourselves firmly in a structure of belief, regardless of what that belief is, it is difficult and at times painful to challenge it. I could go on for hours, possibly days recalling various aspects of our human history that have been tainted by belief and the refusal to accept that it may not be true. The hundreds of wars that have been waged in the name of a particular belief, the murders and genocides that have come from the refusal to acknowledge that a certain belief may not be all that it was thought to be, and the countless number of lives that have been hurt, damaged or destroyed simply because we presumed that our beliefs trumped their ideas.
Think back through your life, how many times have you been faced with other people attempting to push their beliefs onto you? Whether it is your choice of religion, your lifestyle, your thoughts, your way of expressing yourself, or the myriad of other ways that might get you classified as “different”. How did it make you feel? Did it raise you up? Did it make you feel better about yourself? Or, did it tear you down and make you question yourself? Now shift your focus and think about the times that you have tried to push your beliefs onto others. What was your objective? Did you think you could somehow better them? Were you really that certain that you were right? How did it make you feel when they disagreed and rebelled?
Regardless of what side you are on of the argument, it often becomes just that, an argument. No winners, all losers. Resentment and frustration brew up on both sides as neither one wants to back down and see the possibility that they may not have the whole story or the right answer. Both sides are stuck in the rut of their own opinions and the refusal to accept that there may be more to the truth than what they know.
So how do you change a belief? Well, by definition, I am not sure that you can as long as you continue to classify it as a belief. This is where the “idea” comes into play. What if you were to suspend your beliefs and view them simply as ideas. Instead of holding it to be true or real that your religion or lifestyle is the correct one, you view it as a possible course of action. In place of viewing the actions, thoughts, or expressions of another as definitively wrong, you view them as the possible outcomes of the suggestions that have been placed along their path. If we start to view the world in this frame of ideas rather than beliefs, we can see that there are a whole lot more options available to us as a society and as a species.
There does not need to be one narrow road that lead to a final, perfect destination. Each of us has our own road and our own idea of what steps need to be taken. Every major religion that I can think of was founded on the ideas of loving yourself, loving your fellow man and loving the world around you. If we can all hold to these ideas and refrain from building elaborate belief structures around them, them maybe just maybe, we can see that we are all amazing creations in our own ways.
Do you find yourself holding ideas or beliefs? What beliefs are you wiling to suspend?