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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

About Belief Systems

Our belief systems enable us to function in the social and natural worlds, and yet, our belief systems may also be a trap, a self-limiting system of ideas. The deconstructionist movement has tried to break down belief systems in an effort to discover what it means to be truly free, yet our minds may be incapable of liberating us from the intricate webs of beliefs within which we have ensnared ourselves.

About Belief Systems

It seems as if everyone must have a belief system. Believing we do not have a belief system may simply be another belief system. Belief systems are extraordinarily complex; they are designed to help us explain to ourselves how the world around us works.

Our belief systems help us to anticipate what may happen next, to be prepared for life’s everyday experiences. They provide a cushion and a refuge against trauma and disease.

Given all the benefits of possessing a belief system many people may wonder why anyone would want to challenge their own belief systems. Challenging our conventional belief systems makes us outcasts, renegades. When we challenge our belief systems we are challenging our family, friends, cultures and societies, all of which have extremely powerful defense mechanisms established to protect their cherished belief systems.

As individuals we often cling to our belief systems with a terrible passion, we are too often afraid to challenge them, afraid to learn what may lie beyond the narrow scope of our current comprehension of the worlds we live in. We defend our belief systems vehemently because we depend upon our beliefs for our sense of security.

Since most of our belief systems are composed of elements adopted from our families, friends, societies and cultures, our reflexive defenses of our personal belief systems also act as defense mechanisms to protect our social and cultural belief systems. We act like antibodies in an immune system, protecting our social and cultural belief systems from any perceived threat or challenge.

Our societies and cultures typically teach us how to defend our belief systems, we are often taught to defend our beliefs with brutality. Our capacities to defend our personal, societal and cultural belief systems logically through discourse, dialogue and debate may be severely limited by the willingness of our adversaries to listen to our arguments.

One of the key defense mechanisms of most belief systems is a deliberately indoctrinated, often willful ignorance.

When we are defending our belief systems we too often choose to disregard anything that we do not recognize as a part of our beliefs. This helps us to avoid thinking about the merits of our opponents’ arguments; if we never even consider their arguments then our beliefs may be safe from challenge or change.

When we cannot ignore serious challenges to our precious belief systems we escalate our defenses and may impose sanctions to limit the efforts of our antagonists to educate us regarding their beliefs. Sanctions typically deprive our opponents of something critical, such as commerce, education, access to health care, and even such basic necessities as food or shelter. We do everything in our power to cripple the people who challenge our beliefs; we try to disable them in order to prevent them from having the strength and resources to continue to challenge our beliefs.

Ostracization is one of the most terrible forms of sanctions imposed upon people who challenge our beliefs. The company of our families, friends and societies is an essential part of most people’s lives. Those who seriously challenge the beliefs of their own societies and cultures are often ostracized, excluded from their societies in order to protect their societies from further challenge.

Ostracization has three basic forms, in the gentlest form we simply ignore anyone who has been ostracized. We allow them no opportunity to interact with us by refusing to respond to them, by treating them as if they simply do not exist. Homeless people are treated this way every day.

In the intermediate level of ostracization we imprison or expel those people whom we deem to be too dangerous to our social or cultural beliefs, particularly with regard to our political or religious beliefs. We may deport them, send them to prisons, or lock them away in mental hospitals; we may even lock up their minds with chemicals.

Alcoholism and other debilitating forms of substance abuse cripple potential revolutionaries who might otherwise seriously challenge our social and cultural institutions. The prevalence of theses substances in our societies helps ensure that many disenfranchised persons eager to challenge our societies’ beliefs will disable themselves by their own inadvertent choice, a neat, convenient, economical solution.

The most extreme form of ostracization is execution. Those persons who represent the greatest threat to our social and cultural stability are simply murdered.

Who is being ostracized today? Who is in prison or locked away in mental wards? Who have we medicated into abject submission? Who have we killed?

All societies seem to employ sanctions such as these in their self-defense.

Our belief systems may be our most precious possessions. People will choose to die for what they believe in. People will accept imprisonment or torture rather than give up their beliefs.

And yet, our belief systems have absolutely no validity, they are unreal.

It appears to be impossible to validate any belief systems.

Philosophers agree that all of what we perceive may only be illusions. There is no way to prove we are not simply dreaming all of our experiences. There is no way to prove that any of our experiences are real, therefore there are no valid, external contexts through which we can validate our personal or societal beliefs.

The best we can do is to have faith in our beliefs, whatever our beliefs may be.

Scientific rationalism is just another belief system that cannot prove it references an objective external reality. Even though scientific rationalism became popular because it was perceived as a means of escaping from the infirm ground of religious faiths, scientific rationalism cannot prove, with all its precise measurements and data, that any part of its own system of beliefs is real or valid.

While science allows us to more accurately describe the mechanics of the worlds we live in, science cannot prove these worlds are real.

We are stuck with having to have faith in science.

But what really happens if we allow our belief systems to be challenged?

Do we really need to defend our beliefs so vehemently?

In the deconstructionist movement philosophers are exploring tearing down all of our belief systems in an attempt to reduce everything to a common ground free of misconceptions and self-serving systems of belief. But those belief systems which may appear to be valid or useful to us must also be challenged and torn down, because all belief systems may be invalid, they are products of thousands of years of evolution, and mistakes creep in which appear to be self-evident truths, such as the earth is flat, or that the sun revolves around the earth.

There may be no belief systems which are valid or incorrupt.

When mystics tell us to live in the present moment, to live in the now, they are advising us to abandon our beliefs. All belief systems incorporate concepts or ideas about the worlds we experience. All conceptual systems are inherently unreal because they exist only in our minds; they consist of codifications of our past experiences, references to realities which cannot even be proven to exist.

We cannot be living in the present moment if we are living in our ideas about the present moment. Our belief systems always keep us at least one step removed from the present; they are a sort of dissociative mechanism because there is a break between what is still considered to be ‘objective reality’ and the mental worlds we inhabit through our belief systems’ conceptual and perceptual filters.

There appears to be no concrete, objective reality whatsoever.

This is one of the hardest ‘truths’ for anyone to seriously consider. All of what we consider to be objective reality may be illusionary. Our belief systems, with no objective reality to anchor them, can only be taken on faith. Even though most people will assume their personal beliefs are valid and based on a quantifiable, definable, external reality, it would appear that all belief systems are entirely subjective; they may be completely personal to each individual.

This is why collective cultural and societal belief systems are so popular. When a large group of people agree on a common set of beliefs they appear to validate one another and lend strength to the illusion that their beliefs are real or true. Culturally institutionalized belief systems provide most members of their societies and cultures with a sense of stability and security, a firm ground upon which to stand.

When we abandon or attack the illusionary firm ground of our cultural and societal belief systems we risk losing everything we possess. We risk the loss of our social networks and all of their support. We risk losing our illusions of an objective reality. With these losses we lose any context with which to support our personal beliefs.

Reality is then up for grabs.

The best we can possibly do in these circumstances is to have faith in ourselves, while allowing others the liberty of their own beliefs without allowing ourselves to feel threatened.

When we codify our own beliefs and try to impose them on others we seem to inevitably encounter conflict. When we impose our beliefs on others we risk becoming people who act with ignorance, hatred or cruelty.

Our belief systems are indefensible, they therefore require no defenses.

When we can relax our feverishly slippery hold upon our own beliefs we can be at peace with everyone around us because we need no longer feel threatened by anyone whose views are different from our own.