Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Thoughts on Belief

"I think it's better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier." -Dogma

I love that movie. It's so true.

As we prepare for the presidential debate tonight, I've been dusting off my long-standing, ever-evolving "Thoughts on Belief". I started really thinking about this during high school, when I was an evangelical Southern Baptist. I never really liked to proselytize, however. When I pondered why this made me uncomfortable, I eventually realized it was because if I was "witnessing" to someone, I was expecting them to listen to me and potentially change their mind to agree with me and whatever I was saying. However, I acknowledged that I wasn't willing to do the same. In other words, if I was preaching Christianity to a Buddhist, I wasn't necessarily willing to listen with an open mind to what they had to say back to me.

Out of this initial observation, I drew the conclusion that because I believed I was right, it was impossible for me to truly listen to another person's side and consider their (opposing) beliefs as if they were right. Thus, I could debate with them, and talk with them, and have exchange of ideas, but I would still leave convinced that my side was right, because I believed in it strongly. Only if I were able to suspend my own beliefs, or hold them less strongly, would I be able to truly listen to opposing beliefs.

Over the years, I've made many refinements to my initial theory (which, I admit is not original--I'm sure a philosopher probably reached similar conclusions 2000 years ago). Several corollaries emerged.

One: if I hold beliefs strongly, and someone else has starkly opposing beliefs that they hold strongly, and we debate, it is extremely easy to identify the person with their beliefs. You are no longer my friend A who happens to worship at X temple or vote for Y candidate, you are now an Xist or a Yican. If you identify the person with their beliefs, then the argument becomes intensely personal FAST. This is where a lot of internet chatroom nonsense happens, I think. I can't see you on the internet, so if you endorse a political theory I despise, and you think my theory is bunk, then suddenly we're calling each other Nazis and making comments about your mother's marital status when you were conceived.

Two: if I have a strong belief, and you present excellent evidence which directly contradicts my belief, I will make every excuse and rationalization possible against your evidence. It's one thing to argue for my side and present my own evidence, it's another to stand firmly by a belief despite TONS of evidence to the contrary. See the quote at the top. I'm emotionally invested in my belief, so your attack on it feels personal to me. I can't be wrong, because that feels bad, so I'll do everything I can to protect my belief.

Three: I think this is a normal human thought mechanism (forgive me my Freud-level hubris for applying my personal observations to ALL OF MANKIND). If I have opposing thoughts from you, then that implies that there is more than one way to think about that issue. I've made a decision, though, so I need to defend it in order to defend myself. For me to acknowledge that you are right, I have to change my mind, or continue to just be wrong (and who does that? Who says man, those Hindus have the right idea about God and the afterlife, so I'll just continue to be Muslim?) I'll go even farther and say that I think this is where a LOT of wars come about.

Four: I think this goes beyond just random beliefs and applies to things like choosing political candidates. As soon as we pick our candidate, the statements made by the opposing candidate seem completely ludicrous. How could they say that, are they retarded? we yell at the TV during a debate. What we don't usually think is that the opposing team is yelling the same thing at our candidate during that same debate. How many people wear a candidate's pin or sport their bumper sticker, yet will say openly and freely "Their ideas on such and such issue are really not so good" unless they then say "but the other guy's are even worse!"? I usually only hear such talk from people who are lukewarm, not the redhots.

I've never really put these thoughts into written form before, and so I apologize if they are rambling or completely unoriginal--it's just something I've been thinking about for years, including my philosopher days of college.

Now for a public service announcement: Go vote during this presidential election. Whether you vote Republican, Democrat, or third party, I don't care, just do it. I'm not sure if you can still register in some states or not, but if you can go do it.

And try to have a little tolerance for those who vote the other way. After all, whichever candidate wins November 4th, there will be close to half of the country's population who will be very disappointed.


Anonymous said...

Good post; thanks for that, because it's exactly what I needed to read today.

There is a person on another blog (where I also posted anonymously) who is trying to get the blog host to release my IP address, I assume so they can track me down (but perhaps only for intimidation purposes). This feels a lot like McCarthyism to me, especially since nothing I posted was a personal attack but simply a differing political opinion.

I have learned from this that it's best not to talk politics or religion at all to people with strong beliefs (especially oppposing beliefs), because some of them may actually turn out to be vindictive nut cases.

Tiny Shrink said...

That is also very true. I've had fights with close friends because of differing beliefs, and I had a guy stalk me all around a message board website to dog me because my political beliefs weren't in line with his.

I promise, I don't care what your IP address is. Thanks for the comment.

pharmacy chick said...

Great post, and I have struggled with similar feelings, especially the part about not being particularily willing to listen to their beliefs, knowing they are in opposition to my own. I am what I am and I am firm rock solid in my beliefs. I have intelligently and faithfully investigated the claims of my beliefs and know them to be true. Therefore if somebody wants to know about them I will share them, but I am not going to chase them down, NOR am I overly willing to hear prostelyzing from somebody else. Therefore, I wont force feed my beliefs on somebody else if they won't force feed any on me.