Why do we believe what we do? Why this belief and not that one? Why one to the exclusion of many if not all others? How many times have we REALLY examined the beliefs that we are so sure of? – looked at the evidence in a critical, non-emotional, way? For most, these are uncomfortable questions that initiate all manner of defense mechanisms and that reality alone should raise scores of red flags. If we feel emotional and defensive at the mere mention of examining our beliefs, then examination is exactly what is called for. The emotional deflection is an early warning system that we ignore at our own peril.
The answers to the first question: Why do we believe what we do? Simple – because some one said so. As children we have not yet developed the critical inquiry skills to render an evaluation of any measure. We are totally dependent upon other people for our very survival so it stands to reason that we would accept their philosophies as well as their food. As we grow, however, that dependency should (I use the word ‘should’ here because ‘does’ would be inaccurate in many cases) begin waning as we learn to navigate the world. As we age and realize there are countless other and often competing or even diametrically opposed philosophies, belief systems, religions, political stances, dogmas, we should (‘should’, again for the obvious reason) begin to notice a stirring in us to investigate. I would even posit that very stirring occurs in most all human beings as a matter of biology. But here is where things get sticky. A pollutant has been introduced into the process – fear. If we have been indoctrinated into a system that leverages this extraordinarily powerful emotion as a means to discourage critical inquiry and honest analysis, the next phase of our development is obstructed. Often people will spend the remainder of their lives bound to this adolescent state. A truly frightening monster has been stationed where a healthy progression to the the next logical step in our psychological evolution should be. It is this monster that is pulling the levers of those defense mechanisms I mentioned earlier. It has been postulated that fewer than 1% of the populace has the ability to question the beliefs instilled in them in childhood. I fervently disagree. I believe everyone has the innate ability to do precisely that – were it not for the monster placed in their path. Unfortunately the monster is equipped with an arsenal of highly effective weaponry – fear of death, fear of abandonment by parent, social group, friends, etc., fear of the unknown, fear of conscious eternal torment, et al. Facing down an enemy with this kind of capital is beyond what most believe themselves capable of. So we shutter our minds, switch off criticality as a functional / fundamental element of the process, erect the walls, never realizing the fortress we have built is for keeping the monster within – not for repelling the interlopers without.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us in a state of constant yellow alert, switching to red when the forces of reason are marshaled against us. This is why regular, frequent gatherings of the like minded are so crucial to the survival of the ideology (whether that gathering be in front of a cable news channel or in a temple). The adherents must constantly convince both themselves and each other that in spite of the myriad of other paths, theirs is the more true, more right, more justified than any of the others. Those young, evolving minds who dare to question, who may rightly apprehend that the creed is inexorably tied to the lottery of birth and geography, are roundly rebuked and reminded of the dire consequences of defection. The monster is brought in to tune up the errant apostate. This is why the aphorism, “Don’t talk about religion or politics” is so commonly pressed into service – because those discussions will summon the beast and he is not welcome in polite society. His visage is reserved for the dirty work.
If there is a salient point that can be taken from here, I hope it is this…
As harrowing as it may initially seem, chain up the monster for a time, however short. You may have to trick him (not exceedingly difficult as he is not exceedingly bright, powerful yes, bright? no.) You only need enough time to kick-start the discerning and diagnostic components of your mind and set them in motion. While they may have been locked away and hidden from you all those years ago, while they maybe dormant and atrophied, they were not extinguished. Leave the brute chained in the dark awhile. His deranged howling will eventually give way to a pitiful whimper as you pilgrimage into the bright light of reason and your circle of compassion comes to encircle the whole of humanity.