“Correct belief” is at the center of many religious dialogues. But our common-sense understanding of “beliefs” is often incorrect. Thus, before debating the accuracy or truth behind religious beliefs, it can be helpful to see if we really understand exactly what a “belief” is.
At the bottom of this post I list some of the important counter-intuitive phenomena which show that our everyday understanding of “beliefs” is wrong. In fact, if you agree with this list, I think you will become uncomfortable with the notion of “belief” altogether.
For many religions, correct belief is required to belong: Belief in a certain deity; Belief in the authority of a founder or scriptures; Belief in some theological position or purported past or future event. These beliefs may not only be crucial for belonging but may even be necessary even for eternal life.
Some religions stress that action is more important than belief — but even for them, often an action is felt to be non-efficacious without correct belief behind it: Being good is not good enough if you don’t believe in Jesus, for instance. Prayers are felt to be inefficacious without correct theological beliefs.
So it is no wonder that many debates about religion center on the coherence of beliefs. Yet in religion, most of the debated beliefs are beliefs that can not be empirically tested. And so the debates are frustrated from the very beginning.
But is “belief” what we think it is? Perhaps it is important to try and understand the very nature of belief (the functions of beliefs) before we argue about their truth, coherence or logic — especially if these religious beliefs can’t be tested in the first place.
See what you think of my list — do you have any corrections or additions?
Counter-Intuitive Belief Principles
- All of us are inconsistent: We all hold incoherent, inconsistent, illogical, unreasonable and even contrary beliefs.
- Our minds are partitioned/compartmentalized: Everyone’s mind is partitioned. [Compartmentalization]
- We have Many Selves: Our “selves” is fluid, fluctuating, inconsistent — as if we have multiple selves. [Many Selves]
- All our beliefs are linked to emotions: All beliefs come with emotional weighing — no beliefs are pure logic without emotion.
- Our beliefs are Multi-Valent: We hold beliefs at various strengths. Beliefs are not on or off. [Spectrum of Belief]
- Beliefs don’t disappear: [Spectrum of Belief]
- Beliefs serve as more than truth function: Many beliefs are not used as cognitive maps, but as signals, manipulation, meaning-glue or …. To expect a person to actually believe what they say, may show that you misunderstand how people actually use beliefs. [Tooth Fairy: sacrificing reason, Believe: truth vs function, Bursting Beliefs]
- Our minds often make our beliefs, we don’t: Beliefs are often made after the fact — after the mind has changed. The brain forms beliefs, in complex interactions with others to accommodate its desired effect.
- What we confess and what we do are often different: This insight is common sense. Sometime it is because we are lazy or hypocrites or deceptive manipulators or … sometimes it is because of the complex issues listed above. [Most Christians Don’t Believe]
- Inconsistency can be adaptive: all the characteristics of belief listed above most likely serve some beneficial evolutionarily adaptive advantage. Since truth is often not the primary function of belief, having inconsistent beliefs may not be as dysfunctional as we imagine.