What I believe isn’t important. The fact that I can put order to my thoughts, sort them into opinions and fan them into beliefs is hardly impressive. In fact, such thinking is unavoidable. It’s what our highly evolved human brains do. They compare and contrast and judge in an endless attempt to make sense of the world around us. Believing is as automatic as walking or talking or sneezing, and about as noteworthy.
There was a time when I considered my beliefs to be something more than just an assemblage of thoughts. I mistook them for something much more important. I thought they were me.
At various times in my life I believed I was a Catholic, a Unitarian, an agnostic and a secular humanist. I was a liberal, a feminist, an environmentalist and a pacifist. I took on new identities in search of a higher self and, down deep, I think, to distance myself from certain vulgarities that characterize the human condition – qualities like greed and aggression. By connecting certain thoughts, by cobbling together new identities, I convinced myself and others that those unwholesome human traits couldn’t possibly define me. They defined thieves and rapists and murderers. I was above all that, and had a portfolio of beliefs to prove it.
I was not alone in my quest adopt a new identity. Everyone in the world was doing it right along with me. Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. Socialists, Communists and Greens. Progressive Unionists, Christian Democrats – some crafting identities the way college freshmen craft double majors. We were all attempting to rise above our inherited animal nature, but rising above it didn’t make it go away. We were still greedy and aggressive despite our deeply held beliefs. We were walking contradictions, projecting our inner conflicts onto the world; in fact, we were the world, and that’s why it was such a mess.
Having wandered from one belief system to another, I thought I had explored life’s biggest questions, but I was only asking questions for which my beliefs had provided me pat answers. I had yet to ask myself the most radical questions, the ones that would eventually smash my beliefs to bits. They were questions no one seemed to be asking, questions like:
- If a clash of beliefs can be found at the root of all the violence in the world, then shouldn’t we question their validity – not the validity of any particular belief, but belief itself?
- Separated from our beliefs, would we lose our moral bearing? Would we fall prey to our baser instincts and rock the world with depraved acts of violence? Or is this precisely the behavior we exhibit under the hypnotic spell our beliefs?
Imagine a city whose buildings have been leveled by an earthquake. That’s the image I had of my mind after my beliefs had been toppled. I felt like I could see forever in every direction. The towering thought structures that stood as my beliefs no longer blocked my view of the world. I felt a disorienting sense of freedom. Liberated from the beliefs that had conferred my identity, I felt blissfully anonymous. I was a person without a suffix, without an –ist to affirm my existence. I had unwittingly joined the only club that matters. It numbers in the billions, doesn’t charge dues and welcomes career criminals. It’s called the human race.
It’s been years since I disposed of my beliefs, and I have yet to turn into a sociopathic killer. On the contrary, I’ve developed a deep affection for my planet mates now that I’m not measuring them by the yardstick of my beliefs. Gone are the walls of thought that prevented me from seeing who they really are. Gone are the lectures I’d give in an attempt to raise their consciousness. And gone, mercifully, is my compulsion to cast them as evil so that I can appear virtuous.
However sacred or profound, a belief is nothing more than a thought, and thought is never the thing it describes. It can only hint at the wonders it attempts to touch. Sermons about love garble love’s ineffable beauty. Speeches about unity clank after the first syllable. Courting belief is a prescription for a virtual, not a virtuous life.
Photo by Stephen Brace
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19 thoughts on “The Futility of Belief”
Great post – really enjoyed reading this and I agree that too often we “adopt” certain mindsets and beliefs which we observe those around us nursing.
It takes a great deal of self introspection and breaking away from the norm to be able to open our minds.
I would like to add that in some cases, positive beliefs are vital. You rightly said that these affect our thoughts which in turn can shape our behaviour, our character and eventually how we interact and influence the world..
Ami, I’d be interested to know which of your beliefs you consider vital.
…do go on, please.
…there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one
But, regardless of what you are saying, you still believe something. Your values are determined by your beliefs. Maybe you don’t believe in a particular religion, but you haven’t stopped believing in something – you clearly believe in love and respect for your fellow man. It just doesn’t have a label. That’s why you’re not a “sociopath” – well, you obviously believe that being a sociopath is wrong. Some people don’t share that belief. See what I mean?
Tom, I’m saying that belief is not important. It’s just a bundle of thoughts.
Does one have to believe in love to love? Does one have to believe in compassion to be compassionate?
Thought is not a prerequisite for action, is it?
Well, I would say that thought IS a prerequisite for action. I think that’s what makes us different from animals – animals act based on instinct often, but we have that free will, and I think that thought is what drives our free will. So before we act on something, we have to believe that it’s the right thing to do.
Enjoying this discussion, by the way!
I appreciate this chance to connect, Tom, and respect your opinion.
Beliefs are only thoughts, and thoughts are not real. Thought is merely our interpretation of reality. Big difference. Whether I believe in God or the Easter Bunny or the virtues of an anchovy pizza, I’m just registering an opinion. I’m just interpreting reality. The staunchest relgious belief is just an opinion and no more.
You say that thought is a prerequisite for action. Does one need to believe in God to experience God? I say no. I say thought turns God into a concept and prevents one from experienceing God directly.
Jiddu Krishnamurti, a renowned spiritual teacher, once said that acknowledging the limits of thought is a first step toward intelligence. Powerful stuff.
This is at the basis of my spirituality and seems to align with what you have written above;
When I do good,
I feel good;
When I do bad,
I feel bad,
And that is my religion.
General Semantics says that describing anything in language or thought denies 99% of its essence (sorry, can’t find a citation for it ;(
Our thoughts are quite feeble and chaotic, we constantly delete, distort and generalize, and we have a strong confirmation bias that tends to affirm our prior beliefs.
Therefore in my opinion true spirituality will never be found in language or thought, but rather in a pre-verbal, more somatic feeling that exists before and independent of any differences between all the different religious beliefs.
Thanks for an inspiring post,
Well said, Jonas. As so many spiritual teachers are careful to say, words are merely pointers to that which exists beyond our intellect. Took me a long time to get that.
That’s so true. Beliefs are just concrete bunch of thoughts. You need to do some big labour before you can actually get out of a belief. It’s not simple, yet, it’s possible and it can be rearranged and reassessed.
This is great. I had a similar experience a couple of years ago when I decided to look beyond the ‘beliefs’ I had been sticking with throughout my life up to that point. It was an experience of complete clarity, like what you described. I started seeing things and learning more, and haven’t looked back since. Thanks for this post!
Seems like we both took the same left turn. Thanks for sharing your experience, Nate.
I totally agree what we believe isnt important its what we do that is important. Even though most of dont know our own roots on why we do it. Mainly it is threw the subconscious mind setting us up for failure or success depending on our past, in a situation before we even know it. Sometimes before we enter the room. I Love that story but there is soo much more I could add. unfortunately I only have a restricted amount of time but Fortunately for anyone that would like to make their life more awesome, I have a website called yourawesomelife.com If your curious on changing your subconscious to chang your life Foreever!
This metamorphosis of abandoning mere belief in the search for unhindered Reality has (by my reading) been undergone by some of the best thinkers we know of! I like that you don’t deny Reality, you don’t go to the other extreme and make the inconsistent claim that the whole world is subjective, you just assert that Reality is too big for us to fully comprehend.
Over and over, two people will see the very same real truth, try to interpret that truth in their thoughts, oversimplify the truth in the process, and come to differing oversimplified versions of the real truth. Argument ensues. I love your last paragraph: “… thought is never the thing it describes. It can only hint at the wonders it attempts to touch. Sermons about love garble love’s ineffable beauty. Speeches about unity clank after the first syllable. Courting belief is a prescription for a virtual, not a virtuous life.”
It takes real humility before God, nature, and the universe to recognize that we cannot encompass it in our little minds. We have to live with our hearts open, rather than trying to package the universe into a belief system that fits comfortably inside our small selves. I guess I’d say that I do believe many things, yes, but I do not place limits or fences around those things.
I believe I exist, but there’s so much more to know about my own self! A more controversial example is that I personally do think that the man we call Jesus was literally Divine, but don’t freak out just yet–I don’t place limits around that, nor do I ignore contradictory observations. I’ve been open, and this is what I see. Deity is way more than any religion could ever describe. I keep myself open to Reality, and try to live according to whatever it shows me. This doesn’t mean I have to disagree with Muslims, or Jews, or Atheists, even tho they disagree with my open-ended belief…I just keep myself open to them too, so I can learn their side of the picture. I don’t accept *no* beliefs, but rather, I keep myself open to whatever Reality may be reflected in *all* beliefs, simple as they may be. But even then, while I don’t deny that some things are real/true and others are not, and while I try to learn which things are real and in what ways are they real, even then I still don’t say, “Ok, now I know what’s real,” and keep out any further contradictory observations. Reality is bigger than that.
Justin, thank you for posting your thoughtful response. Your openmindedness is a gift to all you come in contact with.
Yes, we must “live with our hearts open,” rather than attempting to package the immensity of life into a belief system. How I see it is this: beliefs, at best, are pointers toward that which cannot be captured with our intellect. And for us to set foot in this territory beyond thought, we must shed our beliefs the way a rocket ship must shed its booster rocket to soar higher into space. By clinging to belief, we remain trapped in the realm of thought. By allowing our beliefs to define us, aren’t we misinterpreting the wisdom of Jesus and other great spiritual teachers?
Wow, thanks for such a fast reply! I love that analogy of the booster rocket. A rocket does need its booster at first, and we do need to start with belief to propel us in the direction of reality…but once we’re propelled in that direction, if we don’t shed simplistic belief and move on, then we’ll just fall back to earth, and never get to enjoy the wonders of the universe!
I think there are very few (if any) great spiritual teachers who wouldn’t groan at how their teachings are used today. Their followers tend to repeat the same mistakes as the people who persecuted the person they follow! Christians often behave like the ancient Jews who persecuted Jesus, and in turn, those Jews were behaving rather like the Egyptian priests who opposed Moses…and so on. History repeats itself when people try to simplify great teachings into a limited belief. You nicely said that you think my openmindedness is a gift…well, I just wish others saw it that way :P Some people can be quite aggressive against openmindedness,
Hm, I know this usually isn’t the place for this, but can I ask a favor? It’s hard feeling alone when everyone wants u to limit ur life and follow their oversimplified code. And it’s hard when u have a plan to help ppl grow to become more, but you have trouble getting that plan off the ground. As the first stage of my plan, I’ve written a fiction story that’s meant to slowly walk people thru the process of opening their minds, in a gradual fun way, thru story. It’s very important to me that the story be available for free with donations only. When people read it, they almost always simply love it, but it’s just hard getting people started on it in the first place :P So ya, the favor I want to ask, is if you’d check it out yourself :) And if you end up liking it, direct sensible people to it :) You can get there just by clicking on my name, I think