Man is what he believes. – Anton Chekhov
Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true. – Francis Bacon
What we wish, that we readily believe. – Demosthenes
To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection. – H Poincare
Tell a man there are 300 billion stars in the universe and he’ll believe you. Tell him a bench has wet paint on it and he’ll have to touch to be sure.

As far as we know, human beings are the most intelligent form of life on this planet. This allows us to understand more of the world than other creatures, but it also makes us aware of the dangers of life and the apparent realities of death.

In order to protect ourselves from the enormity of what surrounds us, we create within ourselves abstract concepts that we project onto the real world; in this way we make ourselves feel safe. For example, we know that nuclear war could, in an instant, destroy us all, but in our minds we construct a belief that those in power, on both sides, would never instigate such an event. Similarly, when we go to sleep at night, we believe that our hearts will still be beating in the morning and that the sun will again rise above the horizon. For most people, these beliefs, although artificial, are essential for our sanity and survival.

The hopes and beliefs of an individual aren’t based on reality but begin to be formed during childhood, through what we are taught or learn through personal experiences. And the concepts that each person acquires is dependent on the workings of that individual’s mind, which is partly determined by genetics. As a consequence, young people can be lumbered with concepts that are difficult to escape from in later life.

Types of Belief

Everybody should believe in something – I believe I’ll have another drink.
The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence that it is not utterly absurd; indeed, in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more often likely to be foolish than sensible. – Bertrand Russell
Christian, n.: One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbour.
Credo quia absurdum est (I believe because it is absurd). – Tertullian
Nothing is so firmly believed as that which we least know. – Michel de Montaigne

There are basically three directions of belief, with a wide range of others in between. However, as with all things human, many people live with and accept contradictory concepts within their own minds. For many, especially those of a high intelligence, such contradictions add to the richness and diversity of their lives.

In one corner we have humanism, the belief that human beings are the highest life forms in the universe, a concept usually accompanied by atheism. Taken to its extreme, this idea considers the universe itself to be created by the human will, that ‘man is man made’. Personally, I find this difficult to accept, especially when humanity is currently unable to feed all those that live on this planet, let alone travel to other worlds.

In the second corner we have the Old Religions or the various forms of paganism, those prehistoric beliefs based on nature, often accompanied by a panoply of deities and an Earth goddess. These have become more popular with modern environmental concerns, where individuals are seen as being less important than a complete and living world. The figure of Satan, the Horned One, seems to hover around paganism, mainly because later faiths label it as ‘evil’. Perhaps they object to the honest acceptance that within all of us there exists a certain ‘darkness’, a fact that the modern establishment often overlooks.

Finally, in the third corner, we have the New Religions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These are monotheistic and attach more importance to individual ‘salvation’ than to nature and the planet as a whole. Instead, they seek to solve the world’s problems by changing the character of the individual. They assume that human beings are a flawed element in creation and that only God can correct the faults. No one can argue with the fact that fixing human attitudes would solve our problems but no-one can agree on the method. As with all beliefs, there are a vast range of different ideas within these faiths.

Modern Concepts

We commit the greatest evil by trying to escape from evil.
If men and women cease to believe in God so that the very idea of God passes out of their minds they will come to resemble a race of very clever monkeys… and their ultimate fate will be too horrible to contemplate. – Father Karl Rahner
The price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that someday they might force their beliefs on us. – Mario Cuomo
When men and women cease to believe in God, they do not believe in nothing. They believe in anything. – Gilbert K Chesterton

In our modern world there is a tendency to ‘pick and mix’ beliefs from various concepts. For example, the ‘political correctness’ of the West derives from Christian socialism, which in England came from the Methodist’s understanding of the words of Christ. Unlike earlier teachers, Christ puts the individual at the centre of things, saying ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’, ‘judge not lest ye be judged’ and ‘let him that is without sin cast the first stone’. In the story of the widow’s mite and in the parable of the talents he makes it clear that everyone is of equal value in the eyes of God and that a person’s motivations are of much more importance than their actual ability. This is reflected in the modern view that all are of equal value, irrespective of gender, sexuality, race, faith or physical abilities.

Interestingly, the ‘politically correct’ view has now become detached from its origins and in some quarters the concept of any kind of religious belief is considered unacceptable. This leaves us in a world that appears entirely self-seeking and lacking in any spiritual depth.

The Effects of Belief

Do not merely believe in miracles, rely on them.
I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own Church. – Thomas Paine
I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forego their use. – Galileo Galilei
We must believe that it is the darkest before the dawn of a beautiful new world. We will see it when we believe it. – Saul Alinsky

Beliefs, whatever they are, often have a profound effect on people. They enable individuals to do things that they would never be able to do otherwise. They effectively rewire the mind and can empower the person to believe they can achieve anything for their ‘cause’. However, the effects aren't always positive, as witnessed by the fact that some of the worst atrocities in world history have been committed in the name of religion.

Most people are locked within what they learned to believe in as a child. Sometimes, however, we go through life-changing experiences that shatter the framework of all that we held as sacred. Such beliefs may then be lost forever or we may explore them from a new angle, discovering facets that we never knew before. Sometimes we may even learn to live without belief, to throw aside the crutch of our own making and stand free and alone, strong in a simple belief that we can never really be in control of our lives or our destiny.

So should we deliberately step out of our ‘comfort zone’ and seek things that challenge the way we see things? For some, this is the road to enlightenment, to a freedom of the soul and of the mind. For others it’s the way of a nightmare, where all that has held their lives together is torn apart and they are lost forever. Only you know the path you must walk.

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©Ray White 2006.