Everybody has a belief system. It's just sometimes difficult to make out what it is.
The simplest and plainest choice is religion. I don't say that in a denigrating way; it's just that religion offers itself up specifically as a belief system, so it's not surprising when many people use it that way.
Of course "religion" is a sprawling category. We've recently been having a bit of a flareup in the fracas between Christianity and its younger sibling Islam that has been going on more or less since the end of the 11th century. I had a friend recently who was a member of a cult. "Cult" can be defined loosely as "a religion that is new or not yet established." Part of the appeal of her cult seemed to me equal parts unreasonableness and difficulty. Of course it used to be difficult to be a Christian, too. I need to investigate books about the morality of Jesus...the problem is that the subject is so hoary and the literature so vast that it's tough to find clear, well-written primers. Even single religions are sprawling categories, turns out.
Anti-religion can also be a belief system, which is amusing in a way. A few years back there was a fad for atheism—you remember Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, the late Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great (subtitled, in case the title was too subtle for anyone, "How Religion Poisons Everything"), and Sam Harris's acidic The End of Faith? (Speaking of faith, don't put too much of it in Amazon's new "bestseller" tags—The End of Faith might be a #1 Bestseller, but only in the hoppin' "Rationalist Philosophy" category.) The fad faded a bit when people realized some of the so-called New Atheists were advocating anti-religion with religious fervor.
It's not uncommon for people to build their belief systems around political principles. Or (speaking of selling) even economic ones. A surprising number of older people still "deify" capitalism, for example (recently, the number of younger American adults who approve of capitalism has fallen into a minority). The defining characteristic of human beings is our tendency to split into two sides, so—just as Superman (b. in Action Comics #1, 1938) required Lex Luthor (b. Action Comics #23, 1940), capitalism had to have communism. That fight has gotten faded and shopworn (Marxism's standard got tattered before capitalism's did). As has Superman's popularity—he's struggled to maintain an audience in recent decades.
I have a good friend who for a long time seemed to claim that everything, even art, rested on the centrality of political ideas. He seemed to relax that years ago, but when I asked him about it, he admitted that his beliefs had gotten so radical that he had to stop talking about them because of other peoples' reactions. I have a few convictions like that too—ideas so far out of the mainstream that they strike people right off the bat as startling, bordering on crazy. A recent essay by a writer I like, Alain de Botton, said that we should all ask potential partners when we first start dating, "and how are you crazy?"
You don't have to look very far to realize that hedonism has a pretty strong sway as a belief system right now—personal pleasure and self-interest as the guiding principle of life. It usually pals around with its friends relativism and narcissism. This is in contrast to past eras when virtue, discipline, and honor had the upper hand in popularity. That sounds like it had to be good, but not necessarily. In the sixteenth century, the French aristocracy literally decimated itself (i.e., one in ten died) by dueling, and in the antebellum South thousands of men died essentially voluntarily, protecting their honor. "Death is not sufficient to deter men who make it their glory to despise it," wrote Joseph Addison, in Vol. II of his Spectator. We, like the Greeks and Romans, have no enthusiasm for dueling whatsoever, and it is absent in modern Western society at any class level. (Virtue and discipline are shaky with us too, though.) George Washington, a thoroughly uninteresting fellow apart from his central role in founding a fledgling nation, evidently spent his life cultivating his virtue and rectitude with great humorlessness.
George Washington was also the Bill Gates or Michael Bloomberg of Colonial America—his net worth was approximately equivalent to $100 million today, and he was the richest American of his era. Today, money alone is the belief system of many. Be rich and then be richer, and never mind anything else. Wealth disparity, which has greatly accelerated since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, makes that almost prudent—it's getting better and better to be rich and harder (and more dangerous) to be poor, almost with every passing month.
I have another friend who seems very much to have taken the hippie ethos of the 1960s as his permanent value system—Flower Power, peace, and free love. Even in the '80s I was wondering where that went...that is, when exactly did peace and love get replaced by sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll, and hippies with punks? That was a change that not a lot of people seemed to notice much. I once tried to write a spoof song to the tune of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" (Peter, Paul, and Mary, 1962) called "Where Have All the Hippies Gone?" But unfortunately lyrics aren't my métier.
It's really fascinating to me how various beliefs tend to cluster together. It sometimes seems to defy consistency.
Two great minds who thought alike: ethologists (and Nobel laureates) Nikolaas Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz. Most people do not approve of animal behaviorism being applied to themselves, however.
Science and the scientific method is the core of some peoples' beliefs. This might include people who have specific scientific or academic disciplines as the locus of their belief systems. When I was young I developed in my own head, just for myself, something which I later learned was akin to sociobiology—a discipline so widely reviled that it has had to change its name (it's now more often called evolutionary biology or evolutionary psychology. People might no longer think Earth is the center of the Universe and human beings were magically created whole and entire from the Will of God, but we still dislike to think that primatology says anything about us.) Evolution is part of my core beliefs, though, thanks to Mrs. Sieckman's 8th grade paleontology class! Although science isn't my interest, she was one of the best and most inspiring teachers I ever had. I credit her with teaching me to write—a science teacher, and I was a student who idolized my English teachers. I wrote what amounted to a thesis for her on the topic of evolution vs. religion, for which I interviewed no fewer than 15 priests, pastors, ministers, and rabbis, collectively one of the great educational experiences of my youth, and probably when my interest in what's really goin' on here first took serious traction.
I believe I've known people for whom logic is one of the lights, the light of all lights*.
Space travel and aliens, monsters or superheroes, fantasy worlds, movies and celebrity culture—and probably a whole lot of other things I prefer to not think about—flirt with centrality in the demotic belief systems of the multitude.
A distinguished analyst I know admits that her belief system is psychoanalysis. Sure enough, she has a bank of books by and about Freud in tidy rows in her office, and a diminutive Freud Action Figure stands on an end-table. She thinks Civilization and its Discontents is Freud's best book. The one book by Freud everybody should read.
A belief system is what you filter everything else through first. I think my own core outlook is essentially psychological. I've noticed that politics, economics, world affairs, science, history, even religion all tend to filter through psychology first in my thinking about the world. I could be wrong about that...but then, the reason I say that is because of the essentially psychological perception that it's harder to see ourselves than it is to see others.
The point is that something has to structure your core beliefs, and it's best to try to be aware of what it is. It can't be nothing. An old joke had it that even nihilists passionately believe in one thing—nihilism!
*Sorry, I'm playin' again—the quote is from Bram Stoker's Dracula. If excessive logicalness isn't vampirish, ya gotta admit it's at least Spockish.
"Open Mike" is the open-topic, anything-goes Editorial Page of TOP. It evolves every Sunday if I can think of a topic.
[UPDATE: I've changed the sentence "The fad faded a bit when people realized some of the so-called New Atheists were advocating anti-religion with religious fervor" about eight times now, based on various comments and criticisms. I just want you to you that I'm moving on with my life now, and leaving that poor put-upon sentence to fend for its forlorn self in the cruel world. —Mike the Ed.]
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Featured Comments from:
tex andrews: "If I had to distill my belief system into a single word, it would be 'Beauty,' capital B. I also believe in lowercase beauty. I am no longer of one of the Abrahamic faiths, although was once a Christian and still study the Old and New Testaments and their discourses. Lately, I find I'm more animist in my beliefs, and veer towards Shinto, a fairly opaque, highly aestheticized religion with a mysterious dark center somewhere.
"Nevertheless, it's Beauty that captivates me, drives me as a person and artist, and has both enriched my life spiritually and intellectually while at the same time impoverishing me monetarily. And it is in Beauty that I encounter mystery and wonder, and beauty that inspires me to continued life while I simultaneously despair and wonder at the stupidity of much that we all endure."
Michael Gatton: "Great, another argument for lumping science in with aliens, religion, quackery, climate change denial, ant-vaccination, astrology—it's all just belief systems, pick one. I disagree with you on this and I think it's a harmful position to advocate."
Mike replies: This is a fascinating comment, and it really points out that I didn't adequately define here what a belief system is. I don't think you've quite got it. I said it's "the thing you filter everything else through first." Think of it as the way of looking at things that everything else boils down to for an individual or group.
In a short white paper on the subject, J.L. Usó-Doménech and J. Nescolarde-Selva of the Department of Applied Mathematics at the University of Alicante, Spain (I found the quote on the Internet, of course), said, "Belief systems are the stories we tell ourselves to define our personal sense of Reality." A belief system is a set of mutually supportive core beliefs by which you organize your understanding of everything else. But just because something is believed by someone (or some group), that says nothing about its truth value. We can identify and understand a large variety of belief systems, and some of them might have a great deal of truth to them and some very little.
Wikipedia says "belief's purpose is to guide action and not to indicate truth." You can fully "believe in" science without it being your "belief system" at all.
Is that any more clear? Somehow I fear it isn't....
Michael Gatton responds: "Thanks for trying, Mike. I remain, however, confused. I think of a belief system as more of a moral compass or something that gives your life meaning in a 'spiritual' sense, for those who believe in spiritual matters (I'm entirely uncomfortable with the term, personally, but whatever). I suppose there are individuals for whom science provides these anchors. Carl Sagan for one routinely and poignantly talked of science in spiritual terms. In that case, I can't argue with you—and I may have just talked myself out of confusion if this is what you are getting at...."
Steve Jacob: "I don't have a belief system other than my own experience.
"My experience tells me that if I believe something of a non-trivial nature to be true, a bit of digging around usually proves that it's always 'a bit more complicated than that.'
"That means my belief system is that I don't trust myself to believe anything absolutely, and I don't trust people who do.
"But I will give my qualified trust to those that know a lot more about something than I do and have a good handle on the evidence. A good example would be my doctor.
"It took a lot of self discipline to STFU and listen carefully when confronted with such people, but I found it useful, interesting and even life saving.
"But, I don't expect them to be right all the time. I just expect them to be right much more often than me, or people who know even less than me and thus, on the balance of probabilities, a better course to follow.
"Hunches (and subconscious experience) come in to play when a question arises which has no definite answer, as happens often in politics. We have one such crisis in the UK now, regarding whether we should leave the EU or not.
"My hunch is that walking away from the biggest free-trade area in the world is a dumb idea, economically.
"It would also impact my personal sovereignty as I would no longer be free to live, study or work anywhere in 27 countries, and neither would my hypothetical children for whom it would be a formative experience I would hypothetically treasure.
"Given that I place a higher value on my personal sovereignty than that of my exalted and two faced leaders, whose record is distinctly patchy on that subject, I believe this takes ideological preference.
"Could I be wrong? Certainly! Like all political and economic questions, the answer is 'it depends.' But it depends on factors over which we actually have little or no control which makes me feel decidedly queasy.
"Which leaves politicians as the one group of people who I trust even less than myself."
Ronnie A Nilsen: "Science is not a 'belief system' but a process and methodology for seeking an objective reality. Science is a method of investigation, and not a belief system. Science searches for mechanisms and the answer to 'how' the universe functions, with no appeal to higher purpose, without assuming the existence or non existence of such purpose. If you want to fly an airplane, would you rather it be designed by science, or would you be willing to risk your life in a plane designe by an arbitrary 'belief system'?
Mike replies: No, no, you're not getting the distinction between "something that's believable (has truth value)" and "a belief system." A belief system is your set of core values through which you evaluate everything else. That could be science, but it also might not be even if you are a scientist and fully accept the scientific method.
John Camp responds: "Mike, I think you're misinterpreting what Ronny A Nilsen said. He doesn't believe in Science with a capital S. The belief in Science is Scientism. He believes that a particular technique is a valuable way to approach the world. I agree. I suppose Ctein does too. It is perfectly possible to believe in the technique and be a fervent, active Christian or Muslim.
Unless I'm misinterpreting him, his belief in the technique is like believing in a screwdriver, and even the very deepest belief in the effectiveness of a screwdriver might not have much to say about how you view the world as a whole, about your moral views.
Jesus, I feel like I'm back in the dorm room. (I'm referring here to Hay-Zeus, a Latino friend, and not the Christ.)
Mike replies: Maybe this will help: when you say "Fred's belief system is science," you're not saying anything at all about science. Nothing at all. Everything you're saying is about Fred. See what I'm saying?
I guess I could be wrong, but I think a "belief system" is just "the way you tend to look at the world." What color is the filter? What's your fallback when push comes to shove? What way of looking at things do you think gives you the best leg up on making the best decisions?
If your belief system is science, you might be...just speculating here...uncomfortable with reading Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. You might not trust "soft" sciences such as sociology. You might pooh-pooh historians when they speculate based on very slim evidence and educated guesses, some of which are indistinguishable from mere hunches, as Mary Beard does frequently in SPQR, her new book about Roman history. You might often find yourself interested in how experiments were designed, rather than just being content to read the conclusions. You might find yourself outraged when you learn that corporations fudged experiments to retain patents on profitable medicines (and hence transgressed good science). You might feel "at sea" when faced with disciplines that are largely based on opinion or intuition, or contemptuous of pursuits that are pointless fun or that depend on popular fads, like fashion design.
Do you see the difference? It's not a question of "believing" in science or not believing in it. It's what you value most. It's what you think is important. It's the way you yourself turn the prism to look at things. The vantage point from which you prefer to look at the world. It's a question of how you tend to reduce questions to their essence. What's the essence? That's the question.
Scotto: "I am one who holds markets as a belief system. The simple laws of supply and demand rule everything in nature and by nature. It's the mechanism for explaining evolution and the ever present force that keeps the Universe in its otherwise precarious balance. But don't confuse this with capitalism, communism, feudalism or any other -ism. Markets persist without regard for the political systems that societies (human or animal) organize themselves around. What sort of belief system would it be otherwise?"
Fred: "Hey! Leave me out of this."
Michael McKee: "As someone who switched careers from hard science, geochemistry, to a soft one, psychology, I've pondered this question often. I enjoy the discussion and am in substantial agreement with Mike.
"There's one distinction that hasn't been brought up, namely fundamentalism. There are flexible belief systems that allow the possibility that a different viewpoint may have something to inform one's own beliefs. There are inflexible belief systems that deny that possibility. I would categorize anybody who categorically rules out an opposing belief system a fundamentalist, whether that belief relates to religious beliefs or that the scientific method can answer all questions.
"As a recovering therapist, I hold the opinion that many emotional problems arise from unexamined belief systems that don't serve the person holding them—belief systems that have elements of unconscious fundamentalism."
[A different] Mike: "Hi Mike. I've been through this one before, and it's sometimes hard for scientifically-minded people to accept that they have a belief system.
Maybe it's because we usually take 'belief' to mean 'belief in xxx,' and science doesn't like to believe, it likes to observe and prove.
"However, a moment's look at the history of science will, I think, perhaps explain this better.
"The fact is that over the centuries, including recent times, great scientific discoveries have been ignored, held up, and generally attacked by establishment science because they did not fit into the then current theories that the establishment believed was settled science. Even out-and-out experimental fact gets questioned. The experiment was done wrong, the machinery is not accurate. etc.
"Exactly as I think you are trying to point out, belief is what happens in each of us first, front, and center. It's a filter through which 'facts' become known to our consciousness. And, if the facts don't conform to the filter, it's very hard sometimes to see it as being potentially correct.
"It's hard to see a filter, and it's even harder to recognize that a filter is indeed a filter, and then it's even harder again to be willing to adjust one's filter.
"The greats of the world, in all works of life, science, arts, philosophy, business, and just plain living, are the ones who can change their belief system so radically that all our older belief systems can get swept away and replaced."
Geoff Wittig: "One fascinating thing about this issue appears blindingly obvious to me, but most people I talk to are completely unaware of this aspect. Specifically, there is frequently a blatant disconnect between an individual's professed belief system (often but not always religion-based) and their objectively observable behavior. For example, the nominal Christian who has contempt for poor beggars; the nominal atheist who prays as the plane is going down.
"As a family physician for more than 30 years my psychology and philosophy credentials are limited, but I've been an avid student of human behavior 'in the wild' as it were. And it's plain to me that the belief system many (or most) people claim to embrace, and (not the same thing) the one they believe they embrace, is not, at the end of the day, what truly drives their decisions.
"We harbor a compelling and understandable illusion that our conscious thoughts are, well, us. But it's far more complicated than that. Our consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg, and is powerfully influenced (and often driven) by deeper, more protean, reflexive, emotional and primitive mechanisms. We construct elaborate rationalizations for our behavior based on a belief system, and such a system can definitely influence our behavior. But it's not the only actor in our heads."
Animesh Ray: "'Belief' in logic systems is often considered the only safe-heaven left, but it is not the last word either. There is no self-consistent logic system whose fundamental assumptions (a.k.a. 'beliefs') are provable from within the system—a result 'proved' long ago by Gödel. So where do we stand with respect to 'belief'? Nowhere. We need to keep an open mind for the possible falsification all beliefs given evidence. The latter itself is falsifiable, because the strength of evidence is not absolute, and requires logic, physical error limits of the measuring instruments, and human interpretation to evaluate the evidence. My belief therefore is in the absence of a foundation in belief. (There is no contradiction here: Since a null set is also a set, this view is a belief after all!)"