Sunday, June 07, 2009

The belief delusion

Consider how much death and suffering has been inspired by the notion of belief—religious belief in particular. One group says that God is such-and-such and so-and-so. Another denies that, and affirms something different. And this becomes a reason for bloodshed. The absolutism of religious doctrine and belief ends up manifesting itself in secular beliefs as well: one group says that the correct political system is such-and-such, and another affirms something different. The stakes in the latter case may seem more evident to modern eyes, but my concern here is with belief itself as a motive for behavior. My point may become clearer if one considers that medieval Christians professed to believe in forgiveness, yet practiced great cruelty, and that Communist states professed freedom and equality yet practiced greater repression than the capitalist and feudal systems on which they supposedly improved. Statements of belief, then, have consistently failed to match real practices and actions, or rather the beliefs have provided cover for practices and actions that have been consistent throughout history regardless of varying belief systems.

A basic error underlying all this, in my view, is the notion that if I believe something fervently, it is true. The tension between human desires and whatever conditions and circumstances set limits on these desires produces the wish that my thinking can turn my desires into facts. This is supported by the undeniable truth that we can produce desired effects through planned and purposeful action. And in order to plan actions, we must think them through. But that the wish itself creates the effect is an error prompted, I would say, by the frustration of a subject felt as free yet limited by conditions. One might even say prompted by desperation, like the fundamental desperation of an infant who feels a need that isn’t met, and therefore cries. The baby cries, and if she has an attentive parent, the need is met by the parent. Nature, however, is not always attentive in this way. The whole, so to speak, does not take orders from the part. But the human self, the conscious subject, experiences an inherent freedom that manifests as a seeking of power over conditions. Thought is the expression of that search. This phenomenon known as thought is so remarkable that we become dazzled by it. Magical thinking, as it has been called, is really just thinking in its beginning stages, when the child identifies thought with truth, and truth, above all, with that which is desired.

What, then, is belief? It is a kind of way station on the path of knowledge. Once we actually know something, belief is redundant. What we really know comes from experience. In addition, there is knowledge as the fruit of reason, but the process of reasoning has its own structure (we call it logic), experience must enter into this process in some way, and the results are open to further reasoning. Knowledge is therefore open to change, and this, paradoxically, is part of its security. It cannot depend solely on thinking, but must correspond to experience. I can say that I believe that day will follow night, but this belief is so firmly founded on experience that unbelief is not an option. Knowledge, then, is when thought is in accordance, to some degree, with experience. Belief by itself, without knowledge, is either the possibility of knowledge conceived without yet being confirmed by experience, or—and this is where we founder on the rocks of religious belief—a conviction concerning something of which we have no experience, and of which it may not even be possible to have experience.

Religion deals with absolutes. Religion is about reality itself, especially including consciousness as the absolute condition of experience. Belief, however, is nothing more than a thought or series of thoughts expressing a wish or a desire concerning reality. All thinking is limited. It can only indicate the absolute. Thought itself is not absolute. Attributing magical power to thought in the form of belief is the primary manifestation of what I call the error of misplaced absoluteness.

I may believe that God is so-and-so or such-and-such. I may believe any number of stories handed down about God, or people that were God, or spoke for God, or in the case of Eastern traditions, perfect masters and gurus and so forth. No matter what I believe, my limited nature as a human being has not changed. Furthermore, the power of my beliefs to cause beneficial or good actions, actions desirable for humanity or even just for myself, is limited by time and place. They are merely motivating thoughts, that compete with all the other components of my character—habit, desire, unconscious tendencies, inherited or acquired capacities—in determining my actions and the psychic modes of my experience. History has shown time and again that beliefs are ineffective in causing the kinds of changes in the human personality that are claimed for them. Believers in a humble savior of love and forgiveness still went ahead and practiced slavery, torture, and war, and justified it on religious grounds. Believers in the righteousness of the one God (Islam) still perpetrated the same crimes on their fellow man as those who believed in multiple gods without righteousness. Buddhism and the other eastern religions stood by while the social order violated every tenet of the faith that it supposedly supported.

Why? I think that people instinctively realize that the notion of belief making something true is an error. But they refuse to admit it to themselves because of a second primal error: Common belief is necessary for society to survive. Belief became a tool for the maintenance of power and authority. The state and its religion, originally identical, was founded on the perceived necessity of enforced common belief. Physical force ultimately fails unless society also coheres through belief.

The power principle failed, and continues to fail. War, injustice, cruelty, and greed continue to hold sway despite the patina of religious belief. Since the 17th century, society has been battling over what to do about it. Believing something is merely a mental operation—it is not transformative. Forcing people to believe something is even less successful. What kind of inward belief can be compelled by a sword or a gun? The slave will of course bow down because he has to, but to call this religion is nothing more than massive self-deception. And this lie, this compounded falsehood of the centuries, is what we now commonly call religion.

There is a secret that is concealed in religious history. It is only a secret as long as one focuses on beliefs and all the particulars of belief. This is the truth of the mystics, the truth of union. In the eastern traditions, it is the truth of enlightenment, non-duality, realization. As soon as you turn it into a belief, it becomes limited like every other thought. One must see through all beliefs, see them as essentially limited human constructs, without lasting force or significance, in order to understand reality. It takes some bravery to do this, because it essentially places one outside the accepted religious structure, outside the political structure, outside the social order. That is why it has continually been forced to hide, prevaricate, and compromise itself throughout history—because it threatens the basic illusion that we need common belief in order to survive. The power principle is driving us to the abyss, and like lemmings we are encouraged to go off the cliff by absolutist thinking, i.e., deluded thinking, whether it is through religious fundamentalism, sociopolitical ideology, or combinations thereof.

All religious beliefs are misguided metaphors for the self. The self seeks liberation from its ignorance and delusion. Beliefs are sold to us as a way of release, but they only chain us more securely in bondage. The transformation we need comes from experience itself, qua experience. Spirituality is not the acquisition of beliefs, but the shedding of them, the penetration of them all as conditioned. Then the source of all thought, all experience, may become evident. That is what humility really is. At that source, there is no religion, no doctrine, nothing to fight over, nothing to separate me from you. There is no more belief, only knowledge.


Mike Goldman said...


Anonymous said...

That's what you think.

Mike Goldman said...

Way to miss the point, Anon.