Why do we have to believe?

Once upon a time, while I was in the midst of discovering myself, what I believed, where my place was in this world, and what impacts I could make, I would get very frustrated to know that many people had already put me in a box based on what they believed.

Frustration is a feeling caused by a blocked goal. My goal was to explore myself and my world and that was often blocked by other people’s quick assumptions.

Today, what used to make me frustrated now fascinates me. I listen with great curiosity what people believe and why. I am drawn to every cognitive study that I can understand. I want to know more about what I consider to be self-made little prisons called belief, perhaps so I can ensure that I don’t accidently create such a prison for myself. Perhaps so I can help people escape their own prisons. But more importantly, so I know how to interact appropriately with people who have confined themselves in a cell of beliefs.

One of the main cell bars that create this “prison of belief” are labels. We have a need to label everything we come in contact with. This is part of how we begin to understand our world from birth. We come into this world and everything we experience a label is applied to by our family and friends. “I am your mommy”, “Let’s drive in the car”, “A cow says moo.” All of these labels seem not only harmless but imperative. We have to have labels to have language. We have to have labels to understand relationships between things. The problem is we become addicted to labels. Everything has to have a label and those labels have to have meaning or we get anxious.

Recently a woman who is very religious and chooses to only know about her religion and close her eyes to any other religions labeled me as a Pagan. I have no religion. I have theories, but no beliefs. I have traditions, but no rituals. This was not something she had a label for, so she pulled out the incorrect label of Pagan and assigned it to me. She found this label in the history of her own religion who once taught that those without religion are Pagan. She did not understand that Pagans have beliefs and rituals and believe in spirits. I do not have beliefs and rituals. I am open to the idea of spirits. I am even open to the idea of God. Her label did not match the definition of me, but it was the only label she had that came close, so she applied it to me. Thankfully Pagan witches are no longer burned, drowned, or hung in a cage, so no harm done.

But sometimes our labels do cause harm. I recently was monitoring my young son’s debate on Facebook where he was defending the casting of a homosexual character in the new Star Wars movie. One very passionate person who opposed the idea defined the homosexual label as sexually deviant. He went further to define sexually deviant as a child molester. To him, all homosexuals were child molesters. This is a very harmful belief that distracts from the real dangers of molestation and can cost lives for many various reasons.

We are obsessed with labels and those labels direct our belief system. Labels are what define for us what is right or wrong and what our roles in life are. You are a woman so your role is to be a caregiver. You are a man so your role is to be a provider. These beliefs simplify, but they do not enable growth and exploration. Growth and exploration come when we suspend beliefs and question everything.

Why do we have to believe? Because it gives context to this crazy world. We believe there is a reason behind the madness. There is an end game in sight. We believe because it gives us a sense that someone or something is in control.

I listen to a wonderful podcast called Hardcore History by Dan Carlin and he did a show about the start of WW1 where he opened by explaining that people believe in conspiracies because it is more comforting to think there is a secret group somewhere in control than it is to think that everything is random and that the act of one man can change the course of the world.

We believe because we need to believe there is a sense of control.

I just watched an enlighting TED talk called The Power of Self-Deception. In one section Michael Shermer gives the audience a thought-experiment. You are walking through the plains and you hear the grass ruffle. Is it the wind or a predator? If it was the wind, but you believed it was a predator, no harm done. If it was a predator and you believed it was the wind, you are dead. This thought-experiment shows why we will believe the worse case scenario almost everytime.

Not long ago I posted an article on Facebook about how children raised in a secular home turn out as pretty good people. A Facebook friend questioned what would be the motive for a person to behave morally if they do not believe in God. I am fascinated by that question no matter how many times I hear it. Do we not all experience the joys of being good to each other and creating an environment of peace and happiness whether or not God exists? Perhaps,  if we focused on just being good to each other more and focused less on labeling and imposing our beliefs on each other, we can find the comfort, control, and understanding that we seek when we choose to believe.