Tagged: beliefs

Kick the Habit of Seeing the World through Labels

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 accidentally 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 our friends and family apply a label to everything we experience. “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 believe in labels? Because they give context to this crazy world. Labeling others helps us believe there is a reason behind the madness.  We believe in labels because it gives us a sense that someone, some group, 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.

 

In the enlighting TED talk called The Power of Self-Deception, 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 need to label everything in our environment and why we are willing to 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.

The Value of Understanding Other People’s Beliefs

I saw a news story today that bothered me a bit. Apparently, the United States Air Force is threatening to not let a soldier serve if he does not agree to violate his own beliefs. What are his beliefs? He’s an atheist.

A person who does not believe in God. That used to bother me and make me a little sad at one time in my life. “How can you look at all the majestic and wonder of the world and the Universe and not believe there is a God?” I thought. Then I would comfort myself in thinking that this person probably was still searching for his or her beliefs and they would eventually find God. This year I had a revelation that opened my eyes and heart to what it can mean to be an atheist. More on that later.

I was raised a Christian. I went to a variety of different churches growing up. When I was 20 years old I sat down and read the whole bible front to back. I discovered I needed more than just the Judeo-Christian bible to grow spiritually.

That is when I began exploring Buddhism. Through the years I have become a student of religions. I am always listening to and reading about what other people believe. Much of what I learn does not resonate with me, but other parts of what I hear become like missing puzzle pieces that connect with ideas that have resonated with me. You can say I am a spiritual explorer picking and choosing the pieces that fit me best.

And why not? Why does anyone have to align themselves with only one belief, one dogma? How can anyone say one religion is the only truth and all others are living a lie or a partial truth? I love the story about The blind men and the elephant. Each man can only feel part of the elephant and thinks they know the whole truth based on the little section they have access to. We only have access to parts of stories. The more we explore the more we can learn.

 

But the question I used to have in my mind was “where do atheist fit into the story?” If they do not believe in God what can I learn from them? For a long time, I assumed they were people who believed only in science and nothing else. I assumed that perhaps they had something happen in their life that made them close the doors to the idea that there was a God. It was sad.

Then, one evening after a huge rainstorm had passed by leaving a field in Atlanta wet and muddy, my 2 boys and I stood in the humid air with a crowd of others who were waiting for a music festival to resume. It was the Candler Park music festival and the next person on stage was going to be an English chap named  Frank Turner. He began to play and we began to dance around – not really knowing his songs yet and therefore listening closely in order to learn more about this chap.

Then he began singing a song to the tune of a church hymn. But the catch phrase of this catchy song was “There is no God.”

Below are a few lyrics that stood out for me. :

I know you’re scared of dying man and I am too,
But just pretending it’s not happening isn’t gonna see us through,
If we accept that there’s an end game and we haven’t got much time,
Then in the here and now then we can try and do things right.
We’d be our own Salvation Army and together we’d believe
In all the wondrous things mere mortals can achieve

There is no God,
So clap your hands together,
There is no God,
No heaven and no hell.
But there is no God,
We’re all in this together,
There is no God,
So ring that victory bell.
Maybe it was the air (it was a music festival after all). Maybe it was the English accent. Maybe it was the clapping of our hands during the song. All I know is all of a sudden Atheism made sense to me. The line that resonated is “we are all in this together.”
For months after hearing this song I had to re-evaluate everything I thought I knew. I had to take the puzzle piece of atheism and include it in my spiritual picture that had been created from many other spiritual beliefs.
In the end, I still believe in God, but I have become more grounded and believe in taking more responsibility for myself and my fellow man. We’re all in this together.
With this in mind, if that atheist in the Air Force is flying to protect my country and my family because we are our “own Salvation Army and together we’d believe
In all the wondrous things mere mortals can achieve”…then please let that man fly and stand up for what he believes.
My lesson is that assuming someone else’s beliefs are wrong and not listening to why they believe what they do, not only will cause you to treat them poorly, but you will also be missing out on the gift of connecting with another spiritual heart and learning from each other.