The word “belief” has several different meanings depending on context. In some cases, belief is touted as a positive thing, while in others it is disparaged as contrary to reason and science. Etymologically, to “believe” is to “hold dear,” but casually belief is little more than opinion. In the religious context, the former is most accurate, while in everyday conversation the latter is often apropos.
In either sense, belief matters. This has been demonstrated through a variety of psychological studies. A number of experiments over the last decade or so have sought to examine whether belief in free will has any effect on behavior, and without exception the answer is yes. The details are complex, but two key results have been established:
- People who are primed to disbelieve in free will are more likely to cheat on tasks they have been assigned by experimenters than people who believe in free will.
- People who are primed to disbelieve in free will are less likely to impose vindictive punishments on others than people who believe in free will.
Clearly our beliefs do affect our behavior, although not always in a straightforward or obvious way, probably because varying levels of belief about differing aspects of a situation come into play.
It’s probably true that the more our beliefs are believed in the etymological sense of “holding dear,” the more potent they become. A belief that is little more than an opinion on some minor subject won’t likely influence you the way a deep-seated belief about human nature might. If you “hold dear” the idea that humans are basically decent people, even though you know they are capable of dishonesty, you might be more inclined to trust people who don’t give you a reason to distrust them. But if you “hold dear” the idea that we’re all a bunch of greedy savages, you might trust almost nobody until they demonstrate their trustworthiness.
Because belief affects behavior, and because our behavior reaches out to affect the people around us, belief acquires social as well as personal importance. The ethical and moral codes that have always played an integral role in social structure and cohesion are an expression of this truth. The exact terms may change over time, but no society can hold together when all such strictures are abandoned. Rule of law becomes impossible, for example, when no agreement exists upon what should be legal and what should not. Diversity of belief can be healthy in cases where it provides differing vantage points for examining a matter, but quite disruptive in others. Imagine the chaos that might ensue if we did not have a generally-accepted belief that human beings have a right to life in most circumstances.
Beliefs do more than influence individual behavior and provide a basis for social agreement. They can also provide cohesion among diverse members of society. The most striking example of common beliefs creating unity is seen in religion, where powerful core beliefs overcome all manner of divergence in less important matters, often forging global communities that cut across national, ethnic, and racial lines. My own religion, the Baha’i Faith, is in spite of its small size the second most widespread religion (after Christianity) and among the most diverse organizations on the planet, drawing adherents from all national, ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds.
In an era of global interconnection, old systems and standards are breaking down. In some quarters, globalization itself is seen as the problem and is under assault. Yet while globalization as political and economic process is not without its flaws, the deeper issue may be the disintegration of beliefs — of principles and codes that were once “held dear” but which are being destroyed as differing systems collide. In their place, we are offered a materialist ethic that only values what can be measured in dollars and primarily sells pleasure-in-the-moment. And this is what we end up holding dear: do whatever you want, whenever you want, so long as you can afford it or pirate it, and so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else . . . too much.
This belief is wholly insufficient for building a sustainable global society. Global society isn’t a goal or aspiration any longer, but a reality, so making it sustainable is an imperative. It is the culmination of our social evolution on this planet. To support it, we need a belief system capable of uniting us and enabling us to work together on every level from the local to the global. Such a system, I suggest, must be based on two broad principles:
- Personal responsibility. If we believe we can take command of our own lives, if we disavow the defeatist idea that humans have little or no power of self-control — no free will — then we will create the conditions for a more just, ethical society. The entire structure of society, after all, is built on the foundation of the individual. You and I. The ethical and moral standards by which we live our lives determine, in the end, the whole shape of our world. If we make it all about our base desires, we will end up with a world devoid of honesty, justice, charity, and even solid relationships. We need to learn to curb our lower impulses and develop our higher nature.
- The unity of humanity. In spite of our physical and cultural diversity, we are a single family sharing a single planet. All members of this family deserve equal respect and must have a voice in matters that affect them regardless of race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, or economic status.
I pick these two because they address the two primary areas of life: the individual and the communal. Upon such a foundation, we can build a world in which all people can live as respected, valued members of society. Not that it will be easy, of course. It requires an about-face and the adoption of beliefs that might be alien to many.
But belief matters, so it matters that we get it right.