The Seeker of Peace


Are Any Beliefs Benign?
October 18, 2008, 6:48 am
Filed under: God, World | Tags: , , , ,

A few days ago I wrote about the role of faith in religion, and the lack of a place for it in spirituality. Faith is just one form of belief, and recently I saw something that made me think about belief much more.

On a message board I follow, a poster made this comment: “I respect everyone’s beliefs, and appreciate that others who disagree with me, allow me the same privilege of believing my own beliefs.” That sounds reasonable enough, well in line with my American values of tolerance. But does it make any sense?

It may be that this poster, who happens to be a Christian minister, believes his comment is true. However, it’s probably not. The 9/11 terrorists believed that they were fighting “the Great Satan” in God’s name. Before the Civil War, ministers in the South gave sermons explaining the biblical basis for slavery, believing they were maintaining God’s order. Hitler said he believed he was doing God’s will by perpetrating the Holocaust. Does the poster really respect those beliefs? I know I don’t.

Obviously, I’ve chosen particularly provocative examples of destructive beliefs. That raises the question: are any beliefs good, or even harmless?

The problem with beliefs of any sort is that we accept them without proof. If they were provable, then they’d be knowledge, not beliefs. Somehow, we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s acceptable, or even desirable, to filter our perception of the world through these completely unsubstantiated notions. Sometimes we manage, through the filtering, to find some evidence that seems to support our beliefs.

For example, Hitler had a huge library of books, in which he would underline passages that supported his beliefs. I’m sure he felt his beliefs well justified based on all the “evidence” he found. However, he still had no proof. That may be why he spent so much of his time working to support his beliefs. Maybe that’s also why he felt the need to burn all the books that contradicted his beliefs.

I recently deconstructed a belief that I’ve held for a long time: “Most people are basically good.” It seems harmless enough. But on further analysis, it’s quite destructive. It suggests that some minority of people are not basically good. It supports a framework for categorizing people. The “basically good majority” is better than the “basically evil minority.” And, gee, I’d better be on the lookout for those bad apples so I can judge them.

I have no proof for this belief, and it’s probably wrong. Most non-dualistic traditions teach that we have a core (the divine part) that’s perfect, and an ego that’s intrinsically imperfect. If that’s true, then everyone is perfect at some level, and has an ego that will make errors, varying only in magnitude. And, as I progress down my spiritual path, I’m accumulating experiences that may ultimately prove my original belief false.

My belief shares an important characteristic with the overtly destructive ones I mentioned earlier: they all serve to divide people, to provide some basis for judgment and separation. Beliefs about reincarnation, Heaven and Hell, God, abortion, gay marriage, or anything else – all of them make it harder for me not to judge others.

My personal goal in this life is to find inner peace. All my experiences so far show me that to do that, I need to learn to love everyone, just as God does. Are there any beliefs that don’t run counter to that goal? I haven’t thought of any yet.

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