Why We All Cling Blindly to Our Beliefs

What is the connection between a multi-millionaire and an Islamist terrorist? The answer struck me as I watched Jacques Peretti’s documentary The Super-Rich and Us this week.

Peretti catalogued how the rich and privileged live in a world of fantasy – of symbols, just as religious fanatics do. They amass money pointlessly, far more than they can ever spend. They store it among the bricks and mortar of empty houses in London, in tax havens, in gold and jewels. What is the point of all this money? How many expensive meals can they eat, how many luxury cars can they drive, how many of their homes can they live in?

Just like “holy scriptures,” yachts and private islands are purely totemic. They represent a belief system and an identity. That identity reassures the wealthy that they are virtuous. If it were not so (they tell themselves) they would not be so successful. It also gives them a reason to get up in the morning – to make more money.

You and I are not so different. We too have beliefs and value systems, not all of which we can always sensibly defend. When those beliefs are threatened we become aggressive. The more penetrating the criticism of our worldview, the angrier we become.

This is partially evidenced by the furious tone of the arguments unfolding since the Charlie Hebdo murders. I’m not talking about the anger of “us” against the killers. People on the “same side” argue bitterly about their separate take on events.

Those who thought the cartoons were unduly provocative were labeled appeasers; those who called for their immediate reprinting were said to be stoking Islamophobia. Those who did not sign up to the reassuring trope that Islamic terrorists have “nothing to do with Islam” attracted a particularly furious response. Those who want a tightening of the security state are bitterly opposed by those who consider civil liberties a priority.

The back and forth of arguments is being replaced with the clatter and thud of rocks being thrown. I see the anger everywhere: in Twitter storms, in trolling, on blog posts and comment pages.

This point is easily proved. Check the online comment thread of this piece. It will be full of furious remarks. I know, because pretty much every piece I’ve ever written, however vanilla, has attracted angry comments. Fury has become our lingua franca: because we are afraid and we are becoming more afraid, and we do not wish to admit that we are afraid. For to do so is to acknowledge that our beliefs are not as cast iron as we wish they were.

In this sense, we are all in the same boat as the jihadists who elevate and concretise their improbable set of beliefs into an inflexible ideology. Ideology – a fixed system of ideas that will not bend even an inch before the facts – is the root of much evil. And we are all, to a lesser extent, ideologues.

We live in a world of unprecedented change and complexity, and this makes us more desperate than ever to cling to what we think we know. We need to believe that our purposes, those goals in which we invest meaning, are valid. On this definition, business is a religion, career is a religion, family is a religion, nation is a religion, secularism is a religion, and religion is a religion. There is no getting away from it. However, our values cannot be independently verified – other than by the reassuring support of the like-minded.

But what is there to put in the place of our belief systems, violations of which cause such dangerous blowback? Nothing. Literally, nothing. All our belief systems are simply constructs. The world isn’t this way or that. It just is. We project our values on to it, conservative and socialist, secular and religious. But in reality, everything is in doubt – and this is something we find hard to tolerate.

This is the challenge of relativism. This is the challenge of postmodernism. This is the existential dilemma of the world.

If all values and beliefs are products of the mind rather than concrete realities – for the plutocrat as much as the Islamist, for the feminist as much as the patriarch, for the socialist as much as the neo-con – then we must learn to live with that reality without sickening our spirits with self-protective rage.

The alternative to belief (“lief,” incidentally, comes from the root meaning “to wish”) is faith. Not religious faith, but faith that does not become brittle with its own projections of hatred against the "other,” which includes the apostates in our midst who do not share our view. Faith that we are all human souls struggling to keep our heads above water in floods of confusion. Faith in reason, faith in the idea of truth, however elusive the actuality. And faith, as any reading of the New Testament makes plain, is always hedged by doubt.

Doubt is nothing to fear – the doubt that all our ideas and precious beliefs are straws in the wind. There is meaning in meaninglessness, in the “cloud of unknowing” that we all live inside. There are real facts – there is love, there is our own consciousness, there is this day, this moment, the feeling of human connection.

The feelings of fear and anger appear to be real, too, but all too often they come as a result of the beliefs that we cling to, not as what you might call first-order experiences (a first-order experience being an intruder walking into your home brandishing a knife).

The fact that views which oppose our own are dealt with by abuse and name-calling is a symptom of irrational fear – the fear of finding the self confused. This is why terrorists are so-called – because they wilfully breed terror, and they divide and splinter those who are ranged against them.

We are becoming fragile and fractious. Despite all the “unity” the response to Charlie Hebdo appears to have generated, we are turning on one another. This is what the killers want. The more we close our ears to unwelcome voices, the more we approach the sick mindsets of the jihadists – or, if you prefer, the bloated fantasies of the super-rich.

To be able to survive we must be brave enough to not clutch our beliefs like comfort blankets, but examine them always for their own flaws – and that involves listening to others, however much we don’t want to hear what they have to say.

Of this I am absolutely sure. Almost.

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