Bethany: So you’re saying that having beliefs is a bad thing?
Rufus: I just think it’s better to have an idea. You can change an idea; changing a belief is trickier. People die for it, people kill for it.
–An excerpt from the movie “Dogma”
It was 2006 when I went away to college, specifically one of the oldest Catholic universities in the country. I grew up fairly secular without much of a religious education (except for the yearly Easter church service) and had never read the Bible, so it was a bit of a culture shock to be surrounded by statues of saints, priests, nuns and students who had a religious practice woven into their everyday lives. I went to Catholic mass twice while I was there: once because my roommates invited me one Sunday evening, the other time out of sheer curiosity.
Both times, I was struck by the same odd sight. In each service there was a woman (a different person each time), crying as she received the Eucharist. I found out later that Catholic doctrine states that the communion wafer (Eucharist), during consecration, transforms into the actual flesh of Jesus Christ. So while I sat in those services, with a mixture of curiosity, confusion and boredom, another person was emotionally overwhelmed with the belief that she was coming in actual physical contact with her lord and savior.
Belief is a very powerful force.
Beliefs, religious or otherwise, shape our reality. They shape how we view ourselves, how we think the world works, what we think is right or wrong, what we think is true.
But where do these beliefs come from? How are they formed?
Sometimes they are taught to us explicitly by our parents. (“Listen buddy, if you get good grades, work hard and get a college degree, you will get a good job and make lots of money.”)
We can also learn beliefs in more subtle ways. While no one may have told you directly that the world is a dangerous, violent place, growing up in a high-crime neighborhood or war zone may teach you that “fact”. You may not have heard the words “People are untrustworthy”, but experiencing a significant betrayal or trauma may anchor that belief in your psyche.
The cultures we grow up in and around may both explicitly and implicitly program us with certain beliefs. Many Asian cultures have the implicit belief that the well-being of the family, group or community is more important than the individual, while many Western cultures, particularly America, have the opposite view. Even on a more granular level, I’m sure we’ve all heard statements like “We Italians know how to eat”, or “We’re Irish, we don’t talk about our feelings”.
If you live in the United States or keep up with our news, you’ve probably noticed some very contentious debates on heavy issues, including gun control, mass shooters, the rising suicide rate, the opioid crisis, mental illness, healthcare, stagnant wages, unemployment and underemployment… the list goes on.
These are all important issues, greatly impacting the lives of millions of people. And yet, as the debates wage on, it’s clear that many of us can’t move beyond our programming. Most people don’t budge much on the opinions they started with. Why?
A little thing called confirmation bias. Essentially, confirmation bias is the human phenomenon of only seeing and accepting evidence that supports our existing beliefs, while ignoring or rejecting evidence that conflicts with them. It’s a subconscious cherry-picking of information.
While I wish more people would question their beliefs and their bias (Lifehack has a great guide to overcoming confirmation bias here), I do understand why we cling to them so strongly, even when there’s conflicting evidence or when those beliefs cause us angst.
Questioning your entire worldview is nothing short of daunting. Those beliefs are the background for every decision we make and for how we interact with others. When our beliefs are questioned, we start to feel naked, unsettled and ungrounded.
These beliefs are essentially the operating system that’s been installed in your brain. When you come across an unfamiliar idea and it feels uncomfortable, that’s probably because your operating system simply doesn’t know how to run that file.
So what would happen if we were able to upgrade that operating system? What if we could explore new ideas without a knee jerk reaction? What if we could analyze new ideas, not based on how easily they fit into our preconceived notions but instead on their merit?
Here’s an exercise to start the process:
The next time you’re on social media or watching television and you hear someone spout a belief that upsets or offends you, take a few moments to imagine how that personal developed that belief. Visualize the experiences or life lessons that person may have gone through. You don’t have to change your own viewpoint. Simply imagine the scenarios in their life that may have led up to that belief.
After enough practice with this exercise, you can start to use this same technique on yourself. You will start to connect the dots on how your own beliefs formed, understand their origins, and if need be, start updating them.
Eventually, new ideas, no matter how foreign, can be viewed just a little bit more objectively than before. This, I believe, can pave the way to positive change, not only in ourselves but also in the way we treat each other. With more understanding, more compassion and more empathy.
Most of us are running an outdated operating system. Are you?