The psychology of faith and belief vs. doubt
Posted by robertpriddy on September 14, 2011
“For them. life begins with death”
“Which is as if one were to say ”Day begins with night.’” (from Quo Vadis)
The belief that death can be defeated, that there is a life afterwards, that one may be reborn and all those fondest of imaginings, plays some part in all religions. Such unsupported beliefs are bolstered up by countless other surrounding scriptures, sayings, accounts of supposed miracles and divine interventions, of what seem to be answers to prayers (i.e. the relatively very uncommon fulfillment of a strong desire that comes about). In short, beliefs, once adopted, tend to grow of themselves. When fed by what are marshalled together rather uncritically as supportive ‘facts’ and experiences, they continue to grow. Otherwise, they tend to subside and fragment. The same goes for doubts. One adopted, they grow and the more so when facts appear to justify them. Doubts can also weaken and disappear if facts and positive experiences arise sufficient to counteract them.
The history of humanity emphasizes how faith can mislead people into the most bizarre of experiences and beliefs and bring about the most severe consequences imaginable in terms of suffering, violence, wars, genocide, torture and debasement of the human spirit. Yet worse are supposed possible consequences of divine retribution, constant rebirth as animals of prey, immersion in eternal hell fires and just about any perversion of goodness the human mind could invent and attribute to the supposed ‘Divine Creator’. Putting one’s trust in an unworthy person usually leads to disillusionment, putting one’s
faith in religious teachings and spiritual leaders is also a serious gamble where the stakes can be high indeed.
The religious believer invariably seeks all that can reinforce belief and inherently tends to ignore and rejects whatever may conflict with the belief, especially radically. Often a belief may help inspire with an apparent meaning to life and strengthen good qualities in oneself and positive action towards the world. When the tinder of such a positive intention are fed by constant supportive ‘spin’ and stories of many others’ subjective experiences (i.e. which no one can control and the fewest can investigate to any reasonable extent), they ignite more faith by reinforcing what one want to believe. Our personal experience – being all that we really know first hand (however delusive or deceptive it may be) can often be interpreted and distorted by a doctrine or ideology.. whiten is what religions are. Personal experience becomes formed by indoctrination and narrowing of one’s scope of information, and is easily overshadowed by false expectations generated by a sect or a cult
When one has sought hard for a long time and finally arrived at something one can believe in quite strongly, the believer looks further for what is positive towards that belief and can reinforce. At the same time, there is a tendency to put aside or reject outright whatever may conflict with it. One will be loath to give up a belief which helps inspire and strengthen positive feelings, a more hopeful world view (then formerly held). If one adds to this a belief which gives one a sense of a meaning in life and and purpose in the cosmos, then it will be difficult to backtrack, and any challenges will be unlikely to dislodge it.
Many belief systems are of course shared by vast numbers, the mainstream religions into which one is more or less born and indoctrinated before one can use one’s own judgement at all. Should the belief system be more peripheral and diverge appreciably from mainstream cultures, it is most often part of a support network, a like-minded community or sect. As with mainstream religion, this often gives an outlet for social service and self-improvement, the increased sense of self-worth further strengthens the belief system.
There is a threshold of belief which, when crossed, sets off a psychological process of reinforcement. As in the Kirkegaardian ‘existential leap of faith’ the confusion of not knowing and uncertainty cause people to ‘take the plunge’ into some doctrine or faith which seems to promise to be rewarding spiritually, emotionally and usually also in various other ways. It is both intriguing and not least distressing to see how people become so entirely trapped in a ‘faith’ as to be unable to see even when the most glaring discrepancies for what they are. Even then a pivotal personal crisis or mental-emotional upset – perhaps a major emotional shock or personal loss – may be required for freeing oneself from the ganglion grasp that a system of belief and its associated way of life and behaviour.
When serious doubts emerge, doubts that could only be ignored with difficulty, however, they too can grow as the facts support them further. This is one way in which an internalized faith and system of ideas be shaken, and there is usually some critical personal event which sets such a process in motion. Once crossing the ‘threshold’ in reverse, doubts can grow as facts emerge to support them. Doubts can be corrosive at time, but it can also mitigate the severity of inflexible doctrines and not least fanatical ideas. Without any doubting, everyone would become a doctrinaire fundamentalist of whatever brand, which would be another bane on humanity.
If faith in some doctrine or religion revives, and radical doubts are overcome, a certain euphoria often follows – one to which critical doubting seldom gives rise. The process cannot but involve interesting and challenging shifts in ideas and perceptions, when thought is stimulated by novelty and seems to move forward into unknown but exciting territory. One feels free of brakes or cross-checks that may have been part of one’s former mentality. The positivity generated by ‘having found the answer’ and reached certainty makes for a self-fulfilling strengthening process. Reaching the apparent security of a spiritual renewal, if not also a worldly kind, and ridding oneself of uncertainty along with the trust that promising developments (‘blessings’) will eventually ensue can be a very beguiling matter.
Eventually novelty always wears off, and both practical and other hindrances invariably resurface, contradictions arise in new guises and reality exerts its usual resistance against anything that is too uncertain, too otherworldly.