The Power of Beliefs

While cognitive development has a forward moving momentum, some facets of it have set-backs or areas that stubbornly remain unaltered.  That is, maintaining “beliefs” in the absence of evidence is a virile and potent human tendency.  It is contrary to, but happily coexists with, our tendency to form concepts based on perceptible reality.  We reconcile this conflict between belief and reality with the notion of truth.  The notion and pursuit of The Truth has been with us from the dawn of intelligence and remains as a corner stone of existential search. But what exactly is The Truth?

There are things that we can’t see, feel and touch and of which we have no real evidence but which we know exist.  This is partly because we all have experienced the realization that somethings do exist outside our evidentiary capacity.  History has been the best teacher for this. As we advance technologically we make tools that help us find things we did not know exist before.  We discover rational evidence for things we once considered to be magical or supernatural.  Sicknesses were discovered to be based not on evil possession but on viruses, for instance. We thought storms were sent from the beyond to punish our misdeeds.  Lest we think we have evolved beyond that the “Belief vs. Science” concept continues to be a perennial tug of war in our daily life. Even some of most intelligent, highly educated and rational people can cling to rituals and superstitions that have no basis in fact.  

Historically, and in the religious context, this tendency to cling to old beliefs and symbols has been evident in all religions. For instance, even with the emergence of a single God of Judaism and later Christianity, we maintained much of pagan practices that preceded them and could not maintain the single God idea for very long without modifications and adaptations to accommodate older beliefs. 

As the idea of a singular, all-powerful and invisible God grew in popularity humans began to attach conditions and attachments to it.  The Romans split God into three as in the Trinity and later developed the concept of Saints each of which were designated a specialty.  People of Catholic beliefs still pray to a single individual (Saint) for a single issue or need.  One Saint for travel, another for lost causes and another for accountants. I encourage you to look at the number of Saints and their patrons online.  There is not a single occupation or need that has not been assigned a Saint. So we evolved to a more abstract, hypothetical and conceptual God from pagan traditions only to be frightened by the abstraction and be uncomfortable with its intangibility. We then regressed because of the anxiety of abstraction and devolved. We reincarnate some of the older more primitive beliefs and integrated them into the abstract ideas to give ourselves a cushion of comfort.

This devolution or regression is common in individual human development particularly if there is a traumatic event.  Children who are in one stage of development revert back to earlier stages when demands of older age frighten them or leave them insecure.  Young children who have already been toilet trained, for instance, revert back to having accidents in the face of a trauma or other events challenging their ability to cope with their more advanced developmental state. Young adults who are faced with “real” life demands can sometimes be so frightened and lost in the process that they can revert to behaviors more appropriate for early to mid adolescence. And adults facing aging are so frightened by the prospect of older years and diminishment of their functionality that they begin to act in ways inconsistent with their actual age and more reminiscent with their younger years. We call that mid-life crisis.  These developmental regressions are common and natural in humans as well as humanity.

About 800 years after Christianity, Islam brought forth a purely single God.  Islam also prohibited personification of God and worshiping of Idols.  These two concepts are extremely important in Islam and are held at the highest levels of its belief doctrine.  Nevertheless, even this belief system succumbed to the human frailty of concrete thinking. Islam split into factions and each faction or sect, while still resolute about the belief in a singular God stratified their devotion to different various leaders or Imams.  Imam Reza, Imam Ali and so on each representing different sects like Shia, Sunni, Ibadi, Kalam and so on. And while there is a much stricter admonition in Islam about raisin anyone to the status of a deity, and idol worshiping is prohibited, there are many practices of praying to Imam Reza, Imam Ali and others. There are, however, no saints in Islam who have specific designation for specific tasks.  This can be seen as an evolutionary step in abstract cognition finding a foot hold in a more contemporary religion.

While no other Abrahamic religions have arrived after Islam, another monotheistic (single-god) religion emerged some 250 years ago espousing, and indeed honoring,  similar beliefs to Judaic, Christian and Islamic belief of a single God but going beyond that and insisting on the unity of all humanity not only in soul, but in geography, governance and civilization.  The Bahai’ faith took a step closer to  advancing the practices of religion to a more contemporary and evolved state of cognition. One of the major tenants of this faith it “Independent Investigation of Truth” which promotes scientific inquiry and thoughtful observance of reality through the senses. Yet this faith system too could not avoid deification of God as a single “being”.  If we must rely on our individual senses to investigate the truth, and if our senses then the truth of God is limited by our senses. This leaves us with the truth as being a pursuit and not a reality. Each discovery provides us with a tiny sliver of the truth, an atom of reality, and we do not live long enough to see enough of these atoms to create a complete or recognizable picture of “the truth”.  But, we, as a species live long enough collectively and in time to perpetually enhance, add to and refine the concept. It is, then, our interdependence as a species, our communication with each other and our temporal connectivity that can lead to understanding and accepting abstractions such as divinity.

Beginning in the late 20thcentury Einstein’s theory of relativity introduced humanity to quantum physics which brought into question the nature of duality itself. Human beings, until then, had viewed the world in mechanical and yes/no fashion.  Reality was very black and white. Things existed or did not. Science was very certain of itself and if something could not be demonstrated with by our available technologies and methodologies it did not exist.

However, quantum physics, discussion of abstract concepts like time, dimensions beyond three accepted ones, and other advancements in science and technology have demanded the expansion of our minds in understanding of reality and expanded our definitions of states of existence. This is very much akin to the emergence of adolescence and young adulthood when our perspective on absolutes begins to shift. Our parents aren’t always right as they used to be, the world is not as black and white and the desire to move away from the confines of one’s home is not dissimilar to the evolution of civilization.  By extension the word civilization implies these capacities. It requires a developmental maturity. And if you think about it, we do assign titles of “primitive” or “barbarians”, rightly or wrongly, to those cultures who are more limited in their perspective on the world.  So, humanity as a whole, with some parts less so and others more so, has evolved into young adulthood. Congratulations humanity can now get drunk legally. 

Thanks for reading. As always please share and comment. I am very interested in your thoughts.

Next time: Mobility & Connectivity: Prerequisites to Development