September 08, 2004

True Belief

Few things puzzle me more than Belief. Not just belief, but True Belief -- that mental state where a set of strongly-held fundamental beliefs rule one's life, and where those beliefs are largely impervious to outside logic or evidence, and are typically come to by personal revelation, and where certainty is infinitely more important than curiosity.

I'm not any sort of believer, let alone a True Believer. I have a lot of strong opinions, but very few strong Beliefs. Opinions change, and aren't in any sense terribly fundamental to most lives. Curiosity and experience tend to overrule or shape opinions in a way that doesn't happen with true beliefs.

Where I come from, that's quite normal, and barely worth noting. But Belief rules everyday life here in the US in ways that are utterly alien to most Australians or Britons of my age. Until I came to this country, religion -- Belief -- just wasn't something I had to deal with on a daily basis. Religion played almost no part in public or private life in the two main countries I'd lived in before coming here. I knew virtually no one who went to church, or at least more than twice a year. Any politician who used religion to further their political goals (or vice versa) was usually shunned or ostracised -- often enough, by religious people themselves.

The supposedly religious divides back home were basically cultural (and not so strong in any case where I grew up) -- like the whole Proddies vs The Tikes thing, where the rivalry was mostly on the football field or for entrance to better universities (I doubt any of us then could have articulated much in the way of theological differences between, say, Canberra Grammar's liberal Anglicanism and, say, St Iggy's somewhat liberal Catholicism. But hey, they could usually thrash us at football, and we could sometimes thrash them at rowing (very telling, that), and we were always neck-and-neck academically. And we all knew each other quite well anyway.

The only Believers I knew were, inevitably for that time and place, the Trots and Stalinists and their like on the totalitarian left. Absolutely impervious to counter evidence, used to ending internal arguments by rote-learned appeal to Authority (Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, whomever...), able to short-circuit curiosity and sap vitality with a single bound of dialectics, glorying in the sort of personality cult that they vilified in others -- these guys were Believers (and, like Believers everywhere, totally dedicated to killing -- or at least oppressing -- anyone who didn't share their particular Beliefs).

As a kid in University, it was a radical notion that Marxism could be successfully analysed as a religion -- but it became an obvious idea, one to be kept quiet in the company of people you didn't know too well. Over the years I started to believe that the important dimensions aren't so much particular belief vs. particular belief, but Believer vs. non-Believer. The average Fundamentalist Christian shares more with a True Trotskyist in his or her outlook on life than with a non-Believer like me. Believers can't generally see this -- there's something there that diverts this thought -- but in real life, it's Believers vs. the rest.

What matters most is not so much religion, as Belief. You can be religious and still not be a Believer (which is probably the case for most religious people). I suspect it's one of the defining marks of a True Believer that they can't conceive of people (like me) having no beliefs -- I've actually been told several times out here that I must be lying when I say I just don't have strong beliefs. It's a mindset...

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