On The Limits of Belief

I’m an advocate of Critical Thinking and Assertiveness. Thus, I am a huge supporter of the freedom of thought and the freedom of speech. Freedom of thought includes the right of all human beings to refer to whatever belief system they consider as valid (what valid is, that’s another topic). Furthermore, one is entitled to act upon one’s belief – receive information, be in touch with others that share the specific belief system, engage in common actions and maybe even try to convey the message towards people outside the main belief group. As you’ve probably noticed, this kind of right (like anything that has to do with assertiveness) revolves around the individual and relations are created based on similarities and shared purpose. However, we all step outside the circle so to speak, and come in contact with various people whose views on life do not resemble our own.

Studies have shown that humans have an innate tendency towards punishing individuals that are different from ourselves – even when it comes to rather trivial criteria – like you can see in this video I’ve posted last year on my Facebook Page, regarding research conducted by Karen Wynn, Ph.D., and Paul Bloom, Ph.D from Yale University, on the origins of morality.

So what happens then? Or, to be more specific on the intent of my question, what should happen when we encounter people that do not share our beliefs?

We’ve seen different approaches to this matter – from agreeing to disagree (the assertive take on the matter) to trying to manipulate the other into joining our belief system (aggressive, but not necessarily intrusive) to the most radical of reactions, violence (obviously aggressive behavior, with different degrees).  The first type of reaction is one of the things that make humanity move forward. We take notice of our differences, but are capable to manage them in a mature and responsible way; we can interact and differences are not taboo, can be brought into discussion, analyzed, even ridiculed. The second, manipulation, we can deal with it if its manifestation involves things like people knocking on our doors and calling and passing flyers on the street just to try to convey their message and perhaps help enlarge their group – in a sense, this actions can be even seen as an attempt to bring everybody in “the group” so that no one remains outside it…and once everyone is in, no differences, no punishment. Yes, it’s a rather simple view and it wouldn’t quite solve anything, since we can use the slightest difference to create a tiny group in “the group” and everything would start all over. It’s a boiling dynamic, but still, it can be handled. You choose to either join – by changing your initial beliefs or because you’ve finally found those that share your views – or refuse and move on with your life. A more aggressive kind of manipulation it’s the “join or else” version, harder to deal with and very close to the fully aggressive reaction, verbal or physical violence. Verbal violence, even though may inflict psychological harm, it can be dealt with. The reaction in this case can also vary from an assertive one – “What one says about me does not define me, what’s being said is not part of me, not mine.” – to aggressiveness, but this is not the topic for this post. I want to address the most radical of reactions towards belief differences between humans – physical violence. Threat or acting on a threat is very instinctual, unmediated and thus, has nothing to do with reason, morals and most of the time, nothing to do with the belief system itself. There’s nothing that could actually justify inflicting physical harm to another human being – and difference in thinking and beliefs can justify this action even less than let’s say, somebody being physically provocative towards another.

Being free in your own mind should come with being positive that what you are thinking will never be the reason for something bad happening to you. Thoughts and opinions don’t kill, people do. The reason why some people kill can be explained in various ways – we’re biologically wired to display aggressive behaviors in certain contexts; psychologically, one’s personal history may have created a distorted view of the world, and of course, mental illness may be the reason why individuals end up using the most extreme form of violence.

So, coming back to the main topic of my post, let’s consider the findings of Karen Wynn, Ph.D., and Paul Bloom, Ph.D, that I’ve posted above (there are other studies that support similar results).

We have a preference for those that resemble us – a criteria that makes us group based on different variables – and at the same time, we want to see those different from us being punished.  But hey, the study has also shown that we can make the difference between right and wrong at an early age (as young as 3 months old, as you could see in the previous material) so why lose this ability if there’s no objective factor to cause that? Free and critical thinkers know that one of the most important things when assessing information is to mainly rely on yourself – any information comes your way, you critically analyze it, not blindly believe or follow. You make up your own mind about situations, actions, people, the world, based on your critical thinker’s compass. And it works in building a healthy model of reality, mainly because it’s … real! Cognitive distortions will also bend your morals. You can make a choice to not let that happen.

In your mind, you can conceive anything, even those things that for the rest of the people fall into the “unthinkable” category. What happens in your mind cannot and does not affect me, I don’t live there. Your space, your decorations. I don’t have to like them or agree with any of the “design”. So where’s the problem? I believe the sole problem that occurs with beliefs and thoughts is when one chooses to act upon them and the result involves stepping over the other one’s rights. Belief should stop at the line where the other one’s objective well-being resides. If your thoughts – bent or not – become a motivator in bending the other one’s destiny (life path/living) that’s where problems occur. We are free to think, to believe, to speak, but not always free to act upon what’s being thought, believed or spoken. Not if it involves a third party that didn’t agree to your plan.

I believe the rules of a group should be valid within that group. I cannot understand why a group would expect non-members to obey them. Of course, even if the rules only apply to members, nothing can justify abuse. But then again, at least the members agreed to all the rules of the game. And I’m pretty sure we cannot eradicate masochism or sadism, so that’s another story.

It has come to my attention that there is a rather unsettling number of countries that still punish people for what is considered to be blasphemy or apostasy (Source: Human Rights for Atheists, Agnostics and Secularists. I don’t endorse the source, but I agree with their motto – “Human Rights over Human Belief” and appreciate the information and interest on this social matter). I find being punished for something you believe in or for changing your mind – both human rights – outrageous. Free thinking, evidence seeking behaviors and freedom of speech should be encouraged, not smothered. Systems always tried to maintain homeostasis and thus, are rigid and resistant to change, but their most boiling reactions are rather a sign of their ending. And for some, endings are not pretty, nor easy to deal with. But just because we are being threat with a nasty view and/or experience of these systems’ end days, it does not mean that we need to be paralyzed by manipulation through fear techniques.

It’s our right to think whatever we want, to believe whatever we want – or not to believe,  to analyze, to discuss, to joke about, to criticize and act as we feel we should, as long as our direct actions (actions!) do not harm others.

As you could see, I wrote about belief/belief systems and not religion. To me, religion is cultural. It’s beautiful, metaphorical and soon, a thing of the past. It’s great to acknowledge its cultural and artistic value, even social value for providing individuals a sense of belonging and guidance, but that is perhaps where it should stop, and not be used as motivation or justification of decisions in the present era.

In conclusion, I believe there is a limit to belief, but not in what regards one’s inner dynamic – thoughts or affectivity -, not even when it comes to actions that involve the individual and his peers; The limit is the other one and his rights. It’s external, it’s almost physical. When you step towards the other one with the intent of hurting him – emotionally and, especially, physically – you’re not acting on your right, but on your ego, your lack of empathy, your own past unresolved trauma, your narcissism, your distortions and sometimes,  your stupidity.

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