I have always found the term “to believe in” rather annoying. I will try to analyse why.
Firstly, there are so many ways this term is generally understood. To believe in a principle or cause, is to have confidence in its value to society. To believe in an individual, is to have confidence in their ability to be successful in some way. To believe in X, is to have confidence that X is literally true or real, no matter what the evidence may indicate. It is this last sense that is most troubling, although many religious folk define religion by all three.
But is religion really about “believing in”? Certainly for Christianity, and Islam, this is the case. In our long domination by this influence, most Westerners define religion as something you believe in. More than that, it requires the third mode of belief, as faith in the literal truth of unprovable statements. I would contend that this view of religion is highly limiting, not at all universal, and somewhat dangerous.
For the majority of religions, belief has always been secondary. Individuals within a society tend to share similar beliefs, but it was never an explicit requirement for participants in most religions to believe in particular unprovable things. Most religions are more about celebration, symbolism, and social cohesion. The Abrahamic religions are unusual in requiring a belief in the unprovable. This view of religion as belief has unfortunately influenced many other religions that have, over time, become more inclined to place more importance on belief.
The negative consequences of belief-based religion are manifest. The requirement to “believe in” unprovable propositions opens the door to interpretations of those propositions, and the concepts of heresy, and blasphemy. These are essentially “thought crimes” historically, and in some countries still, punishable by death. Even where there are no longer official punishments, the questioning of orthodoxy is often met with social sanctions and even physical abuse.
Less extreme, but perhaps more destructive in the long run, is the tendency of those reliant upon revealed belief to ignore evidence-based knowledge. Denial is the most common position of religious and political groups who find some truths inconvenient to their cherished beliefs. Climate change denial, evolution denial, and holocaust denial, are just a few examples. These groups are not skeptics in the sense of being undecided and requiring more evidence. They have a predefined position, and are selective in their acceptance only of evidence that seems to support their beliefs. They create and exploit public confusion, delaying urgent action, or casting doubt and suspicion on the legitimate pursuit of knowledge.
A more insidious consequence of stressing belief in the unprovable, is that it is a short step to enforcing belief in the demonstrably false. Fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, and other religious cults discovered the power of coercive psychological techniques long before they were adopted by communist re-educators, or described in George Orwell’s “1984”. By immersing people in an environment where unquestioning belief and obedience are required, individual conscience and rationality can be suppressed. Cult survivors are often horrified at how easily they were lead into actions and ideas that were totally out of character.
It may be useful here to define the difference between a sect and a cult. A sect is merely a subgroup of a religion that may have unusual ideas, and may have intense hostility toward other sects, but is not necessarily a cult. A cult is a group, religious or otherwise, that uses coercive psychological techniques to control its members’ actions and beliefs.
The signs of cult behaviour in a group usually include; an authoritarian leadership, often with outlandishly grandiose titles, a hierarchical structure where promotion and status are rewards for adherence to the dictates of the leadership, psychological isolation of members from the wider world, often reinforced with physical isolation and a degree of paranoia, the insistence that members are special or better than the outside community, and particularly the enforcement of belief in unprovable dogmas involving punishments for doubt or questioning.
The key to getting a cult to work is the control of belief. This is most easily achieved if it is done in stages. Once the members have modified their beliefs sufficiently far from reality, they lose their ability to discern the difference between truth and fiction, or between what they would previously have seen intuitively as right or wrong. The process can produce profound changes in an individual’s behaviour, and lasting psychological damage.
By overstating the importance of “believing in” things, Western culture has really set itself up for the proliferation of cults. In the Islamic world religious cults are less tolerated, but belief can still be politicised and turned toward extremism.
The only antidote to our susceptibility to cults, is to stop defining religion as “believing in..”. Define it as a practice, a philosophy of life, a way of communing with the Universe, a tradition. Once we are free from the tyranny of “believing in”, we are able to accept evidence-based knowledge, or reject misinformation, without fear or guilt.
The problem of belief seems to have polarised society, with rationalist atheists on one side, and superstitious religionists on the other. In reality, there is a silent majority of rational and quietly religious folk, as there always has been. Many of the divisions and problems of religion and society would vanish if we just stopped “believing in …”.
Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China by Robert Jay Lifton
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris