We seem to be surrounded by so much tension and conflict in the world today. With all the prejudice, discrimination and violence associated with strongly held beliefs, it would be nice to work out why people disagree so much. So what causes us to each believe certain things and be sniffy about opposing ideas?
I imagine we pickup ideas from all around us. Beliefs that have seeped through from current and past thinking in politics, philosophy, religion and so on. I’m sure I am influenced by my family upbringing, the traditions of my culture, the mass media and books I watch and read, what my teachers told me, and what newspapers I choose to read.
In a multicultural society where a pluralistic mentality has influenced our individual consciousness, it is quite difficult if not impossible to disentangle the effects of all these factors.
Beliefs affected by tough and tender mindedness
A first specific reason I can offer for our differing beliefs is to do with what some psychologists have supposed regarding ‘tough’ or ‘tender’ mindedness. The idea here is that we all differ in our social attitudes and values partly according to something which underlies our political leanings. For example a tough-minded conservative perspective on fairness means people should get what they deserve based on the amount of effort they have put in. What is fair from a tender-minded liberal point of view, is sharing resources equally and caring for people who are vulnerable.
Liberals are commonly said to value individualism and democratic participation as these are seen by them as conducive to progressive innovation. On the other hand conservatives tend to emphasise loyalty and authority which they see as helpful for maintaining a stable society. You can guess which side tolerate open-ended questions as opposed to wanting structure and clear answers.
So where does this tough minded-tender minded factor come from? Apparently, individual differences in personality are a leading candidate. Using data compiled from nearly 20,000 respondents, researcher Dana Carney and colleagues at Columbia University found that two common personality traits reliably differentiated individuals with liberal or conservative identifications. Liberals reported greater openness to new experience whereas conservatives reported higher conscientiousness. This means that liberals (at least in their own estimation) see themselves as more creative, flexible, tolerant of ambiguity, and open to new ideas and experiences. Conservatives see themselves as more persistent, orderly, moralistic and methodical.
Religious beliefs and other world-views
Is not an important cause of difference in social attitude to do with religion? If you come from a particular tradition – faith or secular – I reckon this will probably have an important bearing on the way you think about ethical and related matters; regarding the meaning of life, one’s final destiny, human suffering, the paranormal and so on. Here is then a second reason for differing beliefs.
Those we strongly disagree with may not be immoral but be simply individuals applying similar values to our own in different ways. If this were true then some of the conflict one finds between those of opposing views might subside. For example one conservative religious mind-set is be a good steward of the earth, to protect God’s creation – a view that is quite compatible with the green energy and conservation liberal policies.
I would suggest that those people, who acknowledge a higher consciousness beyond their ordinary awareness of life, are more likely to try to meditate deeply. Similarly, those theists, who happen to believe in a compassionate rather than a punitive deity, are more likely to engage in regular conversational prayer with their God. I imagine that those people who believe in an afterlife and also believe in the human capacity for inner free-will – as opposed to having a fatalistic attitude – would try to live life now as they mean to carry on doing to eternity. Finally I can point to those who believe in the golden rule of ‘doing to others as you would wish others to do to you’ as consequently playing fair by other people even if it is possible to get away with deception without being found out.
Beliefs that can be enlightened
Spiritual theory talks of enlightenment. And this points to a third reason why people differ in their beliefs. In other words even if understanding is limited, what is known has the capacity to hold a higher truth within it. According to this view we can distinguish between what might be called surface beliefs and deeper intuition. What is true for you depends on your individual level of enlightenment – the degree of illuminating light thrown on to what you know. Without such deeper perception one may be stuck in illusion.
One example of this relates to the belief in God as someone who rewards good and punishes bad behaviour. This is how divine justice appears to a simple-minded individual like a child. But look deeper and I would suggest one can find a more enlightened view of the matter in terms of positive and negative spiritual consequences that we bring on ourselves because a spiritual state is inherent in all what we do.
Beliefs in illusions and appearances
Some ideas about the universe have been shown to be illusory but other theories although a huge improvement can only ever be an approximation of what is really true. Scientists want the truth about nature but they can only come up with theories which continually change in the light of new evidence.
Similarly spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, wrote about personally relevant beliefs such as ethical and spiritual beliefs. He maintained that one never discovers what is really true: all insights are only appearances of genuine reality – adapted to different perception inherent in human circumstances.
Our individual conception of what is true is given to us according to what we are able to grasp. Given the huge range of the human condition and individual enlightenment, no wonder people believe different things.
Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems