Beliefs – Why do people differ so much?

beliefsWe 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

What to believe – How do I decide?

what to believeIn deciding what to believe sooner or later you come up against something that is greater than yourself. Toddlers make every effort to get their own way but eventually have to submit to parental authority. Young people test their limits climbing mountains or visiting wild places until forced to acknowledge their helplessness in meeting the untamed forces of nature. And older individuals who contemplate the decline in their bodily powers are obliged to admit their lives are finite and end in physical death.

In considering what to believe many get the feeling that something or other greater themselves must be behind their existence. A hidden force that is responsible for everything that goes on in their lives. A higher power which gives meaning to everything that is, the world and what happens in it.

Is this the spirit of humanity? Is it mother nature herself? Is it what religious people call God? How can you know what it is? And for that matter how do you make your mind what to believe about what is true about a range of deeper issues in life—what happens after death, the ethics of warfare, abortion, and euthanasia, or understanding the meaning of innocent suffering. There are a range of answers available, some of which seem to be more attractive than others. But just how do you decide?

In my opinion just as the eye sees things around us so the inner eye can perceive the reality behind the appearance. And so it’s no good relying on information available to the bodily senses to answer the deeper questions. If you happen to agree with me on this, don’t ask materialist science to discover what is beyond nature. For we can be misled by our bodily senses into thinking that what they show us is all there is.

I’m sure all scientists would admit that their scientific instruments cannot directly measure the origin of beauty, kindness, honesty, or justice. In other words although we notice the forms of life we cannot directly see the essence of life; even though we see ethical behaviour in human conduct, we cannot see the source of goodness itself or truth itself.

As human beings we all have the ability to think in abstract ways about what to believe freed from the impulses of our appetites and emotions and thus largely removed from what has been called ‘the lower degree of the mind.’ Accordingly, we are capable of understanding the deeper aspects of life by drawing on abstract ideas such as those found from extra-sensory perception, found in sacred writing, or found about God, that we have learned from parents, teachers, books and friends.

However, it can be asked whether spiritual knowledge about such abstract concepts can result in any kind of deep belief? Whatever our memory for such things, are we not quite capable of having a sudden enthusiasm and rushing carelessly into an impulsive decision – that is if we lack a heartfelt care about considering the consequences. Mere learning about spiritual matters is limited if it is something in the memory and not also in the heart.

No, I would suggest what is needed is what spiritual writers often refer to as inner enlightenment. Light needs to be thrown on spiritual knowledge if it is to become really meaningful. This deeper form of illumination is perceiving what to believe about what is really true from within rather than seeing from without. Not relying on what someone tells you but being moved by an inner spirit of hunger and thirst for answers. One consequence of this would be that reliance on what is said authoritatively by philosophical, religious or spiritual experts can only be a stepping-stone to receiving an enlightened understanding.

So how do you know what to believe result from inner enlightenment?

The trouble is you can get taken up by enthusiasm for some dramatic social cause or other compelling human activity which you invest with all your energy and even turn into a life pursuit. The ideals they represent can feel like they have illuminated your life. But can I suggest that when the activity has limited intrinsic goodness or limited  rightness then it sooner or later will fail you especially if there is a hidden interest that motivates such as the desire for prestige, or social influence.

“Anyone at all who supposes that he has enlightenment is mistaken if he does not love to know truth for its own sake and for the sake of leading a good life.”
(E. Swedenborg, Heavenly Secrets, section 10551)

Nothing is as straightforward as we would like it to be. Deciding what to believe requires careful self-reflection.  I would like to suggest that the art of attending to your inner spirit is a process requiring considerable concentration. Spiritual exercises such as prayer, meditation and contemplation are needed to pry us away from ordinary desires and connect us with a deeper will and purpose.

Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Posted on21st June 2012CategoriesEnlightenment, Meaning of lifeTags,, , , , , ,, , , , ,, , , , , Leave a comment

Does it matter what I believe?

Does it matter what I believeThese days we have world-wide communication over the internet and through television. I, like many more of us, live in a multi-cultural society – having some sort of contact with people whose forebears originate from other continents. In other words I can see or hear most of the world’s spiritual beliefs either in the home, on the street. With so many different cultural ideas, I do wonder does it matter what I believe?

As a result of this variation people can ‘pick and mix’ different ideas about life that might seem sensible. At the same time I am aware there is a growing ethos of not discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, or sex.

Does it matter what I believe about life?

No wonder then that we have a pluralistic mentality that has infused our social consciousness and a spreading attitude that there is more than one world-view or way of thinking that leads to everlasting happiness.

Less and less people these days identify with any one system of belief and fewer affiliate themselves to any one organised religion. I suspect quite a few others ask my question  – Does it matter what I believe? What is seen as narrow-minded dogmatism is out. There is a realisation that no-one knows it all and that we all get some things wrong from time to time.

So we even hear the attitude that it doesn’t matter what you actually believe as long as it suits you and you find it helpful.

Does it matter what I believe less than what I feel?

Many psychodynamic counsellors assume that their clients’ emotional life is primary in defining who they really are and that what counts in whether therapy is successful is their feeling of self-acceptance and self-responsibility. According to this view the sort of person one becomes is determined more by how one feels about things than how one thinks; one’s concerns and sympathies rather than one’s ideas and beliefs. So, the question ‘Does it matter what I believe’ becomes less important.

Certain sanctimonious characters portrayed in Dickens’ novels come to mind. Uriah Heep clerk of Mr Wickfield’s believes in his humbleness – and is continually boasting of it! Heep’s writhing and scheming, and his cold, clammy nature, makes one’s skin crawl in David Copperfield. Readers see through such hypocritical behaviour and judge a character by his or her inner feelings and desires rather than by what they say they believe.

Does it matter what I believe about right conduct?

But another school of counselling takes a very different line. The extent to which thinking affects behaviour is central to cognitive therapy. Here what you do is thought to be affected by your beliefs. Challenge unrealistic beliefs and you can change the problematic feelings they give rise to. If you believe in honesty, fairness, and generosity then you may try to improve your behaviour to act according to these principles.

So perhaps what you think and believe does matter after all. There does seem to be a huge variety of beliefs around; ideas concerning the meaning of life, one’s final destiny, human suffering, and so on.

Dr Roger Walsh

Does it matter what I believe about the perennial philosophy?

Despite this apparent divergence of beliefs, however, a well-known scholar Roger Walsh, has pointed out there are actually 4 basic spiritual beliefs that have endured across centuries and are found in all the world’s main religious traditions. These have come to be known as the ‘perennial philosophy’. These are belief in :

1.      Two realms of reality – a realm of physical objects and a realm of  consciousness or spirit, not limited by space or time.

2.      A divine spark within us usually said to be inseparable from the source and  foundation of all reality

3.      The improvement one’s spiritual nature as the greatest aim of one’s human existence.

4.      Our ability to recognise these claims testing them against our
direct experience.

Some people may believe in none of these assertions. They may think they have no religious beliefs: but isn’t that in itself a belief? Many people seem to be attracted to similar ideas without putting their thoughts into words. They have intuitions but no clear thinking to clarify their perceptions.

Does it matter what I believe about the spiritual?

Students of human development have said that we need to learn about civil and ethical ideas before deciding which ones to conform to or rebel against. Likewise I would like to claim that most of us learn some spiritual ideas – for example those of the ‘perennial philosophy’ that Walsh has written about. Ideas such as that of a consciousness of spirit that goes beyond time and space, a ‘golden rule’ of doing to others as we would wish them to do to us and the concept of a divine source.

Believing in civil and ethical standards enables you to behave well. Perhaps in the same way acknowledging the spiritual dimension enables you to find a new personal orientation in life’s journey.

Unless you acknowledge a divine source why else would you try to meditate deeply or pray? Without a belief in an eternal life why else would you try to live life now as you mean to carry on doing? Without belief in a ‘golden rule’ why else would you play fair by others even if you could get away with deception?

Without believing what is ethically right, how could we recognise the wrong-things we get up to, our bad actions that we hide from others?

So what’s the answer? Does it matter what I believe? I’m still not sure. However I suspect the answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

Yes, in that my beliefs can guide my life — what I do, how I do it and how confident I can be I am on the right tracks. But no in the sense that in the end it is not what I think and believe that will save me from unhappiness but rather the feelings I have towards others and whether I love to live my life according to my lights.

Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Posted on29th January 2012CategoriesEnlightenment, Meaning of lifeTags, , , , , , , , , , ,, , ,