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Belief Systems

The concept of “belief systems” has a wide variety of meanings, so my first intention here is to share what meaning that concept has for me.  The Collins Dictionary provided the most uncomplicated option: “The belief system of a person or society is the set of beliefs they have about what is right and wrong and what is true and false.”  I like that simplicity. 


Said perhaps more precisely, a belief system is a curated collection of convictions or a thought library of cultural behaviors and practices, rules and ethics and explanations of the human experience of existence.  I think this one is thick, something I created from a whole mess of comments by others. I say mess advisedly: there is not a tidy single sentence for this concept, it appears. Much as we have extraordinary variance in our belief systems, we even have extraordinary variance in trying to define what a belief system actually is.


Many build their understanding of a belief systems from a premise of religion or religious beliefs, and often focus on the five major “world religions”: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Another frequent exploration is “what” we have beliefs about, the most common being beliefs about ourselves, others and the world or universe. Here philosophy is the travel companion of religion.


Lurking in all of this is the meaning of the two words that make up this concept called belief systems. Belief is defined as “an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists; a trust, faith, or confidence in something or someone”.  System, which enjoys more definitional complexity, is defined as “a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized framework or method.” 


As I understand this, belief itself involves accepting that something is true and having confidence in this, an acceptance that usually has many component parts.  A system takes these acceptance components and creates an inventory, making all the beliefs involved into a method or organized framework. Which is where I find my attention focused, as a person with a very cautionary response to belief systems. It is perhaps important to concede at the outset that my wariness stems in part from a deep early engagement with a belief system that I experienced as awash in pseudo-benevolent misogyny and procedurally managed through guilt and shame.  It left scar tissue.


I do not have any difficulty with either beliefs or systems as human experiences.  Merged, they become a third more worrisome thing. While they offer community, acceptance and reassurance, they also require concurrence with the content of the system. While they include, they also systematically exclude. They can create walls among groups that blur our ability to experience our common humanity. They can ask humans to ignore their own inner wisdom to accept the requirements of the system.  These were my early experiences. And they left me searching, fairly early in my life.


When, in my 80th year, I set out to pack for my recent move to the US coast of the Pacific Ocean, I committed to downsizing my library, no small task.  To achieve this goal, I created categories of books, sorted them into these categories, then went through the tedious process of saying “Keep” or “Share Elsewhere” to each book.  Some categories essentially cataloged my search for guidance about belief systems. I had large collections under the categories of philosophy, psychology, science, organizational structures and alternative health practices.  I also had a category I called “World Religions/Belief Systems”.  I always thought I had about 5 or 6 books in this category; it turns out I had about 35.


What I realized was that I remembered what I had learned from these dominant 5 or 6 books. I wanted to know if there were any consistent convictions that showed up in all the various religions, particularly the “world religions”.  What I learned, as I experienced it, was that there was a single consistent shared “rule”: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.  Wording varied, but the message was the same. There was also a single shared “virtue”: Compassion.  So, all that searching had yielded these two very, very useful insights that have shaped much of my life.


My search for some shared worldwide human beliefs emerged, I think, from a deep discomfort with what seemed to me an expectation of “belief systems”. It seemed to me that somehow the “belief system” that any given persons embraced eventually made them think their “belief system” was “more correct” or “better” than all the alternatives, almost that to offset their fear of error, their system had to be “the most correct one”. In time this was expressed as a certain dismissiveness of the belief systems of others.


This dismissiveness often seemed the organizing force for the system itself, a requirement for membership in the belief group. The message sent was that if you wished to be a member of this “community”, you must participate in this dismissiveness.  To fail to do so was a path to ostracization and isolation. Often the message was focused on power, control and dominance. This still seems true to me, perhaps more now than ever before. It also seems true to me that to say all this out loud is considered in bad form, a social breech of some kind. As is perhaps obvious, all this has become the basis for many wars, colonizations, and interpersonal cruelties.


It is perhaps important to note here that, as many have “explained” to me, all this is simply “human”, that we cannot create “perfect” belief systems and we need to accept human limitation when assessing such matters. I have no disagreement with this.  My discomfort emerges from a refusal to name and own all the simply “human” limitations that do substantive harm.  A belief system that does serious harm to others is itself unsettling; to be told I cannot see, recognize and name this harm is nonsensical to me.


A corollary to this is the conviction that one’s “belief system” has all the “right answers” so there are no life mysteries, merely clear guidance from the system of choice. It is not important that the guidance might not make sense to others, merely that it exists as TRUE for the person who “believes” it is true.  Indeed, others who fail to accept the “belief system’s” right answers are defective, foolish, ignorant, or perhaps even evil.  Somewhere the understanding that beliefs are not “proven” or “factual” has disappeared.


A further discomfort I have with belief systems is that they tend to imply religions, though there are many belief systems that are actually the obverse, the declaration that religions are in error.  I think most scientists and health care providers are living their work as a “belief system” though most seem unable to recognize this.  I think the same could be said of artists, of educators, of athletes, of corporate executives, of anyone who shapes their life story with an “an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists; a trust, faith, or confidence in something or someone”, and then sets out to create within their biography, “a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized framework or method.” 


Now I am fine with folks having these belief systems and it seems to me that it really works well for most people most of the time…until they either insist I must agree with them or that their way is the right way for me.  There is however, a third “threat”. The red flag that I scurry away from most rapidly is the one that is most disturbing to me. This red flag has printed on it in caps: CERTITUDE.


At the point where I accept that a statement is true or that something exists and then insist that it is not simply something I accept but is something I am actually CERTAIN is true, then human discourse tends to go off the rails. This explains a disturbing number of human conflicts and human relationships gone awry.  Having worked in Conflict Engagement in a variety of roles for over 35 years, I often felt the most persistent challenge I faced was the person suffering from extreme Certitude.  “If my belief system is true, and it differs from yours, yours must be wrong because I know mine is right!”  And because it was a belief system, to jiggle it, even slightly, disturbed a habituation to the comfort of Certitude!  (I capitalize it to give it it’s due as a powerful force!)


Which bears exploration.  There is a great seduction in Certitude. I am slow to judge others who are attached to Certitude because I know I would welcome the comfort of knowing I was right. I find I must monitor myself closely so my coaching clients do not hear a question I ask as a hint at my secret “right answer”.  Not only do we long for the false “safety” of Certitude; we project this Certitude onto others we hope are “right” about something,


I am often seduced by the longing for Certitude, and understand that belief can eradicate uncertainty for many people. In religions, this is often discussed as “Faith”, and is often seen as the sturdiest part of a persons “belief system”, providing a Certitude not only about human existence but numerous other realms. I have no need or desire to challenge any of this. I also do not accept the requirement to concur. Certitude and mystery have trouble coexisting for me.


One of my earliest experiences of “belief system” awareness was the realization that most belief systems that included the existence of a “higher power” introduced that power as gendered, as masculine. After my first long foray into the world religions, I concluded that “god” could be described as a panel of elderly (probably “white”) males (probably wearing white robes), perhaps sitting at a table looking out at humanity stumbling about. It also seemed that the “god” of each of the world religions was not quite the same “god” that the other religions had, hence the panel.  Certainly, in wars over religion, there seem to be two gods working with two different “armies”.  This has always seemed quintessentially “masculine” to me.


I have never found a successful way to explain the personal impact of being told about a gendered “God”, only to then discover you are the wrong gender.  I use gender here as the social construct, since that is how in manifests in world religions.  It makes no sense to be told you are born in the image and likeness of “God”, and then get told “he” is a “he” and you are a “she”, obviously not the right image and likeness. We have barely scratched the surface of the impact of belief systems that define gender in ways that harm both men and women, albeit in different ways. 


If belief systems intend to grapple with the mysteries of human existence, then the first part of that experience for every human is the formal assignment of gender at birth. It is more fundamental than we seem to realize, perhaps because those sensing this are the ones defined as the “lesser” gender, the one “God” is not.


To be fair, all the belief systems not linked to religion have the same tough mountain to climb on this one, and again, we have only just begun. If belief systems are to address the “human experience of existence”, then that experience has to include exploration of the social construct of gender and its manifestations and impact on the gendered humans. The challenge to climb that mountain will not be initiated if we humans are locked in the cocoons of “Certitude” we create to comfort ourselves and hold our fears at bay. 


At some level, ironically, the concept of belief may be our most trusted companion in this effort: an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists; a trust, faith, or confidence in something or someone. We humans may need to keep finding one another, trusting one another, being curious about one another, respecting one another, caring about one another. That may be our path forward…though obviously, I have no “Certitude” about this. Living in a space of emergence is not comfortable, but it does feel honest.  And…I have no wisdom about how this could be a “system”.


Over the years I have learned that being open to all belief systems does give me access to a much richer array of wisdom collections and useful ideas. While I do not have the false assurance of Certitude, I do have freedom from this false assurance. While I do not have the comfort and reassurance of “membership” and the community that this can offer, I have the freedom to discover and explore, to be open and vulnerable, to avoid filtering all incoming information through a preset “belief” meter. I value all this, and work to manage the isolation this exclusion from community can create.


All belief systems offer an invitation to better understand the world others live in and value. All belief systems have something to offer to enrich the human experience. All belief systems can provide insights and opportunities for growth and discovery, can feed creativity and hope, evoke music and laughter and joy.  If none need to prevail, the best of each is accessible. It’s an option!


“It does take great maturity to understand that the opinion we are arguing for is merely the hypothesis we favor, necessarily imperfect, probably transitory, which only very limited minds can declare to be a certainty or a truth.”


- Milan Kundera -

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