What I believe isn’t important. The fact that I can put order to my thoughts, sort them into opinions and fan them into beliefs is hardly impressive. In fact, such thinking is unavoidable. It’s what our highly evolved human brains do. They compare and contrast and judge in an endless attempt to make sense of the world around us. Believing is as automatic as walking or talking or sneezing, and about as noteworthy.
There was a time when I considered my beliefs to be something more than just an assemblage of thoughts. I mistook them for something much more important. I thought they were me.
At various times in my life I believed I was a Catholic, a Unitarian, an agnostic and a secular humanist. I was a liberal, a feminist, an environmentalist and a pacifist. I took on new identities in search of a higher self and, down deep, I think, to distance myself from certain vulgarities that characterize the human condition – qualities like greed and aggression. By connecting certain thoughts, by cobbling together new identities, I convinced myself and others that those unwholesome human traits couldn’t possibly define me. They defined thieves and rapists and murderers. I was above all that, and had a portfolio of beliefs to prove it.
I was not alone in my quest adopt a new identity. Everyone in the world was doing it right along with me. Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. Socialists, Communists and Greens. Progressive Unionists, Christian Democrats – some crafting identities the way college freshmen craft double majors. We were all attempting to rise above our inherited animal nature, but rising above it didn’t make it go away. We were still greedy and aggressive despite our deeply held beliefs. We were walking contradictions, projecting our inner conflicts onto the world; in fact, we were the world, and that’s why it was such a bloody mess.
Having wandered from one belief system to another, I thought I had explored life’s biggest questions, but I was only asking questions for which my beliefs had provided me pat answers. I had yet to ask myself the most radical questions, the ones that would eventually smash my beliefs to bits. They were questions no one seemed to be asking, questions like:
If a clash of beliefs can be found at the root of all the violence in the world, then shouldn’t we question their validity – not the validity of any particular belief, but belief itself?
Separated from our beliefs, would we lose our moral bearing? Would we fall prey to our baser instincts and rock the world with depraved acts of violence? Or is this precisely the behavior we exhibit under the hypnotic spell our beliefs?
Imagine a city whose buildings have been leveled by an earthquake. That’s the image I had of my mind after my beliefs had been toppled. I felt like I could see forever in every direction. The towering thought structures that stood as my beliefs no longer blocked my view of the world. I felt a disorienting sense of freedom. Liberated from the beliefs that had conferred my identity, I felt blissfully anonymous. I was a person without a suffix, without an –ist to affirm my existence. I had unwittingly joined the only club that matters. It numbers in the billions, doesn’t charge dues and welcomes career criminals. It’s called the human race.
It’s been years since I disposed of my beliefs, and I have yet to turn into a sociopathic killer. On the contrary, I’ve developed a deep affection for my planet mates now that I’m not measuring them by the yardstick of my beliefs. Gone are the walls of thought that prevented me from seeing who they really are. Gone are the lectures I’d give in an attempt to raise their consciousness. And gone, mercifully, is my compulsion to cast them as evil so that I can appear virtuous.
However sacred or profound, a belief is nothing more than a thought, and thought is never the thing it describes. It can only hint at the wonders it attempts to touch. Sermons about love garble love’s ineffable beauty. Speeches about unity clank after the first syllable. Courting belief is a prescription for a virtual, not a virtuous life.
John Ptacek’s essays explore the unquestioned assumptions that limit our capacity for happiness. They appear on his website, On Second Thought, www.johnptacek.com. He lives in Wisconsin with his wife, Kitty.