Today we live in a world of belief - the age of unreason, some have called it. But I think that even when our species is somewhat reasonable, it is only when we choose to be so - to believe so - or when it was popular to believe so.
Today, people believe, more than ever it seems, in the paranormal, ghosts, angels, faeries, goblins, UFOs, end-times theology, scientific cults - or whatever suits their fancy. The number one book on the New York Times Bestseller this week is Heaven is Real - the account (supposedly) of a toddler who saw Jesus when he underwent anesthesia.
If you want to believe the ramblings of an anesthetized toddler "prove" the existence of heaven, that's fine. Myself, having had incoherent conversations with three-year-olds in the past, realize that (a) they often make no sense at all, (b) they make up things all the time, and (c) they are highly suggestible. The latter is particularly problematic, as if you ask a "leading question" to a small child, they will read your body language and give you the answer you want to hear.
But many people choose to believe this, only because they are predisposed to believe it, as they are already under the spell of fundamentalist religions who preach that you should follow every word of the Bible - a book that outlaws shrimp and pork, and condones slavery.
I had a similar dream, when I underwent anesthesia for my colonoscopy. I was in this weird alien spacecraft, and L. Ron Hubbard, and Tom Cruise, and the Outer Thetans were all there. So no doubt, this proves that Scientology is real as well. Or perhaps not. Maybe it was just the anesthesia and the fact I had read People magazine in the waiting room, and it had a three page spread about Tom Cruise.
Beliefs do change over time, of course. And there are two ways your belief structure may change. First, you may come to your own conclusions that what you are being sold is a bill of goods. If the outcome of your belief system is constantly negative, you may come to the conclusion that the belief system may be flawed.
And in many cases, this is what happens. People swarmed to various oddball political movements in the 1930's when the whole economic system seemed on the brink of collapse. But later on, most renounced those beliefs, as the reality of political systems such as Communism turned out to be radically different than what was promised.
Similarly, in the 1960's, many young people espoused belief systems that were radical, only later in life to tone these down. The idea of "free love" and the drug lifestyle started to collide with the reality. Drugs turned out not to be consequence-free, and as we get older, the idea of being irresponsible all the time sort of wears you out.
Of course, some folks never turned away from the far left - and for many of these folks, the reason why was that they were not exposed to the negative downsides of that lifestyle. But in addition, they were constantly barraged with similar thinking (reinforcement of beliefs) from people with similar views. For example, in Ithaca, New York, it is quite easy to adopt very far-left beliefs, as most people there share similar beliefs, and hence they reinforce each others belief systems. People who live in college towns and people who live in Academia often can maintain belief systems that would fall apart in any other environment.
Of course, the second way - a weaker way - belief systems change is when you move into a different social group or class. If you are the kind of person whose beliefs are molded largely by those around you, then you may tend to shift your belief structure when you change your environment. So when you leave college and go to work, you may become more conservative, as your social group is now the older and more conservative people at work, not the left-leaning college kids you used to hang with.
And perhaps too, when you become older, and are more invested in our economic system, you may start to see flaws in left-wing thinking, particularly when it comes to spending other people's money - when those other people are yourself.
But it is hardest of all to come up with your own belief structure and be able to parse things out for yourself. In fact, it is damned near impossible. While many people may follow religions (and most follow the religion of their parents or youth) few start their own. And those few that do start their own rarely create a new thought structure, but rather borrow liberally from previous belief systems.
"Thinking outside the box" has become so trite and cliche, that it is really no longer an original thought. Rather, it represents only a mantra chanted by consultants and motivational speakers.
So, how do you learn to think for yourself? It is hard, and I am not sure everyone can do it. In fact, few can, and most that do are crucified, often quite literally.
One way is to shut off the firehose of poor normative cues in your life. For most people, this is the television. For others, it is religion, and yet for others, it is politics.
Television - or the TeeVee as I derisively call it (the term "TeeVee" was coined, of course, by the infamous Madman Muntz, who named his daughter thusly) is a horrible source of normative cues in anyone's life - and it acts as a megaphone for commercial interests that are diametrically opposed to yours.
People who watch a lot of TeeVee get exposed to a lot of commercials - and those commercials are all for pretty bad deals - leased cars and SUVs, payday loans, rent-to-own furniture, overpriced and over-caloried restaurant meals - the works. And day-in, day-out, most people watch this shiite for an average - and average - of 4.6 hours a day and think nothing of it. After all, everyone watches TeeVee, right?
Well, wrong. Actually, the people who really run things in this world, including the people who are ON the TeeVee, don't watch it. They simply don't have the time to do so. And moreover, they don't feel they are missing much, either. In exchange for 15-22 minutes of very predictable entertainment, you get your head pummeled with a belief system that is horribly bad for your personal economic situation. Turning it OFF is the key to financial success - and if you don't believe that, the rest of this blog will be meaningless to you.
Religion of course is now on TeeVee - at least the most odious kinds are. Usually, TeeVee religions are little more than a continuous plea for money - to send in as donations, to buy books and seminars, or whatever. Those that don't bring in the cash, go bankrupt, as it nearly happening to Reverend Schuller's Chrystal Cathedral. Upstaged by more radical right-wing theologies and end-times propaganda, the once proud Hour of Power is finding it is losing ratings.
Many folks give their lives over to religion, and once you do so, you surround yourself with other people with similar religious views. Most religions shun outsiders as "sinners" or "infidels" and thus create an insular group that is cohesive and reinforces one another's beliefs. In fact, one could argue that the reason most mainline religions seem to be weakening is the more liberal, ecumenical movement of the 1960's and 1970's. When you tend to "socialize with Episcopalians", you may tend not to think that there is too little difference in the mainstream religions, and perhaps, this weakens the reinforcement mechanism.
Of course, with the evangelical movement, it is said that at any time 1/3 of the members have one foot out the door, 1/3 are joining, and 1/3 are still razzle-dazzled by the whole thing. Again, the clash with reality may be one reason people leave fundamentalist religions with regularity. The harsh teachings of such almost cult-like institutions tends to clash readily with the realities of life. Eventually, something has to break.
And of course, cults are usually characterized by an attempt to keep members insulated from the outside world. The teachings in cults are so disparate from reality that contact with people and events outside has to be limited for as much as possible, in order to keep the member in the group as long as possible. Outside influences and even data tend to put the teachings into a harsh light.
Politics and Religion are mixed together these days, much to the distress of our country, which was founded on a separation of Church and State. But many people take up politics today with an almost religious fervor. And you know who I am talking about - and you may be one yourself.
On the right, we have people who watch nothing but Fox News and Glenn Beck, and then listen to right-wing talk shows on the radio. They do not expose themselves to any other types of data, so their belief system is constantly self-reinforcing. And the Internet, once thought to be the salvation for Truth and the free-flow of information, ends up, oddly, to reinforce this circle of belief, as it tends to show the believer only that he wishes to see.
On the left, it is the same - only with different networks, charismatic speakers, talk shows, newspapers, and the like. Regardless of orientation, the political junkie ends up turning over his life to this sort of nonsense - and views every event in his life through this prism of political thought.
What all these belief systems have in common, of course, it that they are a trap or a cage. Once you sign on to a belief system, you have to keep subscribing to it. It backs you into a corner, theologically speaking, to the point where you are boxed in. And often, that corner is a cliff edge.
So you watch TeeVee, least a new SUV every three years, run up credit card debt, get a home equity loan, buy a monster house (just like HGTV!) and live the consumerist lifestyle they promote. But the problem is, you aren't happy personally, and financially, you are broke. Reality collides with the consumerist lifestyle promoted by the TeeVee, usually within about 10-20 years. But not before you've spend most of the money you will ever earn in life on jet skiis or something stupid like that.
Religion snares the weak-minded. At best, it provides a comfort for times of trouble and answers to unanswerable questions. At worst, it takes 10% of your pre-tax income - plus special gifts - and takes up most of your non-working time. Many folks, after years of following a religion, get the impression that maybe they were being snookered. And such folks end up bitter ex-(fill in the blank) later on. Religion, like anything else, in moderation!
Politics has a similar result. The fellow who bends your ear about Glenn Beck and how the economy is going to hell, is never going to get ahead in life - the dire predictions of Mr. Beck end up being true - on a persona level - for these folks, particularly after they've bought all of Mr. Beck's overpriced gold. Obsession about politics - to the detriment of your personal life and finances - often ends up having a negative result. And oftentimes, the folks who follow this path end up lurching from one extreme to the other - going from left-wing hippie to right-wing ideologue, without missing a beat.
So how do you avoid falling into the belief trap? Well, first recognize which belief systems have been thrust upon you in life. These may include religions (the religion you were taught as a child), political beliefs (your parents, or that which you picked up in college, or at work) as well as normative social cues from the ubiquitous television.
For most people, this is mentally impossible to so. They are interested in Celebrity Gossip News or Celebrity Trial not because it is flung in our face like a dump truck load of cow manure out the tailpipe of a jet engine - but rather because it interests them and thus the media panders to their interest. It takes courage and a lot of careful thought to say, "Maybe I am being manipulated, most of my life, to believe in things that advance other people's causes, and not my own."
So, the stinking hippie protests the opening of a new grocery store on the grounds that it is "gentrifying" the neighborhood, but fails to understand why he is really doing it. All his friends are against it - and so should he. After all, "gentrification" is on that buzz-word list of "things to protest against" like Free Trade, Republicans, and War. Maybe it would be nicer to have a store with quality merchandise, rather than a smelly, rat-infested grocery store. And maybe deep down inside, the hippie realizes this, but it is drowned out by the constant reinforcement of others in the social group.
On the right, the redneck driving the 8-mpg pickup truck burns an effigy of Obama, for causing "high gas prices" - convinced, as are all his social equals, that cheap gas is an American right (and that the "big oil companies" have suppressed the 100 mpg carburetor).
The list goes on and on. Perhaps most of us are influenced this way - to parrot the party line, to join movements and causes and take actions diametrically against out own interests, because of beliefs, not because of our own logic.
And it is a struggle - a daily one - to figure out whether your beliefs really are something you own, or merely something we bought off-the-rack and tried on, but really doesn't fit us.
Again, as I noted at the beginning of this piece, we seem to be in an age of unreason, where truth is whatever you want to make of it - and there are so many competing versions of truth out there. And not all of them can be true, by definition, as they mostly contradict each other.
Perhaps the simplest and easiest thing to do is to concentrate on your own life first - before taking on larger belief systems. Blogging against the Federal Reserve isn't going to get your credit card debt paid off any faster. Protesting someone improving the neighborhood isn't going to improve your personal life (but might make your failure more palatable). Obsessing about Jesus isn't going to really answer the imponderables in your life (although you may chose to believe so).
We choose what we want to believe, and that is perhaps the most important thing to realize. That no matter what our belief systems are, they are a choice. And as such, they can be changed, at will.