Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Beyond Belief

Quite often, we have encountered religious folks who, in their unwavering need to proselytize to the skeptical folks, invoke the subject of belief: In a religious context, a strong belief in a deity is a prerequisite for theists, who are of the impression that an unquestioning, unwavering belief in a deity is likened to a one-way ticket to paradise.

The subject of belief, however, can be as diverse as it is complex: Theists and secularists have very different perspectives of belief, and as I shall demonstrate in this post, belief occupies a unique similarity in the minds of both theists and atheists alike.

Types Beliefs

From a secular point of view, trust & confidence is often associated with belief: A belief system should only be considered valid if it is justified either through the existence of proof and other tangible, rational reasons.

1. Beliefs Based On Trust

If you believe that the store keeper will give you the right change every time you purchase items from his store, your beliefs may have stemmed from the fact that you have patronized his store countless times, and each time he has never failed to give you the wrong change. While the fact remains that this does not imply that he may never give you the wrong change in future, your trust and confidence is gained from the store keeper who exhibits a genuine sense of honesty and impeccable attention so that he has so far succeeded in giving in the right change, without resorting to theft or giving you the wrong change by mistake.

Beliefs of this nature is more aligned with friendships or other loose alliances: You don't know whether the other party will perform his allocated task, but you place your trust on him based on his or her impeccable record.

2. Beliefs Based On Statistics

A belief system can simply be a matter of mere probabilities: I trust the plane to fetch me safely from one destination to another, even if there is a remote possibility that the plane may crash into oblivion. Standard, rational behavior, however, tells us that such an unnecessary fear about a crash is irrelevant, although airlines may think otherwise (Think about all those mock-up documentaries teaching passengers about the safety procedures on board). In theory, a belief system based on mere probability is justifiable up to a certain extent, not so much as an expectation of something that is remotely improbable, but rather based on the success rate & in certain cases, failure of the belief system.

The idea that statistics becomes part and parcel of a logical, step-by-step routine to justify belief is also a scientifically, time-proven method: In any scientific experiments, tests are carried out on a repetitive basis in laboratories so as to reduce errors to the smallest possible denominator. Hence, beliefs based on statistics can be adjudged to be the most rational, and one would surmise that faith, in the context of unconditional, trust and confidence plays little part here.

3. Beliefs Based On Personal Convictions

From a philosophical point of view, a belief system may be more complex than the "believe in me and you will be saved" drivel sprouted by religious theists: Your philosophical outlook, as shaped by your personal beliefs, enables you to make an informed conviction to participate in a certain movement, social setting or even religion.

If one is a freedom rights activist, say in the 1800s, chances are, almost every rich, white-dominated household will be a slave owner. The law is on their side, and so is the moral impetus for owning slaves, which is supported by none other than the Christian denominations which are no doubt white-dominated.

Given such prevailing trends, plus the fact that slave trading and ownership was the standard norm in most colonial nations, it would seem to be quite preposterous for a human rights activist to scream bloody murder about the ill-treatment of slaves, much less the moral or ethic issues surrounding such an inhuman practice. Human empathy and a raised social consciousness was thus required to enhance the belief that human rights is the noble trait that we should all aspire to achieve, and such a belief could not have been derived from an existing slave-less culture. Even when there is little or no precedent to prove that slavery, or the subjugation of any other minority in general, there would have been enough observable evidence to prove that slavery is one of the most cruel and archaic practices handed down by generations of victors, who, after vanquishing their unfortunate foes, begins the process of assimilating the defeated populaces as an inferior race to serve as serfs for the victorious race (or tribe, for want of a better word).

Beliefs derived from personal convictions can also be gleaned from social trends and propaganda: A terrorist who is convinced that Jews are filthy little creatures probably watches enough Arab TV to make an "informed" decision with regards to his suicidal decision to join a terrorist group.

Beliefs borne out of personal convictions are usually the least rational: While they are not necessarily relevant, they are, at the very least, a genuine case of an endeavor to make society a more tolerable (at least from the believer's point of view) environment to co-exist with other human beings.

Justifying Belief With Evidence

Beliefs are part and parcel of the human psychological make-up. It is akin to a mental extension of a limb: A person needs beliefs in order to keep in touch with reality and his or her surroundings. For example, you need to trust that the bank will not abscond with your money before you can trust the bank with your hard-earned cash. Similarly, you will not take the taxi if you do not believe that the taxi driver will fetch you from point A to point B within a reasonable time frame safely. Both instances require a certain level of reasonable, justifiable belief: The bank probably has an outstanding track record, while the driver's state license indicates that he is competent enough to drive the cab.

For good measure, beliefs can also act as enhancements or boosters for flagging morale: For example, if you believe you can defeat the seven footer boxer in the ring, even if you are a five footer yourself, chances are, you will have raised your confidence level several notches however, which will no doubt help you to give a better fight than the monster of a boxer would expect. While you may not win the fight, at the very least, you wouldn't be a walk-over, which would have been the expected outcome of the fight.

That said, a belief cannot simply justify itself on its own: A person, for example, can believe that the moon is made of green cheese, but evidence gleaned from moon soil collected from Apollo expeditions will prove otherwise. Hence, any moron who expounds on the culinary benefits of cheese from the moon cannot be adjudged to have made a statement of profound truth. A five foot boxer can only hope to floor a 7 foot boxer only if he has a viable strategy and a well-worked training program prior to the fight.

While beliefs without evidence or justification is whimsical at best, Religion teaches us that such blind beliefs, lauded and coined as faiths, are virtues which are held in high esteem. We are told, in no uncertain terms, that Jebus died and rose from the grave after three days. Or that the Earth was once wiped out of all life by a deluge of rain that lasted for 150 days. Such superstitious phenomena, when stemmed with the indelible ink of religion, becomes irrefutable truth, and religion demands that a belief in such ludicrous stories be mandatory.

A belief system, whether it is based on personal convictions or one borne out of statistics or trust, must be justified with tangible, and better still, concrete, irrefutable evidence. As a stand-alone, a belief is can be as flimsy and dangerous as a house built on quick sand. As we have gleaned from the Noah's flood and crazy jebuz stories, supernatural tales from a bygone era cannot be taken literally as truth, even if one is to believe in such holy delusions. Worst still, when such religious nonsense are taken seriously enough, they can become a potent propaganda tool for all sorts of insidious schemes.

Beliefs: Not Fair Arbitrator of Rewards And Punishments

Because belief alone cannot lend credence to truth, the idea that a deity can justify a reward cum punishment system (i.e heaven and hell) based solely on blind faith (Belief without evidence) sounds absurd and ludicrous indeed.

Imagine this scenario: A mass murderer decides to embrace a deity on his deathbed: Fortunately for him (and unfortunately for his dead victims), he happens to believe in the right deity and presto, his evil soul gets whizzed up to the high heavens! Contrast this, then, with a philanthropist who spends his entire fortune helping the sick and the infirmed, hasn't committed any crimes (ok, maybe he indulges in food orgies and the occasional sexual fling) but finds his soul in the deepest bowels of hell after he is buried six feet under. How does one justify such a perversion of justice based on mere belief?

Imagine a legal system whereby the law punishes dissidents for not adhering to a specific deity or belief. Such a system, as applied in ultra-orthodox countries, merely sow seeds of discord between the official religious fundies and the non-believers, and acts as a detrimental barrier towards tolerance and social harmony.

While belief is part and parcel of the human psyche, it is imperative that one looks beyond mere belief in his or her request for the truth. After all, belief without evidence is mere faith, which is opened to all sorts of abuse from charlatans, hucksters and cheats.

"What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof."

-Christopher Hitchens