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Modes of Believing

In practice, it is more interesting (as well as more instuctive) to consider how a belief works than to take an outright stance for or against it. The specific terms proposed for the various kinds of belief listed here can be helpful in assuming a metacritical stance rather than an oppositional one. They are called modes of believing rather than modes of belief because the definition in each case is determined by how a belief is held, bu the acto of believing rather than by anything inherent to that belief. One and the same belief can be held in various modes.

Once again let's recall the guideline: The aim of metacritique is not to prove the truth or falsity of beliefs but to ascertain if they might be sane or insane, and how so. To many ardent believers, the mere act of questioning a belief poses the threat of invalidating it. Sadly, such believers will be unable to share, compare and openly discuss what they believe. In metahistory we take the more delicate view that we can put something in question in order to validate or invalidate it, but the process of questioning does not in itself consitute invalidation. (In history this procedure seems to have originally been demonstrated in the dialectic style of Socrates. See Socrates in the Last Days.)

Belief is defined on its etymological base in the Lexicon.


aligned belief: chosen after careful consideration of options or alternatives.

Example: if I am ill and find that I cannot be cured by conventional medicine, I may choose to investigate other systems of healing such as laying-on-of-hands, Ayurveda or Biological Medicine. After informing myself of the options and evaluating whether or not they suit me, I am in a position to adopt a belief about healing aligned to my experience, rather than imposed on it.

Aligned belief always involves the consideration of alternatives. Curiously, when it comes to what are seemingly the most important issues in human life -- namely, religious issues, one's relation to God, etc - most people prefer to accept the beliefs given to them rather than go through a process of evaluation leading to alignment. The aim of Metahistory.org is to encourage the process of developing aligned beliefs, and not to endorse any particular belief, although metacritique does assume that certain beliefs may be insane and inhumane. Obviously, metahistory does not encourage alignment to such beliefs.

assigned belief A belief acquired from one’s familial, cultural and religious background and accepted like a task or role assigned to the believer, rather than chosen on a voluntary basis.

The ranks of the mass-scale religions are filled by adherents who hold assigned beliefs yet defend them as if they were voluntarily adopted. It could be said, for instance, that Christianity is a creed embraced by millions but rarely chosen by anyone. Because assigned belief enables an individual to realize an identity within a community of other believers, the beliefs held seem to belong intrinsically to the believer, who will defend them against all opposition. Since lapse of belief would be tantamount to loss of identity, adherents are often willing to die for what they believe, even though they have not freely chosen to believe it in the first place.

In millions of cases the Christian faith is assigned to the believer by parents, educators and other authority figures. Assignment implies that no other choice was ever considered, because no other valid choice is admitted by those who do the assigning. In the case of conversion, which accounts for millions of adherents to Christianity, the believer may have held an optional creed or belief-system before being converted, so there is an element of choice in switching from one set of beliefs to the other. This is an extremely generous view of conversion, however. Due to the atmosphere of emotional contagion typical of religious rallies, the factor of choice may be almost totally overwhelmed. Beliefs adopted due to conversion usually exhibit the three marks of assigned belief: they are (1) unilaterally imposed, (2) uncritically accepted, and (3) validated by the power of consensus. In many cases, conversion is hardly more than re-assignment from one belief-system to another.

blind belief: refuses to be questioned or examined. Contrast to open belief.

Example: in the recent controversy over displaying a shrine inscribed with the Ten Commandments in the lobby of a courthouse of Alabama, supporters of the shrine stated their belief that Jesus Christ is the supreme authority on human justice. This is a belief they refuse to question or examine. They can only impose it on others, or persuade others to accept it, but they cannot put it in suspension in their own minds. So great was the blindness in this instance that the believers totally disregarded the separation of church and state.

compound belief: combines various modes of belief in the same syndrome.

Example: political beliefs in the Arab world are often associated with the theocratic imperative of Islam and the imposition of shariya, Islamic law. Addressing the world press, leaders of the Taliban state unequivocally that there is no division between religion and politics in the Islamic state. The combination of religion and politics makes for a heady mix of compound belief. This mix is already devastating, but when you add to it racial and sexual scripts coded with other beliefs you have compound belief in a dense and nefarious amalgamation. In compound belief each element reinforces the other, making this mode of believing enormously difficult to refute.

Second example: The "troubles" that have plagued Northern Ireland for close to 40 years are largely incomprehensible to the outside world, and not easily understood even by those who have grown up with them. Historical, racial, religious, political and familial beliefs combine in a dense knot of compond beliefs. The composition can vary from one neighborhood to the next, and all variations are practically impenetrable to reasoned inquiry. The popular label for this dangerous mix is "sectarian." From Ireland to Iran to Indonesia, violence driven by belief-based sectarian hatred fuels social conflict and turns community living into a nightmare.

Sectarian hatred is often based on compound beliefs that cannot be renounced by those who hold them, mainly due to the fear of jeopardising some precious component of the personality (say, racial identity, or religious piety, or political affiliation). Compound beliefs thrive on complexity. In Northern Irelaand the grip of compound belief is so intense that it has given rise to a joke, "If you’tre not confused, you don’tt know what’ts happening." This joke expresses the deep exasperation of people who realize tragically that they cannot see beyond the enmeshment of the compound beliefs that drive them.

conflicted belief: contains contradictory and opposing elements that confuse the believer.

Example: in the Old Testament Jehovah both favors and tortures the Chosen People. The ancient Hebrews believe they are God's privileged ones, yet God continually subjects them to tribulations and ordeals. In this example, the two conflicting elements of belief are closely fused. The rationale developed around this contradiction states that it is those most favored by God whom God tests most rigorously. This rationale in turn engenders a deeply felt belief in the moral superiority of the victim, a belief central to the Judaeo-Christian ethic. This is perhaps the supreme example of conflicted belief. When conflict arises out of a single belief it may be called conflictual in the first degree.

Example: In science the belief that the human species has risen to the summit of evolution conflicts with the belief that the same species inhabits a speck-of-dust planet circulating around an average-sized star floating in an infinite void. The first belief stresses the importance of humans being evolutionary forerunners, but the second belief reduces human life to insignificance. In this case two we see the conflict of two different beliefs held within the same framework - conflicted belief of the second degree. Nevertheless, the resulting confusion is similar. If we accept the views of science in general - in other words, if we believe that science presents a true view of life - we will be conflicted by the contradictions within science.

conflictual belief: compels the believer into antagonism toward others.

Example: racial scripts encoded with the belief in the superiority of the white-skinner races (Aryan supremacy) compel the believers to perpetrate harm on other races, if not eliminate them entirely. Colonialism was driven by conflictual belief that produced the genocide of countless millions of native people. More recently, consumerism or globalization (considered by some to be merely an extension and makeover of colonialism) compels those who believe in the "free market economy" to inflict immense social and economic harm on others.

Conflicted belief torments the believer, but conflictual belief compels the believer to torment others.

consensual belief: held by consent rather than chosen with deliberation.

We consent to believe what others believe. Here the primary appeal of the belief may consist in the fact that many others hold it. The mainstream religions of the world depend on consensus rather than upon invididual deliberation and choice. To consent to believe something is not to choose to believe it, rather the join company with those who believe it. The primary accent of consensual belief is inclusion in a group.

corporate belief: belongs to a program or agenda and serves the ends proposed in that program or agenda.

Example: the belief that enticing people to buy things they neither need nor want is necessary to a healthy economy and, as such, a good thing for society. This belief has little meaning outside the system of marketing strategies that it serves. It is incorporated into the system it serves and without that system it has no raison d’être.

Another example: the belief that humans can communicate directly with other species is inherent to some programs of Deep Ecology and New Age nature mysticism. If this belief is held by someone independently of their participation in a larger social agenda, it is not corporate, but as long as it is shared by those who enact such agenda, and seen to be a vital component of their agenda, it is a corporate belief.

default belief: held due to lack of considering any alternatives.

Example: in Saudi Arabia all religions except Islam are illegal. Saudis who embrace Islam do so by default, lacking the possibility to consider any alternatives. All other creeds are against the law, so everyone is Muslim by default. The same situation applies for anyone born in a culture and country where a belief-system is universally imposed. Born into the Hindu culture of India, one is a Hindu by default. Born into the Southern Baptist culture of the American Bible Belt, one is a Baptist by defaulf.

Default beliefs are transmitted by tradition through family, school and church. In the world today, there is no country or culture that asserts the right to grow up without default beliefs being imposed.

deliberated belief: chosen by a process of considering and evaluating options. Synonymous with aligned belief.

Example: Christianity is a religion embraced by billions but rarely chosen by anyone. Choosing requires alternatives to choose among, and alternatives have to be deliberated before a wise, heartfelt choice can be made. This rarely happens in the adoption of beliefs, especially religious beliefs.

The intelligent effort required to deliberate beliefs may account for the fact that most humans passively accept the beliefs imposed upon them, yet this explanation is paradoxical. If beliefs are so important, so deeply held in the heart of the believer, how can we allow ourselves to adopt them blindly rather than by careful deliberation? If what we believe is so important. why do we acquire our beliefs so superficially?

Metahistory proposes that these troubling questions can be explored, although not perhaps ultimately resolved. Exposing reflex belief and dereasoning are two potent metacritical tools that may allow to get to the bottom of paradox concerning the rarity of deliberated belief.

dereasoned belief: deprived of its original properties by the process of dereasoning, i.e., isolating the conditions and reasons for holding a belief and thus reducing it to its inherent truth value, if it has any. This process is described in Socratic Sessions #1.

dissenting belief: deliberately opposed to conventional and established beliefs.

Example: the belief that it is patriotic to resist certain policies of the US government emerged in America during the invasion of Iraq. Dissenting belief often comes into play on the rebound, in direct response to a situation, so it initially displays a negative or reactive character.

doctrinal belief: based on predefined dogmas or doctrines. Contrast to intuitive belief.

Example: that the essence of life is suffering due to the impermanence of all things is a doctrinal belief of Buddhism. This is close to textual belief because the belief is not merely inferred and does not arise from an interpretation, it is directly stated in the written texts of Buddhism.

A belief may be doctrinal and not textual. The Old Testament presents the story of the Fall, telling how the primordial parents Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden by Jehovah. In the 4th Century CE Saint Augustine proposed the doctrinal belief that the entire human race inherits a moral flaw due to the sin of the first parents. Strictly speaking, this belief is not textually stated in the story of the Fall, but beginning with Augustine it has been assumed that the OT narrative encodes this belief. Hence a doctrinal belief is an interpretation of a story, but a textual belief is directly stated in the story. Textual belief is also doctrinal, because it forms part of the doctrine of the religion, but doctrinal belief is not always textual.

ethical belief: relates to a way of behaving or prescribes a code of behavior.

Example: The Eightfold Noble Path of Buddhism is a code of ethical beliefs prescribed to those who enter the practice of Buddhism. Eight specific beliefs regarding what is "right" behavior are stated. These beliefs are explicit and textual, not inferred.

Reflex belief applies strongly to ethical beliefs of this kind. For instance, you may adopt these beliefs and in doing so, you are likely to assume a belief toward them as well. You may believe that following the Eightfold Noble Path will help you attain enlightenment. This is a common reflex attached to the beliefs specific to the Eightfold Path, but nothing in the syntax of these simple behavioral guidelines says they will lead the practitioner to enlightenment. Nevertheless, millions of people adopt the behavioral beliefs stated in the Eightfold Path believing that the practice will lead to enlightenment. This demonstrates the leading effect of reflex belief, an effecdt that can often override the specific content of beliefs to which the reflex applies.

Second example: The Golden Rule, usually quoted as "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," is certainly the supreme example of ethical belief. Christians who hold to this belief believe that it comes uniquely out of Christianity, a teaching particular to Jesus’ ministry. This reflex belief concerning the origin of the Golden Rule is wrong. In fact the texts of all religions including Confucianism and Taoism contain textually explicit versions of the Golden Rule. Biblical scholars point out that Jesus cites the rule from scripture, probably from the rabbi Hillel, and so he cannot be considered as the author of it.

As an ethical belief, the Golden Rule is syntactically neutral. The stated form of the rule does not describe what happens if one follows the rule. The rule does not say "if you do unto others as they do unto you, things will go well in the world." It simply commands or prescribes this behavior. See also prescriptive belief.

extremist belief: enacted in uncompromising or fanatical behavior. Often associated with violence, if not directly used as a justification for violence.

Sectarian hatred inspired by racial and religious beliefs accounts for the greater part of the social violence that plagues the world today. Since 9/11 the world is familiar with talk about the difference between extremists and moderates - but what is the difference, really? There is no difference in the beliefs held, only in the way they are held. The signature of extreme belief is the willingness to use violence and brutal force to enact it or to impose it on others.

We commonly assume that moderate Muslims hold the same beliefs as terrorists, but they do not act them out in the same way. The argument says that moderates interpret the beliefs they hold in common with extremists in a different way. However, the extremists say that moderates are not true believers! Why do terrorists hold up copies of the Koran? By their self-definition, extremists are believers who passionately act out the literal meaning of their beliefs. They regard moderates as insipid and undevout believers. The hope is often expressed that moderates will restrain extremist believers, but history shows no evidence of this ever having been the case. History is dominated by events enacted by extremist believers, not by moderates.

Example: During four centuries of European history, extremist belief drove the Inquisition and produced the torture and murder of millions of people. The horrific practices of the inquisitors were compelled by extremist beliefs that infected the European society with fear and confusion. Extremist beliefs often coincide with conflictual beliefs.

fundamentalist belief: received from a tradition and not allowed to be altered or questioned.

Belief in the literal meaning of the Bible as the "revealed word" of God is a fundamentalist belief, but so is belief in the irrefutable truth of the Darwinian theory of evolution. Fundamentalist belief allows no debate or dissent among those who hold it.

heretic belief: chosen in direct opposition to a widely accepted belief.

The word heresy comes from the Greek verb haireisthai, "to choose". In the first place, heretical belief is chosen on one's one criteria not passively received from others. In the second place, it is chosen knowing that it opposes a widespread or commonly held belief.

humanist belief: based on assumptions that assume human intelligence as the best author of convictions, without need of attributing beliefs and rules for living to a superhuman agency.

ideological belief: expressed in ideological form, that is, in a systematic body of abstractions or formal ideas.

imperative belief: stated in a flat non-narrative form.

Example: Children can be told the story of the sin of Adam and Eve, a Biblical narrative encoded with the belief that sex in a sin, or they can be flatly told that sexual intercourse is sinful. When belief is stated in non-narrative form is assumes a particular dynamic. See Double Bind and Alienation.

Example: "The meek shall inherit the earth." The belief is flatly stated, although the same belief could be scripted in a story. With the use of the future tense, the syntax reinforces the imperative sense: what is stated here will come to be, it is not merely a statement of that which one hopes or wishes to come to be.

latent belief: held but not enacted.

ludic belief: able to be modified by playing with it.

The word delusion comes from the Latin suffix de, meaning "from, away" and the Latin verb ludere, "to play". Going strictly by the etymology, delusion means "what leads away from play". One might formulate a rule: any belief you hold that you cannot play with may be delusional.

Remaining definitions to be added.

JL: September 2003


Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.