Belief & Knowledge
Why do we believe what we believe? And can we ever change those beliefs?
Submerged beneath our conscious thoughts exist our beliefs.
What we think about can only be a function of our subconscious beliefs. For example, if I am nervously thinking about how I will be perceived by someone else, it is because I believe that how others perceive me will somehow affect my future. If I didn’t believe that their perception mattered, why would my mind go there?
Let me give you a more substantive example:
I wasn’t raised to believe in God; I was raised believing in God. What I mean by this is that I wasn’t trained to think that God exists. Rather, because my parents themselves believed in God, our home naturally held that belief innately. Where did my parents get this belief? Although my parents grew up with slightly different levels of religious observance, their parents and grandparents, whether in Polish, Yiddish or Spanish, would similarly utter the words, “with God’s help,” “God bless you,” and “thank God” an uncountable number of times on any given day. This belief in God was not questioned — not because it was forbidden to question it, but simply because it too deeply rooted to question. This belief permeated the air they breathed.
As for me, until I was 18 years old, I don’t think I even once questioned my belief in God in a meaningful way.
In different kind of home, in which God is not part of the underlying belief structure, the word “God” may not be mentioned at all. In a home that is religiously irreligious, a “superstitious idea” like God is simply not on the radar. Perhaps instead, in such a home, a core belief is that science is the only way to determine truth, and as a result, serious discussion revolves exclusively around science. When the authority of science is an unexamined belief, it is better known as “scientism,” which tends to edge out what are thoughts that are deemed “heretical” just like any other religious dogma.
At both extremes, we see that all thinking is rooted in their corresponding beliefs.
The question is: if our beliefs run so deep, how can they ever change?
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Until I was 14, I attended a Jewish day school, which supported and nurtured the belief in God I had been weaned on. For high school, however, I went to a public school where I was exposed to peers and friends from Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, atheist and agnostic homes. Because we were just kids, and God wasn’t exactly at the forefront of our minds, my beliefs weren’t challenged until after I graduated. Occasionally, my friends and I would have conversations about “your family’s beliefs” vs. “my family’s beliefs,” but their beliefs never rubbed up against mine with enough friction to uproot them.
Ironically, it was only during my gap year in Israel that my belief in God was challenged by my Jewish peers with strong opinions. It was 2001, and the Second Intifada was raging. The daily terrorist attacks forced us into frequent lockdowns in which heated, overconfident, teenage arguments about the meaning of life would ensue.
It was the first time I was asked, “Why do you believe in God?”
I didn’t have a good answer.
My inability to answer this seemingly simple question rocked my world, but it somehow didn’t cause my belief to fall away. Logically, one would assume that when something one believes in is demonstrated to have no apparent reason, the belief would immediately fall away. This is not what happened. I still believed in God, but I realized that I didn’t know that God existed.
This realization opened my mind. It made start to ask questions.
It turns out that belief without the pursuit of knowledge keeps the mind opaque and closed shut. And the honest realization that one doesn’t know what he or she claims to believe opens the mind back up.
It is for this reason that Maimonides surprisingly codifies the opening statement in his code of law about the belief in God with the word for “knowledge,” not “belief”:
יְסוֹד הַיְסוֹדוֹת וְעַמּוּד הַחָכְמוֹת לֵידַע שֶׁיֵּשׁ שָׁם מָצוּי רִאשׁוֹן. וְהוּא מַמְצִיא כָּל נִמְצָא. וְכָל הַנִּמְצָאִים מִשָּׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ וּמַה שֶּׁבֵּינֵיהֶם לֹא נִמְצְאוּ אֶלָּא מֵאֲמִתַּת הִמָּצְאוֹ
The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of wisdom is to KNOW that there is a Primary Being who brings into being all existence, and all the beings of the heavens, the earth, and what is between them came into existence only from the reality of His being.
Pursuing knowledge is the way to develop our belief.
True belief should not prevent questions in the pursuit of knowledge. Just the opposite. Our beliefs should fuel our pursuit of knowledge.
For me, many late-night spiritual experiences throughout college, a summer living with a noble but poor, indigenous family in the Costa Rican rainforest, meditating, reading books about Jewish mysticism and philosophy that challenged my childish conceptions, and one fateful afternoon in a Buddhist garden in Vancouver — all contributed to opening my mind, and the evolution of my beliefs. Questions led to some answers, but always to more questions.
In the next XL, we will continue this quest through questions to actually investigate the conventional belief in God, and demonstrate why it’s wrong.
Hope you stay with us along the way.
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