On Choosing a Belief System

On Choosing a Belief System


Ken Melvin

Belief Systems, these prisms through which we view the world, have been around from our earliest days. Not so long ago, the Ancient Greeks separated the concept of what we might call belief into two concepts: pistis and doxa with pistis referring to trust and confidence (notably akin the regard accorded science) and doxa referring to opinion and acceptance (more akin the regard accorded cultural norms).

In quest of a personal Belief System, should one: Go with the flow and adapt to the Social or Cultural Norm? Follow the Abrahamic admonishment to first believe? Follow their own Reasoning? Or, should one look to Science?

Social or Cultural Norms are standards for behavior engendered from infancy by parents, teachers, friends, neighbors, and others in one’s life. Social Norms are the shared expectations and rules that guide the behavior of people within social groups; Social Norms can go a long way toward maintaining social order. Engendered, Social or Cultural Norms can be enforced by something as subtle as a gesture, a look, or even the absence of any response at all. At the extremes, aberrant social behavior becomes a crime. One could adopt Social Norms as a part or all of their Belief System.

Most modern Religions are handed down from times long past, times before much was known about anything. Most, if not all, early Religions were based on mythology. Later on, some Religions found more of their basis in whatever evidence and reasoning skills were available to a people. From the earliest times, human cultures have developed some form or another of a Belief System premised on Religion.

Humans are, uniquely it seems, given the power of comprehending, inferring, or thinking in an orderly rational way; they are given the faculty of Reason. To Reason is to use the faculty of Reason so as to arrive at conclusions; to discover, formulate, or conclude by way of a carefully Reasoned Analysis. One might base a part or all of their Belief System on Reason.



Science can be seen as an endeavor to increase knowledge, to understand; to reduce ignorance and misunderstanding. Science encourages active skepticism. Science, the word comes from the Latin word for knowledge, is premised on verifiable empirical evidence and best thinking. Science employs our faculty to Reason. Belief is not a scientific criterion but is rather a bias to be filtered out of any scientific experiment. We have confidence in the knowledge afforded us by Science to the extent that we have confidence in the validity of the evidence and the rigor of the Reasoning, and in Scientific Methodology. Science can form the basis of one’s Belief System to the extent that they have confidence in Science.

Religions were an early form of Social Norms. Yet and still, all Religious Beliefs address Social Behavior, Social Norms. As with Social Norms, most, if not all, Religions have slowly evolved over time. As with Social Norms, Religious Beliefs are often engendered from infancy by parents; handed down from generation to generation. Most Religions require one’s Believing; Believing that the precepts of the Religion come down to us from a supreme being or deity via a prophet or inspired teacher. Whereas science asks questions in the quest for knowledge, Abrahamic religions hold that any questioning of their particular beliefs is blasphemous, a great sin. Rather than welcome questions in re validity, religions insist that, first and foremost, adherents believe. Religions might be a part of the whole of one’s Belief System.

As is to be expected, Science is often in conflict with religious beliefs. This dichotomy between the Reasoning of Science and the Believing of Religion goes back at least to early Egypt, Greece, and India; has played, and still plays, a huge role for philosophers, scientists, and others given to thought.

While most modern societies have moved away from a Religious dominance of their culture; at the extremes, we still have theocracies where Religious Belief is given reign over culture and politics, and, to some extent or another, thought itself.

Preceding statute law, Religious associated Belief Systems played an important role in mankind’s development. Down through the centuries, religious behavioral standards have provided societies personal security, social stability. Religious Beliefs have long been, are still being, codified into law.

Codified laws can also be based on ‘Social Norms’, on philosophy and reason (…love of learning, the pursuit of wisdom, a search for understanding, …); or on yet other Belief Systems.

Can we even have stable societies without Belief Systems? Is it possible to build a Society around Science, Philosophy, and/or Reason? Can we, benefitting from Science and Philosophy: Improve the quality of our Belief Systems? Of our Religions? Can Beliefs become Informed Opinions? Will future societies’ Belief Systems be based more on Science and Philosophy, and less on opinion and belief? Do they have a choice? It seems that the more successful societies have long since chosen to give the thinking of Science and Philosophy precedence over Believing. Darwin tells us that survival goes to those that adapt.

He didn’t say it quite that way, but that is what he meant.

This seeming need of humans to Believe can be abused. The atrocities of Colonial Spain and Portugal and the Era of Slavery were ostensibly committed under the aegis of Christian Belief. Nazi Germany, Jonestown, ISIS, and a Trump Presidency are examples of some of the more negative consequences of aberrant Belief Systems.

Demagogues prey on this need to Believe by telling the people what to Believe; by giving them something to Believe. Fox News, by telling its viewers what to Believe, gives them this thing they need; something to Believe. All those arbiters of opinion we see and read on the media are trying to sell Beliefs to their audience; an audience that needs something to Believe. Fox News has become a Belief System for millions. So too, the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson, and Shawn Hannity.

Adolph Hitler and Jim Jones gave their needy followers something to Believe. Osama bin Laden/Al-Qaeda and ISIS gave their needy followers something to Believe. Donald J. Trump is giving his needy followers something to Believe.

Thinking’s too hard.

Obviously, existing well-meaning Belief Systems can be co-opted by unsavory persons, societies.  Equally obvious, Belief Systems can be instilled into a population. From the days of slavery and for these 150 yrs hence, whites in the Southern States have engendered racism into their progeny. For 150 yrs now they propagated a false version of history in their schools. They created and propagated a Belief System premised on mendacity.

Though many Belief Systems are based on Religious Tenets; we also see them based on economic models, personality cults, … , even in science. Economic dogma can be instilled in a society as a Belief System to the extent that any challenge thereto is considered to be heretical, blasphemous. One can be born a Republican, a Baptist, or both, as were their parents and their parents’ parents. People have been being born Catholic for 2,000 yrs. Joseph Smith, a come lately, instilled.

Some positive consequences of Belief Systems include:  higher moral standards, the great art and science flowing from the Renaissance; the science, philosophy, and art from The Age of Reason/The Enlightenment. More recently: the ending of slavery, the ending of Colonialism, the ending of apartheid, the codification of LGBT rights, and the struggle to end racism correlate with changes in Belief Systems. Pending challenges for Belief Systems include such as freedom from hunger, access to housing, and alleviating economic disparity. Belief Systems can carry us forward. Belief Systems can hold us back.

Is tweeting believing?

To what Belief System, if any, is this our Age of Technology attributable? Has Technology itself become a Belief System?

A very famous frog once said, “It is not easy being green.”

Closely held, long-held, Beliefs are hard to give up; especially if they have been engendered via emulation, imprinting, repetition, …, since infancy. In America, the most technologically advanced economy ever known; our technology, our scientific achievements, are all based on science. Yet today we have upwards of half of our politicians pandering to one or another Religious group that, for the most part, denies Science. Quid pro quo: the pols get the Religious groups’ vote, the Religious group gets the laws, and the judges and justices, they want. Perhaps in part as a consequence of this support, most of this same group of politicians would govern all the while making little effort to acquaint themselves with Science, with technology, in this day and age of Science and Technology. Many, maybe most, of these same politicians hold fast to theories of economics and law that are, themselves, based on Belief.

John Prine, recently departed, not a frog, wrote the tune “In Spite of Ourselves”.

In spite of ourselves, we humans mumble and fumble our way as is our wont.