For millions of people around the world, this Christmas weekend is a special occasion – a time to celebrate the central article of their religious faith, Jesus’s resurrection and ascension to heaven.
Not one of these people can really know what happened 2000-odd years ago in Jerusalem. And yet they believe their version of events is true. In some cases, they base their entire world view on it, and view the billions who do not share their belief as benighted.
That may seem unremarkable. Religious faith has long been considered a special category of belief. Other beliefs – in politics, say, or business – are more often thought to be the product of fact-based reasoning.
But the more we learn about how beliefs work, the less exceptional religion looks. It turns out that almost all of our beliefs are built on intuition, biases and gut instinct: yet another facet of our mental lives over which we possess less conscious control than we like to think.
Science is not exempt. The scientific method is based on verifiable evidence, and is thus not a belief system, despite frequent claims to the contrary. But scientists, as humans, are influenced by their own beliefs about what is important, what they might find and what their findings mean. Yet it is still by far the best way to distinguish what we believe from what we know.
This new view of belief is still incomplete, but unsettling. Belief is a potent force in human affairs. It is hard to think of a major historic event not motivated by it in some way: we might not have civilisation without it. And our leaders’ convictions may count as much as, or more than, their arguments.
But where should we locate our beliefs within modern society? Religion is respected as routinely as its dictates are ignored. We cannot extend the same Janus-faced attitude to all beliefs. But we can reject belief, without robust supporting evidence or argument, as an insufficient basis for politics or policy. Don’t believe that belief alone is enough.
Courtesy: New Scientist