We don’t get taught what to believe in school. What beliefs we have in us are formed, initially and largely, by other people, each coming from their own human place. We take on their beliefs as our own.
We don’t have very good tools to evaluate what we believe or what we ought to believe. And these days there is a superabundance of choices, and I’d say overall reasons to believe less than in previous eras (or, for some, conversely, to hold tighter to something that is anything but plausible).
In this connection, here’s a bit of what I believe about belief. It’s an assertion with implications. The ultimate purpose is love and healing. The enemy is alienation. Alienation’s vanguard is ignorance. This makes our pursuit of knowledge paramount. Consider religious and scientific belief: both can reinforce our ignorance, though stronger adherence to one or another may lead us to argue against that claim. (I am not saying scientific knowledge is flawed; I am speaking here of belief built on the substrate of scientific knowledge.) We have to examine our positions on each of them closely. Our purpose is to be more fully integrated, not without doubt, but less in doubt, even while we acknowledge that our certainties themselves need to be investigated.
Beliefs can heal or harm. Look at the placebo effect and hypnotherapy; or the belief that love, by God, is always present. Or look at a person’s ingrained fear, coming out of neglect, parental confusion, abuse; or the belief that God is condemning others – our ourselves – for thoughts or actions that miss a target. Love and healing require trust and caring. The problem is, everybody, though their God-given heart would approach each encounter with openness and love, quickly learns a guardedness that helps them ward off the pain of other people’s already-ingrained alienation and distancing.
A person can always ask themself, right now, with myself at the center, if I scan out in every direction, how much of what’s there is in a space of trust for me? How much is in a place of healing? Enlarging this territory through one’s life: that’s the positive purpose of belief.