Sunday, October 2, 2016

What We Believe

I’m in Israel. It’s one of those countries on Earth where belief systems have played an incredibly historic and inspirational role, but have also given rise to generations of war and hate. It’s a place of pilgrimages and combat missions, of devotions and heresies, where the concepts of good and evil are probably more present in people’s thinking, and also more contradictory in expression than in most other places. In this part of the world, people seem to be blowing themselves up every day for what they believe.

My visit here is to a community full of true believers. My father’s Hebrew Israelite nation is founded on a pursuit of truth, a truth its members feel was historically denied, about the origins and true identity of Black Americans of African ancestry. It is a belief that directly challenges the truth as put forward by others who have claims to the territory and traditions of Israel. The beliefs of the Hebrew Israelites hold an invitation to me, one with great appeal on many levels. However, I cannot see a personal pathway to accepting the invitation, because it is loaded with so much belief that is contrary to beliefs I have developed on my own journey through life.
I hold to my own beliefs to varying degrees. My belief that the Earth is approximately round is pretty strong, despite my surprising, recent encounter with a sincere and adamant Flat-Earther (Yes! They exist! – though I wouldn’t have believed so before meeting one). This belief holds despite the fact that I have no direct evidence and have neither proved it nor had it proven to me. I believe it mainly because I’ve been told so, and because it seems to make sense, and because it fits in with lots of other bits of knowledge, gained through experience as well as indoctrination, about how the universe I live in is structured.
But my belief in intelligent alien life is much less certain. I belief in that largely because of the vastness of the universe (something else I take at the word of “experts” who’ve written books and have appeared on television). If the universe is truly as vast as they say it is, and populated by billions of suns and their planets, is just seems mathematically unlikely to me that we could be the only beings with the gift of intelligence. And, in the words of one of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” characters, if we are the only ones, “…it would be an awful waste of space.” But this belief in alien intelligence is not rock solid. I know it stems as much from wanting it to be true as from anything else. In the same way that my belief in Santa Claus persisted a good two or three years beyond being old enough to see through that one, because I so wanted him to be real.

This stuff is on my mind, in part, because of a couple of incredibly provocative books I’m reading. They are “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari, and “Mindfulness in the Modern World”, a transcript of talks by Osho. Harari says that the ability to create “fictions” and to believe in them is the key characteristic that separates Homo Sapiens (Us) from Neanderthals and other near human beings, and the characteristic that made us so dominant over the rest of creation. Among these “fictions” are religion, democracy, human rights and money. Osho states that all of our ‘religions’, as well as the other life-style theories that drive us, are nonsense, and that we ought to overcome them if we want peace, happiness, enlightenment. Both of these writers, coming at the subject from totally different angles, say that nothing we “believe” has much of anything to do with Truth.
Having written this far, I have to add that I’m not yet twenty percent through Harari’s book. I’ve only read about half of Osho’s (but that’s a different matter, his not being a book that one will actually ‘finish’, I don’t think). There are certainly no conclusions to draw in this post. But my mind is open to looking at all that ‘I believe’ in a fresh way, maybe to looking inward for what generates belief, to understanding why I have often felt a need to believe in something; why, at varying times, freeing myself from a particular belief has caused me to feel lonely and isolated, afraid, or absolutely empowered and free. Harari points out how powerful belief systems are. Osho, how limiting they are. The profusion of today’s wars, and conflicts of religious and political extremism, would support both. One of the key questions to me is: Given that belief is about a deep level of acceptance of a viewpoint, sometimes based on proof, but often beyond the point of verification or evidence, how much choice do we really have in what we believe?

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