As Stars (as I recall) is now doing a series on it, I have decided to re read Neil Gaiman's wonderful book "American Gods." If anything is an excellent backdrop for asking a questions like the one you see in this posts title, that amazing traverse through culture, history, and the power of belief, is it. If you haven't read this book yet, you really owe it to yourself to do so.
Right now belief is hard precisely because so much of what we might have access to, in the never ending quest to understand things around us, as well as ourselves, and our place in the "great mix master" of world reality, belief systems, social institutions, and our still essential requirement to make choices, moment to moment, is manipulated. Manipulated across a spectrum of not only message channel, but of a galaxy of motivations; grouped by various forms of commonality, of course, but as unique as several billion people can make it.
Most of the manipulation is mundane, and/or so casually pervasive as to be easily ignored. Family. Friends. Co-workers. Even random encounters with various individuals during the day, outside the nominal norm of our living, working, lives. Small bits of favored perception. Ways of seeing simple things. Their points of view. Their ways of doing whatever needs doing. Which is why you don't necessarily tell people in your life about everything that is going wrong at any particular juncture of interaction. And of course, if any of these problems resonate close to what are "bigger topics of the day" then, you can quickly find out just how judgemental people can be.
The bigger, possible manipulations now, certainly, are the ones that mainly frighten me (precisely because money can allow for so much abstracted manipulation at the behest of so few). But that's not the only part of this to worry about.
The other, important common elements for me, in the context of this post, are also the ones that get great groups of people settled so completely into walking very specifically integrated paths; where the integration here is in the melding not only the path's purpose, but of all of the perceptual norms, meaning elements, and behaviors, that are absorbed as well, and usually so imperceptibly, in taking on that path's traverse. And in this, of course, is where religion, or any ideology, is so prominent.
It used to be that there were very few ways to get around this complete integration, as we were so totally dependant on the specifics of heritage when knowledge was held in the stories, dances, cave and body markings, and wisdom, of whoever our elders happened to be; handing it down to us without much choice involved. And as survival always depended on using enough behaviors that would work in that regard, the explanations settled upon were usually wrapped in sufficient amounts of same to get a people, as a whole, through another cycle of seasons, and more potential believers born.
But then change is always finding new ways to package the unexpected. And so, as probability will inevitably dictate, you come into contact with not only things like "otherness," bumping up against other variations of clever survivors, as your group grows, but also strangeness of occurrence that only geologic, and astronomic forms of scale, can provide, and you can't help but wonder if, with what you've built up to hold your meaning explanation system so far, is put to great stress to account for new forms of either upheaval, splendor, or transfixing inexplicability, and mesmerizing occurrence to defy all categorization the old way. And you wonder if you've had it all wrong from the beginning; sufficient many times to prompt taking your wrath out on the old explanations, as well as the wielders of its power (whether they just be icons, or manipulators in the flesh), that might be the holders of the ultimate magics, the ultimate viewpoints, and the ultimate sense of how things really are. Or perhaps the people just go insane and die out simply by not trying to survive any more.
The thing that's the big difference between now and then, beside the fact that we can accumulate knowledge now (and have it available for constant contrast; seeing the common elements, the differences, and how what has worked, and what hasn't, has evolved) is that in the old days the idea of impossible must have been a great deal more nebulous, if it existed at all, than it is now. Leave it to science to place empirical logic to so lofty a level that, from that point on, proceeding down certain paths should set up the idea that anything outside the current empirical framework would be impossible; thereby demarcating experience to objective facts on the one hand, and what you believed on the other, and I think that may have been something of a mistake, to say the least
So. Now that I've opened this can of worms, I need to ask the question: What is different when, on the one hand one says: I have formed an opinion, as opposed to: I believe
Let's throw a few things up on the whiteboard here and see what happens.
Reasoning weighs available facts, with known relationships, to come to what must still be a subjective conclusion. This can work because of the corrective action inherent in the further process taken where "Known relationships" are what used to be "subjective conclusions," but, with critical debate of the "available facts," you work to find a consensus agreement on the best argument proposed to that point, so that further inquiry can proceed apace, and the process can repeat itself.
Belief works with "facts" of various sources, some from reason, some from a more personal association with occurrence, moment to moment, in both the individual, and group sense; whereupon feelings of a wild, and woolly, array come to put some heavy duty rubber to the road. And in that rub, of course, all sorts of wonder, and folly, must occur.
Here's one thing I believe. Just because you can't test, or measure, a thing objectively doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't exist. Like the effect of music. Like the effect of a hug, or simply of an empathetic perceptive stance, in just listening, that would seek only to understand someone's plight, without judgement. No one would deny that giving these things actually does give something. We feel it. And a lot of the time we feel it at a very deep, resonating level. Whereupon these feelings can have profound change on the meaning space, and physical space, around us.
Empiricism works, of course, because it is a good idea. But that doesn't mean it is the only good idea. Anymore than it should suggest that it is infallible of itself, or infallible in its use. Just as figures don't lie, but liars do figure, testing can determine, but what determines the testing.
What are gods really but high end ideas that can actually do things. Ideas that can take on as much independant operation, and evolution as the cleavor creators can construct within them. Capitalism itself might seem to fit this bill. Science as well if its not careful. And if we can create these "Ideas as Deities" in meaning space, what kinds of unexpected effects might filter back to our physical space, given enough belief, via human spirit and focused mental effort, as well as prodigious outpourings of physical sacrifice. Probably more than most rationalists might want to admit, but also quite probably a good deal less than most true believers might want to consider a given.
The bottom line problem, of course, is that we need to believe. I am in no way sure of why this is so, but I tend to think that it is because belief involves a deeper connection to a way of looking at things so that you can see your place in them with greater clarity and force. Pragmatic application of facts may well enhance the probability of good outcomes from survival choices, but survival alone should not be our only goal. Important certainly, but not the only one that is so.
As it stands now, unfortunately, people gamble to buy a moment when they can believe that anything is possible. Because, in that moment, the fantasies of actually having a piece of impossible, become ever so much more real, and believable in their own right. Fantasizing without that connection to possibility is usually only cold left overs from dreams we cling to doggedly. Precisely because we have so little any more to believe in otherwise. Which is another reason why a change in how we operate, as a nation, is so important.
Taking risks, in the right context, is essential for a society to not only survive, but to do the important things that come after managing the physical basics. You can't take risks appropriately, though if you don't know who your are, or what your place is in the grand scheme of things. The only thing you will ever know for sure as you wake up into awareness is that there are oh so many needs to fill. Our goal then should be to do everything we can to foster the birth, and nurturing, of good ideas. I happen to believe that you can do that best if you support the notion of creating thoughtful, loving structure with which to live, and grow in; a notion that would be well steeped in the idea of balance between the opposites that create the dichotomy between reason, and feelings. I situation helped, I think, if you further take to the notion that Mind, and the Elemental Embrace, are the primary fundamentals of the unbounded singularity, of infinite potential, that the entirety may be. Again, Just another idea.
Try it on for a while. See if it fits. If not, then you better be doing whatever you can to come up with something better. We really really need something.