Thoughts on Belief and Believing
Adam Blatner

August 29, 2011 (Supplemental notes to a talk givien to the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship in Georgetown, Texas on 8/28/11)

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”  --- Siddartha Guatama (aka "The Buddha" or Enlightened One)

Believing is a superimposition of will on a thought, a way to say, "may it be so," or "amen." This is an act, and it's often done unconsciously, though of course it theoretically could be done consciously. We can of course choose what we will and will not believe, although, interestingly, it may take some habit-building for a new belief to take hold. At first it feels phony---as if the old belief still has a hold and the new one seems to be just on the surface. (Incidentally, one of the ways prayer works is that by affirming whatever is believed out loud so that others could conceivably hear---if they were listening---including God as we may imagine that concept---the whole process reinforces belief.)

Believing is a rather slippery world---meaning that the word means different things to different people---and is often used in different senses by the same person. We may believe in angels, but there's a different sense when we look at our kid or a friend and say, "I believe in you." There's a related but yet different sense when Mac Davis sings the late 1960s song, "I believe in music; I believe in Love."

For some, believing is a badge of virtue and even achievement. For others, it's an act of willed foolishness or even fanaticism. To believe that which we think should be doubted seems stupid if not perversely wicked. On the other hand, to not believe that which we value is wicked in another way, stiff-necked, simple rebellious stubbornness. Else why would anyone not see what to use seems obvious?

For some, believing is a big deal, attached to passionate feelings. For others, it's a simple, lighthearted thing, no big deal. Sure, it's okay to believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, and I wouldn't be too concerned if you passed your sixth year still believing. I might raise my eyebrow if you are still believing wholeheartedly when you're twelve. "I hate to disillusion you but..." seems tempting to say. On the other hand, many of us believe just a little bit in Santa Claus, enough to take our kids to see him at the Mall.

For some, believing is something they want to flee from, to shun. Doubting is virtuous, Science is the new religion, and there's an illusion that we would be better off if we could rid ourselves of all illusions. Others consider this attitude of non-belief to be yet another kind of believing in the illusion of doubting and experimentation, as if that could answer all our questions.
Some Vocabulary Enhancements: Semantics,
Hermeneutics, etc.
Semantics is the study of how words mean. Not their definitions, mind you, but their connotations, their emotional impact. The American Flag might have a rather dry definition, but its power in many people's mind is as a symbol, rich in associations and deep in the sense of significance. Semantics has evolved in the early 20th century as a way of integrating psychology and philology or linguistics. Words do not really mean anything. I mean, another word in another language means sort of the same thing. But here's where semantics comes in. Certain words that are okay in one language or in one era take on emotional impacts when used in other times. Some are taboo, or at least disreputable. Some are glorious, even sacred! Some words are taboo in an honored way, so that orthodox Jews cannot write the word G-d in the three-letter word known to most folks---and not the same word (4 letters) in Hebrew---other equivalents are used. There are thousands of examples of this from linguistics.

Believing in this sense means different things to different people, and it's not a matter of definition. Most folks can't describe exactly how or why a certain word means what it does to them. Semantics gets into the unconscious association networks.

Hermeneutics is the art of interpretation. It's another way of approaching the awareness of semantics and other elements: It recognizes that many phenomena and written texts can be interpreted in different ways. For centuries people sort of took their preferred interpretations as a given: "My way is of course right, because it seems that way to me." The concept of relativism or self-deception didn't exist. Hermeneutics evolved gradually as people began to realize that there is an art to interpreting. It's not just right or wrong. Even if there are more clever and less clever ways of doing it, there is also the potential of different frames of reference that can be brought to bear. "Frames of reference"?? Yes, you can be right to some degree in your world, or from your viewpoint and I can also be right using different criteria for what right or better might be for me. In the olden days there weren't different criteria for right-ness, there was just my way, which was backed up by my teachers, who also were right. You wouldn't suggest that my teachers, who were authorities who knew more than me, might be mistaken, would you? Of course not!

But this opening of fields of insight to recognize that even wise authorities might have different viewpoints has grown in our culture. It used to be known by a few wise elders, but it's becoming common knowledge. Only becoming---the vast majority of people still not only take for granted that their way is the right way, their chosen leaders or authorities are right, but that alternatives weren't just different, but rather seductions of the devil or in other ways devious, products of being duped, wicked, nonsense, products of ignorance, etc. The idea of honorable men (this tended to be a male-gendered world-view) having honest differences and both sides had good point was and is inconceivable for large sectors of the population.

Hermeneutics as interpretation as art requires a sense that there are different ways that an art may be applied---not just good or bad, better or worse, but also that different criteria may be relevant to different kinds of art. It makes life more complex but might also be expressive of a shift to a more complex capacity for thinking, imagining, intuititing, and understanding.

In-Between Belief

In the same sense, thought itself becomes more complex when people are invited to contemplate beyond the either-or mode of thinking, to advance to recognizing shades of gray. This for many begins to happen in the second half of the first decade of life, but for many others, laziness and the prevalence of true-false type questions in schools perpetuates this illusion that most of life is true or false, either-or, nothing meaningful in-between. For these folks, the idea that the vast majority of lived experience is neither totally good or bad, right or wrong, or subject to any other simplistic polarity boggles their brain. That it's true blows their mind. But it is true!

Believing also operates on a spectrum ranging from don't believe it happens ever to anyone except in wild fantasy that can be ignored, 2+2=5 sort of thing; to completely believe it, I am here, you are there. Well, Descartes even doubted the you are there.[ I'm reminded of the saying that everyone is odd but thee and me and sometimes I wonder about thee  (? source, Quakers? Mark Twain?) ].  But most stuff, in  terms of our sense of probability, varies between the two extremes. There is the believing in Santa Claus just enough to take my kid to see Him at the mall, to enjoying the movies and tearing up a bit at my lost innocence, to really belieiving in whatever---the traditional concept of God and other dogma, or sort of believe in some kind of More-Ness type of God but not the guy on the heavenly throne, etc.

Now here's my main point. I think it's good to recognize the mixture of affirmation (will) and cognition (thought), the better to use them consciously. I think it's positively good in general (but not always or blindly) to "believe in" that which we value, and to believe that what we don't value deserves not to be valued. It's good to know we can re-evaluate beliefs rather than be trapped to the point of not even being able to begin to question them. But that doesn't mean that we are protected from falsity and illusion by trying to believe nothing.

Believing in nothing, trying to be illusion-less, is also a belief---belief that (1) it's possible; and (2) it's better than believing in anything. I propose that it is not possible, that the effort to believe in nothing is not better, but worse, that it tips one into nihilism, and from there, cynicism, pessimism, selfish hedonism, parasitisim, depression, or other negative activities. I am aware that my belief is a choice, and until I can be persuaded that this belief is mistaken and also not useful, I'll continue to believe it. It is theoretcially possible that I may change my mind back to the other aforementioned "cynical" belief, or turn to some new more sophisticated synthesis. That'll happen if and when it happens---I don't see it happening in the anticipated future.

I also think that it's fine to believe poetically, mythically, in a sense, without having to believe fully, factually, literally. Indeed, this in-betwen mixture of poetry and fact is an ongoing balance---more poetic or mythic for some things, more factual and hard-edged for others. Our decisions as to what the balance should be also needs to be exercised as wisdom in the here-and-now. No formulas, nor final criteria, to my knowledge, are absolutely reliable. All involves a best guess and that will have to do.

This ambiguous state of responsibility is nevertheless to be preferred to a lazier-minded approach of relying on some arbitrary formula or ancient authority to guide us as to which is which. At least it has the belief in the self as a re-valuating, thinking, chooser of what to believe when and how much and in which way. Far more invigorating, authentic, and engaged.  (This is sort of all I said at the talk, time being limited... BUT....)

Other Miscellaneous Thoughts

Readers of this web-page are welcome to argue with me, to email me at, to suggest refinements. If I think they're good enough to put in, I'll ask you (or you could tell me in advance) for permission to use your name and general date. This medium allows for some interactivity if you choose to make it so.

August 28 Morning Thoughts

Belief is a superimposition of will onto cognition. But it’s more complex than that: There are other factors in play. One is the degree of consciousness, of awareness of choice. Dreams are believed, but then again there is no alternative. That’s what’s happening—until you ask if it’s a dream, at which point you wake up.

Culturally, we’ve been through a historical process of enantiodromia, a cultural swinging of the pendulum back and forth, a dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and—what I’m proposing—a new synthesis.

In a time of fear, hunger, guilt, belief was a virtue—and back in those olden days of the 18th century, there was enough pain, disease, loss, and wretchedness that the midbrain that uses fight flight reactions was working overtime.

With a little more civilization—and there is a spectrum from less to more—it’s not either-or—and we’re only 14% there at present—at most—in my opinion— but anyway, modern culture—by which I mean from a fuzzy historical era that took in the perspectives of the enlightenment and mixed them with industrialization—got into an antithesis.

Thesis was authority of the church, the king, the slave master, the male over the female, the rich over the poor, the British over the Irish, the truth of classes and the divine right of kings... and all that started to get questioned and undermined in the 18th through the 20th century and in the middle East is still being questioned.

The new belief was that oppression exists and that it’s good to question, to doubt, to check out reality. Reality is what you can check out, measure, assess. Reality is the opposite of imagination, dream, play, art, poetry. We allow those latter categories in children and artists as long as they know their place, but we believe that we are not just believing—which in the modern era meant thinking what was not true. We are questioning, challenging, and what measuring. Science is sufficient, and scientific methods will answer all our questions. But, Ladies and Gentlemen, this is also a belief.

The focus has been on the contents of belief, true or false, and finding out. But this doesn’t appreciate the complexity of belief. Belief was sort of the same as illusion, and it was inferior to realistic thinking, clear, reality. We’re also speaking mythically of Apollonian versus Dionysian, and male versus female, and sun versus moon, and height versus depth, light versus darkeness—and in other words, a very crisp, modern, true/false dichotomized way to think that was part of the modern world in which we were all raised.

Now the 21st century has a new paradigm: Creativity. That is an activity that, when there is more safety, there is an emergence from the dawn when it is barely light enough so that all you can see is dark and light. With more light, you discover the range of colors. Creativity allows you to play with what seemed so either-or, true-false. There are ranges of truth, it isn’t either or, there are different criteria for truth. This can give you a headache if you’re emotionally attached to only one kind of truth. What’s called postmodernism and what’s hated by both traditionalists and modernists alike is the idea that there’s more than one kind of truth, or that the word itself is misleading—it’s very de-centering, throws you off balance. But there it is.

There are a whole bunch of words that speak to the growing awareness—wrestled with by philosophers hundreds of years ago, but kept at a very dense intellectual plane—that you can’t pin down truth the way politicians and churchmen and others wanted you to. Horrors! Then chaos must reign, all will fall apart—or so they threatened. Of course, to reassure you, let me at this point state my belief:

There’s a kind of more refined consciousness that can include in this dialog different kinds of consciousness! There are scientific-type facts—but note that these are not the only reality. They’re not ‘not’ real, but rather they’re one kind. Here’s a kind of reality that is equally real and absolutely fuzzy and unable to be measured: I like you. I’m glad to be here. Maybe some of you won’t like what I’m saying. Some won’t like me. Others will like me but not like what I say. Others will like some of what I say but disagree gently with a few things. It’s not either or. But this whole fuzzy mess is very real, what’s happening here, and it cannot be measured on one axis of true false. That’s because there are multiple other parameters.

There’s sleep wake, degrees of attention, boredom, confusion; there’s hunger and disinterest; there’s the tendency to relax the mind into an attitude of “whatever,” which was very close to submission, but with an edge of disbelief. Now we’re getting to the meat and potatoes of what I’m talking about. 

A lot of the discourse of belief operated in the last few hundred years with an overlay of coercison, of we won’t like you if you don’t believe what we believe. It numbs the will, generates whole clouds of either submission or rebellion—the old yes-no thing again, either you’re with us or against us.

In the later 20th and into the 21st century a new freedom is emerging. Lots of folks don’t know what to do with it. It’s a call to more consciousness! It’s a call to more consciousness, and creativity, and conscious choosing, and working out your own integrations, which is a creative act. It requires learning to dance with your mind among many colors. It’s learning not to feel that you have to believe it all or that you have to believe fully.

That leads to another thing that goes with color—saturation, intensity—how much. Same with thought. Can you love at different intensities? Sure, you do it all the time—this one you like but as an acquaintance; that one is more of a friend. And it’s multi-dimensional. Key word—not a single how much, but many variables get brought in—so you need to learn to be more creative. This one you love to play checkers with but you wouldn’t want to date as a potential romantic partner. Different criteria!

I’m sorry I’m getting so complicated, but that is my point: When consciousness gets free from the dawn when it’s just dark and light, when you can feel safe and free to think anything, you begin to notice colors and sub-types and variations. You begin to notice that you can believe a little bit in a certain way.  You can believe, more or less, in certain consciously chosen ways. You can even make up what you believe! Whoa!  You can make it up? Then you know it’s not literally true!  Whoa back. Is anything literally true? Ultimately in all contexts true?  There’s the postmodern fix. Oh, this chair is here. Postmodern response—maybe, but it’s trivial: It’s reductionistic to think that if you can determine for sure that the chair is here that you have a leg up on figuring out the impoderables and mysteries of life.

Reductionism is figuring out that if you learn arithmetic, you can figure all of math, and if you can do the math, you can figure out romance. Whoops, change of category. But that’s the point: It’s all a changeee of category!

So to restate: Belief tends to be thought of in terms of what is believed, whether it’s true or false. The cultural struggle against beliefs that seem false to us, compared to other facts—that’s what we called them—rather than beliefs—that seemed more true (though in rhetoric that is called begging the question—to call them facts rather than merely beliefs—this has mainly involved religion in the last few centuries. A bit politics, too, and gender relations, and other things—but mainly religion. Which is why there are Unitarian-Universalists.

But I’m suggesting that belief is neutral, neither good or bad. It depends on how you consciously  use your belief, when and where you choose to sink part way or on the surface or deep in on this or that dimension. And you can mix and match. That this is confusing and too complicated is not in itself an adequate argument against it being true or practical in light of more knowledge.

This approach brings in what we’ve learned about words, language, psychology, interpretation, semantics, rhetoric, all words that talk about how we can think about the way we tend to think. All this began well in the modern era but few people know these tools yet. I venture to suggest that half the kids in college if not more have never head the word “semantics”—or if they’ve heard it, hardly know what a revolutionary idea this field suggests.

And when you start using semantics on the term belief, it turns out to be a very slippery word. I believe in the dogma is very different from what Mac Davis around 1970s sang when he sang, “I believe in Music, I believe in Love.” or the 60s Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business without even trying—I believe in you! The hero sings to himself in the mirror. Or Frankie Lane singing a cheerfully inter-denominational non-specifically religious song in the 1950s, I believe.

Hey, I believe in angels 35%.  What’s with the percent? Either you do or you don’t. No, that’s my point. There are sub-types, ways of expressing things figuratively. This is what poetry and music and baby-talk and pillow talk and all the arts are really about. There are many truths that we live with closest to our heart that have little to do with specific definitions and measurable quantities—and if you include the criterion of relevance, they’re more real than mere fact.

Little kids haven’t been brainwashed into the illusion that there are and should rightly be tight compartments between true and false. They know they’re playing and pretending. They know the knife in their hand is invisible and doesn’t really cut, and if mommy calls for lunch they know a drama can be put on hold. They flow in and out of different types of reality, consciousness, suspending disbelief.

Modern science believes in practicing disbelief as if it were a religious dogma. Don’t believe, don’t accept anything, question everything. This is a fine game to play within limits. It’s a silly way to think about all of life, about love, about child-rearing.

Actually, the superimposition of science (which, I must note, can have very narrow blinders) onto love actually happened to your parents, which may be why you’ve been fighting off a heritage that’s a little neurotic. Dr. Benjamin Spock was popular after WW2—because he was permissive. Actually, he wan’t particularly permissive at all. The way he was permissive is that he suggested that it’s okay to pick up a crying baby. What was that about. Your parents didn’t tell you? From around 1915 through 1930 and into that decade scientific psychologists got it into their head that you could and should condition your kids to cope with reality rather than to wallow in illusion, and reality was hard. You can’t have what you want, and you’re never too young to learn this. The key loaded word—note the semantic associations that come up—is spoiled. Don’t spoil your kid. Don’t pick her up when she cries or you’ll spoil her. Benjamin Spock was reviled in some quarters for fighting this what we now considered really painfully stupid expression of scientific authority. I really suspect that it put a non-trivial scar on the mentality of a large part of middle America in the middle of this last century—when we were growing up.

And that’s just one of them. There were all sorts of religious and political demagogues and would-be authorities and all of them had in their own mind true beliefs. Belief was for them a word that was like conviction. It was more virtuous than mere opinions. You may have opinions, but virtuous I have convictions. Semantics, word use, spin-doctoring, rhetoric, Humpty Dumpty, the large egg-character in Alice’s Adventures through the Looking Glass saying, “When I use a word, it means anything I want it to mean. And Alice said, in effect, can you do that? And Humpty replied, The question is only who is to be master, that’s all.  This is rhetoric, propaganda, authority using cleverness to hypnotize you into believing.

Creativity thinking helps you awaken from the hypnotic state in which you believe what you think. Now my point is that if you know you’re doing this, you’re hypnotizing yourself a bit, you know, it’s okay.  If you unconsciously hypnotize yourself,—and a main principle in depth psychology is that people can unconsciously hypnotize themselves—they can entrench a thought so well that it becomes impossible to will yourself to wake up without permission of another person suggesting it—this depth of double-whammy of thinking or not thinking certain thoughts, compartmentalizing and dissociating and repressing, all those words deal with operating from a level where you think you’re awake but you’re half - hypnotized, a little bit of sleep-dream like psychology is going on.
 = =
This morning checking my email, an ad: I’m a true believer. In a brand of mattress’s ability to give a good night sleep.
 - - -
   Another quote from the Buddha: There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills.
I interpret this to mean not reasonable questioning, as he suggested at the top of this webpage, but paralyzing doubt that refused to act because of a lack of solid guarantees. That's not intellectual humility, that's a cop-out. The real challenge is to balance not having a guarantee to making a fair guess and playing it through. Nor does it mean a refusal to change your mind. Well, yes, if the only reason is that the going gets tough. But even then in some situations, I take my lack of progress to be a hint that it is fighting higher fate to try to push the river, so to speak. But the game is taking responsibility for choices.

82711 Further Notes on Belief and Believing—to be revised and re-worked

Of course I should Include William James’ essay, “The Will to Believe.” I’m still contemplating his words, and am unsure if I have fully digested them. But I’m pretty sure he affirms the general idea of it being okay to choose to believe something even if it’s not totally rational.

I get the sense that he has some commitment to science and there’s a degree of inclusion of non-rational thought that would be distasteful for him, but that he’s also unwilling to make judgments about those for whom there is a greater tolerance and indeed even some preference for the mysterious.

I’m relatively sure he’s wrestling with the problem of belief in a more complex fashion, and that’s the point. It isn’t simply either-or.
  - - - -

81011:  Believing is actually a rather complex psychological process and it deserves to be examined. To believe something is to add to a thought a degree of willed assent. To doubt something is to add to a thought a degree of willed reservation, as if to say, “wait, maybe that isn’t so.” With belief, one implies, “Amen, may it be so” or “Yes, that’s it.” So what we have is a thought or image or idea and an attitude, an inner action, added on.

The second point about belief is that it isn’t distinct. Some people make it distinct, affirm it so often that it can seem to be a virtue—or, in the eyes of those who don’t agree—a vice. True believer is for some a compliment and for others the phrase suggests either a brainwashed cult member or some kind of fanatic.


So now we have a perspective called semantics. This is the study of the emotional impact of words. It’s inter-disciplinary: It seems like linguistics, but really is closer to rhetoric, social psychology, spin-doctoring, advertising, propaganda. I became interested in these forms of mind-bending games as an early adolescent—in retrospect I think it was my quiet form of rebellion— and it fed into my later interest in how people fool themselves and each other—which is a big part of depth psychology and psychiatry—back when psychiatrists really talked with patients on how they made sense of their experience.

Semantics—what images and feelings are aroused when you hear words like America, God, apple pie, Satan, and so forth? This stuff goes right to the heart of the profound levels of non-rationality that people still don’t want to own.  We can’t help it, certain words trigger images or feelings. How that works is semantics, and we haven’t got a nice set of neat answers, believe me. It must be enough to ask the question.

Now, the problem with semantics is that for an individual, a word—especially loaded words—is caught in a network of often unconscious associations. Who used to use that word and how did you feel about them? Was the word used in contexts that were scary or sweet? And on close examination—here’s the point—every word means something a little different to every person! There is rarely full agreement. You might get people thinking they agree, but when it comes down to it, what you meant by “in time” isn’t what I meant----a week isn’t ten years. Lawsuits are made of this difference in interpretation.

And that leads to a second word to introduce, beside semantics: hermeneutics. That’s the art of interpretation. When I grew up things were defined and we were supposed to believe in definitions. Let’s go to the dictionary. It was almost a religious gesture. Ladies and Gentlemen, definitions are soooo 20th century! Most important words—not trivial words—cannot be defined because they are ambiguous. They partake of different semantic associations in different people.

Interpretation in the olden days was simply exposing the right understanding of, say, a parable. But wait a minute, maybe there are two different interpretations? Which is better? And then with  a shift of perspective, the very act of interpretation is exposed. It turns out that this person’s interpretation is biased severely towards this person’s need to make this other point! And the other person’s interpretation goes another way. And backing off, you begin to realize that interpretation is itself an art that can be done better and worse, but also—and this is important—like art, can be done in very different ways! So the art of interpretation is not only highly complex, but it’s open to argument as to how to evaluate different approaches to interpretation. That’s why a big word, hermeneutics, is needed. It opens us up to our active involvement in ambiguity—or, dare I say, the inevitability of differences in how we think and believe.

Now we’re getting closer to the postmodernist crux of the matter. Who’s right? We felt entitled to getting an answer from the experts, from our parents, our teachers.  No matter that our parents gave us the answer a thousand times as we were growing up: You kids work it out. Nooo, we didn’t believe that this was actually true. There had to be a right answer, and one of us—and it wasn’t me—had it! But what if it is really a deeper truth, a different approach to truth—you kids work it out!?

That’s what you’ve been doing with your spouses and family and friends, now that you think of it. There are now out-there-fixed-answers to most of the little glitches that happen in life. You just work it out, give a little here, they give a little there, you find an alternative, whatever. But the problem here is that it is impossible to write about this problem definitively—it eludes any definition. Now that we’ve learned about chaos theory and fractals maybe we can realize—lots of things in life are not neat and clean and have clear boundaries, but rather they are vague, fuzzy, and open to negotiations. Indeed, most important things.

All this relates to belief if we relax our beliefs that we should know what we’re talking about, that if I say something clearly you’ll take it the way I meant it, that we’re not all superimposing our own often quite unconscious reactions on words and interpretations and interactions. The illusion that we’re all rational needs to be deconstructed every bit as much as the illusion that the world is flat and the sun goes around it. I know, but it seems that way.

In the Hindu tradition, illusion as a category was recognized as being so powerful and pervasive that it was personified as a god----goddess, actually, name of Maya—. Speaking as a depth psychologist, psychiatrist, and philosopher, I don’t think we can escape from illusion.

Believing that we have liberated ourselves from the most common and gripping illusions of our past does not mean we’re free from illusion—only those illusions. Indeed, it may well be argued that it is an illusion that human minds can function without illusion.
Here’s another big word. Philosophy, the love of knowledge, really asking with deep respect, what’s what, opens to many questions. Ethics—what’s fair.  Meta-physics: what’s real. Epistemology: How do we know what we think we know?  Yeah, they all overlap somewhat. But hermeneutics, semantics, belief, epistemology—all relate. And we live now in a world-view transition that goes along with the shift from the modern era to the postmodern era—a time when everything is changing more rapidly and also being recognized as being far more complex than we thought it was.

Cell biology, astronomy, sub-atomic physics, linguistics, history, everything. Psychology and philosophy too, and as an offshoot, religion.  Which leads us back to belief.

Belief is about all sorts of things besides religion.  We believe in our kids, communicate that we mix hope and thinking in an optimistic fashion as a form of blessing, encouragement. I believe in you. And these elements are used in songs, as Mac Davis sang in the late 1960s, I believe in music, I believe in Love. That’s a belief in hope, and affirmation of a sense of alignment in values with good things. It’s saying yes to what you want to emerge in what seems like a better world. Depending on the country you’re in, it might be a word like freedom—that has lots of different meanings. Free enterprise is a semantic flip that blinds us to the possibility that a good deal of what is called free enterprise imposes coercive economic pressures on poor people and is in truth wicked exploitation—even virtual slavery. But no one wants to taint such as wonderful phrase as free enterprise.

Then again, the charm of the antebellum South was built on the backs of slaves and no one wanted to look at much less take responsibility for the sheer brutality that must be involved in keeping people enslaved. So people use words to mask the ugly parts of life.

What I want to emphasize is that belief is a word.
 - - -

There are shades of belief. There is in-between belief. I have a lot of things that I sort of believe. I enjoy certain images. I don’t take them literally, but I enjoy them—like Santa Claus and faeries like Tinkerbelle.  To say I don’t believe wouldn’t be a fair description of my mind. To say I don’t really believe asks me to compare my factual evaluation with my mythic and poetic life.

I confess I haven’t been able to differentiate between believing and optimism, between faith and hope. And even if you give me neat definitions, it wouldn’t help deep down, because I hear Obi-Wan-Kenobe saying to Luke Skywalker, “Turn to the Light, Luke, turn away from the dark side!”

Belief as “Electricity”
In some ways the metaphor of electricity can apply to believing as a kind of mental energy: You can learn about it, and learn to use it in a lot of ways. You can modulate it and channel it rather then just feel zapped by it.

Belief is to myth as electric current is to magnetic force—they’re related in different ways. That’s why it’s called electro-magnetic energy. Belief and myth overlap in a sense. Both categories need to be semantically refurbished. We need to let go of our old associations to these words and learn to think of both believing and myth in fresh and more practical ways.

Believing is a mixture of will and attention along with a varied content. Myth has an additional force of social consensus. I’m not trying to be too precise in my definition here, because I’m pretty sure that whatever I say will be superseded as we learn more about mind and its power.

The main thing about belief and electricity is that it can be graduated, enjoy middle levels. This is important, because a more conscious skill in modulating this middle region makes all the difference! The trick is to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.

Let’s be clear that for many of you the word is semantically loaded—that’s saying that there are a bunch of associations there that may have been true for aspects of the word that you were exposed to once in your life----many of you, for example, got burned out on the word “belief” as it was inextricably connected with blind submission..
   Belief was an activity that entailed stifling of doubt in oneself and if felt bad. So belief feels bad.

   This is true for one type of believing, a very common type in our culture, but yet only one of many—so you need to recognize it also as a stereotype, a prejudice, begin to loosen the tendency to believe what you’ve become habituating to thinking.

Now to stretch you: Around forty years ago plus or minus a hundred years there emerged the concept of being agnostic as fashionable, a belief that non-belief is somehow a noble intellectual stance, almost heroic. When contrasted with the doubt-stifling kinds of beliefs of traditionalism, agnosticism and viewing the previous types of belief as superstitions made sense. There was even a kind of overshoot: It seemed possible to become free of all illusion!

Now I’ll state my present belief—and am willing to argue this with a smile. I don’t think we can escape illusion. The idea that we can and that some have may well also be illusory, and I await good evidence to suggest that I’m mistaken. I haven’t found it yet.

So I see currents of fashion about believing, thinking, considering what is and is not real, what may and may not be included as criteria for reality, all that is expanding and going through changes. My current bias—my belief—is that we cannot escape illusion, but we can choose and choose again and then revise and choose again what we choose to believe. We can engage in a conscious process of myth-making.

The criterion becomes not what is, but what works for me. How much what works for me needs to fit with varying criteria may differ from person to person.

All this also slips into a more postmodernist view of truth. We were raised in an era that was itself a mixture of two world-views: Traditionalism said that the essential truths were there to be understood, accepted, even if they needed to be interpreted. But they’re there in the scriptures and a few sacred political documents and traditions. Truth is given. Modernity shifted into a varied stance that suggested that many traditional sources were not to be blindly trusted, that science can bring truth forth, but that truth does exist, it can be found, discovered, argued, mainly through reason. Belief and myth is suspect.

The postmodern era has called even this reasonable position into question. This is for a number of reasons:
  – worldviews differ, the idea that there are paradigms, world-views, is still new. What is considered fact or scientifically-demonstrable is often considered less important than political, social, and basic philosophical inclination. Respect, love, loyalty, kindness, and other core values are at least as important as mere rational coordination. Also, there is so much in life that is not touched by mere fact—especially in the realms of human endeavors, those arrangements that fill our lives more than mere fact.
  – related to this, what is relevant often deals with what and who is loved and hated rather than, again, mere fact
  – all supposed truths are framed by words that, on close examination, quickly break down into associations, previous meanings, other examples, and, most importantly, the often unconscious weighting we attribute to the various components of our semantic grid within which words operate. It turns out that these grids are in turn distorted by the entire personality and its individuality—temperament, memories, social-technical era, people associations, fashionable ideas, etc. It turns out that no two people ever believe exactly the same general dogma of any religion or cult. There is always some difference, at least, in the nuances of key words or ideals.
  – the criteria used in weighing truth of a proposition similarly differ
  – and as for a word having the same meaning to people of different cultures or generations, well, that just further complicates the process described above.

Of course there seems to be agreement, but what is going on is a political process: Words, laws, ideals, are assumed to have basic definitions. Often this co-constructed and negotiated process has a provisional stability. Ultimately, though, there are loopholes, differences in interpretation, and these fill the dockets of courts of appeal. It’s all a process of active construction—there’s no “there” there.

(The same can be said for life itself, which involves a continuous interchange of the very atoms that support it. All that continues is the ongoing re-construction of the pattern with re-cycled and renewed materials.)

We’re talking about epistemology now: How do we know what we know? What is truth? What is reality? In short, what, in our most sophisticated present world-view, taking in all we know about, seems to be fair to say about what we can and should believe.

My best response is that there are no givens, no guarantees, all is interpretation, it depends on what frames of reference and criteria for more or less validity you choose; and also gradients of relevance—how important this or that angle is for you. This varies not only from person to person, but situation to situation. In that case, this and such seemed more relevant, but it’s different in this problem.

Now to shift to psychology.  I find that people try to get out of having to choose, having to take responsibility. It would be easier if there were a guaranteed criterion or set of guidelines. Yes, it would be easier—that’s the point—but in true contemporary maturity, easier is no longer a rational cause. Many things that are more true are neither easy or convenient, and this in fact does not make them not so. The world does not bend to our preferences and in fact never did—although there may have been a relatively short time in our infancy when it seemed to mostly do so.

Aside from wanting the world to be true in the way that would be most convenient for us, and if not that, at least wanting the world to be true in a way that we can readily understand, there is also the possibility that the world will not fulfill either wish in some ways: It is often not convenient—gravity is a good example here—and often not even readily understandable. In fact, it not only takes a good deal of learning, through several levels of learning more, but at the edge of great learning it turns out that there remain limits and mysteries and fuzzy bits. No guarantees, no final answers. You need to be okay about this, having grounded your confidence.

But, alas, in the 21st century, final knowledge is not to be ours not only now, nor in ten thousand years, but never—because there is not and can not be any final knowledge. Instead of knowing, our job is to turn to giving it our best guess and working mainly in terms of peacemaking.

Belief   Epistemology Semantics Hermeneutics Myth   

I believe in you. I believe in your potential to grow and become more fully whatever you delight in!

I believe in music, I believe in love.

I believe that what I think is so. I believe that what I think and know is not fully so, only that it is in vaguely the right direction.
I believe in history, in paradigm shifts, and that much of what I believe may turn out to be not so, or at least by no means all of it.

8/8/11  Believing

To believe something, or believe in something, is by no means a clear process. Unitarians tend to be overly focused on the need to rise above what they consider foolish or primitive beliefs. Believing falls to the same category as superstition. These are mainly associated with the  dogmas of religions that have been rejected by the congregational members.

But words carry over. Foreigner was a bad word a century or so ago. That we all descended from foreigners was quite forgotten. True believers has that same negative tone. So we need to introduce the first word here. Words can be tools, just as a knife or scissors or screwdriver. The word is semantics. It is the study of words—not word roots, or the evolution of words, but rather how words have an impact on mind and especially emotion.

Words are ambiguous. Consider the following: twilight, dusk, evening. Do some of those words attract you more than others? It’s a subtle taste difference? Exploring why would take time,  but it would relate to fragments of song, or episodes in your life that were associated with one of those words.

Can you imagine belief being a wonderful thing? How about if someone you respected looked at you with love and said, “I believe in you” ?  How would that feel?
     What does it mean to believe in another person?

Here’s another image: The country-popular-music singer in the 1970s, Mac Davis, sings “I believe in music, I believe in love.”
    What does that mean?

Can you imagine really getting into believing anything?

How about those of you who are on the more skeptical side? How about believing in the importance of deconstructing any and all beliefs! Away with superstition. Standing on the top of a wind-swept hill with the delicious cold wind of dis-illusion flowing through your hair. Not chilly, really, just bracing. Ahhh. Free from the chains of superstition and dogma. Sure!

But that’s such a small and over-rated moment, a fantasy, a brief aha! Moment of feeling justified, right. And they thought they were right! Well, we showed them who’s right! Yah!

Okay, now back away slowly. You’re right, they’re wrong. You’ve proven your point.  No need to run back over and kick the dead body. You won.

But the fear and struggle was deep and wide enough while it went on that deep inside there’s a desire to demolish not only the beliefs you found oppressive in your own life, but the whole idea of believing. And here’s where a word, semantics, can muck up your thinking.

Because there are lots of types of belief, in-between belief, non-fanatical, but not disillusioned or cynical either. Like foreigners. Some you might actually get to know, to like.

Toyland and Belief

There’s an overlap here among ideas about myth and myth-making, becoming involved in telling or listening to or reading or watching stories, and also in the ambiguous process of believing, more or less.

The point to note is that there are many uses of the word belief. You can believe things poetically and not literally.

It’s fun to plunge in and immerse yourself in a myth. There’s a bit of loss of the ordinary self, with all its attendant concerns:
   – other people need things—especially kids or sick or relatively helpless people—it’s distracting
   – reality can be demanding and ambiguous, requiring an activity of scanning, questioning, re-checking—really, it’s somewhat tiring
    – habits of expecting pop quizzes and sudden shifts of attention can become ingrained, leading to a hyper-alert, up-tight character. Warriors are close to this edginess. It’s the opposite of mellow.
   – diversification of life into household duties—always something else to be done, either soon or someday—that seems more important than daydreaming; also clubs and role commitments for them; places to go, things to shop for, money to earn more of...   Etc.

To believe is also then a focusing on giving attention to, or turning attention to what you believe in. Other things that impinged on your awareness in a figure-ground sense slip into the background, become the ground rather than the figure.

Myth invites you to enter this story.

Belief as Childish
Consider the lyrics of the song “Toyland” (by Victor Herbert):
Toyland, toyland, little girl and boy land: When you dwell within it you are ever happy there!
Childhood toyland, mystical merry toyland! Once you pass its borders you can never return again!
   (Melody by Glen MacDonough)

I don’t agree that you can never return again! We prove it at our Art of Play workshop. The statement / song lyric / in the sociocultural perspective: a clear division between childhood and grown-up, stop being a baby, in a rigorous way, practiced in Western culture for centuries.
    The minute you could work on farm or trade you were desperately needed, just to keep life going. On the other hand, any kind of softness or weakness was demanded to be squelched, get over it, because there wasn’t time to deal with more subtle emotional states; nor did folks have the skills to do so.
   So, pragmatic need for abandoning childhood has become less true. There was a sadness and loss, those kinds of statements reflect that nostalgia.

  Being child-like was devalued, also, because there were no needs for the qualities associated with childhood. It’s not true any more, and in fact, what we propose is that the mental attitude that happens in pretend play, the multi-dimensional functions, are needed today because they help in creative problem solving; They help in mental health, emotional well being, interpersonal thriving. And finally, people can keep those qualities of childhood and mature with them. People who do this selectively become creative, scientists, artists, their personalities become exploratory, stepping through societal and cultural boundaries and limitations.

The more people we can encourage to retain that playful skill set, keep it alive, the more options we will have.

We’re not trying to turn everyone into performance artists. Whenever your personality develops, we want to promote this aspect of mindfulness, wherever it is—assembly lines, landscape work, monetary politics, stay-at-home mind. This is an endowment of humanity
   Breakset, imagine, explore, enjoy. Play and humor as health-ful. We have ways that can help people reclaim it, develop it, enjoy it, use it. Amen.

Myth: Terms like myth can take on a secondary life of their own, aside from what they were originally trying to describe. This secondary life can hamper the growth of what they are describing. For example: a term like myth, useful to step back from something, give it a shorthand name. But the name starts to attract opinions and theories, those attractions then affect the term and what it refers to in an unhealthy way.   Myth, belief, etc.
    Very careful:

Beliefs are mindless and bad and superstitious and oppressive, but critical thinking is good, and doubting and skepticism is good. You have to look at belief.
    Many beliefs are myths. That means they’re not so. They are so not so you need to really critically examine them. A valid belief has to stand up to critical examination or it’s no better than superstition. And the main criterion is whether it’s factually so. Is there evidence to substantiate it. Substance is key—it betrays a materialistic measuring stick.

  Mere belief is too feminine, intuitive, weak-minded, fuzzy-brained, sentimental. It’s like believing that you’re your kitty is cute. Whatever cute means. Cute does not stand up well to critical examination.

    So, wait a minute. As we think about it, most of what’s fun for us is fuzzy, soft, emotional, sweet, unclear, not substantial, ambiguous, ill-defined, tasty, juicy, whatever other words are carry a mixed connotation.

Connotation is the emotional impact of a word. I like this word, I hate that word. I can tolerate sweet euphemisms, I feel uncomfortable about straight words—almost spitting them out as epithets. Words for poopy, poop, feces, shit, each has its own semantic network of associations. Aww, cute. Did the baby mess her diaper? We’ll clean it up. Ugh, dog doo. Yuk.

Connotation: Savior. God. Jesus. Source. All-that-is. Sacred. These words have different connotations, each a little different for each of you! Do you believe?  Maybe, more or less, depending on what word we use. Some believe in nothing at all. Some believe in humanism, as if that were a clear doctrine. And so forth.

Let’s be clear: We are not going to get any agreement. Connotations and semantic networks operate unconsciously, and the unconscious cannot be grasped and clearly identified. It’s like one of those brain tumors that even if you get some of it, most of it, surgically, it has edges into the unknown that you can’t identify or grasp.

The era of modernity had some belief that it was at least theoretically true that truth was accessible, someday. It exists, truth does, out there. Now I make this point because in contrast, in the postmodern world, there is and can be no truth, not even theoretically. This is because a primary truth—an obvious reality—is that there are several existing phenomena that combine make it theoretically impossible to ascertain truth:
   1. The unconscious mind and its associations is built up of millions of experiences in which various words are attached to different sets of emotions, resulting in complex semantic networks.
   2. The nature of complexity arises from the growing awareness that everything and everybody is much more complex—composed of a far greater number of variables all weighted along a much wider and ambiguous spectrum of values—so that in their aggregate, everything is truly unique. Of course, God loves it that way, but such a view is quite incompatible with any dogma. Okay, forget the allusion to God—I was just being provocative.

   3. The complexity of individuals is taken to an exponential degree when two or more people mix in relationships, groups, organizations. In truth, no generalization is absolutely true about any business, group, or organization. Such comments assume a homogeneity or similarity of intent that just doesn’t exist. It makes it more difficult to feel self-righteous and angry at them, but that’s just the way it is. Reality as we have come to appreciate it in the postmodern era is impossible to really conceive us in any abstract term. All generalizations are stereotypes, prejudices, and they don’t do justice to the actual complexity being described.

   4. What I’m getting out was stated by Friederich Nietzsche about 120 years ago—that all knowledge is perspective. But there are almost 7 billion perspective-makers, each of whom is different from the others—so it becomes actually quite impossible to make any pronouncements as if they are truths.

5. Indeed, the whole game shifts from debate and determination of who’s right to something more like family dynamics than democracy. The goal becomes peacemaking.

  6. Oh, I should add that war, proving how right you are, works for short periods of time, but then the recovering minority gets enough steam up to rebel again. Might in the long run does not make right, it makes further wars. It took a few centuries to begin to get clear about that and folks still don’t understand it.

 - - - -

I believe in skepticism, in semantics, in deconstruction, in hermeneutics, in wisdom, in discernment, in pragmatism, in analysis.

All these words are tools. I especially believe in semantics, the word for the activity that analyzes words—not just their histories—that’s etymology, or philology—but more, the way they work in the mind. Words feed the desire to be lazy. More than sex—whatever Freud said—people are lazy, they don’t want to think, they want simple, easy answers. This runs very very deep in the psyche. Kids learn words that have magic, and weirdly enough, other people with the same cultural background play into it, mommies do, so that there are several words that have power: Mine! Noooooo! Gimme! Words like that. Very early in life and very powerfully kids learn that words are magic, they sometimes fulfill the desire, or are short-cuts to getting the desire fulfilled. “Up!” with hands raised gets you raised up!

Later in life teachers begin to feed you nonsense and kids know it’s nonsense though they can’t explain why. There’s truth and then there’s lies and there’s fibs, and there are secrets that aren’t exactly lies but they’re naughty, which is different from bad or is it.


The field known as semantics unpacks all this and really holds up into the light the way words can be spun around and used for or against. Belief is one of those words. For example, I’ve been reading a scholarly exploration of the idea of “common sense,” which for many masks as reality. There’s another word, taken for granted, as in the phrase, "Let’s be realistic." But Jane Wagner, the comedienne, wrote that “Reality is nothing but a collective hunch.”

Belief is an interesting word that can be used in different ways. It can be a pleasant affirmation. I believe in you.  I believe in music, I believ in love. Mac Davis sang this song in the 60s. It can be a challenge of virtue—and worse: To call someone an unbeliever was a precursor to possible violence!

For Unitarians, it’s been a pervasive fashion to believe in questioning belief, in skepticism. Considering the mountain of beliefs that are worthy of being carefully re-evaluated with skeptical eye, I’m not surprised. Joke: I heard the Ku Klux Klan in a small Southern town didn’t know what to do with the Unitarian family that moved in. So they burned a question-mark on their lawn.

But the focus is on words, and our tendencies to believe that they seem to have a definite meaning, even when if we dare stop and think—oh, that hurts my brain—that they very definitely do not—or that folks use the meaning to serve whatever they mean at the time. And belief is one of those slippery words.

I’m asking you to notice how it’s hard to digest this. Semantics is even more subversive than skepticism. I mean, it’s one thing to be skeptical about a claim made by fools out there! No way do I believe that! We—emphasis—we don’t believe that. There’s comfort in numbers. It serves the adolescent rebellion in us. I’ll confess, being skeptical was my mild way of being quietly, intellectually   rebellious as a teenager.

But semantics cuts deeper, it makes me ask, what do I mean when I use a word, and it exposes the profound and uncomfortable reality that folks mean different things when they use the same word, and even the same people who use a word give it different meaning in different contexts. Freedom is a big one, sure, freedom is good, great, to die for----wait a minute, I didn’t mean freedom for you to marry, or freedom for you to ingest that substance... that’s not freedom, that’s uh licence.

Words, so belief is one of those words. Most unitarians scorn is as partaking of going along with ideas that seem foolish—much of which tends to be associated with religions who tend to make the word belief a virtue. To believe what is in common sense not believable needs to be criticized.

But, folks, the word is slippery. We believe in stronger and milder ways in a million things that are more or less illusory—like how cute our grandkids are. Or our kitty. Much of what is actually aesthetic judgment is treated as reality. Mmm this soup is good. Not it may taste foul to me but I’ve grown to like this. No, it is good.

Making Up Beliefs !?!?

Can you do that? Now I’ll confess my bias. I’ve chosen to believe in a number of weird things that I’ve half made-up. Worse, I feel comfortable believing in them half-way, or two-thirds, and it works for me.

So that’s my next point. The mind is far from rational. Indeed, most folks operate out of a set of beliefs and assumptions—of the order of a hundred moderate-strength and vague notions and a thousand particulars—that tend to feel adequate. They’re loosely assembled, kluged together with duct tape, so to speak. Covered with a whitewash of rationality. I mean they seem reasonable.

In our time, we ask for a little more rationality and less superstition than in the olden days, compared to our grandparents. You wouldn’t want me to engage in a careful analysis of any one of your assumption systems and discover that they are based on weak or faulty or inconsistent assumptions. We only pretend we’re rational but in fact it’s relative to how very irrational we feel and to some degree think our ancestors were, and other religions are, and political opponents, and so forth—you know, “them.”

I’m noting an uncomfortable depth of non-rationality and irrationality—non-rationality making no claim to being reasonable—that operates in individual and collective mind activities. I don’t object to this, please note, I just question the illusion of rationality that gets pasted on top of this. Okay, then, let’s go back and look at some other words:


It’s a good word, like semantics. Hermeneutics is the art of interpretation. Now in the olden days there was good old truth. If you were too dumb to get it, the authority would explain it to you. But it was truth. Of course, other bad people, or dumb, or whatever explanation came to hand, had other explanations—but they were wrong.

In the last few centuries some deep thinkers started looking at the ways we evaluate interpretations. The word itself interposed a little distance between words and meaning. Interpretation? There were definitions, but what is this word “interpretation”?

It means that whole passages, like single words, can have different meanings. (I hear a protest: "No way!" and a teenaged voice saying, "Way!" Not only can holy scriptures, laws, even constitutions can be interpreted differently but the activity of discovering or assigning the meaning to a group of words can be done better or worse! Voice: According to what criteria?   Now we’re getting to the complexity.
The question is, said Alice, speaking to Humpty Dumpty in the Through the Looking-Glass story of the Alice in Wonderland series written by Lewis Carroll in the mid 19th century, the question is whether you can make words mean whatever you want. The question is, said Humpty Dumpty, who is to be master , that’s all.


Here's another the term used by the ancient Greeks to refer to the art of persuasion, which is close to the art of interpretation and semantics.
Rhetoric it was one of the core subjects in the curriculum for middle and upper class kids. Later we used words like propaganda analysis, and logical fallacies, and semantics. This kind of looking at the ways we think and the words we use and the ways we use those words is enjoying a resurgence in the inflow of cognitive therapy, also known as analyzing your self-talk. But I want to see this stuff taught in the 6th or 7th grade—which is when kids read Alice in Wonderland, about then. Let’s start playing with words and interposing some distance between our wiser, more discriminating faculties and the words we tend to believe mean something.

Don’t believe in words meaning what they seem to mean!

An associate idea: Don’t believe in clear definitions. I don’t know where that came into history, maybe with Socrates. Either a words means this or it means that, either or. But it’s simply not so! There are shades of gray and it’s all fuzzy-boundaried and vague. And yes, it must be, it has to be, it really is. That some find it gives them headaches and de-stabilizes their self-righteous position only exposes the deeper truth that some folks feel secure because of what they believe rather than finding a basis for self-esteem on something less epistemologically slippery.

As for me, my security lies in the way I swim in the unfolding flow of ideas, beliefs, and constructions being a creative process, negotiated, argued for, and always provisional. I’m odd that way. It’s as if I’ve learned to swim in a world that hasn’t gotten used to the idea that we’re all going to be underwater soon. I’m not attached to word-configurations. I use definitions provisionally, in light of what is useful for the task.

But does anything mean anything?  I reply: Do you mean in all contexts? Them: Yeah. Me: No. Them: Yaaaaaa!  And even that can take different forms. Yaaa being frightened withdrawal or Yaaaa being a cry of fury and violent attack of me. So this activity of challenging is dangerous.

Yet I pair that deconstructive activity with active mythmaking. I am not afraid to believe in all sorts of things and not believe in many other things and also partly believe.
   That means that I don’t give full assent to thinking I understand that what I sort of think is the way things are is literally or completely the way things really are. I 82% believe in angels, or forces of guidance and good fortune, or whatever accounts for those meaningful coincidences called synchronicities. I certainly do not believe in many of the popular notions about what angels are and do, and yet I find some elements of that construction to be useful.
     I wouldn’t be surprised if all that turns out to be a complex of galoomphology that will have emerged in a thousand years and will explain it all.. But right now we use terms that are vaguely familiar to describe what we intuit as real but can’t yet explain.

I certainly believe that those who are professional skeptics about everything are either lying to themselves or not having much fun, because I think a certain amount of faith and provisional, implicit belief is necessary for just getting through life today. Full skepticism means that I’d have to be up here on the defensive in armor because one of you might well be carrying a gun and find my words so offensive that you shoot me. And yet I trust you. What’s with that?

We don’t have to be either this or that, credulous, believing everything, or skeptical, believing nothing. We go through life more or less believing and this threshold of doubt goes up and down. Did I lock the car? Let me check if I have that bottle of water. I think you’re friendly, ah, your smile supports that belief... though it could be just fooling me and he’s preparing to strike. Ah, et tu, Brutus?  Whoa.

Either-Or (August 1, 2011)

Believing—what do you believe, what if I believe differently, does that make one of us wrong? Belief was a big deal for thousands of years—it was important that you believed, and that you believed the right things and not the wrong things. If you found yourself having doubts or wanderings of your mind into independent channels, unauthorized channels, shape up quick. If you are reluctant to repent adequately, terrible punishments now and hereafter were threatened, and these were no empty threats.

Then we went through a period in the last few centuries, amplified—or just more free—to say “I don’t believe that!” and to say that about an increasing number of traditional dogmas, prejudices, superstions, notions, and so forth. Scholars were also digging up doubts about whether the infallible scriptures might be—horrors!—a bit distorted by translation, bias, or other reasons.

In some circles believing is noble, in other circles it’s near delusional or at least childish. Then there’s a third angle, known to scholars again for millennia: Don’t take it literally. Now I’m sorry  to say that I don’t know if most people really learned how to interpret various stories as allegories. Depending on background, it seems that authorized people only could elucidate the meaning. We peasants were not instructed in the art of hermeneutics—which is to spiritual truth something like rhetoric is to speech-making. Basically, what’s coming down in the last century and more recently is that more folks are realizing that one has to take many elements of stories with more than a grain of salt: they are legends and we ourselves need to empower ourselves to use them to make a point or discard them. Yikes! Can you do that?

   = = =
7-20-11  Re-Thinking Believing

Abstract for announcement: Believing is a rather complex activity that easily tolerates internal inconsistencies. Adam Blatner will discuss some thoughts about different styles of belief and will further entertain dialog.

Adam Blatner, M.D., is a retired psychiatrist living in Sun City since 1997, who has been thinking about the psychology of spirituality for over 50 years.

            - - -

The key point to be presented today is the idea that we need to loosen up about belief and believing. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, either-or. When Mac Davis sang “I believe in music, I believe in Love,” in the 1960s, he expressed the common, looser, more poetic middle ground.

Admittedly, there does seem to be a context set in the field of religion that deals with belief in an either-or fashion—either you do believe, or you don’t. Perhaps you don’t believe enough. What is referred to is dogma, ideas that fly in the face of reason, and affirming non-belief for some folks is a symbolic breaking away of the chains of true belief—belief in the literal truth, the historical and deep metaphysical truth of whatever some denomination affirms as its core. It’s lovely to be a non-believer.

But wait, my point today involves the semantics of that word. It’s a word that really has many different meanings, is fuzzy. There’s a time in childhood when kids believe literally in Santa Claus, and the truth is that lots of healthy kids don’t give up on that belief—they modify it. They can tolerate the following: I know it’s not really true, but I enjoy believing. Now this isn’t clearly logical, but then again that’s the point: The mind can tolerate and indeed thrives on its own mushy non-logical nature—which allows for mixed experiences of poetry and song lyrics, pet names and nicknames, and innumerable other “permutations” of reality that generate the juice that makes life worth living.

“I believe in you” is not meant to be a statement of fact, because it’s ambiguous on several counts: What does it mean? I believe you exist? I believe you’re perfect and have no flaws? It’s more in the sense of “I believe in your potential,” but most folks who say anything like this will quickly allow the qualification, “...if you don’t mess things up.” It’s meant as an encouragement, a mixture of “I really am trying to recognize you, see you, appreciate your strengths, and to some extent perhaps I do see your potential more clearly than you do” or something like that. It’s a nice thing to be able to say to someone; a nice thing to have someone say to you.

 But it’s a different sense of the term, Believe.

There’s also the sense of provisional. I believe that’s so—but I’m aware that you could correct me. It’s okay, not the end of the world. I can believe this and the choice of words—or maybe the nonverbal emphasis—can communicate how threatened I’d be, how angry or enraged, if you don’t believe along with me.

Back to our context in a church or spiritual community—Unitarians generally value being non-dogmatic. Believing this or that is definitely not a requirement. Well, maybe I believe you’re not going to violently assault me—a belief in general civility, and a belief that we all hold lightly to what we believe and allow others to believe what they do.

Lots of folks get real uncomfortable with the word, even, again because they’re in emotional reaction to the way belief was used in their childhood. The word can be used as a hammer, no doubt about it. I’m really talking about semantics, sensitizing you to how words can have light or heavy emotional weight. I’m talking about critical thinking and playful thinking and relaxing your own defensive reactivity about triggers. This applies to all sorts of words that deal with heavy emotional subjects—political, sexual, religious, and so forth.

Open to the way that lots of folks enjoy believing even though they know that what they believe may not be literally true. It’s more of an allegory, a poetic way of speaking, trying to express that middle sphere of sort-of-believing. I believe in music, I believe in love.

Mythology Reconsidered (May, 2011)

We are surrounded by myth, but it is either ignored, considered sentimental, or confused with fact. America is a great country, our religion is good—indeed, the best, and my grandkids are the cutest. These value judgments are attached to a few factual ideas that are teased out from the larger phenomenon—with the negative elements ignored. Or, for our enemies, the opposite is so, ignoring the positive elements of their culture or cause. Our religion is not myth; their religion is.

Really, though, what we’re talking about is the interplay of two aspects of mind—the assessment of fact, in a matter-of-fact fashion; and the assessment of the meaning, implications, or tones associated with fact or fable. Myth has been not only marginalized—treated as a second-best reality, not as good as fact—, but associated with certain kinds of stories associated especially with spiritual entities. Myth blurs into fable, legend, non-spiritual themes, comic books, contemporary stories that have captured the imaginations of children and also or mainly adults, and characters, too.

Sports and its characters are mythic, as are celebrities and their performances. The glamorous or disgusting—such elements may have a little factual dimension, but their vitality comes from their power to pull at the psychic motivations that are in part fulfilled vicariously, through our varying degrees of identification. We may identify both with hero in the winning and also with the villain to some degree, for his delicious wickedness. Hey, in good stories, in many a movie “fight,”, the bad guy almost wins!

What is important is the way folks live to some significant degree—some more than that, even, in mythic worlds.


The key point to be presented today is the idea that we need to loosen up about belief and believing. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, either-or. When Mac Davis sang “I believe in music, I believe in Love,” in the 1960s, he expressed the common, looser, more poetic middle ground.

Admittedly, there does seem to be a context set in the field of religion that deals with belief in an either-or fashion—either you do believe, or you don’t. Perhaps you don’t believe enough. What is referred to is dogma, ideas that fly in the face of reason, and affirming non-belief for some folks is a symbolic breaking away of the chains of true belief—belief in the literal truth, the historical and deep metaphysical truth of whatever some denomination affirms as its core. It’s lovely to be a non-believer.

But wait, my point today involves the semantics of that word. It’s a word that really has many different meanings, is fuzzy. There’s a time in childhood when kids believe literally in Santa Claus, and the truth is that lots of healthy kids don’t give up on that belief—they modify it. They can tolerate the following: I know it’s not really true, but I enjoy believing. Now this isn’t clearly logical, but then again that’s the point: The mind can tolerate and indeed thrives on its own mushy non-logical nature—which allows for mixed experiences of poetry and song lyrics, pet names and nicknames, and innumerable other “permutations” of reality that generate the juice that makes life worth living.

“I believe in you” is not meant to be a statement of fact, because it’s ambiguous on several counts: What does it mean? I believe you exist? I believe you’re perfect and have no flaws? It’s more in the sense of “I believe in your potential,” but most folks who say anything like this will quickly allow the qualification, “...if you don’t mess things up.” It’s meant as an encouragement, a mixture of “I really am trying to recognize you, see you, appreciate your strengths, and to some extent perhaps I do see your potential more clearly than you do” or something like that. It’s a nice thing to be able to say to someone; a nice thing to have someone say to you.

 But it’s a different sense of the term, Believe.

There’s also the sense of provisional. I believe that’s so—but I’m aware that you could correct me. It’s okay, not the end of the world. I can believe this and the choice of words—or maybe the nonverbal emphasis—can communicate how threatened I’d be, how angry or enraged, if you don’t believe along with me.

Back to our context in a church or spiritual community—Unitarians generally value being non-dogmatic. Believing this or that is definitely not a requirement. Well, maybe I believe you’re not going to violently assault me—a belief in general civility, and a belief that we all hold lightly to what we believe and allow others to believe what they do.

Lots of folks get real uncomfortable with the word, even, again because they’re in emotional reaction to the way belief was used in their childhood. The word can be used as a hammer, no doubt about it. I’m really talking about semantics, sensitizing you to how words can have light or heavy emotional weight. I’m talking about critical thinking and playful thinking and relaxing your own defensive reactivity about triggers. This applies to all sorts of words that deal with heavy emotional subjects—political, sexual, religious, and so forth.

Open to the way that lots of folks enjoy believing even though they know that what they believe may not be literally true. It’s more of an allegory, a poetic way of speaking, trying to express that middle sphere of sort-of-believing. I believe in music, I believe in love.

It is possible to believe and to know you’re making it up. In the olden days that knowledge was taken to be a negative, as if one somehow diminished the idea. But this is a misunderstanding of the way mind works. The idea that truth must be factual, must be out there, measurable, is an artifact of the 18th - 20th century positivist world-view. It’s associated with several corollaries. One is that there is one universe, no more; and that our existence has all its meaning in terms of how well we cope and build within this out-there-objective reality. There are no other realities.

What’s flagrantly left out is subjective experience, although this accounts for half of what we live; and inter-subjective what-we-create-together accounts for another 40% Dealing with the constraints of physical reality may only be 10%! We must realize that what was called superstition, and what we flee from, are ideas that are held on the intersubjective level and sometimes subjectively by many people. What we’re fleeing from is not the ideas so much as the associated idea that it is right and important to impose those ideas on children and society.

But Thomas Jefferson was closer to it when he said something like if it doesn’t break my bones or pick my pocket, believe what you will.

The illusion that there are no illusions and we can seek to achieve that bliss of disbelief is as wicked as the illusion that this or that illusion is factually true and we must impose it on you.

If you pause and think about it, illusions are not only pervasive, but they make up the very fabric of human life. Jung calls them the archetypes, and they account for bonding between parent and child, among family members, the sense of we in any context, romance, the whole illusion of fellowship. There are no objective elements in social relations, only symbols created to signify our intentions and feelings.

There are levels of tradition and degrees to which one confuses these illusions and factual reality, which overlaps in the modern mind with degrees to which one must bow to their authority. If it’s called scientific and it’s measured and it’s in print in some peer reviewed journal it carries more authority than if it lacks those qualities. But it’s all illusion.

We’re in the 21st century now, the postmodern era. People have been looking very hard for objectivity and have indeed found a good deal of it, but it’s always within certain contexts. In the realm of human affairs, science is very much more attenuated than it is within the physical sciences, and at the extremes of astronomical distances or sub-microscopic fields, at the very fast or slow, very powerful or very subtle, our knowledge not only faces barriers of ignorance, but mysteries about how the cosmos does NOT operate according to laws we understand to be appropriate for the middle area.

Other than to critique the modern prideful viewpoint that it really knows what’s real and what’s not, I want to emphasize again that the illusion that much of life is objective—which is what I grew up believing—needs radical revision, and even reversal.

When we realize that mind is a kind of dimension or category of valid reality, it opens up things in one way and makes trouble in others. First of all, it explains so much of our world that is pervaded by, infused by, mind, emotion, attitude, expectation, desire.

Second of all, it opens to another mystery: People are so very different, and more, they experience things that cannot be accounted for by our objective consensus. There are two categories for this: common sense, which is nothing more than a collective hunch, a social consensus that can simply be a prejudice of region and historical era. The second category involves the weirdos, those experiences that are generally not talked about or shared. This category includes, in the West, psychic experiences, mystical experiences, contacts with extra-terrestrials, and thousands of local cults, new age beliefs, and so forth.

Now what if truth isn’t an either-or category? What if it’s really quite possible for people to have idiosyncratic experiences and they operate as truth within that person’s life?

This whole problem has been obscured by the growth of the field of psychiatry, supplanting religion. The idea that there’s being realistic and there’s being mad, crazy, insane, is a very artificial division between extremes. It’s like the division between work and play, childhood and adulthood. There are a few semi-valid issues here, but on the whole, it’s an artificially imposed difference, a set of words and associated meanings, an illusion. The truth is not that everyone is a little crazy, as if that’s a bad thing, but that there is a vast middle ground of imagination and illusory experience that makes for the great majority of human experience.

Do you like your work? Do you hate this or that? Can you differentiate your own preferences and tastes from reality? I confess that I had trouble with this: I used to think that “interesting” was an objective category, and if I could only explain well enough why something was interesting, then others would indeed join me in being interested. Gradually it dawned on me that interest was subjective, not objective—people were or were not interested, and explaining why might help involve only a very tiny fraction of those who in fact might have been a little interested.

I’m making a plea here for meta-cognition, for cultivating the ability to think about the way you think. This includes the capacity to know you’re pretending, you’re living as-if, almost all of the time, and it works just fine, thank you.

I’m suggesting that it’s a good idea to know explicitly that you are looking at the way you think you know, to add another level of reflection. Knowing that you don’t just think, but you imagine, you pretend, you play, your thinking is infused dynamically with made-up expectations, common illusions, social norms, selected memories—this is like knowing that life is more complicated than what it seems on the surface. It’s like knowing about anatomy and physiology and germs and electricity—all phenomena that a few hundred years ago was considered occult—which means hidden. We know much more about it, or we think we do, or we believe experts do, so we don’t have to worry.

I’m suggesting that the mind is an illusion-generating organ, as much as the kidney is a urine-generating organ, and we cannot, can not, rise above it. I frankly believe and await evidence to the contrary that those who claim they have indeed risen beyond illusion have indeed done so, or might they instead have learned another set of more refined illusions that interpret raw perception without such a thick backstory of expectations? I’m talking about Zen satori here. But what’s the chance that this is itself a very refined type of illusion?

Leaving out the illusion that we can transcend our illusion-making, there is something that we can indeed do: We can not give in to the illusion that every illusion is really real. There’s a thick gradient of knowing that we’re playing—and indeed, the prevalent and life-affirming activity of play, the activity that gives live so much richness and joy, sweetness and spice, meaning and the feeling of having really lived—all involves having played more fully! And play in turn is a quality that offers a dual experience: On one level, we do in a variably exploratory way, within the realms of pretend activity or rules or whatever. On another level—and this dual level experience and action is crucial!—we live at more than one level much of the time, whether or not we’re explicitly aware of it—on another level, we are generating communications and attitudes that make this activity playful, safe, pretend. Things don’t count. You can sometimes take it over. If you lose, there’s no big loss, we’re all friends here.

Let me note that our commercialization of everything including play has created vivid phenomena, institutions in which what is called play has a great deal of weight. Economically and politically, winning and losing at games is almost as bad as war. There are also forms of play that are almost war, in terms of people inflicting bodily harm on one another—harm that may be permanent and rarely fatal. In this category include kids games structured by parents or imitating real games in which when Charlie Brown strikes out the social consequences are not trivial. Ladies and Gentleman, all that kind of stuff is called play but it’s really closer to work and seriousness. It’s not fun.

The truth of play is that you’re pretty safe. There are borderline games in which the fun is dallying with being unsafe, falling off the roof or out of the tree. But on the whole, play is physically safe, and more important, socially safe. You’re still my friend even if you acted like a monster chasing me and I acted like I was really scared.

I’m suggesting that much of life is infused with elements of play and elements of illusion and that this makes life juicy. There are not actual clear boundaries among categories, so it’s okay to realize that people play with their food, play with cooking, and that eating is partly illusory. Candlelight and wine—oh, don’t get me started on the illusions associated with better and worse wines and liquors, with the games associated with refined tastes in food, in music, etc. We’re talking not full illusion, but not not-illusion either.

So the point I’m getting at is to recognize it, and embrace much of it. When you know you’re playing, you know you’re making it up, and you can choose to modify the way you make it up. How much do you want to believe this? Much of life involves shifting levels of belief. Levels of belief.

You drive along believing things are okay—this is adaptive. If you drove along expecting that in fact at any moment some crazy guy would swerve into your lane you wouldn’t be able to drive at all. But it’s in-between: You 1% know that’s possible, and if some guy drifts, your alert level goes almost instantaneously—if you’re not absorbed in a phone conversation—to 30% and if he drifts more to 95% and you’re beginning to slow down or take your own evasive action. Illusion shifts very quickly—the mind can do that. Wha? What was that funny sound?!!!

From another perspective I’m talking about this being the century that psychology enters the mainstream. Science entered the mainstream in the 20th century, and psychology needs to in the 21st century. We were sort of blind to psychology. The earliest gropings of rat psychology and psychoanalysis seemed stupid and merited being somewhat dismissed or marginalized. It wasn’t something all of us could use. But there were some good ideas there that needed to be refined out, the way oil needed refinement at the end of the 19th century in order to become useable gasoline. And near the end of the 20th and early 21st century, psychology is becoming user-friendly.

It needs to enter the mainstream of philosophy and religion. We need to recognize how much the mind and its attitudes, its ways of using language, its expectations and world-views—really affects our illusion that there is a reality that’s free of illusion.

Half the people we grew up with—maybe 90%—didn’t think this way because they were shallow. Things were the way they appeared. Were it not for the common knowledge that the earth was round and the earth went around the sun, folks wouldn’t believe it; but the line of Popeye, I yam what I yam and that’s what I yam, has been the unspoken motto of the 95% of the human race. It is non-reflective. There’s no meta-cognition, no thinking about our thinking, no recognition that the way we think, our capacity for generating illusion, is the core thing to be thought about.

When you know you’re making it all up—or, just to concede the point that there may be some reality beyond our minds—almost all of it up, then you can get involved in noticing how much and in what way you’re making it up and that maybe some of the stuff you make up is really inherited from how others made it up—most of the stuff, if you stop to think about it—and then you become free to re-evaluate what you think and perhaps choose to think, believe, create, something different!

Teenagers do this as they separate from their parents. The trouble is that most don’t do it consciously. I’m selling doing it consciously. I’m not suggesting we try not to do it—try to live without illusion. There was some hope for this in the mid-20th century as we fled from what we thought was superstition, the excesses of both religious and political fanaticism. But we confused the deeper process of recognizing the nature of mind with certain specific elements—to not believe certain things any longer didn’t mean we could use our minds and not believe anything. That was itself an illusion, the illusion of being triumphantly illusion-free. It played out.
Dare to consider that you are making up your world as you live it. Dare to open to the idea that this activity of creating your own life operates to a degree that is far greater than you may have realized. I concede that there is an operation of fortune, of the impact of externally-caused events. I’m not one who makes this claim in an absolute fashion—I’m not convinced that such an extreme stance is accurate. On the other hand, our interpretation of what we have already created as it interacts with what is presented to us from the outside, and how we interpret this interplay and our own responses to it—there’s a lot that we are co-creating. Interpretation is an active process, not a neutral perception. We superimpose our own expectations and biases on experience and confuse that with the illusion of unbiased, impartial reality-testing. What an illusion!

The first illusion is that “it” (i.e., events and their significance) is operating independently of you out there. Let that idea serve as the foundation for a willingness to chose what you believe. Know that belief isn’t all or nothing. You can believe something and know it’s not factually true—but neither is it false. It’s what you choose to believe.

Mac Davis had a song in the late 1960s that goes, I believe in music; I believe in love. Belief in this case is not a statement assessing cold, hard, evidence-based fact. Rather, it’s a statement of affirmation, of blessing. It means, “I choose to affirm the value of...”  One can say, “I believe in you” and not mean that I believe you exist, but rather I believe in your power to tap into your talents and strengths.

We can believe in a positive future without being naive. I would go so far as to say that this kind of conscious optimism is for the most part healthy, while pessimism operates simply as an excuse to dis-engage, as in, It’s all going to hell, so it’s okay if I retreat to my short-term goals and narrow interests. Nor do I mind a measure of retreat—I’m hardly in a go go go mode. But I do think some reaching out beyond my private interests or the needs of loved ones.

We can love, and love is largely illusory—but a very healthy one. We can live as if there’s a meaning, and what meanings we choose to add on, whether they be supernatural religion or a transcendent myth.

My proposal is that we dare to know that we’re making up myths and dare to make them in a wider-scope, deeper grounding in the past, hopeful for the future, inclusive of what you have to offer as art or work, politics or care of the family, whatever. The cosmos truly needs all kinds.