Thoughts on belief without using the words religion, spirituality, or QAnon.
NOTE: The author has published this as a draft for input and revision. Thank you in advance for your comments, reactions, and suggestions.
We need beliefs for one important reason: the way we humans are treating each other may seem illogical, but it is. What’s illogical is that we know it can be better. We can do better, it’s possible. That’s belief.
Science does best at describing how everything breaks down. Beliefs work best at describing how things come into existence. What follows is an attempt to unite the two.
Our scientific worldview has had some serious limitations. Even when all the evidence and rationalization points to a good choice, we do otherwise. Addictions, selfishness, and anger all take us off course from our own best intentions. Knowing what we want to create for ourselves is not enough to actually create it.
“The ideas that benefit a man are seldom welcomed by him on first presentation.” - Elbert Hubbard, 1904
Beliefs pull us into a dance with science through stories that bridge the gap between what ought to be, and what is. When we ask where beliefs come from, or by what authority we define this “ought”, we miss the point that most of humanity already agrees on the most basic values which are violated every day.
Saying it another way, our most important beliefs all have one key feature in common: guidance about interacting with other people. Beliefs about supernatural ideas may be interesting, but it’s beliefs in others that directly relate to whether we hoard or share, hate or trust, attack or forgive; all real-life actions which have important, systematic effects.
For example, Humanism is a belief which at its core is a simple idea: choose to see the best in others. It’s an active choice, especially when confronted with the worst of others, to see the best. Why would you do that? Because as Adrienne Maree Brown put it, “what we pay attention to grows.” The belief in being positive is scientific in a different way, creating better outcomes for all involved — lookup Responsive Classroom for a great example. The belief that there’s good in a person who’s causing harm to themselves or others… that’s may not feel logical in the moment, but the belief in being positive and supportive guides us out of short-term thinking and into behaviors that are better for all humanity.
Another way of thinking about this is in the idea of Pacifism. Choosing to avoid violence effectively reduced behaviors like holding grudges, talking badly about yourself, or making fun of others.
The belief is needed because the violence is real, and the short-term thinking it drives is never going away. Violence is an aspect of survival, an unavoidable end to your life which is a part of a grander design. That design has been shaped over millions of years, explained in complex ideas like evolution and anthropology.
Thus, violence’s existence is rational. It’s when it’s used for anything other than urgent, life-threatening situations, for survival, that’s when we get irrational, big far-reaching problems.
This is by far humanity's biggest problem.
There’s a word for this biggest problem of humanity: injustice. When we, as humans, use our tremendous power to do things like take advantages for ourselves, dominate other humans, or pursue only our own interests, injustices are created.
Here are a few examples of injustice that drive so much of our social, economic, and political conflict:
- People who commit crimes are treated as evil or bad, punishing and killing them, and locking them up for life because we don’t forgive them or believe they can change.
- Millions don’t have a place to sleep because we collectively don’t share homes or money.
- People are lied to by politicians who spur us into fights with each other because we are intolerant of people who think differently than us.
A detour in math
Injustice is a broad, deep, complex idea. Let’s use the analogy of a vector to unpack it. A vector is a mathematical concept that embodies four key components. First is the position, which is defined by x, y, and z components on a three-dimensional graph. A position. A point.
The point of Injustice is wherever someone is hurt by another human. It’s in the world right now, causing harm to people. Everywhere someone has been hurt by another human or system, that’s a point of injustice. None of what follows can make sense without first acknowledging that injustice is a real problem today.
The second piece of information in a vector is a direction. This can be defined in many ways, as angles up or down from the origin, or as a second point reference to which movement is inferred. Direction can also be defined with complex equations that predict changes in direction over time in the form of arcs and lines.
For Injustice, any direction away from injustice is good, but ideally also away from future injustice. As such, the pursuit of Justice is an equation-like concept, or belief, that predicts a better outcome, away from injustice. This complex pathway has been referred to more artfully as a moral arc, or as social progress, or as human progress.
“Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” - Theodore Parker, 1853
A third piece of information is needed as a position and path are not enough. There is also movement, or change. This can be as simple as a set speed, or as complex as having several derivatives of acceleration and jerk defining a change that’s happening in speed over time.
Movement away from injustice has a speed as well, a history, and a future. We think about it in terms of where we’ve come from, where we’re going, and how fast we’re moving. We sometimes move backward, we unexpectedly bump into other injustices, and in other times we great strides in brief moments.
We all feel differently about the social changes of the past few decades, from stopping harm towards LGBTQIA+ persons to reconciling for slavery and colonial behaviors in our past. But the real change happening is dramatic, and fast as compared with the speed of change in the past. Without judgment for what speed is appropriate, we can all share a belief that movement away from injustice is worth supporting.
So we have a nearly complete analogy for the belief of Injustice as a vector. What’s missing is the fourth aspect. The fourth key component to every vector is the human which is observing or thinking about it. The scientist, the mathematician, or the student. The same goes for the idea of Injustice, it’s about you. The reader of this sentence.
Hold that thought, and let’s go back to the violence.
The Path to Justice
If we were living in our natural environments, as chimpanzees do in the jungle, then there would be no need for a belief in injustice.
But we’re not in our natural environment. We are a part of life, and yet we are also quite especially disconnected from that life by our own creations. From device screens to fast food, it can be difficult to find the awareness that while we are humans, we are also animals. We are a part of life.
Here is where ideas like evolution are connected to ideas like mathematics in our analogy. We use them to calculate the points, paths, and speeds. Sociology, psychology, and related ideas, in general, help us form broader beliefs about our lives, and our shared reality with all other humans.
Without beliefs, there is just violence. This is the context in which we are living. With irrational behaviors such as fighting over land, judging others based on their nationality or skin color, or even worse, hurting others.
Insecurities, ignorances, intolerances — these are all problems that can be solved with belief. Our own minds are working against us, they are working with violent programming that needs to be contained just for real emergencies. Not understood, not measured, but simply inhibited in the moments that they arise. This pre-frontal cortex work is at the core of our very ability to imagine and even have beliefs.
To put it simply, beliefs can help us with the most important problem facing humanity, in fact, facing all life on earth: injustice. Humanism is a belief that we should forgive others. Philanthropy is a belief that we should share without reciprocation. Pacifism is a belief that we should never hurt others. These ideas are so powerful that they have been moving us away from injustice for ages and will continue for the rest of our lives.
Here’s something to believe in: Justice For Life. It’s a more positive way of capturing the vector-like complexity of injustice. It will help you every day. It’s defined by pacifism, philanthropy, humanism, and vegan. All four together is a belief in Justice For Life.
This leads me back to that moment when we said injustice was about you, too. Do you believe in something greater than your own survival?