Sometime more than one year ago, but less than two, a person made a comment to me about how the beliefs of religiously fundamental people are best explained by psychological factors. At the time I agreed, however there was something about it I felt uncomfortable with.
I have thought about the comment frequently since it was made, and only recently did I realize why I felt uncomfortable with it.
I think it represents something many of us, including myself, do frequently. That is, to limit the beliefs of those we disagree with to merely fulfilling some psychological need, while feeling our own beliefs are free from any such entanglement. In a sense implying that if others had all their psychological needs met then they would believe and see the world as we do and that our beliefs are the only 'pure' beliefs.
Religious people often feel that those who don't believe in God or religion are in reality looking for excuse to 'sin' and be 'bad' and so pretend to not believe in God so as to allow themselves justification for behaving immorally.
At the same time many Atheists and non-religious people like to limit the beliefs of religious people to being nothing more than a tool for comfort (ie. opiate of the masses).
To be sure, it seems both views have some truth. I am sure there are some people who would otherwise believe in God but suppress that belief to reduce whatever discomfort they might otherwise feel when engaging in certain forbidden behavior. As well I'm sure there are religious people who hold their beliefs only as a useful tool to comfort themselves.
However, by and large I think most people hold their beliefs because as they see the world, the evidence supports their beliefs.
(I am using religion as an example because it is an easy one, but this phenomenon applies to all sorts of divided beliefs. One could apply it to meat eaters and vegetarians, or conservatives and liberals or a million other things)
For some reason, it seems we have a hard time accepting that others don't see the world as we do, and so we need to create reasons why their way of believing is less pure than our own. If we see those who disagree with us as being irrational then it is much easier to feel comfortable with our current beliefs than if we recognize that their are intelligent psychologically healthy people who simply interpret the vast data surrounding us in different ways. It is funny how often people accuse other groups of people of having cognitive dissonance. I am reading a book called 'The Spiritual Brain' where a neuroscientist tries to make a case for the spiritual realm via neuroscience(it is not good, I do not recommend it). The author repeatedly accuses non-spirit believing scientists of cognitive dissonance and avoiding contradictory evidence. I know many materialist scientists accuse faithful scientists of the same thing.
It is true that certain belief systems fulfill psychological needs in some way. Probably all belief systems do to some degree. But just because a belief does fulfill a psychological need or desire, doesn't mean that belief isn't true (it also doesn't mean the belief is true). Someone may have an interest in science because they find it comforting or interesting to learn mechanisms of how our world works, this doesn't make science less valid. Many people practice religion because it brings comfort and order to their lives. This doesn't make religion any less valid. Of course, if a belief system only fulfills psychological needs, and the only reason a person could possibly hold a certain belief is because of wish fulfillment, then that belief would be suspect, but very few beliefs are actually this way, despite how much we often see our opponents beliefs as being this way.
We often experience cartoon like exaggerations of opponents view points. When I read critics of evolution, I notice their portrayal of evolution is often grossly mistaken. They claim it would be irrational for someone to believe such a thing and often they are right, because as they portray the theory of evolution it is irrational for someone to believe such a thing. Since we generally only interact with those we agree with and read things by those we agree with, we tend to develop very distorted views of our opponents beliefs, to the point that if someone actually held the beliefs we think they do, they would irrational.
Having held radically opposed belief systems myself has been helpful for me to recognize the sincerity of others beliefs. When I had a strong belief in God and religion, I think there were times when I saw those who didn't as wanting to justify a certain lifestyle. Now that I do not have a strong belief in God or religion, I recognize that whatever factors may be behind my belief, I am no more or less sincere in my current belief than I was in my former belief. When I look back on my believing self, given what I knew then, I feel it was reasonable for me to believe as I did then, which is something I need to repeatedly remind myself when I think about others who are currently in the circumstance I once was.
I think many of our conflicts in life, both on a large scale and small scale, would be a lot more productive if we allowed those we disagree with us the benefit of holding rational beliefs. As well we would be able to see those we disagree with as more human if we recognized that given a person's knowledge and situation it is reasonable for them to hold the beliefs that they do. Most people generally don't take an argument against their belief seriously unless they recognize that the person arguing against them really understands what the belief is, as well as how one could reasonably hold such a belief.
The more segmented we are becoming because of our diverse media options, the less we are exposed to any opposing views. The less we understand opposing views, the less we can relate to the people who hold them and see them as having the same rights and worth that we do.
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- More on group Hierarchies.
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