The Tyranny of Belief: Part 1


“Of course you have beliefs,” said my friend as we sat having breakfast, “everyone does.” He made a graph on the table with a fork and spoon showing the boundaries of what he called “mainstream thought.” Then he took the knife and placed it on the edge of the table: “You’re over here,” he said.

What I’m “over here” about seems to be the beliefs part. No one likes to be told their beliefs are wrong. That’s enough of an offense by itself. But what really gets people’s goat is questioning their attachment to belief. What most people believe in, and few dare to question, is the universal goodness and desirability of their beliefs–which usually include their submission to a “higher power” or “something greater.”

Based on a reading of works on the human mind such as The Emotion Machine, The Blank Slate, or the Age of Spiritual Machines, it seems the entire concept of belief needs to be reworked and possibly eliminated. In common usage, the term belief often refers to acceptance of an idea without evidence, or in spite of contrary evidence.

Think of the axioms: “Believe in yourself,” “believe it’s possible,” “believe in God,” “believe in your country,” “believe in a better world,” “believe in human goodness,” and the topper “believe in the power of faith.” That last one always gets me: you’re basically saying believe in belief. Now I understand the sentimental value of such a statement — basically what you’re affirming it is that you feel strongly about the ability of your conscious desire to have its effect on the world. But notice in all this belief rhetoric, never is the connection between thought and action discussed. Never is the need reinforced for effective assessment of the situation, strategy, and action to be taken. The subconscious message is: “simply believe, and it will be so.” It’s kind of a cultural codification of magical thinking, and its implied corollary is “don’t think negative thoughts, you might cause bad things to happen.”

These concepts are clear leftovers from medieval times. We don’t need them, and we should simply let them go. In this wise, I agree with Paul and Patricia Churchland, who are of the eliminativist stance toward beliefs. I can also go along with Dennett and his advocacy of the intentional stance, whereby as a survival tactic we make lightning-fast assumptions about people’s beliefs to predict their actions. But in terms of Marvin Minsky’s view of how the mind works, a belief is simply the output of our constantly changing modes of thought; along with the censors, critics and sub-personalities which make up our identity. All we can say about belief is that it means a person has decided that profession of a certain point of view represents a good strategy for attaining their goals in that moment. It has little to do with truth, sincerity, or inquiry. A belief is often simply a transient stance a person considers advantageous to their “self.”

Like most mental and emotional props and crutches people use, deep down they know belief is a crutch. The parts of their brain involved in self-analysis understand exactly what the beliefs are doing for them (even if that information is not available to their conscious mind.) We know the vast majority of people disparage the idea of beliefs–even as they profess them. They understand fully that they are unreliable. Try this experiment: strongly state an opinion in front of a group, and make it as controversial as possible. One of the first retorts you will hear is “That’s what YOU believe.” Whenever we state something a person wants to dispute, the first thing they do is to try to remove the information from the category of fact, and place it into the realm of belief. So on the one hand we have people who are willing to defend their beliefs to the death, but on the other hand, they disparage what others say as “just their belief.” You can’t have it both ways. We hear this all the time in uninformed discussions: “Science/atheism is just another belief system.” If belief is so great, why then do believers routinely use the term as a pejorative?

The blurb for this site says: “The quest for empirical knowledge and reason gives purpose to life. Supernaturalism, mysticism, and religion take it away. The best anyone can do is to attempt to eliminate all beliefs and subjective biases.”

Let’s deconstruct my motto a little bit. The first two sentences are clear declarations of my values. A typical criticism is that those values in and of themselves are beliefs. And in one sense of the word, that’s true. Which is why the third sentence says. “The best anyone can do is to ATTEMPT to eliminate all beliefs and subjective biases.” I’m not saying this is even humanly possible, or for that matter even logically possible. (Our conscious mind seems to treat beliefs we consider to be true almost exactly the same as facts, we have to learn to distinguish the two, or put another way, to get in closer touch with our mechanisms of self-analysis.) In order to attempt this journey to objectivity, we must first declare one of our core values, which consists of a foundational statement that objectivity is better than non-objectivity. Again, the point can be raised: no one is objective, everyone brings some biases to the table.

But somehow, we must establish and declare our desired idealized state. In my case, that would be having accomplished the goal of bringing my mind and perception as close as possible to a perfectly accurate apprehension of the physical reality we all inhabit–the world that IS. This allows me to make the best decisions I can make, and offers the least chance of disillusionment. It also offers the best chance of survival.

For the sake of this discussion, I would like to set aside the idea that we might live in a simulation, or a solipsistic dream. I would also like to address the question of the supernatural. “Supernatural” is a weasel word. It is not possible for the supernatural to exist. If something exists, it is natural. No matter how fantastic the universe might seem, even if string theorists are correct, and we live in 10 dimensions in a multi-verse, that is all still the natural world. If the Christian heaven, or Nirvana, or whatever passes for heaven in the Islamic world really exist, we should be able to eventually discover them through empirical means. It would still, therefore, be physical and natural. There can be no spirit-matter split. Just like there is no mind-body split. Those concepts are a leftover from when people thought fire was created by phlogiston, and disease was “bad humour.”

Understanding and accepting that all causes and phenomena are natural is really not so far-fetched. Think about what we’ve discovered since Anton van Leeuwenhoek created the optical microscope. Prior to his invention, nothing smaller than what could be seen with the naked eye was known or understood–not even bacteria. Now we know that each atom contains its own collection of particles, and every day we learn still more.

My point here is to say that the concept of belief tends to be used to keep two areas of life off-limits to inquiry: chiefly spirituality and human consciousness. Spirituality is what most people use as a hedge against their own inevitable death. That feeling that we are ultimately a part of “something greater,” and that our consciousness does not end when our metabolism ceases is comforting to some. The phenomenon of consciousness is also kept off-limits to inquiry for others, by their stubborn insistence that we “must” be more than an assemblage of atoms, molecules, and cells. To keep from having an existential crisis, they insist to themselves our brains couldn’t possibly explain our cognition–we must be more than clockwork.

Materialistic “reductionism” or “naive realism” is a terrible threat to many people’s sense of themselves. Rather than looking at our inevitable greater understanding as a boon to humanity, they see this knowledge taking away their last shreds of meaning. Indeed, modern science has not been kind to concepts of human purpose (teleological argument), and human centrality in the universe. But let’s take a look at where this highly vaunted “meaning” comes from: ancient books, legends, and outdated sentimental notions of dualism. The idea of spirit as the basic building block of consciousness, and consciousness preceding and pervading all matter. Or from discredited practices such as astrology, psychicism, witchcraft, or alchemy. Sadly, if these sources are where people’s meaning comes from, they are living in a mental house of cards, which they must continuously attempt to guard with great effort against the winds of progress.

So how do we get from this fearful state of belief (willed strategic ignorance) to a confident and bright future? We have to devise a way of bringing our hopes and dreams into congruence with this universe that IS. Imagine if you will, a huge museum, many times larger than the Smithsonian. Imagine that this museum contains all the truth and knowledge in existence–the secrets of the ages and the origin of the universe. The displays are engaging, interactive, and geared to the level of understanding of each person who visits. The halls are endless (at least no one has ever found their limits). Now imagine you can spend your whole life in this place, going from room to room, each day gaining a greater understanding of truth and reality than what you had before.

Such a museum exists, it is called the natural universe. It is right here in front of our eyes. Every person can avail themselves of the exhibits, simply through taking up a course of study in any of the physical sciences. It is a literal treasure house of true meaning and knowledge, orders of magnitude deeper, wider, and more complex than all prior human knowledge combined.

Right now, most of humanity sits in the dim and stuffy orientation hall watching old videos, reading old books, and arguing away about the supposedly subjective and variable nature of truth and reality. Or they are distracted by the spiritualist preachers who shout and congregate outside the museum doors seeking to reinforce the mental chains and blinders of ancient times.

So when I say “get rid of your beliefs.” I’m not talking about your opinions, politics, whether or not white or red wine is better, Mac or PC, Democrat or Republican. Everyone has those, of course. For me, it’s red wine, PC, definitely, neither Democrat nor Republican. But I could be great friends with a Mac lover, a Chardonnay drinker, even a *cough* socialist for that matter. These are the kind of beliefs we all use to get through our lives. But when it comes to the nature of reality, if we want truth, we absolutely must not believe. We must still engage in acts of conscious submission–but not before idols or ancient texts. We must deeply humble ourselves, and OBSERVE.

Go to part 2.

NOTE: this post has been updated. It was originally published on September 2, 2006.

Comments (13 comments)

Aaron Kinney / September 5th, 2006, 9:51 pm / #1

Excellent analysis of “belief”, and I love your museum/universe analogy. You are totally correct: its right under our noses!

Greg / October 8th, 2007, 8:47 pm / #2

I agree with Aaron that this is a wonderful post. I have wondered about belief and whether it is a matter of semantics (what do we mean by “belief”?) and whether the question can lead us to more deeply understanding ourselves and our place.

Your last paragraph reminded me of something T.H. Huxley once said:

“Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.”

Your post will give me more to think about so thanks.

Kanaio / October 8th, 2007, 11:21 pm / #3

Is belief not just hope with an idea attached, or hope with determination? There is an emotional component to belief that makes it not like say, for obvious example, a hypothesis. It is important to recognize this because ideas attached to emotions come from a very fundamental and powerful part of the brain. Often one needs to work with the emotional power of the belief to free it.

Why does the cage bird sing? Hope perhaps, but not “willed strategic ignorance.” Lol! You have made my day!



Louis / October 9th, 2007, 7:13 am / #4

Red wine? Might as well be called ipecac syrup. Definitely white, a Riesling if its not too yeasty. ;)

If I forget about the superficial gimmicks and just remember basic function, I can hobble along on a Mac. PC is what is familiar and price (affordability) is pretty much the sole determining factor behind that.

Politically, I hold onto the (left/right) center with a grip of death. I do fall onto the Libartarian side of the political scale. I usually end up voting against (the lesser of 2 evils) rather than for a person or party that I have a genuine affinity with.

Anyway, I try to say what I ‘think, feel, want/need, see, hear’ and so on. Saying I believe something, isn’t really saying much at all. Believing and knowing aren’t synonymous; and not knowing is just wanting or needing to believe.

Faith, is (alleged) supposed to be: ‘being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.’ This would seem to imply ‘knowing,’ however its implausible, vacuous nonsense. You simply cannot know a thing, unless you can perceive it in some way. Belief and Faith are semantic misappropriations for things like determination and perseverance. The latter can accomplish great things, the former, of itself, accomplishes nothing.

I might believe or have faith that I can move any mountain, ‘from here to there.’ No matter how much white wine I drink; this is still impossible without employing heavy earth moving equipment and explosives. Even a lifetime of digging with a shovel would not be sufficient, no matter what determination or perseverance I have. A dirt hill maybe, but a rocky mountain? Not a chance.

Someone with ‘Faith’ should be able to accomplish this task in short order.

Imagining it, isn’t doing it.

Faith is imaginary.

Good article Sean. :)

BlackSun / October 9th, 2007, 12:16 pm / #5

@ Greg, my pleasure. I really enjoy mutual understanding.

@ Kanaio, all complex emotions have multiple components. In part 2, I discuss some of the properties of beliefs as values, predictions, strategies and superstitions. It’s obvious to me which ones are useful and which ones are fanciful. WRT the bird? Well it could be singing out of resignation: “I’m stuck in this cage, might as well enjoy my life.” Sounds like a lot of people I know.

@Louis, thanks, you are right. The whole problem with the word “belief” is semantic. It’s what Minsky would call a suitcase word. Which sets it up very well for use in equivocation. No one can keep track of what sense of the word someone is using. Therefore it is easy for people to obfuscate.

leta / October 9th, 2007, 4:55 pm / #6

If belief is so great, why then do believers routinely use the term as a pejorative?

It isn’t used as a perjorative, merely as a way of levelng the field.

Abogada de la Diabla / October 9th, 2007, 5:23 pm / #7

Great article, Sean. I did not read it the first time. I love the museum analogy!

Kanaio / October 9th, 2007, 9:30 pm / #8


WRT the bird? I wasn’t talking about a real bird, I was referring to the poem by Maya Angelou “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

I look forward to your post on hard-wiring for belief which is more what I was trying to get at. –Emotions being a part of hard-wiring.


BlackSun / October 11th, 2007, 7:56 am / #9


I never read the book. But I found the poem at Wikipedia, by Paul Laurence Dunbar, and it seems like the “song” he’s talking about is actually a prayer.

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings.

Perhaps a belief that the prayer would be answered IS “willed strategic ignorance” on the part of the bird. I think all sentient beings use belief in some form to give them hope against hope in impossible circumstances. But it’s also true that putting one’s faith in a prayer might also cause a person (or a bird) to become fatalistic about a particular circumstance, and thus possibly miss opportunities to escape or change that circumstance through direct action.

It would be an interesting study to document the experiences of prison-camp survivors to see how the atheists coped versus the ones who never stopped praying.

Tyler / October 14th, 2007, 8:39 pm / #10

It would be an interesting study to document the experiences of prison-camp survivors to see how the atheists coped versus the ones who never stopped praying.

One of the seminal books in my life has been The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Soltzhenitsyn’s study of the Stalinist labor camps. He devotes generous time to how different prisoners dealt with their situation in terms of belief. He contrasts traditional religion with Stalin’s cult, how ones with faith in an invisible being tended to be more emotionally grounded while in the camps, versus those with faith in ol’ “Uncle Joe.” That second group is a wildly interesting bunch. Soltzhenitsyn called them atheists, but with Stalin as their living god, I would disagree. I’d not have faith in either ‘god’, personally. But S. doesn’t talk about people completely lacking in faith.

BlackSun / October 16th, 2007, 1:59 am / #11


I read The Gulag Archipelago a long long time ago. I don’t remember specifics. Of course I feel tremendous sympathy toward anyone in that situation and consider that any successful strategies they used to cope would be appropriate.

It’s kind of a study in what happens when human dignity totally breaks down. I often wonder how much torture and mistreatment I’d have to receive before I started to lose my grip on reality. I hope I never have to find out.


Kanaio / October 17th, 2007, 3:32 am / #12

Wow, thank you Sean for finding the poem by Dunbar.

There is an article, “Art as a Global Cultural Bridge”, in the summer/fall 2007 issue of CalArts Magazine, the first half of which might interest you. It talks about the Internet, tribes, hypertext and cultural codes. I extracted this from the essay as a comment befitting the poem:

“…To unlock an increasingly autistic cultural exchange, we must find channels of communication that trigger enough understanding to induce a broader exploration of shared codes of communication. We know that our brains, that is, ourselves, are primarily based on emotions and feelings that shape our reasoning. Thus, we must be first moved together, then feel together, then think about the feasibility and interest of living together. My proposition is that, throughout the history of humankind, art has been the trigger of shared emotions and feelings that reach far beyond the boundaries set by normative patterns of coexistence in specific societies. Art is communication of the soul, that is, of the preconscious brain. Art is the most potent channel of intercultural communication. Therefore, in a global world sick of lack of communication between increasingly defensive cultures, art becomes the art-i-fact to trigger the possibility of sharing meaning, thus creating the possibility of humans feeling together…” –Manuel Castells

Tim / July 23rd, 2014, 7:00 am / #13

This is nice but also includes some fallacies driven by your own beliefs. Faith and hope are not beliefs. They are a state of mind derived from our own divinity. And, without hope and faith there is no way to rise above the tyranny of the ego's beliefs. For without hope and faith there is no way for the human mind to ever appreciate our state of being can actually be different. That we can rise above the tyranny of the ego and its beliefs. Otherwise, we are simply doomed to the misery of perpetuating the ego's suffering.

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