We all believe lots of things and they are important to us in relation to where they lie on our personal belief continuum. Our belief continuum is unique; differing from one person to the next at least as widely as our fingerprints do. Some things we disbelieve, that is, we believe they are false, some things we mildly assent to, but our positive core beliefs define to ourselves who we are.
The Belief Continuum
The belief continuum has hundreds, maybe thousands of points. On one end is “No way, not ever,” and on the other is “Absolutely-beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt.” In between are such degrees as “Hmm, maybe,” “Probably,” “Dubious,” and I don’t think so.” The center of the continuum is cold; we don’t care very much whether the thing is true or not. Spreading from the cold center, our beliefs get warmer and warmer until the extreme ends of our continuum are blazing hot.
Belief in a Creator
For example, if I believe there is a Creator, the Ultimate Value, who is the source of all that is good, then I arrange my other beliefs in line with this belief. I try to live my life in line with what is good, with love and truth and beauty. This Absolutely-beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt belief is a hot belief that defines who I am. I find that this core belief makes me a more open, joyful, and loving person and think that if everyone believed the same, it would put an end to all the suffering man inflicts on his fellow man.
Belief in Reason or Science
On the other hand, if I believe that there is no Creator, that in fact this is a myth created to control people through fear, then the person who believes in a Creator is deluded and part of the root of all the suffering man inflicts on his fellow man. This belief should be stomped out in order to eliminate ignorance and suffering. Nevertheless, it is not enough to identify the source of evil. This person, too, must have a positive Ultimate Value. Perhaps it is Reason, or Science, the environment, or Art. This becomes a hot belief that defines who he is.
Which Belief is Right?
The prospect for irreconcilable conflict between these two persons is obvious. The conflict is irreconcilable because neither one really employs reason in the conflict.* These are hot beliefs being challenged, emotional attacks on the core of what the other person is. It is very personal, it feels-life threatening, and in a way, it is. If what you are is under attack, then it is an existential conflict. The conflict only appears irreconcilable, though. What the two people share is the belief that there is something transcendent, something of Ultimate Value, and the belief that man should stop inflicting suffering on his fellow man. It really boils down to an argument over who has discovered the correct Ultimate Value, and that argument cannot be resolved.
Unending and Futile Arguments
The argument can rage on and on, and in fact, it has…to no avail. The more argument, the more each side heats up and hardens their core belief; the more they each seek confirmation from others, from “authorities,” and from their social groups. This works the same with political or economic or child-rearing core beliefs. It seems hopeless, but there is a way out.
1). Admit that you choose what you believe. You have thought about it and your belief is justified as far as you can determine. I do not suggest thinking about the possible fallacy of your core belief because that’s too scary to contemplate. Just admit that the beliefs you hold dear are subjective, just like everyone else’s.
2). Realize that others also choose their core beliefs and they have the same right to do so that you do. Must you wipe out all opposition from the face of the earth to justify your beliefs? That betrays a certain insecurity, don’t you think?
3). Setting aside your differing Ultimate Values, do you have any common ground? Anthropologist Donald Brown in his book Human Universals listed 200 things that all humans have in common across all time and cultures, such as affection felt and expressed, planning for the future, and resistance to abuse of power. You do have some of these in common with any other human being, no matter how much you appear to differ.
Most people believe, and it’s a fairly hot belief, that we should extend to others the same rights we claim for ourselves. If that belief is acted upon, then the two persons mentioned should extend to each other not only the right to form their own beliefs, but also freedom from ridicule, attack, and attempts to stamp out their core beliefs.
Never in history has anyone changed what they deeply believe due to force or ridicule. They may have conformed to the oppressor outwardly to save their lives, but one other human universal-a private inner life-prevents the extinguishing of core beliefs by either tyrants or thought police.
*Cognitive researcher George Lakoff says the 18th Century Enlightenment view of human reason is way off. Our thoughts are actually 98% unconscious and employ frames and metaphors, not logic.