Disclaimer: I am not an expert on anything. The thoughts and opinions presented here are just that, thoughts and opinions and should not be mistaken for fact except where noted and credited. I've been struggling with this post for quite some time and can't seem to get past it, so here goes. I've tried it from a general "tap dancing around religion" perspective, but now I feel I must face my feelings head on. Hopefully I can get it out of my system.
Why do you believe what you believe? Whether you are a Christian, atheist, agnostic, apathetic, Buddhist, follower of the flying spaghetti monster, why do you believe in what you believe?
Some of you will answer "because it's true", or "I was called", "God found me", "I found God", "I gave up an fairy tales", etc. etc. etc. But what is the true answer? The practical answer? What path in your life led you from thinking about things as you did when you were a child to thinking about them the way you do now?
How did you come to believe what you believe in the first place. I have a couple of theories.
First, we are fed it. Our parents, our teachers at school, if our parents took us to Sunday school our teachers there, groups like Cub Scouts or Brownies and later Boy/Girl Scouts. Our parents, teachers, and leaders told us things. Being children, we accepted the things these authority figures told us.
Here's an example from my school days. I remember very clearly learning about George Washington in fourth grade. Our textbook for 4th grade history was probably 20 years old at the time, which means it had been written in the 1950s. We had a whole lesson on George Washington when he was a boy. And, you guessed it, the chopping down of the cherry tree. Historians now will tell you the story is not true, but as a boy in the 4th grade, if my teacher told me it was true, I accepted it. They wouldn't let teachers lie, now would they?
A lot of what we believe about God and religion comes to us that way, too. If our parents trusted the Sunday School teacher to care for us an hour every Sunday morning, then the kinds of things she showed us on her little flannel board must be true, right?
Now, I'm not saying our parents, teachers, or anyone else in authority over us as children had any malicious intent in teaching us the things they did. There are cases where that has happened, and if it has to you, I'm sorry. But for the most part, parents taught us as they were taught, teachers were doing their jobs, and the churches we went to were teaching what they were supposed to teach. As children we accepted these things, as we were supposed to.
Later as teenagers, things began to change. Some of us, many of us, rebelled against what we had been fed. If our parents "drug" us to church every Sunday, we suddenly refused to go. Rules we had been taught suddenly were "stupid". We began to find our own way.
It's at this stage of life that things we believe started to come to us a different way. Through emotion. We believed we must be in love with that guy or girl because of the squishy feeling in our stomach whenever they walk by. We believed that winning that football game was the most important thing ever after coach's pep talk got us all fired up. We believed that everyone must hate us because of the humiliation we felt when they laughed that time we tripped in the hallway.
Many try to take advantage of the fact that emotion has so much to do with forming/confirming our beliefs. Musicians know if they can elicit an emotional response with their music, they will gain fans. Speakers know if they can elicit an emotional response, they will have listeners. Marketers know if they can elicit and emotional response, they will have buyers. I'm not saying any of these methods are bad, but they can be abused. Especially among teens.
This is where I drift into controversial territory. Churches and other groups have many programs set up to reach out to teens. Weekly group meetings, camps, school campus outreach. (In my part of the country, the LDS church has a "seminary" just across the parking lot from every high school, often with their own gate in the school's fence.) Intentional or not, these meetings and camps involve an emotional element, usually music, that has an impact on teens. Church camps, usually held in an outdoor setting, use elements such as night time camp fires.
I'm not saying that churches are maliciously enticing our children with these things. But think about it. If a group that is known to be a cult were to use these things to attract your child, how would you feel?
This emotional element of forming our beliefs continues into adulthood. But many times adulthood (whether college age or high school) brings my final method of forming beliefs: critical thinking.
Critical thinking is an important skill to have as an adult. It helps us spend our money wisely, it helps us in buying a car or a house. It also helps us to sort the rubbish from the fact in the things that come to us from friends, the news, and other sources. It's at this stage of life we begin considering the things we believe rather than accepting it because it was fed to us or triggered an emotional response in us.
A 2004 article from The Barna Group presents a study showing that 64% of people claiming to be Christian became so before their 18th birthday. The article also stated that an authority figure (parent or teacher) or an event (camp, concert, etc.) was the primary influence in developing their belief.
Adults have beliefs that are harder to change or influence. Much of what they believe has already been formed by methods previously mentioned. But adults are also looking for facts and proof. Before we buy a car, we want facts and proof on the history of the vehicle to be sure it's going to run well for us. Before we buy a house, we want facts and proof that the house is safe, not infested with bugs or mold, and will be a good place to live.
Our religious beliefs as adults are formed in the same way. We want proof. We want someone to tell us the things we are hearing are true. Once our mind is made up, it's hard to convince us of something different.
This brings me to my main point. How many of us have examined what we believe, the good and the bad, before we chose to believe it? Or, now that you believe it, continue to examine it to determine whether you should continue to believe it? How many of us are continuing to accept what we came to believe as children's and teens rather than forming our own beliefs based on our own search, study, and learning?
Belief is a hard thing to change. Once a person believes something, it's very hard to change their mind to get them to believe something different. There are two reasons for this.
The first is "confirmation bias". Confirmation bias is the tendency to reinforce one's beliefs and preconceptions by seeking out information that supports it or to interpret information in such a way as to make it support said belief or preconception. For example, a person believes that everything is the Bible is true. They are called on to discuss the flood of Noah. To prove their point they will use books and articles that support their belief and ignore sources that support the opposite view. In doing so, they are more firmly setting their own belief.
The other is "cognitive dissonance" This is the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time. Most people dislike this feeling and will discard the thought that conflicts with their held belief simply to avoid this feeling. Using the previous example, the individual discussing the flood of Noah is presented with a piece of information that contradicts one of his points. Rather than investigate to see what the facts are, our person wants to avoid the feeling of his belief being challenged so he simply ignores it or reverts to confirmation bias to show that the information is not damaging to his belief.
The trick is to go beyond these pitfalls and actually challenge yourself to learn about what you believe, or something you have previously rejected, and actually examine it for it's validity.
I challenge you, dear reader, the next time you encounter something that is contrary to argumentative to something you believe, to truly examine it rather than reject it. Read about it. Both sides, even the articles and sources you find challenging to other things you believe. Examine the things you believe now. If you are a Christian, read a book written by an atheist, Richard Dawkins for example. If you are an atheist, read a book written by a Christian, Lee Strobel for example.
Your belief, no matter what form it is, should be alive and active. You should always be growing and not settle on things you "have always believed".