Belief fills a tremendous hole in the psyche. If it comes at the right time, into the right environment, it can produce a tsunami of purpose and optimism out of absolutely nothing. The weight of the world can suddenly be lifted. If that weight has been on top of a person for a long time, then nothing - absolutely nothing - will feel better than having it lifted off.
In the middle of the rapture belief provides, however, a person has to sever, at least in part, some or all aspects of his “reality cord”. He has to replace the reality of the present world with the possibility of a future one that's better. He does this because his present reality is fraught with emotional, mental and sometimes even physical misery. Belief provides hope, comes to his rescue, and promises to remove a person from an intolerable life. That all sounds great, doesn’t it?
The problem with belief isn’t the motivation it provides - it’s the narrowness of vision that extreme beliefs demand in exchange for that motivation. If a belief is extreme enough, the narrowness of vision accompanying it will have no room for the mendacity of facts - at least not for facts that contradict the belief. It will have no room for the appropriate musings of doubt, which provide an essential lynchpin for anyone interested in living his/her life with integrity. The willingness to summon the mettle necessary to confront fabricated realities head on also disappears, replaced by an encouragement to redirect one’s resolve to take actions on behalf of what authorities of a particular belief tell us is “true”. In other words, belief uses motivation, focus, and courage towards its own ends. But what if those ends are self-destructive? What if they come at the cost of burning down the house we all live in?
Belief, more than any other dimension of the human experience, is capable of completely blowing up the future: all the while simultaneously promising an alternative future that is unachievable because it is so tethered to utopian fantasy. Our psyches will grab at extremist belief if we feel battered enough - if our awareness has been so damaged by the effort needed simply to survive. When such circumstances prevail - particularly if a person has had no access to any compassion along the way - it will be next to impossible for that person to access their internal wisdom, broadness of vision, and/or a tolerance of others who don’t share his/her belief. All of these are essential if we're to keep belief in perspective. When life is perceived as irretrievably dire, however, it is simply easier - much easier - to take refuge in extremist beliefs and hope that by doing so, somehow the promises of the confident, “truth-telling” messiahs of the world will alleviate our suffering.
When people say they are scared of figures such as Donald Trump, they have good reason for their fear. That fear is based largely on recognizing how the blind belief described above could embed itself in the way Trump organizes his administration. This, in turn, could lead to the destruction of years of cultivating traditions of respect, compassion, and honor and using such qualities as the foundation for institutions designed to advance society. The deepest dimension of this fear - the one wakes a person up in a sweat at 3:00 am - is the recognition that the blind belief/faith inspired by self-proclaimed silver-tongued saviors will stop at nothing to consume the world in order to fulfill their aspiration. It’s a kamikazee mission that cannot be reasoned with in any way. That’s because believers have come to embrace the fantasy that making their present misery disappear is easier to do than they thought. Once they embrace this delusion, the next step is to protect it by creating an walled-off fantasy world, almost always shared with others in similar circumstances, that separates the person from real life by stirring up a constantly swirling constellation of fearful emotion.
This is why being ‘appalled’ at the Trumps of the world, or calling them ‘crazy’, has no psychological power. When the rapture of belief rules the day, these critiques fall on deaf ears. In fact, they fuel the fires of righteous rage in response, and put access to reason even further out of reach. True believers love the fuel rage provides them because it gives them a temporary feeling of animalistic aliveness that feels incredibly good..temporarily. It convinces them of the “rightness” of their commitment. They fail to recognize that their willingness to do ANYTHING to claw their way of their misery includes compromising their very humanity. This is a path predicated on psychological desperation, the very quality that has enabled religions worldwide to gain such a foothold in the human psyche. Religions - not always but more often than not - prey on desperation by cultivating a willingness to believe in fantasies. They require only one thing in return: obedience to their grand designs.
How is a person whose awareness remains outside of such beliefs to stand up to this? How can the juggernaut of belief, and its desire to extinguish any future based on cooperation, recognition of our common humanity, and reason, be confronted?
At its’ zenith (the 1950s), Chinese thought reform and ‘re-education’ efforts reached 25% of the world’s population. Twenty-five percent. Who were those able to resist their methods? According to the seminal research done by Robert Lifton, the single quality that was most effective in resisting thought reform was having another belief that was stronger, inside themselves, than those of the beliefs being imposed on them.
But replacing one ideology with another is no longer an option in our shrinking world. Instead, we need to find the ‘right relationship’ to belief: one that allows for both focus and doubt, energy and reflection, and is irrigated by a broader, deeper psychological wisdom than we have ever achieved before. Lifton’s research serves as a useful starting point because he uncovered aspects of the slower, more difficult route people need to take in order to resist the imposition of the irrational, self-destructive dimension of belief. A route that requires a person to honor his/her awareness of being manipulated by consciously avoiding emotional participation in something corrupt. A route that requires a person to fiercely protect his/her capacity to laugh in the face of self-importance: their own and that of the purveyors of extremism. Establishing one’s self in qualities such as humor, emotional stability, and stoic resolve inside oneself moves the needle away from seeking ‘rescue’ of some sort from the external world. If combined with reflection and an honest relationship with a diverse (NOT like-minded) human community, this serves to ignite an innate ethical sense available to us all. External belief systems look to replace our innate ethical sense with the moral codes of their ideology. This is just another way of redirecting a person’s natural instincts into a persuadable pliability more easily controlled by authorities.
Belief can never be squeezed out of the picture entirely - it shouldn’t be, because the motivation it provides is instrumental to improving our future. But a person needs to believe in him or her self, not in external saviors and/or ideologies. Belief in one’s self, in one’s inherent capacity to be a decent human being, is a much less visible and aggressive belief than the flamboyant utopian ones cultivated by ideologies. It’s also much more flexible: it can choose alignment with human organizations where zeal is tempered by reason, and where people understand that ‘final solutions’ such as an end to ALL conflict, religious salvation, and/or enlightenment are simply ways extremist beliefs get the upper hand in the psyche of their followers. Belief always needs to be culled back into an appropriate relationship with qualities such as temperance and humilty, and this is much harder than it might seem. But it can begin through a belief in one’s self, which gradually establishes the scaffolding of confidence and solidity a person needs if s/he is to trust that they can directly know what’s right in a situation without having to give themselves over to any form of utopian extremism.
Self-belief characterized those able to resist compliance in Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment on obedience to authority in the 1960’s. Those who were able to resist the dictates of authority had cultivated values they continued to adhere to: values put under enormous pressure during the experiment. Their self-belief had become anchored initially through both their own efforts and those of others. For such a solid psychological foundation to hold fast under such pressure, those others would have had to have had no ulterior motives towards the person. The only concern of these mentors/gatekeepers/caretakers/stewards would have been for the person to have every opportunity to live honorably and lovingly within the human community, to learn from their mistakes and to not get unduly “excited” about it all in the process. This allows people to act from integrity, and to do so without becoming aggressive and/or violent in the process.