Many of our beliefs are assimilated rather early in our lives and then are seldom challenged. Because of our egos we desperately want to believe that our beliefs are in fact true and they are superior to other beliefs (or perhaps more pertinently to the beliefs of others). Of course we don’t come by our beliefs easily. Take our religious beliefs – if we have studied assiduously the dogma of our religion we have a vested interest in defending it. Being so conditioned, I deeply desire that my religion contains the real truth. I am then highly prone to deluding myself into believing that this is in fact the case. Consequently, as we have seen in other essays, I will allow into awareness only the evidence that supports my position. Because of the necessity to sustain my belief, and my often unconscious fear of having it challenged, contrary evidence is ignored.
Pulitzer Prize winner Daniel Kahneman writes:
“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”
Sam Harris, the neuroscientist and author asserts:
“Most beliefs are evaluated against a background of other beliefs and often in the context of an ideology that a person shares with others. Consequently people are rarely as open to revising their views as reason would seem to dictate.”
Harris is undoubtedly right. Changing our beliefs is even more difficult when we feel part of a community that shares such beliefs.
I have developed a fictional scenario to demonstrate my point. Please tell me if the outcomes I portray are unrealistic!
Let us set the scene.
God is getting frustrated with Mankind. Men and women seem to be developing and adhering to beliefs that do not reflect his desired path for human development. So, most reluctantly, because he is averse to usurping the free will with which he has bestowed them, He decides to intervene to steer Mankind back on course.
To begin with he determines to provide guidance to a number of pious adherents to the Abrahamic derivative traditions. Firstly He will reveal himself to a Christian and then a Muslim. He does not do this lightly because he has not been in the habit of revealing himself to Mankind and it is somewhat of an admission of failure that he now does so. But hey, no matter! God has no ego so He doesn’t suffer any shame in admitting he has made mistakes. But then I suppose some of you will be incensed to have it implied that God had made a mistake! Most believers attest that God is infallible. There are many instances even in the brief history of Mankind which suggest otherwise. When Metagod was fashioning God he offered God the option of omnipotence or infallibility but told Him he couldn’t have both. God opted for omnipotence.
But I digress.
It was no small thing to deal directly with a human being and God needed to be careful that whoever he chose was up to the task. What should the selection criteria be? God decided (and this is an indication of His fallibility) that devoutness was the paramount quality.
Well, Father Ignatius was extraordinarily devout. Hardly an hour went by when he was not praying. He meditated on the passion of Jesus. He wondered at the devotion of Mary, the “Mother of God”. When he saw the TV coverage of the Pope’s Christmas message his heart swelled with the pride that he felt with being one of the Christian family.
Appropriately when God decided to approach Ignatius he was alone in the chapel praying.
“Ignatius, Ignatius, I would talk to you,” said God.
Ignatius was startled by the voice and quickly looked up but could see no one. After a short time he resumed his prayers. (You might remember an Old Testament event that went along similar lines.)
“Ignatius, Ignatius, listen to me!”
“Who is this?” demanded Ignatius. He looked around feverishly but could still see nobody.
“I am your God,” came the reply.
“Oh, Lord. I hope you are not some spirit deceiving me!” The poor fellow sank to his knees.
He continued, “What is it that you would relate to me?”
“Ah, Ignatius I am come because you are mistaken in your devotion.”
“What is it Lord that I have mistaken?”
“A very great deal I am afraid.”
“Please Lord enlighten me.”
“Well you suffer from some of the mistakes of those who have embraced Christianity.”
Ignatius was surprised. “But Christianity is the only true religion. We have learnt that Jesus Christ came to save us. It was through his death and suffering that we might be forgiven our sins. We have access to you God through his agency because he was your only begotten son.”
At this stage God sighs. (A sigh from God is not an insubstantial thing. It started a cyclone in the western Pacific and blew out the candles in some churches and on many birthday cakes.)
“Ah, Ignatius, I have no such son. This is all a story manufactured by some zealots two millennia ago. Why do you think I would need someone to suffer persecution and death in order to forgive you of your sins? You are human – that is the way I fashioned you. You are bound to sin. But I am God – I am omnipotent. All I need to do as say ‘I forgive you’ and you are forgiven. I have no desire for any more suffering than your sins already create.”
“Then Jesus was not your son?”
“No, of course not. In fact there never was a Jesus such as you profess to believe in.”
“Then if can’t come to you via Jesus, what do you ask of us?”
“I ask nothing more than that you should love one another.”
“Is that all?”
“You ask the question as though love was an insubstantial thing. Love is all that keeps the universe from being just an inconsequential theatre of meaningless pandemonium!”
Ignatius thought a moment.
“I think I can understand that. But are we not to pray, to praise you and otherwise express our adoration of you?”
At this God laughed. And a laugh from God is not an insubstantial thing either. It caused a small earthquake in Patagonia and a landslide in New Guinea. But God’s laughter is benign and as a result no one was hurt!
“One of the problems with you humans is you continue to try to imbue me with human characteristics. I am aware of your thoughts, your desires and aspirations and so it is pointless petitioning me through prayer. Unlike you I don’t have an ego so I don’t need praise and adoration. When you demonstrate your love for one another you are indeed showing your love for me. That is how to pray to me. Whatever form your religious tradition might seek to give me, it is your love that affirms me. Some of your religions in your desire to be pious prescribe what you should wear and what you should eat. I have no concern for such things. I desire nothing else than that you should love one another.”
“Then also according to You, there is no point in appealing to Jesus for his mercy or making special petitions to Mary his mother? There is also no point in celebrating Christmas or Easter?”
“Well you might gain some solace from conforming to your traditions and rituals but they have no religious significance.”
“But in this you contradict the Bible. Surely the Bible is the word of God?”
“I can assure you I didn’t write a word of it. The Bible is a compendium of the words of men, often long in retrospect to the events they attempt to describe and generally to reinforce what they want people to believe rather than any knowledge that I might want to impart. And besides much of what is written is a myth. Even when the church fathers tried to use metaphors for teaching many of you took them literally.”
“Then if our written record as recorded in the Bible is misleading could it be that the Muslim Koran has better captured your teachings.”
Well this caused another chuckle from God. Being somewhat subdued it only caused rain in some deserts and a larger than usual hatching of Painted Lady butterflies.
“No, unfortunately for the Islamists the Koran is merely the word of Muhammad and I can attest he was no prophet of mine!”
Ignatius was dumbfounded.
“Then if I am to believe you, none of the traditional beliefs that I have held have any substance? It would seem that I have been misled!”
“Well that is in fact true and was largely the reason I wanted to speak to you. Millions of people around the world are caught up in such beliefs. They have without question accepted what has been written in the books they believe are holy and the words of prophets and evangelists from history who really had no authority. I have tried to restore your course of belief for you. Mostly all you have learned in your traditional teachings is either irrelevant or wrong. Remember all that I ask of you as human beings is to love one another. I hope that is now clear to you. Now I will leave you to ponder what I have related to you.”
God then withdrew.
Now surely this was something of great moment! God had revealed himself directly to Ignatius. He had told him of His expectations and attempted to correct the errors Ignatius had learnt. Surely faced with this evidence Ignatius might rethink his beliefs. But if you passed by his little chapel in a week or so, what do you think you would find? Let me tell you.
Ignatius is sitting in his little chapel clutching his bible. He is fervently praying.
“Oh Jesus save me from being misled. I know the Bible is the word of God. I know you are my redeemer. Help me serve you faithfully!”
So there you have it – it is difficult to change a belief set despite the most compelling evidence because of our vested interest in preserving such beliefs.
Well, I suppose some of the more traditional believers would say to me that this is a poor example.
“Your God,” you might assert, “is just not believable. Ignatius’s belief in his God and the significance of Jesus is a far more plausible belief set.”
By responding in this way you will merely highlight the validity of my thesis. And if you would attest that your God is more believable than the one I have portrayed, then I will fall about laughing. (Unfortunately my laughter has no special effects other than to annoy my wife!)