The Validity of Belief
Being a free autonomous being is more than just DOING what you want to do, it’s thinking for yourself, developing your own perspective, and ‘finding your truth’. Your own truth is a very personal thing. It’s more than just whether you prefer sunrise over sunset, how you feel about the complexity of personal relationships, or your best guess as to why we’re here. It’s all of it. All of the thoughts and feelings inside you. All of your guesses about the unknown, wishes for what is, or will be, and even your fears. Even the way you come to your conclusions, and how well you know yourself are part of it. It’s a very specific color and shape of the world you live in, and it changes with you as you grow and learn. It’s what makes you YOU.
There’s no such thing as right or wrong when it comes to opinions or beliefs. We are our thoughts, and we have a right to them. Perhaps your belief system explains every single thing in the universe, or perhaps it mandates that you won’t guess at things not provable, or that you will reserve your certainty. Even if you believe that we’re all just brains in jars living out a virtual reality… or you find the smell of skunk on the wind pleasing… or think that bank robbers are heroes… you can’t be wrong, not morally, not factually.
No one’s ‘personal truth’ or ‘belief system’ is exactly the same as another’s because it has nothing to do with facts. The facts that rule the world are the same for everyone. The sun is hot and water conducts electricity. Trees make oxygen and food sustains our life. There’s what we know and can prove, and then there’s what we have to guess at. That’s where our personal truths lie. We’re all different beings who come to our conclusions through different experiences and reactions to those experiences.
There is a certain comfort, though, that comes when someone else has a similar belief to our own. It makes us feel that our belief is valid. With each person we meet who agrees with us, we’re that much more sure that somehow our belief is fact. That really helps us deal with life if our belief is protecting us from fear or pain. You can’t be alone when scores of other people validate your existence.
The problem with allowing the idea that our beliefs are validated when others agree, is that in order for one belief to be valid, all others must be invalid. This goes against the nature of it being personal and having a right to it. Once a belief system is “right” or considered to be fact, other perspectives lose the freedom to exist, even if only in the mind of the person who thinks their belief is right. Sadly, the past is riddled with the right of alternative perspectives to exist being literally, and often tragically, denied. That’s thought control, which translates into will control, and it’s not cool. Humanity has struggled in recent years to break fee of the confines of enforced belief.
Assuming that we all want to get along, and that we all want to be treated with respect, what we need to recognize is that the intrinsic nature of rights is that everyone has them. The same is true for freedom of thought. You don’t truly have it if your belief includes that others are undeserving of their belief, that they are wrong, or that it’s ok for you to tell someone else what to think. If you can tell others what to believe, then others can tell you what to believe. That changes the rule from freedom of thought, to “I’m right”. The problem there is that everyone is an “I”, so that rule can’t possibly be applied. Our rights must be respected universally, or there’s no way to keep them.
In order to grant freedom of thought to others, and enjoy it ourselves, we must maintain that beliefs are only valid to the individual. One person’s love of coffee, no matter how strong, cannot make coffee better than tea to another. One person’s belief that death is the end cannot make another’s belief that something else awaits them unreal. We have to be brave and accept that the unknown exists; and while it is a beautiful and sometimes life changing experience to find our truth, recruiting others to ours, or agreeing with someone else’s truth cannot make it valid. The validity of belief is based solely on the honesty of a person to his or herself.
Having a belief system is a right of autonomy. Your will cannot belong to you if it is formed from the thoughts and perspective of someone else. Thus, finding your truth is a right of autonomy as well. If you never try a new food because others dislike it, then your preference doesn’t belong to you. If you don’t go through a process of discarding pre-conceived notions, and asking yourself questions about the unknown, how can you know that the answers you hold are true for you?
Because it is a matter of autonomy, no one should ever take the incredibly personal experience of finding their truth from another. It’s quite simply a violation of rights. This kind of interference is difficult to achieve with an adult whose beliefs are already formed, especially one who is aware and deliberate about their belief system. Most rights are easiest to deny to children. This particular breach is common, and not well recognized in our society. Denying autonomy of thought is done when we teach our children, as though it were fact, a pre-set belief, our own belief, or a known lie about something that is an opinion, or cannot be proven as fact.
Young beings are impressionable, and trusting. It’s a necessary part of their nature as it allows them to learn a great deal. Unlike adults who can’t really be told what to think, children are vulnerable to thought conditioning. If we are to have autonomy of thought as adults, we must have it when our core understanding of the world is forming. We must have it as children. Finding our truth can take a lifetime, but not if we don’t have to struggle to let go of someone else’s to get there.
Early indoctrination is hard to let go of. It colors our view of everything we see. Many who were saturated as children with the beliefs of those who came before them never truly find their own. Certain beliefs would never survive in today’s society that strives for equality and goodwill if it were not for teaching them to children. There are children in the world who are certain that people they have never met deserve torture and death simply for being born a different race. There are children out there that harass others with the threat of burning underground for eternity just for having normal biological urges. This is how intolerance and hatred stay alive: those children simply grow up, and teach their children what they believe. Not all passed on beliefs are negative, and even whether or not they are negative is opinion, and so, almost insignificant to the point. The important part is that the ideas are not their own, and they can affect all other ideas for their entire life. They have been denied the right to form their own thoughts and beliefs. They are a living tomb of the will of people long dead.
As they grow, our children will form hopes and dreams for the future. These are based on their perceptions of the world. If we want what’s best for our children, we want them to know respect for their autonomy, and for their dreams to be realized. To have that, what they hope for must be possible, and must belong to them alone; so, what we teach them must be facts and we must make the line between fact and belief known to them. To do anything else is to risk that their desires will be inaccessible or misguided, or worse, to usurp their right to their own will and supplant it with someone else’s.