WHAT MAKES OUR BELIEFS?
People have slaughtered each other in wars, inquisitions, and political actions for
centuries and still kill each other over beliefs in religions, political ideologies, and philosophies.
These belief-systems, when stated as propositions, may appear mystical, and genuine to the
naive, but when confronted with a testable bases from reason and experiment, they fail
miserably. I maintain that faiths create more social problems than they solve and the potential
dangers from them could threaten the future of humankind.
Throughout history, humankind has paid reverence to beliefs and mystical thinking.
Organized religion has played the most significant role in the support and propagation of beliefs
and faith. This has resulted in an acceptance of beliefs in general. Regardless of how one may
reject religion, religious support of supernatural events gives credence to other superstitions in
general and the support of faith (belief without evidence), mysticism, and miracles. Most
scientists, politicians, philosophers, and even atheists support the notion that some forms of
belief provide a valuable means to establish "truth" as long as it contains the backing of data
and facts. Belief has long become a socially acceptable form of thinking in science as well as
religion. Indeed, once a proposition turns to belief, it automatically undermines opposition to
itself. Dostoyevsky warned us that those who reject religion "will end by drenching the earth in
blood." But this represents a belief in-itself. Our history has shown that the bloodletting has
occurred mostly as a result of religions or other belief-systems, not from the people who reject
However, does rational thinking require the adherence to beliefs at all? Does productive
science, ethics, or a satisfied life require any attachment to a belief of any kind? Can we predict
future events, act on data, theories, and facts without resorting to the ownership of belief?
Very little evidence has yet appeared about how belief arose in humans. As social
animals, we probably have always held beliefs to some degree. Primate social animals require
both followers and leaders. The followers must assume the codes of conduct of their leaders if
they wish to live without social conflict. Since there are always more followers than leaders, the
property of accepting the leaders without challenge and the introduction of language may have
led human primates towards the expression of beliefs.
What Is Belief?
Here's a simple definition:
A belief is an assumed truth.
Hence everything is a belief -- including this statement.
We create beliefs to anchor our understanding of the world around us and so, once we have
formed a belief, we will tend to persevere with that belief.
The corollary of our definition of belief is that if we know something to be true, then it
is more than a belief. The tricky question now is 'How do we know that something
is always true?' Just because in our experience it has always been true, it doesn't necessarily
follow that it will continue to be true.
Beliefs and language
Belief is highly entangled with language. If there is a word for something then we
believe it exists. This is one reason why people from different countries have difficulty
understanding one another, as the beliefs they hold are built into the language and the culture.
So understand that people's beliefs are what they are assuming to be true. Challenge
them. Reframe them. They can be changed.
1. The mental act, condition, or habit of placing trust or confidence in a person or thing; faith.
2. Mental acceptance or conviction in the truth or actuality of something.
3. Something believed or accepted as true; especially, a particular tenet, or a body of tenets,
accepted by a group of persons.
1. To accept as true or real.
2. To credit with veracity; have confidence in; trust.
In its simplest form, belief occurs as a mental act, a thinking process in the brain that
requires two things: a feeling and a logical statement. To "believe" requires a conscious feeling
of truth. To communicate what this feeling refers to requires some form of logical structure
such as spoken or written language. Thus a belief requires a thought and a conscious feeling of
"truth" which, according to neurological brain research, stems from the limbic part of the brain.
Thus, belief occurs as a thought with a feeling or emotion "attached." In other words: Belief=
emotion + logic. Because belief requires emotion, it also represents a psychological state, not
simply a mechanical thinking state.
In all cases, I refer to beliefs as occurring in an aware state of consciousness. Beliefs here
do not refer to subconscious thoughts, or any mental activity occurring below the threshold of
consciousness. Nor do beliefs apply to sleeping and dream states, or to unconscious habits, or
instincts. When a person owns a belief, she/he consciously accepts their own belief. The degree
of feeling to which one accepts their own beliefs, as valid, can vary from mild acceptance to
certain absoluteness. Thus it would prove meaningless to say that a person has beliefs without
them knowing it or for them to deny their own beliefs. Obviously, a person who does not
believe in something does not believe in that something; a person who believes in
something, does believe in that something. Belief requires conscious acceptance.
The Formation of Belief
Beliefs can come from two sources: our own experience and reflections, or as a blind
acceptance of what other people tell us. These are very different methods and are often based
on very differentpreferences and attitudes to the world and people around us.
Self-generated beliefs are those we create ourselves. People who generally prefer to self-
generate are often open, confident and curious. They seek truth over comfort and social
acceptance. They may be distrusting of experts and other authorities. They prefer argument
and debate to quick and blind acceptance. They are willing to live with uncertainty and
ambiguity until their belief is formed.
'Experience is a hard master, but a fool will have no other.' It has a ring of truth about it, but
also is the ultimate method we have of finding the truth.
Trying things for ourselves is how we start out as children and we continue to use this approach
to some degree through our lives. The extent to which we continue to seek truth through
experience depends on a range of factors, including parental guidance and the level and style of
education we received.
Experience is useful for continuous improvement of the beliefs and models we use. For
example a person may be bluntly honest at home, but finds that speaking your mind is not
effective in particular work settings.
Experience may come from things that happen to us. It may also be deliberately sought, in
particular when we try out various experiments.
In a scientific sense, truth comes from carefully designed experiments which prove what is true
and what is not. Yet 'proven' truths are constantly being challenged and re-examined. We may
also do informal experiments in our daily lives to test and improve our beliefs.
A key benefit of thoughtful experimental is in sharpening beliefs, showing where they work and
do not work. The rules that we create in sound research are hence more likely to be true and
A variation on external experimentation is internal reflection and thought. It is a lot easier and
can often be done much quicker. It can be done in most places, although it is best done when
there are less external distractions.
Reflection includes general musing about things and building internal mental models which
help to explain the external world.
In some ways reflection is opposite to experience in that it is internal rather than external. It
can also be complementary as you either reflect after an experience or seek experiences after
A key part of self-created beliefs is when we take the results of experience and experiment, and
(often through reflection) generalize this to assume that what we have discovered in one
context is equally applicable elsewhere. For example if a child finds that nagging parents is
successful, they may create a generalized belief that nagging is a useful and often necessary
way of getting what they want with other people.
The problem with generalization from experience is that what is true in one situation is often
not true in others. Formal experimentation can help to improve the quality of generalization yet
we are still constrained by the time we have.
Externally generated belief
Done well, experience and experiment means trying things out in practice, observing things and
generally getting a broad range of evidence before committing to a belief. Unfortunately we
only have time try a limited number of things (and what we do try out can say a lot about us).
The alternative to finding things out for oneself is to take on board things that others have
found out. People who generally prefer to accept beliefs from others typically have a greater
need for asense of control. They tend to seek certainty and rapid closure, avoiding the
uncertainty of exploration. They also are likely to have a greater tendency to trust others and to
seek trustworthiness, although perhaps only in specific areas.
Experts are people who have proven themselves to have knowledge in particular areas. They
may have qualifications or demonstrable and skills. They are often professionals who are paid
for their expertise. When they tell you something, you have good reason to believe it.
Experts can be met in person or they may have written books or other media you can access.
However you access their knowledge or skill, you trust them because you believe they are
People who seek experts are relatively pragmatic. They trust, but not necessarily blindly. They
are looking for someone to help in a specific area.
The difference between an expert and an authority is that you believe the authority because of
their position or charismatic powers and not because of any reasonable proof that they know
well what they are talking about.
Managers, priests, and parents all offer beliefs based on their position rather than their
expertise. In fact we all do it when we get into arguments where we tell rather than seeking to
People who believe authorities are followers. They believe in the sanctity of position or may be
gullible and easy to persuade. They are likely to have a strong need for belonging and social
approval. They may single out specific people, who they will believe blindly. Cult leaders seek to
place themselves in this position.
A 'canon' is an unchallenged set of 'truths' as set out in literature from religious texts to
scientific papers. It is the set of 'truths' that most people working in the given area believe and
accept without challenge. All work of discovery and discussion starts from these foundations.
To challenge a canon is to put yourself in the firing line, particularly from those who have
founded their life's work on unquestioning acceptance of the canon. Yet this is how scientific
breakthroughs occur. It also helps to explain why general acceptance and the creation of a new
canon often take a whole generation to achieve.
When you are seeking to change beliefs, find out where the other person gets their beliefs
from. If they tend towards self-generated belief then give them experiences or rational
arguments. If they are more external, then pose as an expert or authority, or bring in someone
who can fulfill the appropriate role.
What are limiting beliefs?
Limiting beliefs are those which constrain us in some way. Just by believing them, we do
not think, do or say the things that they inhibit.
Limiting beliefs are often about us and our self-identity. The beliefs may also be about other
people and the world in general. In any case, they sadly limit us.
We may define ourselves by what we do or do not do. I may say 'I am an accountant', which
means I do not do marketing and should not even think about it, and consequently fail to sell
my services well.
Another common limiting belief is around how we judge ourselves. We think 'I don't deserve...'
and so do not expect or seek things.
We often have limited self-images of what we can and cannot do. If I think 'I cannot sing' then I
will never try or not go to singing lessons to improve my ability. This is the crux of many 'I can't'
statements: we believe our abilities are fixed and that we cannot learn.
We are bound by values, norms, laws and other rules that constrain what we must and must
not do. However, not all of these are mandatory and some are distinctly limiting. If I think 'I
must clean the house every day' then this robs me of time that may be spent in something
I am/am not
The verb 'to be' is quite a pernicious little thing and as we think 'I am' we also think 'I am not'.
'I am' thinking assumes we cannot change. Whether I think 'I am intelligent' or 'I am not
intelligent', either belief may stop me from seeking to learn. 'I am' also leads to generalization,
for example where 'I am stupid' means 'all of me is all of stupid and all of stupid is all of me'. A
better framing is to connect the verb to the individual act, such as 'That was a stupid thing to
When coupled with values we get beliefs about whether a person is right or wrong, good or
Just as we have limiting beliefs about ourselves, we also have beliefs about other people, which
can limit us in many ways. If we think others are more capable and superior then we will not
challenge them. If we see them as selfish, we may not ask them to help us.
We often guess what others are thinking based on our 'theory of mind' and beliefs about them.
These guesses are often wrong. Hence we may believe they do not like us when they actually
have no particular opinion or even think we are rather nice. From our guesses at their thoughts
we then deduce their likely actions, which can of course be completely wrong. Faced with this
evidence, it is surprising how many will still hold to the original beliefs.
How the world works
Beyond the limiting beliefs above there can be all kinds of belief about 'how the world works',
from laws of nature to the property of materials. This can lead to anything from the beliefs that
all dogs will bite to the idea that aero-plane travel is dangerous.
Why do we limit our beliefs?
A key way by which we form our beliefs is through our direct experiences. We act, something
happens and we draw conclusions. Often such beliefs are helpful, but they can also be very
Particularly when we are young and have few experiences we may form false and limiting
conclusions. Nature builds us this way to keep us out of harm's way. We learn and build beliefs
faster from harmful experiences. Sticking my finger on a hot stove hurts a lot so we believe all
stoves are dangerous and never touch a stove again. If punching another child results in a
sound beating we may henceforth believe ourselves weak.
When forming our perceptions of the world, we cannot depend on experiences for everything.
We hence read and listen to parents and teacher about how the world works and how to
behave in it.
But our teachers are not always that well informed. We also learn from what peers tell us and
are 'infected' by their beliefs, which may be very limiting.
Education is a double-edged sword as it tells you want is right and wrong, good and bad. It
helps you survive and grow, but just because you were told something, you may never try
things and so miss pleasant and useful experiences and knowledge.
In decisions, we make 'return on investment' estimations and easily conclude that the
investment of time, effort and money is insufficient, and that there is a low chance of success
and high chance of failure. The return may even be negative as we are harmed in some way.
People make many decision errors, for example based on poor estimation of probabilities. We
take a little data and generalize it to everything. We go on hunches that are based more on
subconscious hopes and fears than on reality.
The word 'because' can be surprisingly hazardous. When we use it, it seems like we are using
good reason, but this may not be so. We like to understand cause-and-effect and often do not
challenge reasoning that uses the mechanisms of rational argument.
One reason we use faulty logic and form limiting beliefs is to excuse ourselves from what we
perceive to be our failures.
When we do something and it does not work, we often explain away our failure by forming and
using beliefs which justify our actions and leave us blameless. But in doing so, we do not learn
and may increasingly paint ourselves into a corner, limiting what we will think and do in the
Limiting beliefs are often fear-driven. Locking the belief in place is the fear that, if we go against
the beliefs, deep needs will be harmed.
There is often a strong social component to our decisions and the thought of criticism, ridicule
or rejection by others is enough to powerfully inhibit us. We also fear that we may be harmed
in some way by others, and so avoid them or seek to appease them.
There is also the question of whether limiting beliefs are actually good for us and whether they
keep us from harm. In practice some beliefs which limit us are actually valid beliefs which are
worth keeping. The problem is telling the difference. The reality is that many of us err on the
side of perceived (and not necessarily real) safety. Limiting beliefs are erroneous, being based
on wrong 'facts' and so prompt us to treat things with undue caution.
So if you want to overcoming limiting beliefs, first recognize them and then act to change what
What makes our belief Culture or Religion – Culture Shapes Religious Belief:
It is hardly rocket science that virtually all human beliefs and values are largely shaped
by culture. If you grow up in the U.S., chances are you won't become a diehard rugby fan. If you
grow up in Germany, you probably won't end up caring about American Football. Sports are
obviously just one example of this.
Even within a culture, your beliefs and values are highly shaped by which segment of society
(your family, friends) you happen to have been exposed to. A lot of this happens when you are
a child and you basically have no choice in the matter.
Point being, we wind up believing in and supporting to a large extent what we are pretty much
told to believe and value by culture, and our sub sectional membership within that culture.
Of course we don't always know how much we are basically told what to believe; a lot of it
occurs implicitly. Some scholars have argued that if this did not occur implicitly, people would
rebel against it, which would defeat the whole purpose of forming groups for survival and
belonging needs. The society, and the sanity of the individual within the society, hinges on the
following of these rules and values without the person largely being aware of it.
That was rather long winded to get to my main question. If culture and society shape all of our
beliefs, then from a religious perspective, what does this suggest?
If you are born in Iran, you will probably be Moslem. If you are born in a Christian home in the
U.S., you will probably be Christian. If your parents are atheists, you will probably be an atheist.
So, if the (probably) greatest predictor of religious affiliation is geography (which it probably is),
how can anyone religion claim exclusive truth? The reality is that followers of this religion
would believe largely different things if they were born in a different country. To claim that
your religion is exclusively true and valid, is (I think) to deny this realization.
I am not out to get religion here at all. My argument isn't that religion is false, but that I do not
get how any one religion can claim to be true at the expense of all the other religions.
Even assuming one religion is true (who knows?) then the follower of this religion would have
no way of knowing this, because (among other reasons) they would probably believe something
way different if they were born into a different country or house or whatever.
We learn how to believe from our parents. Most people accept, without question, the
religion of their youth. However, as children grow up, they no longer need to listen to their
parents because their brains have now fully developed and they can think for themselves.
Unfortunately, evolution has no way to clean up these evolutionary belief traits while in
adulthood so the beliefs they inherited from their parents remain.
Today people still believe in inanimate objects, spirits, gods, angels, ghosts, alien UFOs,
without ever questioning the reliability of their sources. These ghostly concepts live today, not
only in religion, but in our language. Many times we express essence ideas without thinking
about them because they exist in the very structure of common communication derived from
ancient philosophers. Since no one can see or measure these essences, the only way to
comprehend them comes in the form of belief. Sadly, people still accept these essences as
"real" based on nothing but faith without ever investigating whether they exist or not. Belief
and faith can overpower the mind of a person to such an extent that even in the teeth of
contrary evidence, he will continue to believe in it for no other reason than others around him
believe in it or that people have believed in it for centuries.
There is nothing wrong in it if I say that a belief is an assumed truth. Once we have
formed a belief we will tend to persevere with it. If our beliefs are self-generated then we need
to test and improve them in our daily lives. And we need to understand that what is true or
applicable in one situation might not be equally true or applicable elsewhere. If we prefer
externally generated beliefs then we need to pose as an expert. We should not blindly accept
what other people tell us.
Some limiting beliefs are worth keeping and some are not so first we need to recognize
then and then act to change those limiting beliefs that are not worth keeping.
Culture shapes all of our beliefs even religious beliefs. We need to understand that
people’s beliefs are what they are assuming to be true. So we can challenge them, reframe
them and they can be changed.