A Perspective on Belief

By Leitner, Gloria J. | The Humanist, May-June 1997 | Go to article overview

A Perspective on Belief


Leitner, Gloria J., The Humanist


Is it possible to be an idealist and not a fanatic?

I ask the question as an intensely personal one, as well as theoretical inquiry. For over the years, I've been involved in various "alternative" movements: political, radical, New Age spiritual, back to the land, holistic health. And in each case, I've had hindsight realizations that made me gasp in embarrassment. Naivete, narrow-mindedness, ill-proven assumptions near the point of socially dangerous zealotry--I can go on and on with the cardinal sins I (and many of my friends in these movements) have committed. You'd think I'd have learned my lesson by now.

Yet I seem to go from one movement to the next with remarkable perspective on the shortcomings of my previous infatuation but very little on the one in front of my nose. Does this sound like falling in and out of love?

The resemblance may be more than coincidental. Is there something endemic in the attitude of the believer--like the incurable romantic--that keeps the cycle repeating itself?

Of course, this question has interested social critics for some time. Eric Hoffer, in his book The True Believer (which we radicals in the 1960s so heartily maligned as bigoted right-wing nonsense), turns out to have some uncomfortably perceptive views on the psychology of the banner-waver. Despite his acerbic jibes, the issues he raises--issues my own course of proselytizing and propagandizing raises--cannot be ignored.

True, I've managed to transcend each "I'm sure of it" world view before too long. The role of gadfly is one I've always esteemed, and indeed many of the movements of which I've been a part later became the object of my criticism. Yet I've found that it's as hard to get the mainstream to look at its misperceptions and misconceptions as it is to get dedicated members of minority movements to question their own stance.

What I've frequently encountered from those who consider themselves "liberal" or "enlightened" is often an unwillingness to see and an inability to hear. The eyes and ears of the converted are blocked by faith; only those facts which bolster a preconceived view are allowed to enter.

Granted, it's difficult to be a crusader for an unpopular cause and not have a deep-seated faith in that cause. But when faith in the cause is based upon a foundation of ideological stone, the skeptic and the critic are seen as the enemy, and truth is the inevitable victim.

Such an extreme characterization may seem unfair. But having done it myself to critics of my philosophy so many times in the past, I can vouch for the believer's blindness and vehemence. How much data that conflicted with my own did I dismiss out of hand? How many insights of opponents did I banish from consideration with a haughty, "They don't know what they're talking about"?

Who I did or did not listen to, who became my gurus and who became the donkeys upon which to pin the tail, were pre-chosen by my circle of faith. And at each stage, I remember thinking that my circle embraced the truth. Ah, such wonderful arrogance and ignorance!

In atonement, I should write in blood the eleventh commandment, "thou shalt not Believe"--with a capital B. For beliefs are great for getting us by in a world of myriad possibilities. But Beliefs are another matter.

When you find it really hard to thrust aside your presuppositions, remove your hat from the ring, and say, "Hmmmm, this other point of view may be right," then you've trapped yourself in the edifice of Belief.

Real intelligence is critical intelligence. One must be able to live close to the frontiers of consciousness, ready to cross over to the unknown, the unanticipated, the unpopular--and sometimes the diametric opposite of what you believed yesterday! When something contradicts our pet theories, that's not a reason for automatic rejection (though it's a reflex to react that way). …

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