How Belief Systems Work
Chicago-based author David Ramsay Steele
Examples of belief systems include Scientology, Seventh-Day Adventism, Marxism, Global Warming, 9/11 Truth, the Paleo Diet, Zen Buddhism, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Romanticism, Darwinian evolution, and Phenomenology.
Religions, political ideologies, conspiracy theories, scientific theories, popular diets, brands of psychotherapy, doctrines about the arts, and philosophical schools—these are all belief systems.
David Ramsay Steele shows that all belief systems have a lot in common.
All belief systems involve an emotional commitment arising out of a conversion experience.
All belief systems brush aside evidence which obviously conflicts with the belief system and focus their attention on evidence which confirms it.
All belief systems have privileged authorities—persons or texts—which they revere and which they refer to when any doubt arises as to the correct way to interpret the belief system.
All belief systems display a conservative tendency, arising from the determination to stop the belief system from changing, but despite this, all belief systems do evolve, so that what they believe today is never precisely what they believed fifty years ago. The leaders of the belief system go to immense trouble to freeze the doctrine of the belief system, or at least what they take to be its most essential points, and prevent these from being changed, but they are always unsuccessful: every belief system evolves.
All belief systems are prone to schisms and splits.
Some people notice that belief systems they disagree with have certain features which they judge to be “religious,” “emotional,” or “irrational”. But these features also apply to the belief systems they agree with. They are universal qualities of belief systems. Does this mean that belief systems are incurably deficient in some rational faculty? No: these seemingly bad features of belief systems are not only inescapable, but also necessary. They perform an essential function. Without them, for example, science could never have developed and could not continue to make progress. Dr. Steele will show how these seemingly “irrational” aspects of belief systems are automatically generated by the survival needs of the belief system.
These qualities of belief systems are inevitable, and commitment to belief systems will last as long as humankind. Belief systems arise because of a natural, genetically programmed appetite for a theory which makes sense of the world. Believing is a natural appetite like hunger and sex, but far more powerful than either of those. If people did not have this appetite, they would be unable to function, but this appetite automatically generates all the features of belief systems.
Many aspects of belief systems seem crazy and exasperating to those outside the system, but they are in fact unavoidable, and indeed they perform essential functions. They are not symptoms of human irrationality—exactly the contrary, they show us precisely the way in which human rationality can express itself and bring us closer to the truth.
When someone comes into contact with a strange belief system, they often feel that the belief system makes no sense, that the adherents of that system are peculiarly irrational, or dishonest, or both, that no argument could ever convince the adherent and make them leave the belief system. These reactions are mistaken: the belief system makes perfect sense to its adherents, who are typically honest and rational, and all belief systems suffer losses of membership due to their former adherents being convinced by argument that what they once believed is in fact false. It is, in fact, impossible to prevent people being persuaded by rational argument to change their views (though, under some circumstances, they might choose to pretend that they still believe in the old system).
David Ramsay Steele is a classical liberal and critical rationalist speaker and writer. His latest book is Orwell Your Orwell, a study of the ideas of George Orwell, due for release in April 2017. His earlier books are Therapy Breakthrough (co-authored, 2013), Atheism Explained (2008), Three Minute Therapy (co-authored, 1997), and From Marx to Mises (1992).