Where Do Beliefs Come From?

by | September 3, 2019

By James Haught

James Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He is 87-years-old and would like to help secular causes more. This series is a way of giving back, as he opens in No Qualms (Ed., published on 2018, July 18, i.e., when he was 86), “I’m quite aware that my turn is approaching. The realization hovers in my mind like a frequent companion. My first wife died ten years ago. Dozens, hundreds, of my longtime friends and colleagues likewise came to the end of their journeys. They number so many that I keep a “Gone” list in my computer to help me remember them all. Before long, it will be my turn to join the list.”

[Ed., Thank you, Jim.]

Suppose a miracle is reported — say, another Virgin Mary sighting by Catholics, or the 900-foot Jesus seen by evangelist Oral Roberts. Some Americans will embrace this news joyfully as evidence of the holy, while others will be skeptical.

Here’s my question: What causes some people to believe such reports and others to doubt them? What is different inside the minds of the two groups? What makes believers and doubters?

I really don’t know — and neither do any of the believers or doubters, I suspect.

This quandary applies to more than religion. It covers all human belief systems. For example, what causes some people to be political conservatives and others liberals — right-wingers and left-wingers? What creates rebels and conformists, puritans and playboys, social reformers and traditionalists, militarists and pacifists (“hawks” and “doves”), Democrats and Republicans, gun-lovers and gun-haters, environmentalists and industry-boosters (“tree-huggers” and “spoilers”), death penalty advocates and death penalty foes, etc.?

A half-century ago, why did some Americans support racial segregation, and some integration? A century earlier, why did some clergymen uphold slavery, and others denounce it?

Nearly everyone has a “worldview” encompassing such issues — but does anyone know how he or she acquired it? Where do beliefs come from? Over the years, I’ve put this question to various psychologists, but I never got an answer I can understand.

If you ask, say, a conservative why he’s conservative, you’ll probably get an answer something like: “Because I’m intelligent and can see the obvious correctness of that position.” And a liberal would say exactly the same. Neither really knows why.

Odd “agendas” of beliefs exist. Protestant fundamentalists usually want to censor sexy movies, ban abortion, impose the death penalty, punish gays, allow pistol-carrying, ban marijuana, curtail sex education, reduce welfare, outlaw go-go girls, require prayer in schools, etc. But why is there a link between sexual taboos, executions and welfare? Offhand, the topics don’t seem related.

Conversely, secular liberals generally back an opposite agenda on all those subjects. And Catholics often are switch-hitters, opposing sex while embracing share-the-wealth efforts. How are these outlooks implanted?

In psychology, there’s a factor called “bias reinforcement.” It means that people with certain inclinations constantly look for evidence to back their views, and shrug off opposing evidence. Does that help explain beliefs? Do we condition ourselves, like Pavlov’s dog, to give knee-jerk reactions to stimuli? Also, some new research implies that beliefs may be partly genetic, locked into our DNA.

More than a century ago, in a lecture titled “The Will to Believe,” famed philosopher-novelist-psychologist William James told Ivy League students that people believe what they want to believe — what their personal orientations draw them to accept — and that this human instinct is desirable. This is called “volitionalism” by scholars. But it really doesn’t explain anything. For example, it doesn’t clarify why evangelist Jerry Falwell is drawn to believe the word-for-word truth of the Bible, but renowned astronomer Carl Sagan was drawn to reject it.

In some cases, circumstantial causes of beliefs are visible. For example, women traditionally held nurturing roles while men went forth to conquer. So women tend to be “liberal,” supporting school lunches, health care, welfare, etc., while men are inclined to militarism. (Women are from Venus, men from Mars.) Blacks have been cheated in America for so long that they naturally see society from an underdog view — rallying behind O.J. Simpson, for instance. Underdog feelings apply even stronger to gays. Most Jews feel an ethnic affinity for Israel and can’t be objective about Mideast politics. Ditto, in reverse, for Arabs.

Growing up in a working-class family, or in poverty — instead of being born to wealth and privilege — undoubtedly inclines many to embrace labor union beliefs and egalitarian causes. But there are exceptions to all these patterns. And other belief roots are too unfathomable for such simplistic explanations.

Beliefs of the whole society evolve. When I was young in the 1950s, gays were put in prison, and it also was a crime to buy a drink, look at a “girlie” magazine, buy a lottery ticket, marry someone of a different race, have sex out of wedlock, etc. Today, the beliefs behind those laws seem as antiquated as powdered wigs.

In the end, I’m still mostly unable to deduce why people are religious believers or skeptics, political conservatives or liberals, moral puritans or fun-seekers, military hawks or doves, and all the rest. Yet these are powerful psychological forces that shape the very nature of our society, and its internal conflicts. Where do beliefs come from? It is a puzzlement.

Link here at Daylight Atheism.

This article first appeared in the Sunday Gazette-Mail, May 4, 2003.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Radu Florin on Unsplash

One thought on “Where Do Beliefs Come From?

  1. Tim Underwood

    Good observations.

    One factor is probably the fictitious stories that we are brought up with. Take Christian fundamentalists for example. Their base stories brush up against history, science and morality. They are so used to rejecting all established truths that when something as mundane as climate change appears on the scene, their first impulsive reaction is to deny it outright and then begin searching for reasons why it also is obviously is false.

    I think many groups of society are brought up to respect privilege and entitlement.The stories they are brought up to respect constantly have to be defended from encroaching scrutiny.

    Maybe they are habitual logic reactionaries.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.