Why Do We Believe In…Anything At All?
Putting specific religious or philosophical beliefs aside, have you ever wondered why we humans have a propensity to believe in anything at all? What could that teach us about the things holding us back (limiting beliefs), and why some people can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds?
To get a better understanding of what makes us us, we have to go back in time.
Curiosity and Coincidence
If I randomly placed you at any point in the ~200,000 year human history, there is a 95% chance you’d be living during a period of hunting and gathering, but your mental capacity would be indistinguishable to anyone born today. Imagine what that was like, intellectually. You and your clan were the centers of a hemispherical universe, the edges of which looked reachable and yet, never got any closer.
Everything you learned about the clouds, caribous, stars and cedars was based on what you saw with your eyes, thought with your brain or heard someone tell you (assuming you lived within the last 100,000 years after the creation of language). There were no books to read. There wasn’t even writing. Sumerian Cuneiform script was millennia away.
Without any kind of objective understanding to ground us, questions (existential or scientific) were free to roam until they ran into the best stories as solutions. We needed some sort of answer so we could get on with our lives.
Let’s look at three of the big questions.
Why am I here?
What happens after I die?
What the hell is going on right now?
The first two assume individual importance, which in turn creates a bias towards things needing to be a certain way. The third one would be pulled by the subjective gravitational force of the first two, skewing the causes of natural events to be somewhat personal or connected to our individual story. Coincidence and correlation most definitely drove causation, forcing someone to initially utter the anthropocentric statement, “Things happen for a reason.” Indeed, things happened for a scientific reason but we didn’t know our meteorological elbow from our photosynthetic asshole, so that “reason” we were talking about was sentimental conjecture.
But think about it…
Of course you would assume a spiritual ether when, to go along with tempests, laser beams shot out of clouds followed by a sky growl.
Of course you would think something was angry when the earth shook andsplit open from time to time.
Of course you would believe in the supernatural when you saw a tornado ripping up dirt, rocks and trees, and flinging them miles on end.
Of course you would offer sacrifices to magical gods when liquid fire shot out of mountain tops.
Of course you’d be blaming Hanna and Zyler’s affair as to why a drought decimated half of your population.
Of course you would feel cosmically special when you had a deja vu, a weird dream or a sleep-deprived hallucination.
Of course you would believe in curses as you watched someone having an epileptic seizure or battling schizophrenia.
Of course you’d put your trust in things like animism, astrologers, palm readers, shamans, elders and oracles because obviously! There was no other explanation.
In a position of influence and power, you couldn’t say, “You know, I don’t really know why any of this is happening. I’m stumped.” The guy who said that was thrown into the sea as an offering to one of the gods who was surely causing these disasters. And that would continue all the way to Jupiter, Apollo, Odin, Vishnu, Yahweh, ad infinitum.
We needed to believe to make sense of what was happening to us or around us. But in addition to curiosity and coincidence, there was another reason to believe.
While life may be beautiful from a natural splendor point of view, its macroscopic aesthetics and diversity are because organisms have been creating different ways to kill or hump each other in one great resource war. Migrating, inflating, coiling, venom, toxins, shells, packs, spun webs, salmon runs, bright colors, camouflage, jungle canopies, coral reefs. One animal’s “amazing” is another animal’s “terrifying.” We call this bit of evolutionary change “arms races” for goodness sake.
Yes, it’s elegant that a cuttlefish can change colors to blend into its surroundings, but not if this stealth squid is creeping around in the shadows waiting to eat you whole. Because then it’s a horror movie. Leopard seals have puppy dog eyes and silly swirly motions that are soooo cute, until their razor sharp teeth start tearing penguins’ heads off.
It’s no different for humans. Huddled up in that ancient cave, waiting to fend off a pack of wolves or an invading tribe, you might ask your dad, “Why did Mommy get eaten by a saber-toothed tiger?” or “Why is there no food?” or “Why can’t I shake this whooping cough?” Your father would have to make up some stuff that sounded nicer than they really were because existence was hell. The average hunter-gatherer mortality rate was 38% before 15 years of age. (The current world average is 6% before 5 years of age.)
But don’t be fooled by the modern era. Even out of the caves and savannas, existence has always carried with it a certain “hell du jour.” Think about what things like typhoid, smallpox, the Bubonic Plague, Spanish Flu, yellow fever and smallpox epidemics did to populations over the past 2,500 years alone. Our modern state of health and plenty is rare, impossibly rare on the human timeline. Up until 1820, 94% of the world was living in “absolute poverty.”
And still today the resource war goes on. Over 10% of the world’s population lives on less than $1.90/day.
We believe in something because it’s comforting, because that something balanced the cruelty of life. It made loss digestible, and scarcity ok. It was the gods, their punishment or their good graces.
All animals struggle, but only humans have to think about that struggle. And that is a heavy burden.
Community And Control
Lastly, tales tall, fairy and, folk have the ability to travel far beyond the reach of your voice and thus, have the power to unite large swaths of people. When a certain population believe the same story as you, then that becomes the seeds of a community. Shrewd individuals can capitalize on that by using stories to control people. Parents needed their children to stop asking, rulers needed their subjects to stop doubting. Make no mistake, we learned what we knew not just from the best stories, but the ones told by those with the biggest weapons.
Curiosity, Coincidence, Comfort, Community & Control.
We believe because we want to believe.
It’s why we tell stories of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and all that. It’s why we’re superstitious.
It’s why we write, watch and read fictional tales. Stories teach us, ground us and inspire us to question our origins, to be better people and to explore the cosmos.
There is an inevitability for humans to believe because there is a utility in it.
It’s part of our evolution, to make us less animal, to soften our primal edges, to help process the madness and the unknown, to get us to work and live together. These communities were the Petri dish of rituals and religiosity, uniting under the hopes of blessings/heaven/salvation or defending against the temptations of curses/hell/damnation.
And then we needed to continue to believe in order to make sense of the awful things we as humans did to each other as civilizations grew more complex and more diverse from each other. How else could we find hope amidst the horrors of slavery, wars, and raping and pillaging? Or on the other side of it, how else could you condone it? A belief in something, something that was on our side felt better than the alternative.
It’s painful not to pretend.
The challenge then comes in realizing that our beliefs (scientific, philosophic, and those we have of ourselves) don’t automatically constitute truths or certainties (remember too that people thought the world was flat, doctors didn’t need to wash hands and Pluto was a planet), nor do they mean that we are wrong about everything (See! Punxsutawney Phil was right. I told you!). They are simply ways we currently explain the world (and our place in it) so that we can go to bed at night in peace.
So your thoughts about you, and your work and your relationship can change. Your circumstance doesn’t have to be your disposition if you don’t want it to. You can choose to believe in something else and then act on it.
Since beliefs are inevitable, may they never make us stagnant, but instead, foster an appetite of continuous wonder and understanding.