Weird Beliefs

February 17, 2009

Of course, the other possibility is that belief itself is weird…

Weird beliefs are a one-way door

Most human groups have some form of weird belief. Examples are easy to point out. Roman Catholics, for instance, believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation, which holds that the bread and wine consumed at valid celebrations of the Eucharist become the literal flesh and blood of Christ. Theologians agree that the appearance, odor, taste and feel of the bread and wine do not change, but insist that their underlying substance is converted. I intend no disrespect for Catholicism, but I think it is fair to say that for the majority of humans this idea is, so to speak, hard to swallow.

That may be the point; one purpose of weird beliefs is to serve as barriers to entry. That is, if a group maintains a weird belief, the difficulty of accepting that idea prevents others from joining lightly— it filters out the non-serious. And once accepted, the weird belief serves as a barrier to exit. Once an applicant has gone to the trouble of reordering her psyche to accept a weird belief, she is unlikely to abandon it lightly. Weird beliefs are a one-way door.

I am not one to throw stones when it comes to weird beliefs; during my sojourn as a Christian fundamentalist, I firmly believed that the creator of all things was opposed to celebrating holidays, hated blood transfusions, had firm opinions about the wearing of ties, etc., etc., ad nauseam. In retrospect it seems foolish, but at the time my passion for these ideas was so fervent that I spent as many as a hundred hours a month promoting them. Ultimately, when I was trying to quit the church, I found that I couldn’t simply give up the weird beliefs, I had to denounce them, to proclaim myself a heretic. If weird beliefs are a one-way door, the only way out is through.

Weird beliefs are memes, idea clusters that propagate like parasites in human gray matter. They aren’t necessarily bad, but they should certainly be considered guilty until proven innocent. It sometimes seems to me that they are peculiar life forms that depend on religions, corporations and governments for their very survival. On the other hand, much that is uniquely and lovably human is a product of religions, corporations and governments and, thus, a product of weird beliefs… so perhaps they’re symbiotes rather than parasites.

In any event, it is a very good thing to be aware of weird beliefs in general, and one approach to sanity is the recognition of weird beliefs in oneself. I am always happy whenever I recognize some personal weird conviction—it’s a relief to abandon it.

Conversely, one can take the opposite tack and intentionally adopt a weird belief; presently, for example, I am trying hard to believe that humans worldwide are becoming more generous, more kind and more loving every day, and that the world is becoming a better place. This is a difficult faith to maintain, but I’m getting there and it sure… feels good.

P.S. If you like this essay, you’ll love my new eBook, Confessions of a Heavy Thinker.

Did you like this essay? You’ll love my books!

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Nika 02.17.09 at 9:16 pm

The idea of weird beliefs being a one-way door is an interesting and apt metaphor. It makes sense that they would have to be denounced, rather than just let go.

Angus 03.06.09 at 1:57 pm

You are one astute kitty.

EatenByChutulu 03.22.09 at 2:34 pm

Too true. Esp. the bit about being relieved to recognize weird beliefs in oneself! I think some false memes need to be denounced fervently and regularly. I’m an atheist, have never seen any evidence that there are such things as devils or angels and still find skeptic blogs to be a life line for me because there’s a part of my brain that refuses to give up superstition.

Angus 03.22.09 at 2:43 pm

Thanks for the comment Eaten. I guess that’s the same part of the brain that gets religion in the first place.

cheers,
Angus

John Nernoff 03.22.09 at 5:43 pm

It would be nice to list some more examples. Thanks.

In my area, the Amish have a weird belief that buttons are evil, so they pin their clothes on. Automobiles are taboo, so they use the horse and buggy. They are reluctant to use electricity and a lot of modern technology. Sometimes they show up at hospitals, so go figure.

Angus 03.22.09 at 6:34 pm

Thanks for the feedback John, and I’m sure I’ll continue to explore this theme. Re: the Amish, I’d say they’re considerably more aware of the dynamics discussed in this post than I am, and consciously use them. I know they’re fully aware of the ironies in their positions on various technologies, but feel that conscious slow adoption had so many advantages they’re willing to deal with them. I think Kevin Kelley has written on this: I’ll try to find a link.

cheers,
Angus

Angus 03.22.09 at 6:37 pm

Here’s the link – well worth reading:

Amish Hackers

the chaplain 03.26.09 at 5:03 pm

Your one-way door metaphor is great. Weird beliefs, rituals, clothing, etc., are all means of distinguishing insiders from outsiders. And, everyone wants to be an insider.

Angus 03.26.09 at 5:56 pm

Thanks Chaplain!

antimattr 03.28.09 at 6:27 am

I hadn’t thought about belief in weird things being a barrier to entry for religious and other groups, but that’s a very interesting thought. If you haven’t seen them already, you might find Dan Dennet’s Ted Talk on memes interesting. There are a couple other Ted Talks about memes as well.

Angus 03.28.09 at 8:47 am

Thanks for the feedback, antimattr. I’ve read a couple of dennet’s books, and will look for his lecture.

cheers,
Angus

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