Recently I have been keenly interested in faith and beliefs. More to the point, I have been thinking deeply about the question why we believe what we believe. I am pretty certain that I’m not the only person who has gone through some philosophical paradigm shifts in his life. As someone who has gone through his fair share of shifting beliefs, it interests me to consider the question of why we believe what we believe, and its corollary question what prompts us to change our beliefs.
When I was in seminary, I took some classes in Christian apologetics, and the apologetic method I was introduced to was presuppositional apologetics. The gist of this method is that as human beings, we all have presuppositions that color the way we look at the world and the evidence for or against the existence of God or the truth of Christianity. If the bible is to be believed (please grant this for the moment) and we are all fallen in sin, then that state of falleness will shape our presuppositions of the world. The sinful mind is inherently hostile toward God and that shapes his presuppositions and how he views the world. He will tend to see the world as not being the special creation of God and he will tend to see man as inherently good and not in need of salvation.
Now, the point of this post isn’t to present an apologetic for Christianity, but to introduce the concept of presuppositions. These presuppositions form a web of beliefs that we can call a worldview. Each of us has a worldview whether we acknowledge it or not. Some of us are conscious of our worldview, while others are not; yet even if one is not consciously aware of his particular worldview, he still acts in accordance with it.
Now in this web of beliefs that form our worldview, some are secondary or tertiary; they lie on the outer part of our belief system. These beliefs tend to be more open to change because they are not core to our worldview. However, those beliefs that are at the center of our worldview are more jealously guarded. We will tend to fight ‘tooth and nail’ to defend these beliefs against attack. We will also tend to tolerate a greater degree of cognitive dissonance regarding these beliefs because they are vital to our worldview (by cognitive dissonance, I am referring to beliefs that appear to be contradictory, but are held to regardless).
Let me illustrate this with an example. The belief that the bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God, verbally and plenary inspired, is a central, core belief in a conservative Christian worldview. Yet it is common knowledge to Christians and non-Christians alike that there are discrepancies and apparent contradictions in the bible. If these discrepancies are irreconcilable, and if these contradictions are true contradictions, then the belief in the bible as the inerrant and infallible word of God would be a false claim. If it is a false claim, then the conservative Christian worldview is shattered. As a result, many Christians go to great lengths to demonstrate that these discrepancies can be harmonized and that the contradictions are indeed apparent. Some of these arguments are valid, and some strain credulity. As such, a certain level of cognitive dissonance is tolerated to keep the overall belief structure in place.
So back to my original question: Why do we believe what we believe? How do we assemble the beliefs that make up our worldview? To answer these questions, I will use myself as a guide. Insofar as my experiences reflect normal human behavior, it seems reasonable to me that they would reflect what most human beings go through to adopt a particular worldview (even though that worldview could be radically different than mine).
I think the first obvious input to our belief system is the time and place of our birth. Our individual worldviews are in large part formed by our cultural influences; our particular zeitgeist. I was born in the United States (the Midwest to be precise) in the latter half of the 20th century (1965). I was born prior to the advent of cable TV, home computers, the internet, and smart phones. All of this, and more, informs my worldview. I may like and desire all of these technological advances, but I can remember when they didn’t exist and would probably be able to cope without them if they were taken away. These initial beliefs are, in the truest sense of the word, foundational; they are foundational because they are the earliest beliefs we come to hold. They are also some of the first beliefs to be challenged as we encounter people who were born in different times and different places. For example, my dad’s worldview is very different than mine in foundational ways. He was born in 1932 smack-dab in the middle of the depression. That experience has had a profound impact on the way my father lives his life.
Another major factor in how we form the beliefs that shape our worldview is how we’re raised and taught during our childhood. Children are natural information sponges that absorb nearly everything they’re taught by their parents and teachers. Much of our religious and moral beliefs are formed during this period. Growing up religion was a part of my life, but not the major focus. My mother was a Roman Catholic and my father was a Southern Baptist, so naturally we split time between the local Catholic parish and the nearest Baptist church. Religion was mostly about how one should act; there wasn’t a huge emphasis on theology or doctrine. I would say that’s fairly typical of the era in which I grew up; religion was more about right living than right belief. As children, we tend to implicitly believe what we’re taught during this period because we implicitly trust our parents and our teachers; plus at this age, children do not engage in a whole lot of critical thinking.
A third major factor in building our particular worldview would be our life’s experiences. Life can be a cruel teacher at times. I can remember many times complaining to my parents that something that happened to me “wasn’t fair.” What’s the common response that parents use? “Life’s not fair.” Of course, life is not unfair either. Life is just life. The world is just the world. It is neither fair, nor unfair; it is no “respecter of persons.” However, other people can, and often are, unfair. When someone hurts us or betrays a trust, that has a major impact on our worldview; we learn that maybe not all people are “inherently good.” Sometimes we see that hard work isn’t rewarded, or sloth isn’t punished. Sometimes bad people get away with evil and good people suffer for no fault of their own. All of these things alter and modify our worldviews. Based on life’s experiences (or sometimes in spite of them), some people are optimistic, some are pessimistic. Some are realists and some are nihilists. We’ve all experienced life on planet earth, but those experiences affect the way we view the world.
Finally, maturity also plays a role in shaping our worldviews. As we grow older, hopefully we grow wiser. Younger people tend to be more impulsive and idealistic, whereas older people tend to be more reasoned and realistic. Things that appeared in stark “black and white” might appears to be more “shades of gray.” Also as we get older — say from adolescence to young adult — we tend to question more the assumptions of our youth. There seems to be a natural tendency in youth to push the boundaries of their parent’s control. No longer is the reaction of youth to accept implicitly what their parents say. They go to college where their professors often challenge their implicitly held beliefs. Depending on how well the children were indoctrinated (and I’m not using that word in a pejorative sense) will go a long way in determining how well the beliefs of their youth survive.
I know I’m going on a little long here, but please bear with me. I want to look at how worldview beliefs change. I am growing more and more convinced that worldview beliefs will not and cannot change unless there is a paradigm shift in that person’s thinking. Have you ever had an argument with someone who believed something radically different than you? You can present what you feel are the best logical and evidential arguments for your position possible and your opponent will find a way to explain away your airtight logic and your mountain of evidence. Why is that? Because your opponent has a different worldview that shapes how they view the evidence. It determines what they feel are valid arguments and what constitutes as proper evidence. If it doesn’t support their particular worldview, then there will inevitably be holes in the logic and a deficiency in the evidence (or a misinterpretation of the evidence). No amount of arguing will get a person to change their worldview; those are beliefs that form the core of their perspective.
However, people can and do go through a paradigm shift. Usually some traumatic life experience that causes one to critically examine previously held dogmatic beliefs. A life crisis or an intellectual crisis or some other crisis that shatters the cognitive dissonance that holds our most core beliefs together. When that happens, personal worldviews change. People convert from non-faith to faith, or de-convert from faith to non-faith. People change political views from liberal to conservative or from conservative to libertarian (as in my case). When people change worldviews, it can be a very long and painful process. Much time can be spent in philosophical reflection and conversation. Sometimes a change in worldview radically changes one’s personal relationships. Friends one had due to a common worldview may not look to kindly at an ‘apostate.’
When one changes worldviews, others want to know why? Why would you change from believing “X” to not believing “X?” Worldviews, as I’ve been saying, are beliefs that help us make sense of the world and our experiences. If one goes through a paradigm shift and changes worldviews, it’s usually because the old worldview loses its explanatory power and that the new worldview explains the world in a more logical and coherent way. Perhaps much of the cognitive dissonance that was once held in order to keep the old worldview together is eased when adopting the new worldview. In the end, we’re all just human beings trying to make sense of the world around us, and sometimes that requires a radical change in worldview.
Libertas Aut Mors!