Why Do You Believe What You Believe? — Part One

April 16, 2007
What might an honest examination of your beliefs uncover?

Sunset over the oceanI will start this week’s set of questions with a story that illustrates what might happen if we were all to understand the process by which we have chosen the religion or spiritual practice we follow, or by which we have decided not to follow a religion or spiritual practice.

Imagine there is a community, a most unusual community, in which the governing council is selected by lottery. What is particularly interesting is that this non-election system works to everyone’s satisfaction because all council members must come to unanimous agreement on all decisions for which they are responsible.

They must decide as a unit how their community will feed the poor, clothe the sick, care for the injured, educate children, promote justice, and defend the helpless. They must also agree on other important issues, such as the amount of taxes everyone should pay, how much property should be set aside for parks, and what zoning should apply to new construction.

Now imagine further that it just so happens that the current group of policy-makers consists of eight people. Five of them are sincere followers of five different religions — Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. In addition, one is an atheist, one an agnostic, and one has created his own spiritual path from a variety of faiths.

But they all know that it won’t help to decide an issue if their only reason for being in favor or, or opposed to, an item on the agenda is based on the Torah, Bible, Koran, or other holy writ. If they were to insist on using scripture, their opinion won’t hold much weight for those who don’t ascribe to their particular religion. Consequently, they all have to find something else on which to base their unanimous decisions.

How do they manage to set aside their personal beliefs in order to provide for the general good? It turns out that their success goes back to when the community was founded. Early in its history it was decided that parents should encourage their children to follow their religion. Therefore, they learned all about the traditions of that religion or practice, and they were clear why their parents either felt one religion was better than another or why they didn’t ascribe to any religion.

However, the major thing that differentiates this community from the one in which most of us live is that when these children become young adults, they are encouraged to consider the reasons WHY the faith of their parents should be their faith.

Therefore, they are asked to carefully observe the natural world, study how religion has influenced history, notice how a person’s faith influences his or her actions, and reflect on how their own experiences may or may not support the religious faith of their parents. In fact, the very questions posed to you this week at the bottom of this page are the ones they are required to consider.

Deciding their answers, and yours, is not an easy task!

It would be much easier to encourage children to simply, unquestioninly adopt the faith of their families. But in this community they aren’t. Instead, they are asked to use both their rational and intuitive minds to discover which religion (or none) makes the most sense to them. Thus, for the members of this community, religion is not static dogma. It is dynamic, and throughout life these people continue to explore whether their current beliefs still make sense as a foundation for their actions, or whether they believe it best to base their actions on another religion, or on no formal religion at all.

It is the process of opening their hearts and minds to ever-expanding faith and deepening spirituality that allows those selected for the governing council to make decisions for the community. These decisions are based on reason, compassion, and the common good, rather than solely on what each person believes is right according to their specific interpretation of their chosen scripture.

And remember, in this governing system all decisions must be unanimous. So there isn’t a lot of time wasted on debating whether or not there is a “God,” no matter whether someone uses the term “God,” “Great Spirit.” “Allah,” “Yahweh,” “Universal Force,” “the ground of all being,” or some other name. They aren’t interested in hairsplitting semantics.

In this community it is assumed that those with strongly held religious views believe those views best explain how those people experience the world. But since they must use other criteria with which to make decisions — in order for their decisions to be unanimous — they discover there is much on which they agree when they’re not trying to make the other person wrong for having a different faith.

In fact, they don’t pay much attention to what others say they believe. Rather, the members of this community have been taught to focus on whether someone lives the tenets of their faith, or according to what they claim is their philosophy of life. They take careful notice of whether a person expresses the highest qualities of the human spirit, treats others with kindness and takes care of the environment. It is through these observations that they know people can be moral, ethical, kind, and compassionate — and make the world a better place simply because of who they are — even when they are atheists or agnostics. Likewise, they know that members of every religion have been immoral, unethical, unkind, and cruel — and have made the world a hard place in which others can live in peace.

In other words, this community would agree with my article on The Conclusion That Actions Speak Louder Than Words. I’m not sure they would want to know what I believe or why I believe it as long as I am honest, kind and compassionate. But if you are interested, you can learn why I don’t believe there is a hell and why I suspect there is some kind of afterlife, even though I can’t possibly know what that will be like, nor do I think others know. If you want to learn about some of the experiences that formed and support my beliefs, you can read An Agnostic’s Encounter With God.


What do you see in nature that causes you to believe in the religion you profess, or to not believe in a religion?

How do your relationships, ethnicity and sex affect your choice of a religion or spiritual practice, or do they cause you not to believe in a religion?

What effect does your understanding of history and current events have on your religious beliefs?

When viewed rationally, what appeals to you about one religion or spiritual practice rather than another? Why?

Are your actions consistent with what you claim to be your beliefs?

3 thoughts on “Why Do You Believe What You Believe? — Part One

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