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Friday 30 October 2020

Deeply Held Beliefs


What is the difference between a deeply held belief and a belief? The former is probably one which will not easily be given up in the face of apparently invalidating evidence or argument. Indeed, there may be unwillingness to give it up in any circumstances and the believer may acknowledge that by saying the belief is a matter of faith, that they are willing to believe even what is absurd (Credo quia absurdum).

At the same time, someone who tells you that something is for them a deeply held belief may also be warning you off: don’t try to get too close to my belief, don’t offend me by criticising it let alone scoffing at it, acknowledge my entitlement to believe what I like. And, perhaps remarkably, the deep believer often gets their way: other people tip-toe round deeply held beliefs for fear either that they might cause upset or incur some swift punishment for temerity. Deep beliefs can secure you remarkable privileges.  

Two paragraphs down and things aren’t looking good for deeply held beliefs. They already begin to sound like things we could best do without.

Beliefs which their holders characterise in this kind of way must have some kind of history. Are the beliefs or the way they are characterised recent inventions? I am going to guess they are. What are now characterised as deeply held beliefs started out as a new way of pledging allegiance, most obviously to one of the religions which depend on writing and  which began to get themselves organised more than a millennium ago now. That you could recite a long set of beliefs from memory became the proof that you weren’t faking it, that you really were one of us. The demands made on believers were sometimes considerable: the Church of England started off with thirty nine articles of belief and still keeps hold of them. True, it’s not any longer expected that anyone now deeply believes all of them or, indeed, any of them. Nowadays, the test of allegiance may be no more than a contribution to roof repairs. But that was not always true. Like many religious organisations, the Church of England has known better days and but for endless free publicity provided by the Royal Family and the BBC would trouble us as little as the closer-to-the-spirit-of Christianity non-conformist churches.


The alternative to deeply held beliefs are beliefs which we accept as vulnerable to evidence and reasoned argument. People who hold their beliefs in that kind of provisional way are not only better company but safer drivers. At times, they will be as useful in the same way as a canary in a coalmine. They will be better guides when it comes to getting out of a fix. A politician who does not know how to make a U-turn is not to be trusted, no more than someone whose car has no reverse gear.

During a pandemic, deep believers will be the ones keen to keep their churches, mosques and synagogues open, at all costs. They will pay the price - God will single them out for special disfavour (see now footnote *) - but everyone else is made to suffer too.


My younger self was far too pre-occupied with his beliefs and completely inattentive to his dispositions. I can only say that I think this not an uncommon mistake. Theologies of one kind or another have their strongest appeal to the young, to seminarians and students, historically more or less exclusively male castes. Sometimes whole lifetimes are then devoted to elaborating the initial stock of beliefs, taken from one of the well-known tried and failed models. But quite often, people realise that such beliefs are not enough to sustain a life, their enthusiasm wanes, and they become more human. This benefits all of us.

Dispositions matter: generosity and kindness, cruelty and meanness, fairness and thoughtfulness, jealousy and vindictiveness. Of course, those dispositions are often presented as beliefs: young men claim to kill in the name of some article of their religion. They don’t say they kill for the glory or the thrill, though often it seems clear that they do.  If it was really a matter of belief, how come nearly all the killers are young males and not more evenly distributed across the entire community of deep believers, female as well as male, old as well as young?

And when someone refuses to do something “on principle” the one thing you can be reasonably sure of is that they take a peacock pride in themselves. What does “on principle” add to just refusing to do something? You are a soldier lined up facing a hostile crowd. Your commanding officer orders you to fire into the air, you do, and the crowd turns around and runs. You are then ordered to lower your gun and shoot those fleeing, in the back. You could turn to your officer and say that you won’t do that “on principle” or you could just carry on firing into the air and hope that those alongside you do the same. What matters most in the heat of the moment is not your principles but that those running have a chance to get away - and silent mutiny will be at least as effective as grandstanding.


Beliefs are very over-rated. Most of us have far too many for our own good and even more so for the good of others. And we are terribly interested in what other people believe (heresy-hunting alive and well) when really we should be more interested in their dispositions and their circumstances. Is this person disposed to kindness? is an important question. Do they believe in the thirty nine articles of the Christian religion? is not, ever. Can people afford accommodation for themselves which is light, airy, dry, warm, spacious, and secure? is a great deal more important than whether they believe in the one hundred percent social construction of gender identities (ninety nine percent will not do).

I am still overweight with beliefs, but trying to slim down. As for deeply held beliefs, they are the mental equivalent of obesity. Both Ockham’s Razor and simple considerations of mental hygiene ought to persuade us that when it comes to belief we should travel light.

Footnote added 2 February 2021: This prediction turns out to be true. Today's Financial Times publishes a graphic showing United Kingdom COVID mortality rates by religious affiliation. In the period 2nd March to 15 May 2020, mortality per 100 000 affiliates was highest among those who identified themselves as Jewish with Muslims coming in a close second. The numbers then decline through the following categories: Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, Other Religion, Religion not stated  ... and, finally, at around half the Jewish rate, "No religion". 

You can interpret the figures in many ways; I just think God has had it with "Religion" - terrible track record when you look at them all -  and has decided to support the other side.

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