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Level of your beliefs what is vital

Sat., July 11, 2009

Question: How believable is belief? What’s it even “good” for?

Name any atrocity you like, through the centuries, and belief has played a major role. It’s pervasive in religion, infests nationalism, and is sure to be a major player in any other “ism” you care to name.

So, just what is it, and why do we hold onto it?

A simple definition might be, “Belief is the acceptance of something that one regards as true.”

This truth will fall somewhere on a continuum of triviality and nontriviality. Unimportant or important. The truth or The Truth!

However, no one can say what another will consider important. A truth you might be willing to die for might be trivial to me.

Belief also rests upon an emotional continuum, as well as one of importance. As the saying goes, a chicken is involved with one’s eggs and bacon, but the pig is committed.

By themselves, beliefs do not comprise belief systems, but belief systems naturally arise from beliefs. The distinction is this: Beliefs have a direct referent, i.e., “I believe in God.” Or, “I believe I’ll have the T-bone.”

One’s belief in either, neither or both of the above may be trivial or important. For some, a properly cooked steak may be far more important than “God.” For others, this is blasphemous.

Belief systems are about one or more beliefs. They are higher-order abstractions of/from beliefs, even if unrecognized as such, and are a different critter entirely.

To wit: “I believe morality is God-given.” Or, “I’d like the T-bone, medium rare, please.” A belief about a belief.

But to accept something as true is not to say that what is accepted is actually true. Likewise, even if something is true, it need not be accepted.

This reveals the basic nature of belief and belief systems – namely, that they may or may not be valid. Oops.

The validity of a belief system need have nothing to do with its importance or the degree of one’s attachment to it. Lower-level belief systems are simply more trivial and are held with less attached emotion; higher-level ones are more important and have more intensity.

Therefore, the attachment one feels to a belief system is analogous with its connection to selfhood. If a series of beliefs, comprising one or more belief systems, makes “me” (or a large part thereof), then a definition suggests itself:

A belief system is a principle or set of principles that informs (i.e., gives content and meaning to) one’s life in a nontrivial (i.e., important) way.

Where it lies on a continuum of validity does not matter, and to speak only of that is to miss the point, which is its degree of relative importance.

If a belief system is provisional – i.e., subject to modification by reality – it is more or less benign.

But it can become so important that it is “me.” In which case, if it is therefore elevated to fixed or rigid belief and escalated to its extreme level, it is potentially lethal.

Put another way, absolute belief, coupled with fanaticism, is a recipe for disaster.

No matter what the belief.

Donald Clegg, a longtime Spokane resident, is an author and professional watercolor artist. Contact him via e-mail at


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