By Dr Anthony Lewis
Anthony is Chair of Windsor Humanists and Chair of the South Central England Humanists Network. In this article, he argues that we urgently need an agreed framework to help us better understand our diverse belief systems and worldviews. This would not only help us to navigate the difficult world of interfaith dialogue but might also help to impede the rise of extremist fanaticism.
The American theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg famously wrote: 'With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil - that takes religion.' Another American theoretical physicist, Freeman Dyson, added to Weinberg's famous phrase with the adage: 'and for bad people to do good things – that also takes religion.' It's a clever and funny riposte, but is this any more accurate than the original, and does it add anything useful, given that in the real world an evil act stands on its own as evil and cannot be justified by any amount of offsetting ‘goodness’? It is very obvious to me that it is not just religious fervour that can motivate us to commit horrific violence; all forms of ideology, given the right conditions, can be used to justify evil acts. Stephen Pinker in his book The Better Angels of our Nature (2011) highlights that humans are a violent species, with or without religion. Our ability to create difference and dehumanise our fellow humans, in such a way that allows us to justify hate and aggression, appears to be deeply embedded in our psyche, and it is almost always activated by intolerant ideologies.
Horrific things have been perpetrated throughout history in the name of religion, ethnic tribalism and the desire for conquest. The Inquisition, a medieval institution of the Catholic Church, used horrific forms of torture to extract confessions of heresy; wars between Catholics and Protestants, often referred to as the European Wars of Religion, spanned several decades, primarily in the 16th and 17th centuries; Jews were often subjected to pogroms, with anti-Semitism reaching its terrible climax in the Holocaust. There is ample evidence from history, and in the daily news, that religious faith has and does motivate people to do unconscionable things to each other. The unfolding disasters across the Middle East, with the rise of Islamist extremism, attests to this in the modern world, where the victims of violent Islamist theocrats are mainly fellow Muslims. But as many have highlighted, for example Jordan Peterson in his foreword to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago and Yuval Harari in his popular book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, horrific acts have also been inspired by extreme political ideologies such as communism and fascism. Many of these ferocious ideologies have emerged since the eighteenth century Enlightenment, often based on a warped application of ‘the scientific method’. For example, the Nazi's racist doctrines emerged from the eugenics movement, and Marx claimed to have developed a ‘scientific basis to human history’.
The word ‘ideology’ itself does not inherently imply something is good or bad. It is a neutral term that refers to a system of ideas and beliefs, often related to politics, society or a particular worldview. But what is it that can turn an ideology into a death cult which can drive people to violence and war? The human mind finds ideologies compelling, but why is this? Are we all capable of believing anything, including ideas which are clearly unhinged and delusional, as the recent growth in the Flat Earth movement and the spread of ridiculous conspiracy theories on social media attests? What causes ideologies to go ‘out of kilter’? Is the need to ‘believe in something’ a weakness that lies at the heart of the human condition? Indeed, are all of us capable of evil?
Belief as an ‘evolutionary stabiliser’
According to research in neuroscience, psychology and anthropology, it is clear that a huge variety of belief systems have existed across all civilisations throughout history. These belief systems serve as ‘mental models of reality’ which enable us to function effectively in social groups, enhancing our chances of survival. Each one of us holds a set of assumptions about the world based on our lived experience and social learning, especially in the context of the families and groups in which we grew up.
‘Beliefs are an unavoidable consequence of our being alive and conscious’
All of us have to face the mysteries of existence, the indifference of the natural world, and the ultimate absurdity of our existence, at the same time as having to navigate our way in the human world. To help us cope with the complexities of human existence, and manage cognitive dissonances and conflicting demands, our brains have evolved the remarkable ability to arrange our myriad perceptions and ideas about reality into a set of consistent narratives, stories and beliefs. These narratives, stories and beliefs help us to maintain our sense of self and they help to orient our behaviour and actions in the natural and human worlds so that we can survive and flourish. Our mental health depends on having a balanced set of beliefs that help us navigate our daily lives in the real world. Beliefs are an unavoidable consequence of our being alive and conscious. Even atheists have to have an embedded belief system in order to function and live useful lives.
These narratives, stories and beliefs are not static. They are fluid, evolving constructs modelled by the human mind in response to ongoing experience, and they have a profound role in shaping our identities and influencing our behaviour. They constitute a comprehensive set of opinions and ideas about the world and how it works. They are deeply embedded within each one of us and they are hugely consequential. Effectively, they are an ‘operating system’ and a major aspect of our personal identity. Once firmly embedded in our neural networks, they can be very difficult to change. This helps to explain why religions and many political ideologies seek to indoctrinate the young.
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar in How Religion Evolved: And Why It Endures and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion have each highlighted that, as a social species, we find common cause with those around us who have similar beliefs to ourselves. Through constant social interaction with others, our beliefs become formalised over time into a coherent set of principles which eventually becomes recognised as an identifiable ‘Belief System’. This may be referred to as a philosophy for life, a political movement, a cult or a religion. This wide variation of terms reflects the complexity of our subjective experiences of reality. The ‘Belief Schematic’ shown below tries to capture some of this complexity in a single conceptual diagram.
Over time, as belief systems attract increasing numbers of adherents, they may absorb other sets of beliefs, eventually becoming what is often loosely termed a worldview. Worldviews commonly have a much broader scope than belief systems. They may define how human societies should be structured, providing a comprehensive framework for human behaviour, morality and culture. The difference between a belief system and a worldview is one of scale and impact, although the two terms are often used interchangeably. Belief systems are typically more focused at the individual and community level whilst worldviews seek to organise the whole of society, including other belief systems.
Traditional religions are early belief systems which contain metaphysics (an understanding of reality) and traditional wisdom stretching back in time to the early Neolithic (also known as the Early New Stone Age, which began around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago). Dunbar's research has shown that such religious belief can help to promote social group cohesion but only for those who exist within its boundaries as ‘true believers’. These religions promote co-operation and mutual understanding and help to reduce aggression. But they can also be used to divide people into adherents and ‘non-believers’ or ‘infidels’.
Large, well-established religions may be resistant to change but inevitably they are exposed to new ideas and human progress and they have had to adapt. Indeed this is true all belief systems, not just those based on faith. All are subjected to similar pressures and challenges from novel ideas, emerging new insights, and scientific and technological progress.
What happens when our existing beliefs come into conflict with new ideas and perspectives? It can of course be a huge challenge, and some people and groups resort to violence such as in Northern Ireland where I grew up. The war in Ukraine is an example of a clash between a conservative and authoritarian society (Russia) and a country which wants to go in a different and more liberal direction (Ukraine). New belief systems, such as postmodernism and conspiracy movements such as QAnon, mimic religion in some respects and can spread rapidly.
When beliefs and worldviews go wrong
Most belief systems contain a mix of objective and subjective elements. For example, central to most religious faith is a subjective and personal experience of the divine which is a significant part of the adherent's lived experience – even though the ‘spiritual’ aspect of such experiences eludes empirical testing. In contrast, humanists believe that the best way to understand reality is to use the scientific method, using human reason, evidence and observation. So humanism and religions sit towards opposite ends of the ‘objective–subjective’ spectrum.
There is a clear tension between the objective and subjective elements of human experience and how they are grouped and embedded into our various belief systems. This difference in emphasis lies at the core of many of the misunderstandings that occur between adherents of different worldviews. I find it surprising that there isn't already a comprehensive framework, based on robust research, that facilitates discussions about human beliefs, enabling us to better understand each other through a common language. I'm involved with updating a local religious education syllabus and I have attended numerous presentations and talks about worldviews given by various leading academics, including senior lecturer in education Ruth Flanagan at Exeter University. The terminology and current thinking in this area is often dominated by the privileging of subjectivity, especially subjective religious faith, which as a humanist I find very frustrating.
Some researchers have made a start at formulating concepts that might help us understand our belief systems better. For example, Social Identity Theory proposed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner, explores how people's self-concepts are influenced by their membership in social groups. It provides insights into in-group/out-group dynamics, which can be crucial in understanding beliefs formed around group identities. And Moral Foundations Theory, developed by Jonathan Haidt and others, suggests that people’s moral reasoning is grounded in various innate moral foundations. It can be particularly useful in understanding and discussing differences in political and moral beliefs.
A discussion paper published in 2022 by Leor Zmigrod, a cognitive scientist at the University of Cambridge in the UK, concluded that developing a comprehensive belief framework to better understand the radicalisation process, requires multidisciplinary collaboration between the sciences and humanities, but currently this is very difficult because these subjects are set up and funded separately in our universities. In addition, there's the obvious difficulty that such a framework would itself be a 'meta' belief system setting up a self-referential feedback loop. Our belief systems are so core to our views of reality that it might even be impossible for us to develop an agreed belief framework without inadvertently biasing it towards our own personal beliefs.
As illustrated in this diagram, there are two key components of extreme ideological thinking which act as precursors to ideologically-driven violence. The Doctrinal Component consists of dogmatic and often absolute explanations about reality, and rigid inflexible rules about human behaviour, thought and social relations, whilst the Relational Component fosters a strong in-group identity coupled with an explicit prejudice and hostility towards non-adherents and apostates. As a consequence, belief systems which contain a higher proportion of subjective elements often require increasingly rigid doctrines and authoritarian control, given that they are driven more by faith and ideology than by evidence, rational discussion and critical thinking. Such belief systems can be very resistant to change, and they can become coercive and totalitarian in nature, to protect their basic tenets from critical assessment. In contrast, beliefs that have a balance towards more objective elements tend to be driven by empirical evidence and rational discussion, and are therefore usually more open, pluralistic and tolerant of change; this often acts as a safety mechanism against fostering extremism.
The worst atrocities in human history have nearly all required an ideological fervour that dehumanises our fellow human beings and ‘justifies’ their annihilation. I contend that a shared belief framework is urgently needed and long overdue which could be used to help us understand our often incompatible worldviews and beliefs more easily than at present. Such a framework would help us understand, identify and counter extreme ideological behaviour, and also help us all to navigate the difficult world of interfaith dialogue (see Jeremy Rodell's article this month) and help to foster mutual understanding between people holding very different worldviews. Most of us view our own beliefs as superior to those held by others. The distance between good intentions based on deeply-held beliefs, and radicalised violent fanaticism that leads inevitably to the gulags and the concentrations camps, is not as great as many of us would like to pretend. It is important, therefore, for all of us to acknowledge and be open about the balance between our subjective and objective beliefs to guard us against our own radicalisation.
Links and references
Steven Weinberg and Freeman Dyson quotation in India Times https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/opinion/vedanta/two-good-reasons/articleshow/11299834.cms
Jordan Peterson foreword to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956 https://extrafilespace.wordpress.com/2021/02/15/foreword-to-aleksandr-solzhenitsyns-the-gulag-archipelago-1918-1956-by-jordan-b-peterson/
Jonathan Haidt The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion 2013 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Righteous_Mind
Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) reviewed in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/11/sapiens-brief-history-humankind-yuval-noah-harari-review
Stephen Pinker The Better Angels of Our Nature (2012) reviewed in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/nov/19/better-angels-nature-steven-pinker-review
Robin Dunbar How Religion Evolved: And Why It Endures 2022 https://www.humanisticallyspeaking.org/post/how-humans-create-bonded-communities-the-challenge-for-humanism
Worldviews - NASACRE and Exeter University - https://nasacre.org.uk/file/nasacre/1-261-workshop-g-worldviews-nasacre-may-2021-participant-view-ruth-flanagan.pdf
Exploring Worldviews Wikiversity - https://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Exploring_Worldviews
Gray Group International - think tank and management consultancy based in Las Vegas USA - on Belief Systems - https://www.graygroupintl.com/blog/belief-system, on Religious Freedom - https://www.graygroupintl.com/blog/freedom-of-religion
Definition of Religion in Britannica - https://www.britannica.com/topic/religion
Social Identity Theory proposed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner and others - https://www.simplypsychology.org/social-identity-theory.html
Moral Foundations Theory proposed by John Haidt and others - https://moralfoundations.org
Zmigrod, L. (2022). A Psychology of Ideology: Unpacking the Psychological Structure of Ideological Thinking in Perspectives on Psychological Science, 17(4), 1072-1092. https://doi.org/10.1177/17456916211044140