“I don’t believe in belief. I think belief is a tremendously stultifying force. What I’m interested in is freedom, and I noticed very early that a belief absolutely precludes the possibility of holding to its opposite, and therefore if you believe something you have… limited yourself.”―Terence McKenna (“Under the Teaching Tree,” 1985)
My own personal skepticism with “belief” first revealed itself to me at an early age. I was seven years old, attending Catholic school, and my class was preparing for our First Communion.
For those unfamiliar, “Communion,” aka the “Eucharist,” is a ritual at Sunday services in which the Last Supper story from the Bible is reenacted. This is when the Jesus character famously shared bread and wine with his disciples the night before he was hauled away by Roman officials to be tried and executed. “This is my body,” he said, as he broke the bread, and “This is my blood,” as raised the wine cup.
According to Middle Age-era Catholic doctrine, when a priest playing the role of Jesus intones these words during Mass, the bread and wine on the altar undergo a process known as “transubstantiation” in which they literally become the actual body and blood of Jesus. You read that right. These products of wheat and grapes do not merely symbolize flesh and blood in this ceremony; they are flesh and blood, in everything but their form. Quite the concept.
Seven year old me tried to wrap my mind around this, but I couldn’t understand it, let alone believe it. What was clear, though, was that all the grown-ups around me wanted me to do this thing, so I went ahead and did it. Maybe, I thought, it would make sense later; maybe “faith” would grow.
It never did. I left the Church as a teenager over sexual/guilt issues but that’s a topic for another day.
Belief is not monopolized by religion, though. Hardly. Throughout all of society, nearly everyone bases their lives on beliefs. Indeed, our notions of what constitutes “life” itself are steeped in belief. So many arguments are only battles between beliefs. So much that’s supposedly factual is merely belief by another name.
We organize ourselves by belief in our society in large part because we no longer organize ourselves by practical action. The vast majority of people in the United States don’t take part in any practical actions whatsoever.
An action is “practical” if it is undertaken in direct support of one’s survival, such as procuring food, water and shelter.
We have been giving up the practical bit by bit since we turned to agriculture and invented the abstraction of wealth. In the previous world―the world without property, class or war―everything was practical because everything was direct and up to us. If we ate, it was because we had spent time gathering food. Furthermore, our efforts were communal; as a species of animal, we are social and our survival depends on working within groups. So our relationships were also practical.
Belief has no part in whether a particular plant has edible roots, or a water source is drinkable, or a particular hide will keep the rain off you. The tubers could be nutritious or poisonous, the watercourse fresh or brackish, and the skin complete or worn through. Whatever the case, these are matters of fact. They are knowable by the senses and anyone with intact physiology can ascertain them. That makes for a world without experts.
Additionally, everyone was trustworthy. I will not say “because no one could afford not to be” because that implies that people were consciously choosing whether to be honest, and that would not―could not―have been the case. Do wild animals in herds, flocks or schools mislead each other? Of course not. Their relationships are based on cooperative practical action, not belief. At one time, we were no different. When that shift happened is a matter of debate, but not whether there was one.
Our current lifestyle could hardly be more different. Everything we do is indirect. Interceding between ourselves and practical actions are abstractions like money, ownership, price, work vs. play, and clock time, all of them figments of our collective imagination. Their function is to demarcate and divide a world that is naturally bountiful and whole, and thereby manufacture poverty and power, both of which exist only in relation to each other.
Organizing ourselves by beliefs rather than practical action has real world results: starvation and homelessness in a system that overproduces food and housing; a natural environment choked with pollution; among the other species: mass extinction.
But the material consequences do not follow from the beliefs themselves. Ultimately, it’s not what we believe but the fact that we believe. Our shared psychosis is the issue.
It’s not about pursuing the best ideas, philosophies or theories, all of which are just different beliefs that exist purely in the mind. Our only meaningful choice is whether we will return to living in the real world or not, and leave the imaginary one behind. If we could somehow flip that switch, everything would change instantaneously. Everyone would eat and have a roof over their head. Everyone would help clean up our mess. Everyone would stop fighting over nothing. All this and more would follow because we would be back to a life invested in practical actions.
“Oh that will never happen,” is a belief, by the way, not a fact. Choose to believe that idea if you would like to, but don’t pretend you have irrefutable proof of future events. You don’t and neither does the palm reader. Such evidence either doesn’t exist or is beyond our ability to recognize while we remain in our fantasy world.
At the risk of being trite, beliefs are like sunglasses. Their tint, rosy or otherwise, colors everything we see. I have half a dozen pairs of sunglasses in different hues. My eyes are strongly nearsighted and I can’t drive or even walk around safely without prescription lenses, so I have multiples as a form of insurance. When I first change from one to another, the difference is dramatic. Yellow lenses make everything sunny and cheerful, amber sets a mellow mood, and dark grey provides a shield to hide behind. Within a few minutes, though, the effect recedes to the subconsciousness. My senses and emotions are still filtered, but I’ve forgotten that’s what’s going on.
So it is with beliefs. We are Christian or atheist, capitalist or socialist, reformer or radical, meat-eater or vegan, doomer or hoper, but they’re all “same song, different verse.” We spend practically every minute of every day singing along, individually and collectively. In so doing, we deny the actual sensed experience of living; that is, of the present.
This is not woo. The present is not the product of belief. It is the place of practical action.
With belief, we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re in high orbit. That we can see, explain and predict everything from our lofty vantage point. That’s a flight of fancy, though; we’re still standing on the ground, where our species has always been, and where it will always be.
Truly, “beliefs” are luxuries; indulgences we cannot afford. Consider two of the most influential: “Be fruitful and multiply” and “Cogito ergo sum.” They cursed us with dominionism and reductionism, philosophies that have sought to enslave the world and enthrone the human mind. The destruction wrought globally by their followers attests to their toxic appeal.
Reality beckons. That’s reality’s nature. We’ve convinced ourselves that we don’t have to live by our own, but that doesn’t mean we can, or that we haven’t been.
Angels and devils are products of belief whether the observer is a fundie or a skeptic. Optimism is no more or less real than cynicism, which is to say, neither one is. The seemingly contrasting claims that life is fundamentally either a) positive and improving, or, b) negative and declining are qualitatively identical. Both provide a tint that gives everything a uniform hue, and then pretend that the color is everything. Meanwhile, under the overlays, nothing has changed. Nothing ever does in response to something as ephemeral as a belief.
I am personally fascinated by this place―the one obscured by belief. I’ve been trying to identify my own filters and dispense with them. I’d like to know what I’m hiding from myself. What a strange way to live: to be inhabiting a form with all the sensory and motor functions needed to prosper on this planet with ease and joy―but to manufacture hardship and misery instead. Sometimes it feels like being hopelessly tangled in a net. At other times, like the slightest breeze could disperse all illusion.
At the level of society, this state of affairs is increasingly tiresome. Energy is sapped right out of people before it can build up enough to make anything with. Individuals are oppressed by the apparent death-wish of the culture, and their anguish in turn lends the culture a more despairing cast. People internalize the whole mess, and insist that something is wrong with them: that they’re not saved or that they have a chemical imbalance or that they need to think positive thoughts. We beat ourselves up as if it’s not bad enough to be living in a culture that made hell out of paradise.
When it comes to humans, there’s nothing I’d rather see than a return to practical action: to the freedom we have forgotten; to full participation in a communal life of equals―of whom humans are but one species among a multitude.
Such a transformation is entirely possible. How “probable” is a complete mystery. Anybody who says they know for sure is kidding themselves and trying to kid you. Don’t buy it. Don’t buy anything. Don’t believe.
* * *