What happens when a personal belief meets an irrefutable fact? The belief wins every time–facts be damned.
Human nature is such that we believe what we want to believe, and we don’t believe anything we don’t want to believe regardless of the verifiable facts. That’s the entire premise of an ideology, which is a set of shared beliefs that any group uses to explain its existence and way of life.
I am as I believe
What you believe is central to your identity. So if someone presents you a verifiable, irrefutable fact that negates a core principle of your belief system (who you believe yourself to be), you will simply say, “I don’t believe it,” and that’s that.
And if someone can distill that belief into a few words for you, so much the better. Try these on:
- America is the greatest nation on earth.
- The system is rigged.
- Democracy is the best form of government.
- Live fast, love hard, die young. (Oops, sorry. That is a country song, but a belief system none the less.)
- The white race is superior to all others.
- Black lives matter.
- All men are created equal.
- Might makes right.
- It’s every man for himself.
- We’re all in this together.
- Get a good education, work hard, and you’ll be successful.
- You can become anything in life you want.
- Winning is the only thing that counts.
- There is only one true God.
- God is dead.
You get the point.
A true believer, or a believer in truth?
A true believer accepts the party line no matter what. Every bit of information is cast in light of the underlying beliefs. All information contrary to the core belief must be explained and reexplained and reconfigured until it fits the belief.
On the other hand, a believer in truth will seek out information, verify it, consider that information in context of the situation in which it is presented and then arrive at a belief based on it. A believer in truth has no qualms about saying they used to believe one thing, and now they believe something different because they learned new facts.
I would rather be liberated by facts than enslaved by my beliefs. The most liberating phrase I know is, “I might have been wrong about that.” So, why is that not as easy as it sounds?
Psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explain, “The brain is designed with blind spots, optical and psychological, and one of its cleverest tricks is to confer on us the comforting delusion that we, personally, do not have any,” (Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me, 2007).
It’s not that we can’t see the truth, it’s that we won’t see the truth.
Simply put, we lie to ourselves and believe we are being truthful at the same time. Why? It makes us feel good about ourselves–that we are right.
The paradox of the lie
We want to believe the lie because we believe we will benefit from it, even though it’s a lie.
Because we define ourselves by our beliefs and values, we flock with those most like us. We confirm our beliefs to each other. Then, we tell each other how good we all are and that those not like us are not as good as we are. Us versus them.
Yeah, we would rather believe the lie because we like the lie better than the truth.
The apostle Paul had it right when he warned Timothy, his younger protege, to be diligent about teaching, “sound doctrine.” He wrote that the time would come when people, “will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear,” to suit their own desires (2 Timothy 4:3).
The case for faith
Where does this lead us?
For me, it leads to fact checking and allowing the facts to shape my beliefs. I also must admit that there are some things that are not explained by the empirical facts that I know or have available to me. Therefore, I do accept some things on faith, my belief through personal experience that some things are true, but I don’t know why exactly.
And I will keep that faith, until I have facts that would compel me to believe otherwise. See how that works?
I do believe in the fundamental goodness of people, that we sincerely want to do the right thing as we believe it to be.