Religion 21st Century

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Beliefs, Illusions and Delusions

A belief is hard to define with any accuracy because beliefs are necessarily fuzzy. Beliefs are usually expressed in words and supported by stories. The word “belief “describes a fuzzy cognitive state, which can vary from an arbitrary story with little or no basis in experience, to a somewhat reasonable conclusion derived from limited information. The expression "seeing is believing" suggests that direct experience is more convincing than facsimiles of experiences such as a story; but what then is a belief?

The world "belief" is often used by people who belong to religious organizations; for them belief is an expression of loyalty to a group and its predetermined creeds and stories. Religious beliefs involve unreasoned opinions that arbitrarily reduce uncertainty within the chosen group. Religious beliefs are often attached to the worst of human behaviors and are often used to justify hatred and killing. The word “faith” is used to describe unquestioning acceptance of the beliefs of the local group. Groups that base their existence on local beliefs attach great importance to declarations of faith since their beliefs are arbitrary and cannot be tested. To a religious fanatic, faith is a virtue. To a reasonable scientist, faith is an obstacle and a vice. To an intelligence officer defending homeland security, beliefs are potentially dangerous delusions.

The Muller-Lyer diagram has been a favorite of psychology textbooks for many years. The two figures are usually presented as a visual illusion. The upper line looks longer than the bottom. If you take ruler and measure both lines, they are the same. Even when you know the lines are the same length, they continue to look different. The apparent line-length difference is stable and enduring over time and all observers who see these two figures come to the same conclusion.

Illusions are clues to the deeply imbedded features of perception and cognition. On one level, we recognize that our visual systems can misrepresent the world. On another level, we can appreciate what built-in bias or preconception produces the illusion. We can also recognize that there is a natural level of perception and cognition that is burdened with illusions and other errors and a meta level of knowledge that sometimes detects and understands these illusions and errors.

Magicians know that attention is focal and selective. With practice and clever devices they create illusions that fool the audience into believing that something that should not occur has occurred. A simple method is distraction; by drawing attention to their right hand activities they can use their left hand in devious ways that are not seen. The great magician, Randi stated:” Allow people to make assumptions and they will be convinced that assumption was correct and that it represents fact. It’s not necessarily so.”

Delusions are false beliefs. Obviously, the term “delusion’ is relative to the beliefs of the person who decides to use the term. If a person looks at the Muller-Lyer diagram (above) and believes, as every reasonable person should, that the upper line is longer, a second observer with a ruler may conclude that the first observer is deluded. The two observers may never agree.

The two beliefs arising from the Muller-Lyer diagram are prototypes of differing beliefs that lead to conflicts that disturb human groups everyday. While seeing might be believing, not all seeing reveals an accurate picture of what is really real. Most beliefs are arbitrary opinions that have little or nothing to do with what is really happening out there.

The notion of “false” is easy if you believe one thing and confront another human who believes something else. Obviously, the other guy is deluded. The notion of “false” is more difficult if you are philosopher and notice that different vantage points, illusions, errors, memory limitations and other cognitive problems are typical of humans and that no two humans will ever agree on what they saw and what it means.

You might conclude that there is no fixed and enduring truth . We tune into selected features of what is really going on out there. Our efforts generate a range of beliefs about what is really real. Many beliefs are simply memes or stories that are repeated without understanding or review. Fixed beliefs persist beyond any reasonable currency, resist revision and review, and are always false when you stand outside the group that perpetuates the belief.


  • Religion for the 21st Century is available as an eBook download. The book is intended for a well-educated smart reader who is interested in a world view of religious expressions past, present and future. The main theme is that each religious group has its own claims and stories and will tend to reject others. A reader committed to one point of view may not accept the egalitarian review presented here. Innate tendencies are expressed as religions and in the past have created conflicts that hinder progress towards the real and true. The book examines paths for religious renewal in the 21st century.

    The author is Stephen Gislason

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