What if you were wrong?

rumi quote

I was thinking about a discussion I had enjoyed with a friend, about how our upbringing colours our worlds more than we realise. Both cultural and personal influences shape the images that imprint themselves upon the mind of the child and it is against these that we measure the experience of life in later years.

Life is a confusing thing sometimes and there is not always clear guidance on how best to live it. Social conduct and the parameters of acceptable behaviour differ from country to country. Laws and morality share many core tenets worldwide, but also throw up areas of wide disparity and within every nation there are even more variances dictated by local custom, heritage and the beliefs of a multicultural society.  There are as many ideas about what is the ‘right’ way to live as there are minds, hearts and rule-books to conceive them.

Many of our central values have grown from religious culture and the way it has been woven through human history. Regardless of whether or not an individual subscribes to a particular faith, the social code in which he or she grows will have been influenced by such beliefs. The echoes of our cultural history cast a long shadow and define the images that we choose to accept or deny in later years. Many people say they do not believe in a divinity, yet when asked what they do believe in, it becomes clear that all they deny is the image they would have learned about as a child. The shadow of those childhood images helps to shape, in acceptance or denial, the way we move through our lives.

Even without a detailed knowledge of religion, most of us have some kind of belief about what happens after death and this also informs the way we live. Some see only oblivion and a return to the elements of earth.  Others see a wheel of rebirth, a cycling of the soul through reincarnation and karma Yet others see some form of afterlife, either in a spirit realm or a paradise… or some less pleasant realm.  There are almost infinite variations of thought, but once we have found the one that speaks to us of its reality, it becomes, in many ways, the yardstick of conscience.

The deeper the belief of what happens after death, the more of an influence it becomes in life. We may seek to be worthy of a place in paradise, or to escape the maw of the nether regions… or believe that the karmic scales must be balanced …or that we owe it to ourselves as members of the human race.

Yet… what if we are wrong? We have no objective proof that any of these are the right way forward. We don’t even know for certain that there is ‘a’ right way. Maybe they are all right… or all wrong. Does it really matter?

Mankind has always argued about religious belief. Wars have been fought, schisms have occurred over the interpretation of a single word, millions have suffered and died for the belief that there can be right and wrong beliefs.

Yet ‘belief’ is defined as ‘an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof’ it is ‘an assumed truth’. Even our understanding of the world is based upon beliefs we have formed through experience. The very definition of the word makes our arguments both futile and ludicrous. We may disbelieve a belief that contradicts our own… but inherent in both is the possibility that it might be wrong.

Belief can only be a personal thing and when it inspires us, as individuals and members of the human family, to do the best we can to be the best we can, how can any such belief be wrong? Perhaps all that matters is that we follow the dictates of our own inner being and live our lives ‘as if’ our beliefs will carry us home.

40 thoughts on “What if you were wrong?

  1. I really love this post. I agree, in the end it doesn’t really matter who is right or who is wrong. Especially when it comes to accepting one another. Particularly when it comes to religious beliefs. I would bawk a bit at accepting some kind of cultural or even personal relativity regarding morality, depending on the question you are really asking. Is there a way to objectively determine what is, absolutely, without qualification, good, or moral? Probably not. We have been searching for a metaphysical foundation for morality, something that could determine independently of ourselves, what is right and wrong, and put such disagreement to rest. That project is possibly by its very nature a failed one, leading at least to a certain kind of subjectivity and relativism. But you don’t need that kind of objective finality to make perfectly reasonable moral judgments such as, don’t murder children, and defend this point of view ardently against anyone or any culture which condones the practice. I guess I would wonder how much relativism you are willing to accept in making belief a personal thing. Is it just religious belief you are thinking to be completely relative to the individual, or are you sharing a more general view? Yes, there’s a possibility that we all could be wrong, even about the existence of the physical world depending on which philosopher you read about. 🙂 Personally I prefer to suppose as much shared reality as is reasonable, because it is valuable to have ways of understanding ourselves and making sense of one another. That doesn’t mean we do a good job of that all the time, in fact, it may be a rare thing when we do. And the fact that good keeps coming up suggests the extent to which normativity is embedded in how we live and think.

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    1. I agree that conscience provides a sound basis for morality on the whole, though even that is heavily influenced by culture. Even the murdering of children, for example, might be viewed differently in a culture where children were routinely ‘exposed’ at birth. One’s man’s necessity may be a horror to another. Who is to judge who is right?
      With regard to reality itself, our belief in the concrete world is a consensus based on shared experience and it works on a practical level… even though we know that stone isn’t really as solid as we like to think or space as empty.

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  2. I feel that, while it is true that none of us have definitive proof one way or another about an afterlife, and there are about as many views as humans, it’s important to weigh depth of meaning against strength of veracity. Here’s what I mean. It just struck me that, were I to suddenly know for certain that my beliefs about the world beyond this one, all my experiences of it, all my conversations which I thought I was having with people from the other side, were false, were wrong, because none of it existed… I’d be devistated. My life would be crushed into meaninglessness. There would be nothing holding me here. I know, because I had such an experience of doubt this year and it left me dizzy and shaken, as if my life had become a senseless mess, and it was crazy making because, really believing I was wrong would amount to dismissing or negating a good portion of my entire life. It’s easy to admit I can be wrong in small matters, in my interpretation of my experiences, in my understanding of the other world, in the details of just about anything. But it is not only unpleasant for me, but impossible, to conceive in a serious way that I am wrong about the existence of a world beyond this one and the people I met who live there. It would be like seriously entertaining the idea that I don’t have hands, or the entire planet is an illusion which my mind concocted as it tried to impose order on nothingness.

    So I guess all this to say, I don’t impose this belief on other people, I don’t think they are wrong for having a different *religious* truth. But I could never entertain seriously the idea that I am wrong, utterly wrong, because I don’t just have a belief about the afterlife, my entire self-conception is bound up in years of having experiences – experiences which have healed me, shaped me, transformed me, and made me who I am. And if, for some strange reason, I die and find out I am wrong, would it have been worth living a life in the shadow of empty meaninglessness in exchange for not believing a falsehood? I actually really can’t take my own question seriously. And I think this deep abiding meaning is far stronger than belief and holds us sway in the way of the world that calls to us, and it is as centered in us as the sun is center to a solar system, and everything else revolves around that. This is why, I suggest, people have felt so threatened when their sense of meaning and source of vitality was challenged. What if I am wrong … quickly followed by, who would I become then?

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    1. The very nature of those deep seated beliefs is that we believe them…even while we admit there is no objective proof and that we might be mistaken. Subjective, experiential proof is another matter and the certainty that comes with that cannot be explained or transmitted. There is no way we can believe our beliefs wholeheartedly and really believe we could be wrong. The inner voice tells us we are right… regardless of whether our belief is completely opposite to that of another who feels just as profoundly certain they too are right. Perhaps we are all as right as each other, seeing only fragments of truth, like light through the pinholes in the sky. The light IS the light, but how much we see of it, what it illuminates for us and, crucially, how we interpret what we see is uniquely personal.

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  3. Hi Sue. Nice post and thought provoking. While I respect your opinions I think you leave out the aspect of “faith” in any type of belief system. You believe it because you have faith and many people do not understand the strength of faith in religion. In Christisnity it says in the book of Hebrews “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” I don’t believe it is believing your religion is right that makes war amongst religions. It’s forcing others to believe what they do not and whatever your beliefs they should always be done with free will and choice. You may be uncertain of your belief system but those who have faith in their religion know better. Beliefs greatly define you and are never black and white but in the end we believe something or we don’t and we stand up for our beliefs; if we don’t there is no use in having them. We have to support them like we would anything we believe in life.

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    1. Hi Mandi. Thank you. The definition of faith from Hebrews is a beautiful and accurate one. I’m not sure there is a huge amount of difference between belief and faith in this context. That which is rooted in the depths of being and which is the wellspring of conscience and arbiter of action could be called by either name… though the certainty of which you speak, the ‘knowing’ beyond doubt that something is true without any objective proof, is more often associated with religious feeling. Many people do not subscribe to a recognised religious body and yet still know this level of faith in Deity or in something else. I deliberately chose the word ‘belief’ in order to be inclusive.
      I think the best way we can stand up for our beliefs is to live by them, supporting them by being a living example of what we believe and, as you say, not trying to impose our beliefs on others. I doubt very much if you can ever impose faith… by its very definition, it must be a calling of the heart and soul. That is its greatest strength and yet, sadly, the very thing that allows it to be manipulated. Where there is a passionate devotion to a collective belief, it is easy for the unscrupulous and power hungry to engender war, using as the banner a faith that teaches peace.

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  4. I think the arguments in J S Mill’s 1859 essay “On Liberty” have much to recommend them. Mill argued that due to our lack of certainty as regards the good life and what is proper conduct, we should allow individuals to live their lives as they chose provided that they do not intrude on the liberty of others to do likewise. He distinguished between “self regarding” and “other regarding” acts and held that the former are no concern of society or the state, while the latter are. We may remonstrate with someone if we believe their actions are harmful to themselves, however we have no right to forceably prevent individuals from engaging in actions which only impact upon themselves. Of course, in reality there exist grey areas. For example it can be argued a person has the right to gamble his (or her) fortune away, however if that person has dependants (partner and/or children) who would be harmed by the gamblers behaviour it moves from being a “self regarding” to “another regarding” act. Mill was also ambivalent as regards prostitution arguing that intervention to prevent harm to others might be necessary. I am influenced by both Mill and by having grown up in what is still, I believe largely a Christian culture. Kevin

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    1. Mill too would have been heavily influenced by that largely Christian culture, but his comparison of Man to a tree, needing to ‘grow on all sides’ rather than be an automaton has always seemed a perfect analogy.

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  5. ‘even without a detailed knowledge of religion, most of us have some kind of belief about what happens after death and this also informs the way we live’. I am not sure that is true anymore. I think for the first time we have engineered a global society in which materiality has overwhelmed the spiritual in numerical terms. i hope i prove to be wrong and something which emerges is not ‘i am right and you are wrong’-grounded.

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    1. I don’t think any amount of materiality will ever still the fear and curiosity about what lies beyond the ‘final frontier’. Nor have I found anyone who doesn’t have some idea or belief about the process, even if it is a negative one.

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  6. A wonderful thoughtful post. ” Perhaps all that matters is that we follow the dictates of our own inner being and live our lives ‘as if’ our beliefs will carry us home. ” This is the sentence that will stay with me. I wish with all my heart that everyone in the world would adhere to this. Having just read an article about the Vatican’s stance on same-sex unions I was sad. A person’s own inner truth is what should guide us, after all, God or the Goddess or whoever, might be talking to us but we are not listening because we colour our beliefs to what is expected of us. I have always questioned religious doctrine. When I was a little girl, I had to go to the other church on the island as the Priest only came out to say mass once a month. The new minister was all fire and brimstone and he said once that animals did not go to heaven because they had no souls. I was about six, I think, and I remember whispering to my Uncle, “Stupid man, he knows nothing.” My own inner truth had spoken.

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      1. That one is unmoderated mayhem.
        Fundamentalists with very strange interpretations of the Bible and atheists of the humourless or mocking sorts stride its pages
        (I suspect that Amazon keep it open so that Amazon customers can ‘watch the freak-show’).
        I quit it for the more open, interesting and friendly world of WordPress

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  7. I’ve come to think of belief as being like a snowflake. I was raised a Catholic, but as I became educated and experienced, I started to pick and choose those aspects of the religion that made sense and those that were more mythical in nature. I also came to the realization that Jesus was a Jew. He was not trying to convert people to Christianity as it didn’t exist. In fact, he might be appalled by the direction that many sects of Christianity have taken under his name. I believe in being kind to others, not discriminating against those that are different, and trying to live a good life. If that doesn’t align me totally with a religion, I don’t particularly care.

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    1. The possibility of discovering and holding a unique and individual belief is, for me, one of the most beautiful aspects of free will, so that is a perfect analogy, Don.

      I was given an eclectic upbringing and allowed to find my own path. I think that is what we all do anyway, if we are to find a belief to which we will do more than just pay lip-service. It has to come from the heart to become a real part of life rather than just dogma.

      I don’t think it matters whether we can give an official label to what we believe, as long as those beliefs help us live in the world and answer the song of the soul.

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  8. Lack of faith in our belief system is why we try to force it on others. People who don’t accept our tenuous beliefs are a threat to our sense of security from those beliefs. Real faith doesn’t need other people to believe exactly the same.

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