Thinking about belief

Our milky way above a dead forest, aka 'Woodhenge', near the banks of the river Maas, near the Dutch-Belgian border.

I’ve been thinking about belief, about how it works (and doesn’t). I’ve also been thinking about and why I don’t think about it more. Why we all, collectively, don’t think about it more.

One of the things that is unique to us as humans is our ability to engage in meta cognition – to step outside ourselves and look at how we think. But thinking about thinking and understanding how our beliefs work seems almost as unpalatable as updating our beliefs when new information comes along.

Two things set me down this path:

– An episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast on Bayes’ Theorem

Sam Harris reading from his book, The End of Faith

Both are about the nature of belief but come at it from completely different sides.

You Are Not So Smart is looking at belief as a greyscale where things are neither true or untrue, but they have a probability of being either. Once we accept this, we can use Bayes’ Theorem to understand the probability around our beliefs and update them when new information comes to hand.

Sam Harris on the other hand is taking a logical sledgehammer to some of the most cherished beliefs we have – those around religion. He shines a light on the dangers inherent in taking our beliefs from ancient texts which don’t stand up to any kind of modern scrutiny and the importance of reforming those beliefs as quickly as possible.

Even if you don’t agree with Harris on religion, there are interesting though experiments and ideas to take away.

Both are broadly concerned with the mechanisms which can either reinforce or erode our beliefs and the value or otherwise in doing so.

I’m still doing the work to required to have an opinion on all of this, but if you’re interested in understanding and challenging what you believe about what you believe – these are two good places to start.

A Flo-cratic Easter dialogue

A conversation in which Kent (37, atheist) and Flo (6, Jewish), have a semi-successful discussion about religion. At Easter.

Happy Jesus weekend.

Kent: Are you ready for the last day of school before Easter?

Flo: Not everyone believes in Easter. My teacher is a little bit Jewish. That’s what she said, “I’m a little bit Jewish”. People can be whatever they want. They can believe whatever they want to believe.

Kent: That’s right, lot’s of people believe lots of different things.

Flo: Do you want to be be Jewish daddy?

Kent: …um… [tumbleweed] … because my Mummy isn’t Jewish, I can’t just say “I’m Jewish”, I would have to do a test.

Flo: Well why don’t you do the test? I just did my spelling test. It was easy. The Jewish test is probably easy.

Kent: I like hanging out with Jewish people, I’m married to one, but that doesn’t mean that I need to become Jewish as well.

Flo: But why don’t you want to be Jewish? If you’re not Jewish, then what are you?

Kent: I’m not sure of what the right name is, but I believe different things to Jewish people and Christian people.

Flo: Are you a Muslim then? You don’t have a mat, do you?

Kent: No, I’m not a Muslim. And you’re right, I don’t have a mat.

Flo: But I have seen you wrap a book up.

Kent: That was just to stop it getting wet in the rain. Christians and Muslims and Jewish people all believe certain things about God and life, but I don’t think the same things about God. That’s why I’m not Muslim, or Jewish.

Flo: What do they believe that you don’t.

[getting into dangerous territory]

Kent: Well, most of those groups think that God has written rules for how we should live. But I think that people are better at writing those rules. A lot of God’s rules were written a long time ago, and while some of them are good, I don’t think they all make sense any more. So this means that some people are using some rules that don’t make sense. I think what when people come together and share ideas, we can do a better job of figuring out what’s good to do and what’s not good to do. Better than using rules that don’t make sense.

Flo: Like what?

Kent: Like lots of things. Like whether it’s a good idea to eat bacon, or help people, or kill people who believe different things, or give your money away.

Flo: I like bacon.

Kent: That’s right. You’re Jewish and you eat bacon, because you’ve decided that it’s a good thing to do. That’s a people decision.

Flo: Bacon is soooooo yummy.

Kent: Yeah, it’s one of the tastiest things in the world.

Flo: But you don’t eat it. If you like it, why don’t you eat it?

Kent: Because I think it’s better if we don’t eat meat. I think this is one of those things that most people will do a good job of figuring out if we keep sharing ideas. It might just take some time, and even then, lot’s of people might not agree.

Flo: Because bacon is yummy?

Kent: Because bacon is yummy. Especially with banana and maple syrup.

Flo: Banana?!? That sounds disgusting.

Kent: See, I told you people might not agree.

That's no yarmulke, it's a space station

Today I’m going to a Jewish wedding and I’m not happy because I’ve just found out that I’ve got to bring my own yarmulke/kippah/skull-cap.

This isn’t a logistical problem because I’ve been to Jewish weddings in the past and have been given a yarmulke each time. I now have a small collection of them which I keep between the heavy brass fittings that I would steal as a child each time our family went to “Sizzler” and the coffee mug of foreign coins that I’m too lazy to organise, but too stingy to throw away.

I figure the change is good for the collection box of any compulsory, Christian-church attendance (If God’s not happy with Euros, he can kiss my Costa Rican colón), the yarmulkes are fine for any Jewish weddings or impromptu indoor frisbee tournaments and I can use the brass fittings for braining any Mormons that actually make it through the front door. They’re my religious insurance collections.

The only reason that I’m bummed about having to bring my own yarmulke is that getting a free skull-cap is one of my favourite things about Jewish weddings. In fact, until today, that’s what I thought Jewish weddings were about: Joining two souls in the eyes of God, contract law & free hats. Also, my yarmulke collection is how I keep track of my Jewish wedding attendance. How will I know how many Jewish weddings I’ve attended if I don’t get a free hat?

Previously, this was an easy question to answer as: Jewish Weddings Attended = N (where N is the number of free yarmulkas next to the change mug). Now that I have to supply my own skull-cap, my equation will have to be updated to: JWA = N + 1 which a) is a clumsy expression, and b) is going to look horrible when I amend the original formula in my “Kent’s Big Book of Life Equations”.

Since updating the equation would be an administrative pain the arse, I’ve decided to take a radical course of action and make my own yarmulke for the wedding which I’ll wear and then add to the collection. I’ve cut a picture of the Death Star out of my Star Wars Annual (2009) and stuck it to a small circle of fabric the same size and shape as a regular yarmulke. Now, when I stand next to someone at the wedding, from the back, it will look like their head is about to become the victim of an intergalactic laser attack.