Why do people believe what they believe? It surprises me how many people believe in something without ever really knowing why they believe it. Why do they believe in the religion that they do? Why do they believe in the politics that they do? Why do they believe in the morals that they do? Why do they believe that anything at all is right or wrong?
Today’s discussion is not about religion. It’s certainly not about politics. And it’s not about any other individual topic, either. It’s about beliefs, where they come from, and why we hold onto them. That’s all.
For almost three decades I lived a religion and claimed its beliefs as my own. I was born into the religion. I was always taught that it was the only true and correct way to think and believe. A great deal of the world (no matter what religion) was brought up the same way.
A couple years ago, I was out to dinner with a friend who had recently switched to a different faith. Knowing why people have the beliefs that they do has always interested me, so it was only natural that we began to talk about it over the course of our meal. I asked him why he switched religions, he said, “because I was living somebody else’s beliefs.” I asked him how he knew that he had it right this time around. Instead of answering, he turned the table on me. “Dan, why do you believe what you believe?”
I answered that it was what I had been taught. I answered that I believed in it because it felt right. He replied, “Have you ever questioned it?” I told him I had. He then repeated his question. “Have you ever really questioned it?” I began to fidget uncomfortably. “I mean, have you ever really had the courage to learn how you might be wrong at the same time that you’ve worked so hard to prove yourself right? Have you ever really had the courage to accept the possibility that something else might actually be right?” I had to think for a minute. I told him I didn’t know and that I didn’t really need to because I was confident in my beliefs.
He looked at me and smiled. “Dan, would you bank everything you have on your beliefs?” I told him I thought that I would. “Are you so sure of your beliefs that you would give your life for them?” He was very serious. I didn’t answer. “Would you bet your son’s life on your beliefs?” I didn’t answer. “Would you lose everything, including the people you love most to stand behind your beliefs?” Again, I didn’t answer.
Instead, I silently attempted to gauge my beliefs without showing my own sudden vulnerabilities. Would I give up everything when it actually came down to it? Would I die for these beliefs? Did I really believe what I believed that I believed? I finally looked at him and said, “No, I wouldn’t.”
His reply was simple, and I’ll never forget it. “Then they’re not really your beliefs. They’re somebody else’s beliefs. They’re borrowed beliefs. And until you make them your own, you’re living somebody else’s life.” I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t really want to go where he was taking me. I’d been avoiding it most of my life. He took advantage of my continued silence. “It doesn’t matter what you believe, Dan. It matters how you believe and why you believe. And until you honestly, and I mean honestly question your beliefs, including how they might be both right and wrong, you can’t truly claim those beliefs as your own.”
I went home that night and found a way to forget about the conversation. After all, actually questioning what I believed wasn’t something I wanted to do, and while I had opened myself up to such discussion for the moment, I wasn’t ready to go there quite yet.
But I couldn’t forget about my friend’s mandate for long. He had accused me of claiming beliefs that weren’t my own. He had straight up told me that my beliefs belonged to somebody else. I didn’t know whether to be thankful or overly offended. One night, after it had really been eating at me, I sat down with a notebook and did a journaling exercise.
I wanted to know why his words were disturbing me so much. I wanted to know the truth about what I really felt, since I know from experience that what I think I feel and what I actually feel are usually two very different things. I also wanted to know what I really feared when it came to scrutinizing my beliefs, and where I really wanted to go next with it.
And as I journaled, it became overly clear that my friend was right. “My beliefs” weren’t actually my beliefs at all. In fact, when I got deeper and deeper into the journaling, I discovered that the real reason I was holding onto those beliefs was out of fear. Fear of rejection from my family. Fear of rejection from my friends. Fear of rejection from my neighbors. Any time I made those beliefs work for me, everything always went so much smoother in all the dynamics of my life, which I suddenly understood was the dominating reason I always fought to believe what I did in the first place.
I continued journaling. I discovered that when I fought to believe those beliefs, the fight was the complete depth of it for me. I was always fighting for harmony in my life with those I loved. Nothing more. I was never fighting to make the beliefs my own because they weren’t. I had always known it, and never wanted to honestly admit it.
And so, liberated and rattled by the exercise, I decided that I didn’t want to spend the next three decades of my life believing beliefs that weren’t my own. I took my friend’s advice and began questioning my beliefs, both how they might be right and how they might be wrong. It was perhaps the scariest thing I had ever done. But, with every question came deeper understanding, and with deeper understanding came beautiful freedom that I hadn’t experienced before.
I didn’t pussyfoot around the tough questions. I asked every question boldly and honestly. I sought out answers from sources that were neither in favor of my beliefs nor against them. With time, I started seeing a much greater picture being painted from the answers I was receiving. I started believing something different than what I had always been taught. I started seeing truth in far many more places than I knew could exist. And, in the end, I left my religion, and those beliefs, behind.
I left my religion at the point when what I truly believed wasn’t right about the religion outweighed what I truly believed was right about it. When the balance tipped in such a way, I no longer could bear the thought of fighting to believe in something I didn’t actually believe in anymore. Believing beliefs that weren’t my own became disruptive and even mentally painful for me.