— A Florida dad tried to enter a school maskless. When a student confronted him, he assaulted her, police said. “Our belief is it doesn’t stop the spread of the virus. It doesn’t control it, it does more harm than good.”
— A headline from my local newspaper reads: No restrictions or even lockdowns, leaders let the virus rage unimpeded for weeks. “I don’t believe in measures. I don’t believe in the same measures that existed before the vaccines,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said last month as the Balkan nation sustained some of its worst daily death tolls of the pandemic. Since Brnabic said she doesn’t believe in measures, some 900 people have died.
— Texans Republicans are advocating for secession. Texas is currently “under an active invasion,” they believe and should take “any and all appropriate measures the sovereign state defines as necessary to defend itself.” It imagines attacks by a “One World Government, or The Great Reset” — an internet-born conspiracy belief — and proposes “withdrawal from the current United Nations.”
— Gabe Sterling, a chief election official for the state of Georgia related his experience of meticulously walking through the evidence that the election was not stolen with his own family and friends. Even after lengthy conversations, he would often get a similar response: “but I know in my heart that this is true (that the election was stolen).”
If there is anything this pandemic and our social discord is revealing, it is how powerful belief is and how much it drives political will.
Belief is most often associated with religion as in the well-worn phrase “believe in God.” In this sense, belief is assumed to be the very bedrock of religion. Belief is not necessarily the same as religion, especially not religious institutions. We never ask if one believes in religion. Polls ask if one practices or associates with a religious institution, assuming that belief drives the behavior. Ironically, a growing number of Americans espouse belief in God yet avoid religious affiliation while simultaneously participating in politically charged social media and action groups.
Belief and religion go together but awkwardly. Since its very inception, the Church has battled beliefs that were not congruent with the faith. In fact, belief can very much be at odds with religion and/or religious institutions. Even when we ritually acquiesce to the reciting of the Creed in worship, one need only casually interview parishioners to discover the extent they can explain it and even more importantly whether any of it really matters to them. There are beliefs that move things politically, whether inside the Church or out, and others not so much. We don’t need to make the fake vs authentic distinction here. Rather, there are beliefs that are deep-seated and often hidden or unexpressed.
Belief is fundamentally a mental exercise, scaffolding an often random collection of ideas or images or both into something that seems coherent. All in the head. Yes, beliefs can and do play out in the time and space constraints of what we call “the real world.” Even so, its place of origins and residence is always between human ears. Belief is a kind of wishful thinking, but thinking nonetheless.
Fundamentally, belief entails embracing a proposition. To pro-pose is to take a stand ahead of its validation. It’s pushing an idea or set of ideas to be true, worthy, essential, or valuable before such a construct of ideas has proven to be such. (I will have to suspend the issue of “proof”for now). In some cases, the proposed belief seeks validation by carrying it out. In the case of the pandemic, those refusing to get vaccinated are reversing the effort to bring a deadly virus under control. Then with great irony, they boldly assert: “See! See how ineffective vaccines and masks are.” In other cases, belief pushes for validation by verbal or ritual expression or often by pinning them to a charismatic leader.
Those believing that the last election was stolen and incredulous have forcefully asserted their belief into political agendas that will once again ironically make the electoral process more, well, incredulous. We should take note how “believing” and unbelieving work in tandem. One doubts the evidence that the election was fair, and in turn, believes that the election was stolen and that Donald Trump is the rightful President. Belief is always sorting and sifting, a give and take between belief and unbelief.
Up until a few centuries back, the standard phrase was believe on something, rather than believe in something. To believe on something emphasizes the authoritative basis to act. This distinction may be more important than it seems. The critical element of what’s between our ears is not so much its content but the foundation, authority, sovereignty, or power it relies on to “make it real.” It is the podium or platform that takes priority. In other words, belief requires a political and not a religious foundation to validate it, to make it so.
It is the base that matters most, and we have heard repeatedly these days how critical and recalcitrant “the base” can be.
As for the mask and vaccine deniers, for instance, we assuredly know to a large extent what foundational podium their “belief” “poses” on. It rests somewhere up the scaffold of beliefs all of which are related to the magical realm of the mundane—what it takes to prosper, grow, have life or at least avoid or cheat death. It is something to the effect that the world has fixed principles that cannot be violated or cosmic forces will get angry and retaliate. They rely on obscure and contradictory notions of freedom, not quite grasping how one person’s freedom is another’s enslavement.
In my view, however, the base goes back nearly as far as organized human societies. The base cements around keeping chaos—communal collapse—from encroaching and even worse overtaking.
For thousands of years, belief was not required at all to participate in religion. Reminding that the word and the category of religion is a Western concept of the Enlightenment, ritual participation was all that was required to be “religious.” Nobody gave a damn what you thought nor the extent of your devotion to it. What mattered was that you performed the ritual correctly. This sounds magical, and it is. (Here, I am relying heavily on the anthropological work of Peter Turchin’s Ultrasociety and Ages of Discord as well as David Wengrow and David Graeber’s book, The Dawn of Everything).
Music concerts and sporting events are adequate, vestigial examples of ancient ritual participation. Participation—and the more enthralling the better—not belief is the single required ingredient. When you add gambling to the mix—i.e. betting on the future—the religious nature intensifies.
Ritual or tradition holds up well enough to provide social cohesion until, ironically, it doesn’t, until the ritual stops working, when the inevitable internal conflicts of any community, institution, social order, or civilization erupt, when chaos once again raises its ugly head. The more the base crumbles, the more belief is required and inevitably demanded.
Currently, however, belief has risen to critical political currency. The chameleon nature of politicians requires their subserviency to what their constituents with the most amount of political power (usually not the majority) believe or dare I say wish to be true, valuable and immanently workable, like trickle down economics for instance.
Trickle down economics self-evidently does not work, yet it has been advocated and institutionalized for years. But this is where belief comes in. One must believe it to be true for it to be workable, and perhaps even more so, one must actively and aggressively defeat the neigh-sayers for it to work. One past president rightly labeled it “voodoo economics,” firmly grounding it in a belief. Nonetheless, believers have been trying to force feed us this myth for forty years, and even now, a significant amount of the American public ground their economic and political choices on it.
Most Americans still believe that Republicans can better manage economics than Democrats even when there is compelling evidence to the contrary. And this upcoming election will quite unfortunately prove once again that Americans vote with their wallets as the saying goes.
Beliefs intensify in degeneration, in an environment of unbelief.
Currently, people believe that a virus that has taken over 5 million lives worldwide does not exist. They believe that governments have invented the myth of the virus for nefarious reasons, and probably even more foundational, they believe that institutions that regulate our social/economic life always have our ill-will as its ultimate goal. James Bond antagonists always make the movie interesting. Government is the problem as Ronald Reagan famously quipped, The rights of an individual are sovereign. Regardless, we should take note that sovereignty is still the primary concern. What is the base, the “stand,” the foundation we “pose” on. What, to coin the phrase of Aristotle, is the unmoved mover?
These kinds of beliefs are assuredly religious, and the kind of political power associated with them puts politics as close to religion as one can get.
Yet as one recent op-ed writer likes to believe, Americans are experts at keeping religion and politics in convenient, hermetically sealed categories. Religion and politics are two different worlds, he insists, and voices that blur those lines such as our lovely representative from Colorado Lauren Boebert who said she’s “tired of this separation of church and state junk” and “the church is supposed to direct the government” are rare exceptions. I know what she means by that, and it’s terrifying, but she is to some extent correct.
The problem, I assert, is America’s profound ambivalence over what constitutes religion.
Politics is inseparable from religion and visa versa. Neither one exists on its own nor can it, and belief is one of the strongest links between them. The anthropologist Alan Strathern’s study of the relationship between religion and politics in his book Unearthly Powers: Religious and Political Change in World History firmly concludes that the symbiotic relationship between religion and politics is foundational and universal. Bam!
Stathern is immensely helpful in restructuring religious categories and reevaluating the ways in which religion always has and will continue to interact with political power. Strathern argues that religion operates within two intersecting spheres. These spheres can oppose the other, but are not polarities. There is a constant give-and-take exchange between them.
The first sphere Strathern insists is universal in both time and place throughout human history. Yes a bold claim, but sufficiently argued. He calls it immanentist religion because it focuses entirely on the immediacy of life or perhaps better put, on the necessities of human living. Quotidian life is the preferred word in anthropology. It derives from the same root as quota—numbers usually in sequence. It connotes enough quantity to get us through the day, the week, the month. Its focus is the immediate, day-to-day needs and wants.
How shall I survive? How shall I thrive? How do I partner or cooperate with or better yet manipulate powers beyond my control that will help me and dispel powers that can destroy me? What ritual behavior should I engage in to ensure prosperity. In this domain of religion, luck, fate, destiny, giftedness, blessing, health, wealth, happiness and happenstance are indistinguishable or interchangeable. If it works, it’s right, and it is magical. We make the leap from effect to cause without bothering to fill in the gap because there is no need for it.
The other sphere Strathern calls transcendentalist religion because it focuses on liberation
from the seemingly all consuming drives and needs of this life. If anything a “trans” orientation would affirm the old saying: “There must be more to life than this.” Quotidian life is not enough. There must be something or someone beyond me, beyond us. Even more so, the transcendental perspective is inevitable when the magic of “the ways things are” and “the we’ve always done things” disintegrate.
In his book Philosophy of Economy, the 20th century Russian theologian, Sergei Bulgakov, closely aligns with the immanentist/transendentalist categories by juxtapositioning the real world and the ideal world.
Stathern places “belief” squarely in the realm of the ideal. The outline of Strathern’s characteristics of transcendentalist religion accurately describe much of what “belief” is about and why it pushes itself into the political arena.
Belief transcends the mundane world. Like Plato’s shadows in the cave, it can imagine and then insist that some perfect form must exist. In other words, it does not have to correspond to the here and now or be functional. It just has to impress and then cohere. The etymology of religion tends toward some basic notion of stick, adhere, or bind. Belief aids in helping one escape, overcome, transcend, and be above the pathetic masses. Transcendental religious orientation helps “refashion one’s inner self” and latches that self to something “unearthly” as Strathern puts it.
We should take note now of the “stickiness” of belief. Its gooey nature can latch on to just about anything or just about anything can stick to it, like flies to fly paper. Core beliefs spawn endless potential for satellite ones.
Belief is not so much an antidote for chaos as it is for the meaninglessness that chaos produces. All of us can endure a lot more craziness if we can have a sense of purpose in it, if we can put some of the scattered puzzle pieces back together. Belief is a way to respond, resist, or rebel against powers that seem crushingly greater than one’s self, powers that seem to hold all the cards, pull the strings, when the powers we have negotiated and/or manipulated in order to “get through” life no longer seem to cooperate or worse, seem to be working against us.
Having a system in one’s head that makes sense of the world gives one an “outside looking in” perspective and with it a sense of being above those poor, pathetic souls stuck in the mundane. I can remind right here that an outside looking in perspective is, well, divine (or drug induced as the famous verse from a Jethro Tull song quipped about Timothy Leary). We join the gods and goddesses, who by miraculous coincidence often think and act in a mirror image of ourselves! My salvation becomes all. Beliefs provide a sense of bucking group think and herd mentality, of breaking away from the same damn thing day after day. They equate common sense with nonsense and common good with no good. They are anti-community, at least the mundane communities of humans. They long to break free from the crowd.
Beliefs give permission to affirm truth as always against the grain, but ironically in hopes of making it “the grain.” They rely on alternative, not-so-obvious signals, signs, or facts. They give us conceptual control and a kind of smugness toward “the common” often times creating a counter-elitism.
And here is a key characteristic of belief and why it is so connected to our politics. Belief flourishes in crisis and social upheaval when the foundation or base that past beliefs were constructed upon are crumbling and when the presumed shared meaning of a large and diverse society can no longer be taken for granted. Social discord causes the reevaluation of foundational “beliefs,” but it can also jettison meaning. All things can be doubted or questioned. No one can be trusted.
The compulsion toward reconstituting beliefs increases the more the social institutions designed to manage society exhaust their capacity to do so. The kinds of civil rituals like national holidays and sports and entertainment and accepted social conventions around around birth, marriage, death, and passage lose their power to unite. Institutions that especially manage large complex and competing demands for resources—government, politics, corporations, trade agreements, education—appear draconian and overreaching. And often times they are. Coercion pushes out cooperation the more trust diminishes.
Beliefs generalize and universalize assumptions that can “over-ride” the “over-reach”of weakened or overburdened social arrangements by appealing to a higher power, a greater authority than the petty, merely human and overly ritualized one. Where rituals designed to unite fail, generalizations grant great authority to counter or dispel rival communities of held beliefs, but it can also trash empirical evidence.
Belief flourishes in voids, in the absence of social cohesion, clear boundaries, and conventional operating assumptions where the authority or power to manage complex social arrangements erodes.
The more there is an absence of power or the more we feel like we have been abused by power, the more luring the compulsion to construct beliefs between our ears because of their universal potential. Beliefs transport us beyond locality and time. They seem to cut through the malaise of weighed down, convoluted, and clashing demands of complex social arrangements.
Curiously, counterfeit belief can readily seize the moment in the absence of truly transcendent beliefs. Masquerading as higher values, timeless truths or principles, fake belief camouflages the mundane but urgent needs of the here-and-now for the immediacy of the moment. It is unbelief disguised as belief, an a-theism pretending to be theism.
In his book Roland in Moonlight, David Bentley Hart—actually it is his savant dog, Roland, who speaks of us homosapiens—describes this atheism this way: “the fiercest forms of faith in the modern world are actually just inverted forms of faithlessness—forms of desperation masquerading as faith, inverting the total inward nihilism in the mirror of despair.”
Where unbelief abounds, Hart asserts, “belief is absent from a natural or easy-flowing effort. It takes an active and aggressive force of will…he doesn’t believe, he merely believes that he believes. Or he tries to believe that he believes. Or he imagines that he is trying to believe that he believes.” The father of a demon possessed son in the Gospels captures well the problem; I believe, but my unbelief keeps getting in the way.
Hart (or again, I should say Roland) insists that “we late modern humans—all of us whether vehement religionists or pagans—suffer a deep-seated malady: a bankruptcy of transcendence, an estrangement to our connectedness to the cosmos and nature.”
The universal appeal of beliefs can indeed unite diverse and competing interests as long as there is a degree of buy in by all. Most people hesitatingly acquiesce, putting the transcendent appeal of belief under the judgment of the mundane—does it work? Strathern consistently observes the irresistible urge to harness the “unearthly” in the service of immediate needs and concerns, i.e. political economy. The universal quality of beliefs unleashes a reservoir of potential to reproduce endless variations on the theme. It unleashes tremendous organization power that can impose itself on the local, contemporary, and the mundane. It can call individuals and social arrangements to something beyond just their own self interest.
In essence, belief generates meaning in the mundane. It infuses purpose into the plebeian and be-causes into the cause. It provides the essential and coveted ingredient for all advocacy and action in a society—political will. Along with meaning comes mission. Perhaps politics is not one and the same and interchangeable with religion as the title of this article boldly asserts, but we should stop the delusion that they are completely distinct categories that do not bear on one another or that one serves the practical while the other the spiritual or that one is a private matter and the other a public matter.
There are,several side effects to the usefulness of belief to bond (religio) loose and independent parts together. Depending on perspective or degree, the effects can be good, negligible or disastrous. For one, the ability of belief to transgress limitations of time and locality, its ability to generalize, also makes it highly susceptible to a monopolization by the few. Belief creates moral and social power and authority that can act independently of established social institutions and often claim superiority over them. The power to transcend the mundane makes it quite susceptible to claims that only the gifted, divine, or privileged few can truly understand and cooperate with such forces. Too often and unfortunately, the tension between the two religious spheres of the real and the ideal appears to be only resolved by a return to “over-reach,” centralized control and coercion.
Along with the tendency to monopolize comes another side effect of belief. The transcendent sense of “seeing things as they really are” creates the problem of all those “commoners” who don’t see it. They don’t get it. It is not sticking. There are two groups of unbelievers: the “weak stickers,” the majority who don’t really care, who merely acquiesce for convenience because “it works”; and the “non-stickers,” a minority who hold to different and often times opposite beliefs.
Fortresses of “in” groups, true believers, secure the purity of belief by solidifying and policing the boundaries. For both groups of unbelievers, some sort of conversion is needed. More adhesive is necessary. This requires coercion of varying degrees. We can look to marketing campaigns, either political or commercial, for the best examples of soft coercion. They appeal directly to satisfying immediate—mundane—wants and needs. For the “non-stickers,” those resisting or fleeing the belief test, more convincing persuasion may be necessary. A stronger glue need be applied. If that doesn’t work, suppression or destruction seems required. For sure, beliefs provide one of the most essential elements for self-preservation—a clear enemy.
The oldest tact in the book to secure authority for a belief relies on an appeal to origins. Strong and often manipulative attempts to reestablish a “base” tract toward an appeal to the perceived source or genesis of such beliefs. A near indisputable legend of the past is conjured to ground belief in something, well, transcendent. Nostalgia for some pristine age of the past gains considerable momentum.
The past is presumed to hold the key to flourishing human life, not the future.
Belief is indispensable for us humans. It can harness cooperation and regulate competition. It can guide and critique the common good and common sense, but it cannot and will not override, overthrow, or ignore the commons and the mundane, the here and now sense of urgency. Its anti-communal urge will always buckle. We are social creatures.
To a minimal extent, I must now address the question as to what constitutes truthful and authentic belief from fake or ingenuine belief. What proof or facts or reason or evidence can validate or cement the base? What makes the foundation sure, reliable, and enduring? Is the belief in a flat earth on equal terms with an understanding that the earth is an orb within a solar system within a galaxy?
Actually, contrasts such as true or fake, genuine or ingenuine, authentic or inauthentic cannot be applied to belief. One can perhaps only evaluate based on its ability to hold, to stick together. Perhaps the best we can hope for is a determination of weak or strong.
To qualify, I limit my thoughts here to the discussion of the social function or interaction between belief, religion, and politics. Volumes of philosophical and theological works dwarf any claim here to be a satisfying or thorough answer.
In his Washington Post article ‘An American tradition: lessons from a year of covering conspiracy theories,’ Jose A. Del Real concisely lands the arena to validate belief: “I am overwhelmed by the feeling that Truth, in the grand sense, cannot be treated merely like an accretion of facts. Truth is a story we tell, a history we accept, an agreement we make, a conversation and a negotiation. Truth is nothing without belief, and for one person to believe another, there needs to be trust between them.”
Beliefs that lean into true, authentic, genuine and workable can only be validated communally. Derived from the same root as love (leubh), belief (be-love) connotes to hold dear, cherish, or value. Belief has content; otherwise, it could not operate in the realm of practicality. But as I mentioned above, the content must have a basis, a foundation. Contrary to the beliefs of many about belief, the foundation is fluid, not fixed. Its telos is not some pristine, innocent, and pure image of the past (See Wengren and Graeber’s book The Dawn of Everything for a thorough treatise on that misguided notion), but a bold vision of what can and should be. Thy kingdom come we Christians radically and repeatedly entreat God. As a well-known German Old Testament theologian astutely assures: urzeit unt endzeit. The beginning is like the end. In other words, we tend to inject into the mythical past what we are hoping for in the future.
The problem of being consumed by culture wars, or any war for that matter, is that we lose sight of the endzeit. Ask either side: what is your vision for humanity, for human habitation both environmentally and socially? We still have a long way to go if the only answer is to defeat the enemy or to negate some counter vision. I have been accused of being a dreamer, of not living in the “real world,” but if my argument about the nature of belief here is valid, then we can affirm that if one holds to any belief, and we all do, we are holding to some kind of vision of what constitutes a good life on planet earth. Please, for God’s sake, articulate that.
It is not any ole’ group or community that best validates belief, especially not all of our echo chamber ones hiding out in cyber caves awaiting the destruction of the wicked and the vindication of the righteous. Belief-testing communities have and do exist although always precariously. Certainly, beliefs must be measured by accurate, observable information. They should withstand scientific verification as well as reasoned and logical critique. But these alone can’t bring us to truer beliefs without collective acquiescence of value, and this is precisely what is meant by the coveted “political will.”
To remind, the operating assumptions of scientific inquiry and verification rely on the community of scientists—consensus. This still holds true on the grand scale despite its calcitrance to challenges of the likes of Galileo, Darwin, Einstein etc. The larger and more inclusive the community, the better the odds of truthful validation. Still at its core, scientific inquiry must remain fluid, skeptical to its own conclusions and open to never ending inquiry; otherwise, it would cease to be science and invalidate its own authority.
Perhaps we could look to economic notions of the nature of money to model how communal value is sustained, exchanged and applied. For most of the 20th Century, gold was used as a standard to gauge the value of all national currencies. It equalized balance of payments by assuring that a nation’s paper currency stay within limits of their ability to pay debts, especially when it came to trade among nations. As Michael Hudson explains in his book Super Imperialism: the Economic Strategy of American Empire: “under the gold exchange standard, nations settled their balance-of-payments deficits in gold, which was deemed to be an objective and therefore politically neutral metallic value independent of government promises to pay.”
For sure, money is just a number on a piece of paper or computer screen, and gold is one among hundreds of precious minerals mined from the ground. But it served as a somewhat fixed and agreed upon asset that nations and businesses could evaluate other assets and debts. It wasn’t until President Nixon went off the gold standard due to the burgeoning war debt and made the dollar a proxy for gold that world trade took a decidedly unmoored turn, advantaging the U.S. since the end of World War II.
Although still elusive, “standards” can still set boundaries around the value of a belief. Interestingly, creed, credit, and accord derive from the same root related to the heart (credo). When Christians recite the Nicene or Apostles creed, they begin with “I believe.” I entrust, lend, or grant credibility. I “give my heart to” this scaffold of pre-positions anticipating their reality to reveal itself more and more in the future, not the past. True belief is alway progressive. David Bentley Hart calls our evolving understanding of belief as “stages in collective spiritual development.”
The economic overtones of belief help us understand how it operates in our politics. A belief is a kind of viability or authority, a heart-token, that can be invested ahead of one’s ability to pay and in hope that its value will prove true and even grow. It can act as a grant or accord between parties, a form of exchange for goods and services. In the political arena, it can mediate the exchange of ideas based on a shared standard. And of course and to remind, good and bad credit is always present.
I confer with Jose A. Del Real that only a community or communities can test the groundedness of belief. But what kind of communities? They must constitute mundanites being transformed into transcendentalites. They are realists being transfigured into idealists. They are communities that operate in the opposite direction of the powerful pull to capture the transcendent in service of the mundane. (We can think of the humorous attempt of Peter on Mount Tabor who in response to glimpsing the transfigured Jesus, Moses, and Elijah offers to make shelters for them. Although not recorded, surely Jesus offered an “oi” somewhere in there.) They are here and now communities pushing beyond themselves into the transcendent, into ever widening spheres of inclusion. They are communities that embrace what can and should be and imagine the Eden awaiting.
They are porous-boarder communities. All communities have identification boundaries; otherwise, they wouldn’t be a community. But too often, the identification markers become fortresses that not only keep others out, but keep participants from getting out. Porous-border communities include others, even enemies, within its identity markers while pushing the community toward inclusion into something greater than themselves.
In the political realm, these kinds of communities would be committed to plural, democratically governed societies because they would recognize that the greater the community in both time and location the better chance for strong beliefs that enable dialogue, engagement, and exchange. The solid ground of belief resides in the critical mass of humans holding the value of something to which all other values can be measured against. The gold standard as it were.
On a final note, the connection between belief and faith needs to be mentioned. In my books, I have written more about faith than belief. Del Real’s statement above conflates belief, trust, and truth around the societal need for trust. Trust belongs more to faith than belief. Belief is propositional. Faith is relational. Belief motivates to action. Trust (faith) enables us to collaborate and coordinate with others. For certain, when social discord intensifies, trust of others and institutions rapidly erodes (see Peter Turchin’s Social Discord). But the capacity to rebuild trust is not easily regained. I can’t explore here which comes first or whether there is a dynamic interplay, but for certain, one cannot have trust without belief.
In the example of Gabe Sterling I gave at the beginning of this article, Gabe’s family and friends certainly trusted him. They had faith in him. But belief proved more persuasive. Notice the words: “I know in my heart” (credo) that the election was stolen. Notice also that the content of that belief obstructs the ability trust.
I cannot at this point explore the various ways we can get around or though the impasse we face in American society, but it cannot come by a simple appeal to start trusting each other again or by infantile beliefs that religion should or even could stay out of politics.
Peter Turchin’s analysis of periods of social discord in American history concludes that we a rapidly approaching the time of heightened political violence similar to America’s civil war. He offers his hope that his study could contribute to non-violent escape routes from the crisis.
One of those routes should include a deeper appreciation of the power of belief to move communities to action. We must recognize the religious nature that is always present in politics at all levels and especially aggravated by social crisis. Believing this to be so, better enables us to navigate through it.