They ossify thought, making necessary change all but impossible.
I suppose all human beings have beliefs. I know I do. I have the sacral belief that there is a God that created the Universe and all that is in it. I share the secular belief in human equality. (That belief doesn’t contradict my sacral beliefs, but does not depend on them, either; it exists alongside them).
[For the record, I do not believe in the existence of a priori ‘Rights’, such as ‘Natural Rights’. The reason for a law against murder is that people have a “Right” to life? Really? Why isn’t my existence as a fellow human being enough in itself to outlaw murdering me? Why isn’t my property being integral to my life enough to outlaw its theft?]
Beliefs are a form of knowledge. The knowledge they provide is absolutely, unassailably valid for the believer.
That form of knowledge is extra-material and extra-rational. We cannot say how a belief is formed. Although it certainly does not have to be, it can be related to an experience within material existence. Even in such cases, though, how a belief is actually formed defies explanation — even to oneself, much less anyone else.
In other words, beliefs are not the products of our consciously rational minds. In that sense they come from the ‘other side’ of subjectivity.
We experience life via our brains. We receive information from a material reality that is external to us. We can also become aware of information/knowledge (knowledge being sufficiently verified information) that we know did not originate within our consciously rational minds but we also know is not from material existence. Such information can only come from some other, immaterial source of which we, with our conscious rational capacity, also exist apart.
Therein lies the problem. Beliefs can defy rationality. They can even defy material reality.
Beliefs can exert a hold on us that is stronger than our rational capacity or even information our senses glean for us directly from material existence. If a believer is forced to choose between belief and a rationally derived conclusion or even something experienced via the senses within material existence, those can be summarily rejected to preserve the belief.
The biggest problem for humanity is that beliefs are the foundations of theologies and ideologies. Those have provided the guides for how people should live their lives as individuals and how the governance of societies should be governed. In both cases, people must be free to adapt to change to negotiate successfully material existence. Once a person has adopted this or that belief-based theology or ideology, though, all of that person’s existence is filtered through that lens. Any information that contradicts that perspective will normally be rejected. For any contrary information to force its way through that lens to gain rational acceptance and lead to needed change almost always requires the existence of some dire set of circumstances. It has been demonstrated that for the sake of their beliefs people will resist change in their personal lives or for society as a whole beyond a point at which actual material harm is being experienced.
For societies it has happened many times. It is happening now.
The craziest thing, in my experience, is that people will reject needed change even if it agrees with their beliefs because it is not the product of the theology or ideology that they ‘believe in’. For instance, I have been writing for some years on behalf of an economic (monetary) paradigm that would absolutely, positively, indisputably result in outcomes for society that would be a dream come true for people on both sides of the political divide. It would make the existing economy self-regulating, with no unemployment, poverty, taxes, or public debt, while sustainability would be increased. All of that would be accomplished without imposing any costs on employers, without having to redistribute anything, without imposing any limit on income/wealth, without additional regulations, and without requiring people to act any particular way. At the same time, having that monetary paradigm in place would not preclude acting within the political process to achieve any other goal anyone might believe should be achieved for society as a whole.
What’s more, all of that follows from a strictly rational account of justice, involving no beliefs, that boils down to a handful of absolute prohibitions on personal conduct, no matter what: no killing, harming, coercing, stealing, or manipulating (which includes lying, cheating, etc.) in effecting any choice (i.e., choosing among perceived alternatives and taking action to bring that choice to fruition). What ideological or sacral view of morality does that contradict?
Yet, despite the existence of actual material harm in the form of ongoing unemployment, poverty, taxation, public debt (which requires taxation for its sustenance), and environmental degradation, nobody, as far as I am aware, is advocating for that paradigm or that account of justice. Whatever is going on, it damn sure ain’t rational.
“Beyond Liberalism” [that account of justice]
(for, primarily, economists) “Paradigm Shift”
“To Preserve What We Have, What We Have Must Be Enough” [for those whose experience of life these days tells them (as mine tells me) that we must go further for justice and sustainability]
(all are here in Medium but not behind the paywall)