Why Do We Believe As We Do?

by Arthur Brown

What do you believe?

And, how do you decide what you believe?

Do you believe what you believe because you read it somewhere, because someone you know and trust told it to you, or because you witnessed or experienced something that led you to draw a particular conclusion? Is it as a result of your tradition that you believe certain things? Is it out of some kind of loyalty to a particular view?

And, how do you determine the ‘sources of authority’ from which you are more or less likely to draw your view[s]? From a particular media source? In which case, which one? From material you have read – which material?

From people you know? What led them to draw their conclusions that they have passed on to you? What have they read or been taught? To whom are they loyal, and why? Might it be that they have had a negative experience at the hands of someone or a particular group, and as a result are more likely to hold a negative view of a particular political or religious community?

Okay, so you have a view on something, someone…. or some group? How, then, might your view be changed? What would need to happen for you to change your opinion?

I apologise for asking all these questions, but I guess I want to stress the idea that asking the right question[s] is often significantly more important than obtaining ‘the right’ answer.

In the past couple of weeks I have travelled extensively throughout the Middle East, much more so than I would normally. I met many young people in my travels, mainly evangelical Christians, from the region: Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian, Sudanese, and North African, etc. These young people are passionate about their faith, and want to see their countries transformed as a result. We sang songs together of God’s love for all people and the desire for His Kingdom to be demonstrated here on Earth. The young people with whom I met were encouraged to be a light in their communities, and to pray that others might come closer to God.

At the same time, however, I heard in my travels a number of influential Christian leaders express the view that Daesh [IS/ISIS] is “at last demonstrating the ‘true face of Islam’.” While of course rejecting all that Daesh stands for, there was a sense in which Christian leaders respected Daesh for at least being “honest about the true teachings and practice of Islam – in contrast to some kind of ‘sanitized expression of Islam’ that ‘more moderate Muslims’ may wish to present.”

Now imagine you are a young person who, having grown up in the church, is trying to work out not only what to believe about you own faith but also how you should relate to those of a different faith community – probably in this case your Muslims friends or colleagues with whom you interact daily at school or university.

So, how are these young, passionate and committed Christian young people meant to respond? How do they choose what to believe? On the one hand, they value the love their leaders have shown to them over the years and recognise that their own faith – a faith to which they hold strongly – is to a large extent a result of the commitment of their leaders who have loved and served them faithfully. And yet, their own experience, of the friendships they have formed with Muslims at school, at university, and in the coffee shops, seems to show them a radically different perspective.

How are they to make sense of such competing narratives?

A few thoughts:

To begin, it is critical not to negate the experiences of others, be they positive or negative. It is absolutely true that the Christian population of the region has faced tremendous challenges at the hands of their Muslim countryfolk. There is much pain and hurt. Justifiably, there may be a lack of trust.  But at what point do the past experiences of some become a socially held view by the whole community, perpetuated generation after generation?

If faced with someone who is giving a very strong view about a particular group, it might be worth asking what their motivation for doing so might be. It seems to me that a willingness to attack the beliefs or practices of another religious [or political group] is often the result  of some misplaced loyalty to one’s own particular group – a view that would suggest one cannot truly belong to his or her ‘own group’ unless s/he is somehow attacking ‘another group’. The sense is that we all fit neatly into particular boxes with clearly delineated boundaries, such that people are either one thing or something completely different.  So the claim is that one is either a ‘real Muslim’, in which case of course one will support Daesh, or one is are ‘moderate Muslim’, in which case s/he is at best not really practicing his or her faith or at worst trying to deceive people into a naive view of Islam. In my experience, this is a deeply flawed view that leads to further division between communities

Instead, being a Christian cannot mean being against Islam. That, of course, does not mean that being a Christian and being a Muslim are the same, or that we have identical understandings of the God we worship. Clearly, we don’t. It does mean, however, that the manner by which I relate to and respond to Muslims [and Islam] should be based on a serious reflection of the person of Jesus and of the way he related to those from different traditions than his own. Pope Francis’ recent comments about how “it is more Christian to build bridges that to build walls” rings true in my head.

In conclusion, it seems to me that it is often young people who, rather than simply taking at face value what they have been taught, are better able to navigate the complexities of diverse belief systems and are therefore more likely to confront the often sectarian, prejudiced and polemic views of others.

As you may be aware, IMES helps facilitate an inter-faith initiative called The Feast. At the heart of all Feast events we put on are a set of dialogue guidelines. Three such ‘dialogue values’ that we have seen working in practice seem particularly relevant. Maybe we can all learn something from them about relating to others. They are:

  • To not tell others what they believe, but let them tell me. If we do not make the effort to really get to know people from different religious or political communities, it is more likely that we will buy into the negative stereotypes that some are so keen to espouse.
  • To be honest in what we say. I think we need to recognise the inherent complexity in trying to describe, let alone define, any particular religion – as if there can possibly be one all-encompassing narrative that is accepted by all members of a religion. We will all try to paint our own belief system in the most positive light. This is human nature. However, are we prepared to do our homework when it comes to what we say about other belief systems, or do we accept what we have been told at face value?
  • To not judge people here by what some people of their faith do. This is an all too common problem, but one that we should all reflect on if we do not want to be guilty of racism, bigotry and scapegoating.

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