What Does It Mean To Believe?

The Leap of Belief 

In the modern West, belief has effectively become a synonym for opinion or judgment – a space of autonomy rather than a prescription for its exercise. And, because opinion or judgment is so essential to modern societies, to ask ‘What do you mean by believe?’ would abdicate the right of people to decide for themselves what belief is. Beliefs locate us in the world – they identify us as consumers, voters, and voluntary participants in civil society, identifying us in a vast, multidimensional matrix of free choice.

Modern Belief

To demand criteria for belief, to challenge the notion that all kinds of judgment and opinion are basically commensurate, would threaten an important mechanism by which modern people engage in the world. Modern belief is the sense that belief is synonymous with private judgment, and therefore modern people believe or disbelieve according to their own conception of whether a given proposition is credible.

Belief in Practice

As a matter of practice, some version of rationalism is at the heart of how many people claim to make their judgments, about religion as well as other things – they consider the evidence for or against a claim. And yet, while ‘reason’ may be a conventional component of modern belief, people are sovereign over the criteria of judgment as well as judgment itself, and their reasons are answerable to no one.

People who believe whatever a charismatic leader tells them, for instance, or who refuse to listen to new evidence that might change their minds, are not acting in accordance with most understandings of rationalism – but they would still claim to be using their judgment as independent finders of fact.

The Birth of Modern Belief
The Birth of Modern Belief

 Ethan H. Shagan

How Did Big Gods Transform Religion?

Local Gods 

Most of the spirits and deities of foraging and hunter-gatherer societies did not have moral concerns. Such gods may have wanted to be appeased with sacrifices and rituals, but they were typically unconcerned with moral transgressions, which preoccupy the Big Gods of major world religions.

Many of the local gods and spirits were not even fully omniscient to be good monitors of moral behavior – they perceived things within village boundaries and not beyond, and they could be manipulated by other rival gods. Religion’s early roots did not have a wide moral scope. Nevertheless, despite their relative infrequency in the supernatural scope of hunter-gatherer societies, powerful, omniscient, interventionist, morally concerned gods – Big Gods – managed to proliferate over time through cultural diffusion, population expansions, and conquest.

Advent of Big Gods

Prosocial religions, together with their Big Gods who watch, intervene, and demand hard-to-fake loyalty displays, facilitated the rise of cooperation in large groups of anonymous strangers. In turn, these expanding groups took their prosocial religious beliefs and practices with them, further enhancing large-scale cooperation in a runaway process of cultural evolution.

Religious intuitions developed (for example: mind and body separation, and the continued existence of mind after the body perishes), which support widely held religious beliefs and related practices, such as gods, spirits, and souls of various types and characteristics. Once that happened, the stage was set for rapid cultural evolution – nongenetic, socially transmitted changes in beliefs and behaviors – that eventually led to large societies with Big Gods.

Eight Principles of Big Gods

  1. Watched people are nice people.
  2. Religion is more in the situation that in the person.
  3. Hell is stronger than heaven.
  4. Trust people who trust in God.
  5. Religious actions speak louder than words.
  6. Unworshipped Gods are impotent Gods.
  7. Big Gods for Big Groups.
  8. Religious groups cooperate in order to compete.

Big Gods
Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict

Ara Norenzayan

How Does Action Shape Thought?

First Comes Movement

A creature didn’t think in order to move; it just moved, and by moving it discovered the world that then formed the content of its thoughts.

…..Larissa MacFarquhar, “The mind-expanding ideas of Andy Clark,” The New Yorker

Action Shapes Thought

How do we think? The natural answer is: with words. Everything from ancient philosophy to the theory of evolution is assembled and transmitted through language. But our ancestors did not speak, and neither do infants – yet they still think. So, if we can think before we have language, then what are our thoughts made of?

In Mind in Motion, psychologist Barbara Tversky makes the case that movement and our interactions in space, not language, are the true foundation of thought.

Spatial Thinking

Spatial thinking enables us to draw meaning from: our bodies and their actions in the world; shape, size, and relation; and transformation, trajectory, and speed. Actions on thought are like actions on objects.

Spatial thinking underlies our ability to create and use maps, assemble furniture, devise football strategies, design buildings, create art, and understand the flow of people, traffic, water, and ideas. Spatial thinking even underlies the structure and meaning of language: why we say we push ideas forward or tear them apart, and why we’re feeling up or have grown distant.

Science, art, literature, and the great ideas of the world – these originated not just in our brains, but in our entire bodies.

Mind in Motion
Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought

Barbara Tversky