Sunday, December 10, 2006

Changing Fashions in Belief

I began FLIGHTS OF PEGASUS with emphasis on distinguishing beliefs we acquired through our intuition or other immediate experience from those we learned from other people. I think that if most of us eliminated all of our beliefs which we could trace to another person’s mind there would be very few beliefs left.

Would you think that the world was flat, or that the Earth moved around the sun, unless someone had told you otherwise?

Would you think that democracy was the greatest form of government if you hadn’t been taught that it was? If you had been taught from kindergarten through college that an absolute monarchy is the finest and heaven-blessed form of government, what are the odds you would believe otherwise? If you were a happy and prosperous Italian under Mussolini, or a working person enjoying new opportunities and prosperity under Hitler, might you not think that Fascism or National Socialism was the ideal political philosophy? If you feel otherwise now, why is that?

What if you’d been born in the ancient world, where it was universally believed that slavery was a normal and proper institution? Would you automatically have condemned slavery as you probably do now?

Would you “believe in” Jesus or Mohammed or Jehovah or Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or Mormonism unless someone had taught you what to believe? Even when people change their religious beliefs they usually go from one “teaching” to another, do they not?

In science -- in physics and astronomy and geology - there are proofs available which help enable us to evaluate what is true and untrue . . . but what about religious, social, and political beliefs? What constitutes “acceptable” social, moral, racial, and sexual views has changed radically just in my lifetime within the United States. And you can multiply that by all the countries in the world, where a political essay which might win you a prize today in China or Russia would have resulted in your imprisonment not many years ago. American university presidents and college professors have been forced out of their positions in recent years for saying things which would have been considered bedrock fact in the 1940’s and 1950’s. They are not in trouble because what they say is contradicted by fact, but because they are going up against the latest fad in arbitrary preferences.

That is the most fascinating thing about all this: Virtually none of the old beliefs (say those dating from 1920-1960) have been contradicted, much less disproved by new evidence. Formerly acceptable and respectable beliefs – taught in universities, promulgated by national governments, regarded by the average person as normal and proper – on racial differences, segregation, eugenics, immigration, sexual behavior, sexual differences, sexual roles, and mores generally, have changed drastically since 1900 not because they have been “disproved” but because they have been “disapproved”. Indeed, genetics and intelligence testing and other areas of research have probably bolstered and affirmed “outmoded” beliefs more than torn them down.

What has changed is not what is true, but what is fashionable to believe.

For that reason among many others there is a welcome feeling of security in knowing something because you have experienced it yourself, as contrasted with “knowing” something you have been told by other people, whether in books, classrooms, sermons, newspapers, television shows, movies, or politically correct lunchtime chats among colleagues.

1 comment:

  1. Everyone is free to think their own thoughts but very often they like to be in harmony with those around them, in solidarity.

    I wonder if you have to be an introvert or a misfit to escape the gravitational force of the cultural norm?