How People Get Tangled Up in Belief Systems and How They Can Get Untangled
By George A. Boyd © 2019
Q: How do people come to believe such strange things? Like there are people who seek to confirm the prophecies of The Bible, and believe that these point to current events? How could you verify something like this?
A: You could begin examining promised prophetic outcomes and see if they actually come true. This would entail:
- Write down the prophecy you are studying. Identify the concrete events that could indicate the prophecy’s promised outcome has occurred.
- Note the key descriptors as measurable events. For example, does the prophecy say there will be earthquakes? Fires? Famine? Thunder and lightening? Wars? Will the seas turn red as blood?
- Set criteria for what constitutes a fulfillment for the prophecy. This should be significant. There have been nearly continual earthquakes, thunderstorms, and wars since the days when the prophets lived. There have been periodic famines. What would make these occurrences salient to indicate that this event was fulfilled?
For example, would you only consider earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or above? Would you only consider a famine if 100,000 or more people died? Would you only consider a war significant if 10,000 warriors on both sides died? How many square miles of the ocean would have to turn red for you to say that they outcome was reached? It is important that you decide what is the cutoff for you to consider each factor.
- You would find known historical instances of each of these factors that match the descriptors and that meet your criteria. So you would find all historical instances of earthquakes greater than 7.0 magnitude and notice if the other outcomes of the prophecy coincided with that factor.
- Calculate the statistical correlation for all of the factors matching the criteria and come up with a summated correlation for all factors. Apply an appropriate statistical test to determine whether this summated correlation is significant.
- Note which historical instances have the highest correlations, and whether these values are significant.
- Then consider, do any of these significant correlations provide definitive proof the prophecy has been fulfilled?
Since multiple historical events can be said to meet the outcome descriptors described in scriptures, it becomes a difficult task to identify which of these similar outcomes the prophet was actually predicting. Similar patterns of wars and famines might have occurred once or twice a century.
So does the prophecy seem to relate to captivity of the Jews in Babylon? Does it point to the Roman occupation of Judea? Does it indicate the period of the Fall of Rome? Does it refer to the Crusades? Does it suggest the battles of the American Civil War? Is it describing the events of the early 21st century?
Since the patterns are similar, believers could point to any of these events as “fulfillment of prophecy.” So in every generation, if these prophecies are correct, you have many of the markers to suggest the end of the world is nigh.
Q: Many Christians, Jews, and Muslims interpret the symbolic materials in their scriptures literally. As a result, they have projected apocalyptic, doomsday scenarios on current events. These events appear to them to confirm their beliefs. Can you speak to this?
A: There are several issues with interpretations of symbols. We go into these issues in greater depth in our book, Religions, Cults, and Terrorism: What the Heck Are We Doing?.
Literal interpretations of symbolic or archetypal images contained in scripture—particularly those that describe doomsday scenarios—are problematical. These concerns include:
- Symbols may not refer to any actual event or person. While originally they may be extrapolated from experience and envisioned as events of the future, it is not possible to objectively know what the prophet had in mind when he or she had the revelation in which this symbolic content was brought forward into awareness.
- Symbolic or metaphorical interpretation creates meaning from symbols or archetypes. Each symbol can become a container for widely divergent meanings—there is no consensus on what any symbol actually means.
- Symbols can become objects for projections of wishes, hopes, and fears. These emotional projections can be displaced on a current event that appears to fulfill an apocalyptic vision. For example, if the believer strongly desires the Christ to return, these events that match the signs of the prophecy foretelling his Advent evoke powerful yearnings.
- Symbols can enable the powerless to feel they have power. When people do not feel they have the power to change their current circumstances, they may look to archetypes of a Messiah or Warrior King to vanquish and punish those who oppress them. An avenging Deity may use Its Mighty Power to destroy the wicked, and to reward the powerless. For example, St. John’s virulent anger at Rome is thinly veiled in his visions of an angry God, who sends his Son to judge the world in “The Book of Revelations” in The Bible.
- Symbols convey the miraculous. The outcomes of many prophecies require that the known laws of physics be violated: For example, the corpses of the dead will be miraculously resurrected on the Day of Judgment, or believers will vanish from the world in the Rapture. In many cases, fulfillment of prophecy needs to have a magical, miraculous, or supernatural intervention to come true.
- Symbols give substance to the irrational or fantastic. Many symbols and archetypes are encountered in the unconscious mind. They embody desires, wishes, and fears—but also potential knowledge and abilities. Until they are integrated, however, symbols are mysterious and inscrutable.
- Mystery spawns speculation. The inherent mystery of symbols and archetypes invites conjecture about their meaning. Since none of these theories can be tested or validated, explanations of what symbols mean can take the form of elaborate conspiracy theories, recounting a mythical retelling of history, legends and stories of the future Advent of the Messiah or Prophet, or tales of the impending end of the world. Until the esoteric meanings of the symbol reveal themselves to the Soul, wild speculation prevails.
Q: What happens when you believe this way? When you interpret symbols in this highly speculative fashion?
A: You misunderstand and misinterpret the meanings of the symbol. As a result, you experience:
- Delusion – your misunderstanding of the symbol leads to mistaken belief.
- Denial – Once you have decided that you have the true interpretation of the symbol, you refuse to consider anything that disconfirms your belief.
- Projective identification – You look for confirmation of your belief in events. You distort the data to confirm what you believe. You filter your perceptions so that you look for any evidence that validates your belief. You attempt to convince others of the truth of your belief.
- Conviction – You hold these beliefs despite evidence to the contrary. When others attempt to question your beliefs, this only makes you hold this belief more tenaciously. You may feel someone is attacking one of the core tenets of your faith.
If you begin to hold many mistaken beliefs with conviction to level four, you may construct a mindset that progresses—from powerful conviction about one to five tenacious beliefs—to a comprehensive array of dozens of distorted beliefs. As you become more entrenched in this impregnable castle of beliefs, you may shift into an authoritarian worldview, and ultimately to outright paranoia. These deeper layers of warped belief construction are:
- Armoring of the heart – You create a “belief bubble” that encapsulates your beliefs, and projects an apocalyptic worldview—you have the belief that the doomsday scenario described in your scriptures will come true. You may hold that because you are a believer, you will be saved from the horrible things that are predicted to befall those who don’t believe the way you do. This may also take the form of elaborately constructed conspiracy theories in those that don’t embrace religious belief systems.
- Authoritarian worldview – Once you have constructed your fortress of unquestionable belief, your nexus of beliefs may shift into an authoritarian worldview—especially if you believe that others are actively challenging your beliefs. In this mindset, you take a black and white viewpoint: you may believe that the devil has deluded those who don’t believe like you do; they will be doomed to hell; and they are worthy to be ridiculed, persecuted, punished, or exiled. In this mindset, you commonly try to impose your beliefs and values on others.
- Paranoia – When you progress to this stage, when others begin to question your beliefs or criticize you, you begin to perceive you are persecuted or victimized. You may in fact be persecuting and victimizing others, but you aren’t aware you are doing this—nor are you aware of your intolerant, arrogant, and condescending attitude towards others.
Q: I have observed these stages of belief construction in other people—and I’ve caught myself going here as well. How do people untangle this cocoon they have woven out of their beliefs?
A: You unravel these knots of belief through applying strategies that deconstruct them. These methods include:
- Be willing to experience the world as it is without the filter of beliefs, metaphors, or symbols. The practice of mindfulness, being present and aware, helps you do this.
- Accept that people hold many alternative perceptions of reality. Seek to understand why they view the world differently. Studying the different strata of the Great Continuum of Consciousness and finding the different identity states that people embrace will assist you to understand this phenomenon.
- Take ownership of your projections. Notice if you are using symbols or events to project your desires on other people or the world. Tools such as process meditation and the Mandala Method help you trace your beliefs back to their origin, which gives you the option to re-own them and modify them.
- Use contradictory or conflicting evidence to arrive at a greater truth, a more complete theory that includes other viewpoints. If you hold truths hypothetically until you can fully confirm them, you will avoid the trap of tenaciously holding erroneous beliefs. Be willing to question what you believe as you gain new evidence. The Synthesis Method is a valuable tool for resolving conflicts between beliefs—it allows you to find a higher standpoint that allows you to integrate both perspectives.
- Dissolve your bubble of belief through experiencing your intentional consciousness (attentional principle), your loving heart (spirit), and your transcendent being (Soul) directly. Experience your body, your vehicles of consciousness and the levels of your mind directly, and relate to the world and other people from your authentic spirituality.
- Seek empathy, understanding, and compassion for your Self and others. Cultivate humility and recognize you do not have all the answers—you continue to learn and grow. Also allow others to discover their own truths. Don’t impose your beliefs and values on others. Share your discoveries in consciousness if they ask you about them.
- Take ownership of how you persecute and harm others and stop doing this. Take responsibility for your own actions, words, and thoughts. Stop blaming others for your shortcomings and failures; strive to improve yourself. Deconstruct the mindset that makes you believe you are under attack: embrace the beauty, harmony, and perfection of the universe as it is.
We suspect that if those who hold these rigid belief systems of apocalypse, hatred, and conspiracy would utilize these steps, much of the political and religious strife in the world could be dissolved. We are not holding our breath that this will happen any time soon; but employing methods like this to deconstruct these mindsets would relieve a lot of the turmoil in our world today.
Those who want to go into these topics of belief construction and deconstruction in religion, cults, and terrorist groups more deeply may wish to acquire our book, Religions, Cults, and Terrorism: What the Heck Are We Doing? You may also enjoy our public webinar series on Cults and on Judeo-Christian religion.