Our time on the planet is marked by our search for meaning. The belief systems and stories we weave serve to sustain, reassure and guide our curious minds through the corridors of the unknowable. Now we can connect with like-minded communities at the click of a mouse, our collective capacity to forage for new ways of thinking and create networks of belief has gone into overdrive. Our knowledge of the world is now networked: made up of loose-edged groups of people who discuss and spread ideas, creating a web of links among believers.
Logging on to the live-stream of consciousness online, we bear witness to the power of belief, as individual thoughts catch fire and grow into mass movements on our screens. Last year, the Twitterverse blew up when the rapper Bobby Ray Simmons Jr. a.k.a B.O.B. sent out a stream of passionate tweets claiming that the earth was flat. ‘Have u been to the edge?’, he asked his followers, posting pictures of landscapes and pointing out the tell-tale lack of curvature. Like the hundreds of folk who flooded into the first ‘Flat Earth Conference’ last year, Bobby decided to challenge well-established empirical truths, and create his own system of understanding the world. Like us all he is trying to find his own truth.
Our belief-systems underpin who we are and the cultures we create but, we rarely stop to think about how bizarre the nature of belief actually is. So what is it that fuels our conviction? What drives us to stand up and defend our belief systems in the face of adversity?
Belief remains one of the most powerful, pervasive and enduring components of human nature. Societies were founded, cohere, develop, degenerate and disappear based on their systems of belief. They connect us by a common thread, keeping cultures alive and creating strong social bonds. Once we align ourselves with a set of truths, they exist as a tool of reference for how we interpret the world. We all see the world through a different lens, whether we subscribe to the #rawvegan club, align our chakras, worship at the church of SoulCycle or kneel at God’s altar. These basic truths we hang our hat on keep us awake to the world and help to create meaning. On a personal level, our self-beliefs ignite behaviour. Often described as motives, they are the instrumental forces that drive and determine what we do, how we do it and how we weigh up outcomes. These are the stories we tell ourselves, including self-evaluations of control, competency, and value. Becoming conscious of the ways our self-beliefs influence daily life is a useful exercise in letting go of destructive patterns and nurturing self-affirming behaviour.
Humans are pattern-seeking, story-telling animals.
“Humans are pattern-seeking, story-telling animals,” writes the skeptic Michael Shermer, “and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not.” He suggests that in a chaotic and contingent world, we look for meaningful patterns that connect the dots and help us to make causal sense of things. We seek order in chaos and attempt to find reason in the random, existential events that scare us. He argues that we create beliefs based on first infusing these patterns with meaning then, by imagining that there is an agent behind them.
Our psychology has evolved to seek out patterns because this was a useful survival strategy. Our ancestors were more likely to stay alive if they chose to believe it was a man-eating predator in the long grass and not the wind, every time they heard a rustle. Whilst our agent-seeking, pattern-seeking brain usually serves us well, it also makes us susceptible to a wide range of irrational beliefs, from the paranormal and supernatural to conspiracy theories, extremism, and magical thinking.
“Magical thinking” is manifest in all areas of life. It causes us to see links between events, without a plausible explanation or previous experience. Often, we rely on superstitions and ritualistic practices when we are faced with a lack of control or a high level of uncertainty. As the members of the team contending with a high probability of failure, regardless of talent, baseball hitters have become renowned for their elaborate pre-game rituals. Just like the Laamb wrestlers of Senegal, who romance their sport in mystic ritual, these beliefs empower them with a sense of control and purpose. This is the reason we cannot dismiss magical thinking. In order to live, we have to believe things without proof. If we only lived by that which could be irrefutably proven, our lives would come to a grinding halt.
Heaven's Gate Cult Member
We used to dream about that a lot, we wanted something different.
Understanding how beliefs form is to look at how they can be manipulated. From an early age we are primed to believe testimony, and instinctively to avoid being excluded from the group. Embedded in our DNA is the ability to pick up on social cues, and synchronize our behavior with those around us. It’s how we survive. This is also one of the reasons that cults are so powerful.
Recent pop-culture trends have seen the rise of our society’s fascination with cult behaviour. Netflix’s new documentary ‘Wild Wild Country’ alone has re-injected a new fervour to this discussion. Cults can be religious, political, commercial but, they all rely on the manipulation of our belief-systems. Playing to our human vulnerabilities, they rely on the threat of exclusivism and fear of the outside world to control their flock. For people who suffer from a particular sense of alienation, the cult offers a second chance at life, a family and a new identity. This deep yearning for belonging can be heard in the heartbreaking plea, of a member of the UFO-obsessed millenarian sect, ‘The Heaven’s Gate Cult’, “It would be really neat it if one would come and pick us up and take us away, because neither one of us felt like we were part of this world, that we were on the outside looking in. We used to dream about that a lot, we wanted something different.” Rather than pamphletting on street corners, this particular cult stood out in the early nineties because they used cyberspace to find their followers, their tribe. Using a multi-coloured, comic-sans heavy website, they uploaded their doctrines and hawked videotapes online.
The internet exists as the perfect platform for belief-systems to be born, tested and disseminated. Mirroring the human social units our ancestors once relied upon, the communities that have grown online encourage tribal behaviour. Based on preferences, search histories, and social networks, the world we live in online is a direct reflection of our beliefs. Thinking about the positive aspect of these communities, they also allow for people from the fringes to reach out, find each other and connect. With a recorded 4 billion people logging on each day, the world wide web is ripe for sparking social change and shifting the status quo.
Mapping the most influential voices across the English-speaking web, ‘Global Thought Leader Ranking’ from the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute think tank shows that most of the great questions of mankind are still answered spiritually, with Pope Francis, Dalai Lama and Richard Dawkins topping the bill. Although, there is an increasing number of authors, activists and female voices that are rising through the ranks. Whilst once influence was restricted to a few heavy-hitters, this hierarchy has been shattered and replaced by a new mosaic of influence, in which social media plays a huge role. In a time when ideology and belief is our currency, influence is power.