Emunah Fialkoff

Does it really matter what you believe?

In my last post, I wrote about the importance of not getting too stuck in the question of “Can I prove it?” or “How do I know?” when making a decision about religious practice and belief. That post was about not limiting ourselves to empirical thinking when we decide what we believe.

Here I want to look at a different aspect of our religious journey — the aspect of defining what we believe. While scientific clarity may not be important or even possible in questions of religious devotion, intellectual clarity is still essential.

Many people may be committed to a religious path or community based on feeling and habit. But if you were to ask them, “So what do you actually believe as a practicing Jew/Christian/Muslim etc?” they might be start to mumble.

“I believe there is a God.”

So do many other people who don’t share your specific religious ideology.

“I believe that God spoke to the Jewish people on Sinai.”

Ok. That’s a little more specific. Are you sure that you believe that? Do you have any doubts about that? Do you know what God said at Sinai and what He didn’t say? Do you know how it got into our book? Does it matter whether you know these things or not?

I don’t believe that we need to have answers to all of these questions. However I do think we need to have an idea of what we believe, what we don’t believe, and why.

Let’s understand for a moment why seeking intellectual clarity about our beliefs is so important.

As we grow up, we absorb a lot of information and ideas from the people around us. We relate to our parents and teachers as sources of authority and implicitly trust what they tell us.

Hopefully at some point we start to mature and we realize that these sources of authority are fallible. It becomes important to think for ourselves. At this point, we have a few options.

  1. We can defect from our community out of laziness, lack of interest, or disillusionment because we don’t know how to answer questions like, “Can I prove it?”
  2. We can continue our allegiance to our religious community without any probing process – based purely on our feelings about the community, habit, and fear of addressing our doubts.
  3. We can embark on a search for clarity, and try to sort out what, in the mess of ideas that have been shoved into our minds, we actually believe and why we believe it.

Obviously I am in favor of the third option. Here’s why.

When we reach adulthood after years of absorbing other people’s ideas, our minds are almost inevitably a mess. Neither parents nor teachers are perfect, and most of them at some point taught us things that are contradictory, mistaken, and often even damaging.

If we are leaning toward staying religious, then they probably also managed to impart some positive feelings about the religious experience. And I don’t think these feelings should be discounted. However, something must be done about the mess in our minds.

The reason we need to deal with this mess is that confusion is paralyzing. The thing about religious beliefs, or beliefs in general, is that they are not supposed to be cute accessories that we carry around through life. What you believe is not supposed to be arbitrary to how you live.

It would be a mistake to think that the man who believes in God and the man who doesn’t believe in God can basically live the same lives, other than that their beliefs are different. Our beliefs actually shape our vision of how to live – they lay the path before us. That is….so long as they are clear.

When beliefs are not clear however, they cannot lay a path. A confused mind has no clear vision of where it is headed or what it is trying to achieve. The confused man who sort of believes in God and the confused man who sort of doesn’t believe in God may lead very similar lives. The clear-headed man who believes in God and the clear-headed man who doesn’t believe in God – now you have a real difference.

Let’s bring this confusion paralysis down to earth a little.

If you are trying to build a business, you may have a strong feeling that your business idea is a good one. You may feel like it is calling you, and that it offers a purposeful direction for your career. Great! Now what? You’ve heard a lot of different ideas about how to build a business from different sources. Some days you try one tip. Some days you try another. Some things work well, others less well.

You feel a bit frazzled, but you figure this is how the process is supposed to be. Eventually your confusion catches up to you. You’re not really sure what you’re supposed to do. You’ve made little bits of money here and there, but nothing has really caught on. You finally give up on your business and get a job.

Most of us would tell this person to get a business coach or to clarify his business goals, formulate a plan, and stick with it. The inconsistent, confused investment of his time will never yield strong outcomes. Even though there may not be one way to build a business, he must have clarity about the way that he is going about it. If he needs to reassess and adjust at some point, he can.

Now let’s consider how this applies to our beliefs. How many of us live our religious lives in the way that this man tried to build his business? We have a general idea that religion calls us. We’ve heard ideas that sound good, some of which we try here and there. But when it comes down to it, we’re not really sure what the big picture is supposed to look like.

Here’s the scary thing when it comes to our religious beliefs – in business we see the fruits of our labor. Either the money is coming in or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, that is often a signal that something is not right. In our relationships with God, seeing the returns can be much trickier.

It’s much easier to tolerate a low spiritual return than a low financial return. When the money is not coming in, we make a move. But when our spiritual life suffers, we may shrug our shoulders, and say, “Hey! Not much else I can do, right?” and continue to perpetuate this confusion-induced mediocrity.

But there is something that you can do. If I told you, “Get clarity on your spiritual goals and how you plan to achieve them,” that might be good advice. The problem is that it is actually very difficult to have clarity on your spiritual goals without having clarity on what you believe first. Without having clarity on our beliefs, doubt inevitably impairs us. First we need to sort through the mental mess and get a clear vision of where we stand. Only then can we establish our goals and plan of action.

This post has gone on too long so I will wrap it up and continue in the next blog. Stay tuned!

About the Author
Emunah Fialkoff is a ghostwriter and writing trainer. She is keenly interested in the intersection between religious life and mental health.