"I don't believe in belief. I think belief is a tremendously stultifying force. What I'm interested in is freedom, and I noticed very early that a belief absolutely precludes the possibility of holding to its opposite, and therefore if you believe something you have" limited yourself.""Terence McKenna ("Under the Teaching Tree," 1985)
My own personal skepticism with "belief" first revealed itself to me at an early age. I was seven years old, attending Catholic school, and my class was preparing for our First Communion.
For those unfamiliar, "Communion," aka the "Eucharist," is a ritual at Sunday services in which the Last Supper story from the Bible is reenacted. This is when the Jesus character famously shared bread and wine with his disciples the night before he was hauled away by Roman officials to be tried and executed. "This is my body," he said, as he broke the bread, and "This is my blood," as raised the wine cup.
According to Middle Age-era Catholic doctrine, when a priest playing the role of Jesus intones these words during Mass, the bread and wine on the altar undergo a process known as "transubstantiation" in which they literally become the actual body and blood of Jesus. You read that right. These products of wheat and grapes do not merely symbolize flesh and blood in this ceremony; they are flesh and blood, in everything but their form. Quite the concept.
Seven year old me tried to wrap my mind around this, but I couldn't understand it, let alone believe it. What was clear, though, was that all the grown-ups around me wanted me to do this thing, so I went ahead and did it. Maybe, I thought, it would make sense later; maybe "faith" would grow.
It never did. I left the Church as a teenager over sexual/guilt issues but that's a topic for another day.
Belief is not monopolized by religion, though. Hardly. Throughout all of society, nearly everyone bases their lives on beliefs. Indeed, our notions of what constitutes "life" itself are steeped in belief. So many arguments are only battles between beliefs. So much that's supposedly factual is merely belief by another name.
We organize ourselves by belief in our society in large part because we no longer organize ourselves by practical action. The vast majority of people in the United States don't take part in any practical actions whatsoever.
An action is "practical" if it is undertaken in direct support of one's survival, such as procuring food, water and shelter.
We have been giving up the practical bit by bit since we turned to agriculture and invented the abstraction of wealth. In the previous world"the world without property, class or war"everything was practical because everything was direct and up to us. If we ate, it was because we had spent time gathering food. Furthermore, our efforts were communal; as a species of animal, we are social and our survival depends on working within groups. So our relationships were also practical.
Belief has no part in whether a particular plant has edible roots, or a water source is drinkable, or a particular hide will keep the rain off you. The tubers could be nutritious or poisonous, the watercourse fresh or brackish, and the skin complete or worn through. Whatever the case, these are matters of fact. They are knowable by the senses and anyone with intact physiology can ascertain them. That makes for a world without experts.
Additionally, everyone was trustworthy. I will not say "because no one could afford not to be" because that implies that people were consciously choosing whether to be honest, and that would not"could not"have been the case. Do wild animals in herds, flocks or schools mislead each other? Of course not. Their relationships are based on cooperative practical action, not belief. At one time, we were no different. When that shift happened is a matter of debate, but not whether there was one.
Our current lifestyle could hardly be more different. Everything we do is in direct. Interceding between ourselves and practical actions are abstractions like money, ownership, price, work vs. play, and clock time, all of them figments of our collective imagination. Their function is to demarcate and divide a world that is naturally bountiful and whole, and thereby manufacture poverty and power, both of which exist only in relation to each other.
Organizing ourselves by beliefs rather than practical action has real world results: starvation and homelessness in a system that overproduces food and housing; a natural environment choked with pollution; among the other species: mass extinction.
But the material consequences do not follow from the beliefs themselves. Ultimately, it's not what we believe but the fact that we believe. Our shared psychosis is the issue.