There is growing evidence for a new way of looking at belief. While we once saw belief as a choice, or as an exhibition of faith, we are now understanding belief to be part of our brain’s vital life-sustaining role.
Beliefs are our brain’s way of making sense of and navigating our complex world. They are mental representations of the ways our brains expect things in our environment to behave, and how things should be related to each other—the patterns our brain expects the world to conform to. Beliefs are templates for efficient learning and are often essential for survival.Dr. Ralph Lewis, Psychology Today
Our brains create beliefs for our benefit, to help us efficiently make sense of our world and help us make decisions about what kind of actions we will take. They are forged in the fire of experience and interpretation of those experiences. And they work, until they don’t.
These shortcuts to interpreting and predicting our world often involve connecting dots and filling in gaps, making extrapolations and assumptions based on incomplete information and based on similarity to previously recognized patterns. In jumping to conclusions, our brains have a preference for familiar conclusions over unfamiliar ones. Thus, our brains are prone to error, sometimes seeing patterns where there are none. This may or may not be subsequently identified and corrected by error-detection mechanisms. It’s a trade-off between efficiency and accuracy. In its need for economy and efficiency of energy consumption, the default tendency of the brain is to fit new information into its existing framework for understanding the world, rather than repeatedly reconstructing that framework from scratch.Dr. Ralph Lewis
We’ve been conflating “belief” and “faith” for way too long. Faith is trusting in something we can’t fully grasp with our senses. It’s not belief, which is something formed through interaction with our world through our senses. Faith is bigger than that. Faith is in things that are too big for us to see, taste, touch, smell, or hear. Often when we say we have “faith” in someone or something what we are really saying is that we have a “belief” that that person or thing will behave in accordance to the patterns our brains have determined for that person or thing. Faith is saying, “I don’t know, but I’ll trust anyway because there’s something there I don’t have words for.” It isn’t blind or senseless, though. It’s just a way of trusting and knowing that transcends our minds and senses.
This difference is important. We can’t choose the beliefs our brains create as it does its interpretive dance through life, but we can choose what we are going to do with those beliefs. We can choose to hold our beliefs loosely, recognizing them for what they are, and taking a closer look to see how those beliefs affect us and others. We can choose to responsibly deal with our beliefs, try them on, see how they work, and let go of them if they don’t. And while doing this, we can choose to have faith, to trust that thing we can’t describe but that we somehow know is good for us, others, and the world.
Sometimes our brains get new information or have new experiences and are in such a rush to interpret the data and fit it into its pattern-deciphering file cabinet that it starts quickly removing old belief files that no longer fit. When this happens with our religious beliefs, it is often described as a “faith crisis”. Our brains are doing some hard work. We spin around as things get reorganized, and we’re sometimes left with gaping holes where once we had neatly packaged belief files. Crisis is a good word.
However, even when beliefs as big as those we have about God are challenged, faith can and often does remain intact. That thing that draws us into the mystery is still there. What we’re having is a “belief crisis”, not a “faith crisis”.
In an ever-changing fast-paced world driven by ridiculous amounts of information disseminated through the devices we all hold in our hands every day, real belief crises are bound to happen. Religions are belief systems designed to support our faith, not faith systems to support our beliefs, and it can feel heavy when we feel like our religion, our belief system, is changing too fast. The brain starts trying to figure out how to fit new wine in old bottles. It always prefers the familiar over the unfamiliar. Even Jesus said, “No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better” (Luke 5:39). And what Jesus invites us to do is to have faith. He invites us to let go of the old and embrace the new. Let go. Trust the process.
And just because you find a new belief to hold for a while doesn’t mean you’ve found the holy grail of truth. The new will not always stay new, it will get old too. Sometimes a new belief that sustains you may one day no longer work. That’s okay. You’re growing and changing, just like everything that has ever been created. When your brain gives you a new belief, you don’t have to trust it right away. Try it on. Test it out. What kind of fruit does it produce? Is it helpful to you? Could it be helpful to others? Does it lend itself to easily being weaponized in judgement against others? Does it free you or others from damaging self-accusation? Just because you thought or were told something doesn’t mean you have to believe it. And just because you believed it once doesn’t mean you have to hang onto it forever. Be a responsible believer.
Honestly, seeing my faith as something separate from my beliefs is probably one of the most liberating things I’ve ever seen. I can love my beliefs, use them responsibly, and let them go when it’s time, all the while having a strong and vibrant faith that can sustain me through it all. And I can appreciate and honor the responsible beliefs of others even when they are different than my own because I am appreciating and honoring our shared faith.
It’s like realizing you’ve been clinging onto your 1980’s wardrobe for way too long. It was holding you back. And even though it might have made you happy, over the years it got old and stale. Sometimes you can keep some of the pieces and get rid of others to create a new wardrobe out of what you already have. And sometimes, your best friend comes over, tells you like it is, lights all of your clothes on fire, and then hands you a high-limit credit card and says, “Come, follow me.”
Having a belief crisis sucks. It’s painful. Take a deep breath. Let the old go. Choose faith. Jump back into the world with both feet when you’re ready.
The story of atonement is the story of fresh starts with faithful friends. If you find holes in your wardrobe and broken shelves in your closet, don’t worry. You have a universe of possibility and limitless credit.