Duane Sherwood: Who gets to tell me what I believe?

This commentary is by Duane E. Sherwood, a retired nurse and erstwhile technical writer living in Winooski.

Only one person gets to tell me what I do and do not believe, and that would be me. The same is true for you, and for every other human being on the planet. 

There is no human right more fundamental or essential to the very definition of human existence than this. As is the case with all rights, there is a corresponding responsibility. Many will try to influence your beliefs, but ultimately you and you alone are responsible for the content of your own mind. You make the final decisions within the privacy of your own thoughts and feelings.

Beliefs are very important. Your actions are largely based on your beliefs. Your perceptions are influenced by them. Beliefs will guide you into friendships with those who are like-minded. You will evaluate new information based on how well it fits with your existing beliefs. 

We make sense of the world in terms of patterns of belief. If beliefs are that important, then I want good ones.

Beliefs evolve over the course of our lives. We develop our beliefs as best we can based on our families, culture, education, experience, inclinations, talents, and available information resources. 

Here is the funny thing: Everyone thinks their own beliefs are really good. I certainly am fond of mine (just ask my wife). 

Here is another funny thing: We have a hell of a time understanding how anyone could think differently, especially when an underlying pattern of belief seems incompatible with our own. In these distressing political times, I’m sure we all have said, “How could anyone believe that?” 

When faced with incompatible beliefs, the easy path is to simply dismiss the beliefs as wrong and those who hold them as being defective in some way, even insane. This line of thinking is shallow, untrue and dangerous. The fact is, everyone is doing their best, and this must be respected. I repeat, the right to do one’s best in formulating one’s own personal beliefs must be respected. 

But how can we offer respect to someone when we believe they are just plain wrong? The first step is having a little intellectual humility. As good as I think my own beliefs are, I realize I do not know everything. Deeply held beliefs, such as a faith system, help us form our identities. I’ve changed some deeply held beliefs, and it is difficult to let those go. 

The quest for truth led me down a path where change was inevitable. Now I can see beliefs for what they are: wispy configurations of neural connections in the brain. They are representations, not reality. Constructs. 

I will always try to learn new things, see new perspectives, and improve my beliefs. I ask five basic questions: 1) is it true, 2) is it good, 3) how do we know, 4) why do we care, and 5) what do we do about it? Thus I have come to hold my beliefs gently, like daisies. If one wilts, I let it go and pick another. 

The second step is to understand we are all human, each equipped with a mind, a heart, and (if you choose to believe it) a soul. This shared humanity is the foundation of a common understanding. We laugh. We cry. We love our families. We seek the enjoyments of life. Most of us try to do the right things. 

These are characteristics of healthy human beings, not mental illness. So how do we end up with incompatible beliefs? As I mentioned before, beliefs evolve. Just as the tree of life can trace diverse species back to a common ancestor, I believe each of us could trace the lineage of our beliefs back to a common set of understandings. 

As I see it, the hallmark of respect is dialogue. If we can listen to each other, we can share the stories of how we legitimately came to our beliefs. More importantly, we can trace back in the stories to see what understandings we share. I love mutually respectful dialogue. It is hard work, a labor of love. I see it as vital for our times.

So here’s the thing. Beliefs are a personal matter; actions have consequences. I respect your right to believe whatever you decide to believe. But no one has a right to impose their beliefs on others. 

Same-sex marriage is a perfect example. Some may believe God said that’s a sin. You may believe that with all your heart as an article of faith. You may think that’s the absolute truth. But even that is a belief. Somewhere in your path of understanding, you decided to incorporate articles of faith into your pattern of beliefs. 

If your beliefs tell you same-sex marriage is bad, then don’t do it. It’s between you and your God. I respect that. However, it is not your job to make everyone else comply with your personal beliefs. Just as neither of us has a right to tell the other what to believe, neither of us has a right to tell the other how to live. To think otherwise is absurd.

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