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  • Cameron Mazzeo MSW, LCSW

Changing A Belief

Why beliefs are impossible to beat with facts, and must be combated with love


If you studied social work you have likely come across a research study, or 20, that has found a correlation between religious/spiritual belief and various positive health attributes. Study after study has found that individuals who believe in a higher power have reduce anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, have better quality of life, better health outcomes, etc. The reverse has also been found to be true; those who feel forsaken or forgotten by their higher power and who don't believe in a high power often have higher rates of depression and struggle with more difficult health outcomes. It is safe to day beliefs have a profound impact on our mind, body, and spirit. However, what happens when our beliefs conflict with science?


To first answer that question we first have to understand what a belief is. According to Ralph Lewis M.D. and author of Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even If the Universe Doesn't, "beliefs are energy saving shortcuts in modeling and predicting the environment". Our brains are an energy intensive organ, constantly taking in and processing stimuli while controlling and monitoring our basic bodily functions. To ensure efficiency, our brains take shortcuts to save energy, even though it risks accuracy. Lewis argues the beliefs are one such shortcut. It is a way for our brains to explain and understand the world around us, often using personal experiences or beliefs passed down through authority figures when we are children. Beliefs are essentially the interpreting and predictive measures that our brain uses to to explain how we expect our reality to be. They develop similar to our sensory perception. Since we as humans experience our world entirely through our sense we find it hard to question their validity. For example, a person will struggle questioning what they physically see no matter how bizarre it may be, such is the case with a hallucination. We build whole systems of thought and understanding around these ways of evaluating the world. What is worse, these imperfect calculations can be deeply rooted in our identity and the very life we have grown to create over years. There are error-detection mechanisms in our brain as well, like being able to acknowledge a defense mechanism, but it is not guaranteed to catch every flaw in our shortcuts. Similar to all organism, our bodies and mind crave a sort of simple homeostasis, we tend to discard information, even proven facts, if we feel it puts our interpretive and predictive systems at risk, the theoretical systems in which we have built our lives around. An example is the choice of career, which can be rooted in our belief about happiness and success, to acknowledge we are wrong about our beliefs would mean we would have to acknowledge all we are and all our progress and was for nothing. We are more likely to ignore or explain away facts that suggest our careers and identities were pointless.


I am a liberal progressive, my ideas would be categorized as left of Bernie. What I love about the party is that we tend to err on the side of science. I always found it difficult to understand why when topics such as drug addiction, vaccines, or global warming are discussed there are people who believe something different despite it clearly being the opposite of the scientific theories and facts. Turns out, according to science, facts don't actually sway people's beliefs says Ozan Varol, literal rocket scientist turned law professor.


Because we as humans are reluctant to admit our beliefs were wrong, to change someone's mind on a topic you have to give their brain an excuse for the mistake. You'd have to tell yourself or the other person "prior decision or prior belief was the right one given what you knew, but now that the underlying facts have changed, so should the mind." Varol writes, but when we ostracize (Nazis!), belittle (Everyone knows that!), or ridicule (what an idiot) someone for that decision or belief they will actually become more entrenched in it. At that point to for them to admit they were incorrect would be to admit they are stupid and or evil. People are more likely to change their system of beliefs if they are able to save face through the process.


It is also important to separate yourself (or the other person) from the beliefs. When beliefs become part of your identity your less willing to question them, and you are more likely to get defensive if they are questioned. It is hard to sell someone on changing a belief if it also means changing their whole idea of themselves. But it is not impossible according to Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of infamous Fred Phelps pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, in her TED talk and book Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, leaving the Westboro Baptist Church. Megan explains that it was not the aggressive and belligerent retorts to her family's beliefs, but the individuals who merely talked to her and saw her as human that ultimately sparked the doubts in her own beliefs. Megan left Westboro Baptist Church in 2012, after her beliefs were shifted thanks to Twitter friends who had been curious about her beliefs and were able to discuss the contradictions with her. She said "Once I saw that we were not the ultimate arbiters of divine truth but flawed human beings, I couldn't pretend otherwise." Megan goes on to say that she has been thinking about what changed her mindset when she watches the same destructive impulses that were common in her family being played out on a national scale. Megan explains in her TED talk that the more we break the world up into "us" and "them", the bigger the divide become, the less each side sees the other as human. When this happens, She continues "we routine refuse to acknowledge the flaws in our positions, and the merit in the opponents." Megan says to reduce the divide we need to talk and listen to our opponents with empathy, learn to see them as human. Megan points out her Twitter friend, in particular that man who later becomes her husband, did four things that made real conversations possible and ultimately led to the realization she needed to leave the Westboro Baptist Church. She recommends these four practices:


1) don't assume bad intent,

2) ask questions,

3) stay calm,

4) make the argument.


Daryl Davis, the black blues-musician that befriends Klu Klux Klan members, somewhat agrees with Megan's sentiment in an interview with NPR. Daryl has collected over 200 robes from members who have left the Klan, a symbolic gestures of their friendships. Daryl indicated that after his initial outrageous conversation with a KKK member in a bar, it sparked a real interest. Daryl said that he researched everything he could regarding the Klan, then traveled around the country to talked to the members. He remarked that Klan members often respected him, even when they did not like him, for his detailed knowledge of their belief system. "That began to chip away at their ideology because when two enemies are talking, they're not fighting. It's when the talking ceases that the ground becomes fertile for violence." the article states. Daryl says he didn't "convert" anyone; he merely spent time with the members, discussing commonalities, and allowed the friendship to naturally form- the members saw the lights and converted themselves. Daryl recalled a conversation with the first KKK member who stepped away from the Klan. The man had indicated that all black people have a gene in them that makes them inherently violent. When Daryl pointed out that he wasn't violent and had never been in trouble in his life, the man retorted that the gene was latent in him but would show itself eventually. After some thought Daryl responded that if that were true that must mean all white men had a gene that would make them serial killers given that serial killers are most often white men, he even goes on to name Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy. Daryl looked at him and said, you are going to be a serial killer. As expected when the man protested, saying that he has never killed anyone and had no intention of doing so, Daryl said then his gene must also be latent. Eventually, the man said that's stupid. Daryl replied, "Well, duh. Yes, but you know what, you're right. What I said was stupid, but no more stupid than what you said you me." He indicated that conversation shifted to lighter topics. Five months later, based on that conversation, that same man left the KKK. Daryl said that was the first robe he ever received.


To conclude; I think what truly makes changing someone else beliefs difficult is releasing our own beliefs about who that person is. It is when we can see them as they are, just people trying so hard to find the 'right" way to live, just as are we, then we can really begin to sew the seeds of change.

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