Why is it that we are so drawn to other people on the basis of beliefs? The usual pattern is to enthusiastically flock together in that wonderful rush of “These are my kindred people! Finally!” only to be eventually and predictably followed by interminable arguments on minor points, power struggles, fights over correctness, angry exposes, hopes disappointed, and a final general falling apart and bitter disillusionment. Myself, I watched it within the communist party in my youth, then in America within the cabal formed around Ayn Rand, then the PC that killed feminism and the internecine squabbles among the Greens and anarchists. Now, as I watch the doomer, “friends of Ishmael” and “humane food” scenes, I see again that same virus proliferating.

It’s been 60 years since Eric Hoffer, a self-educated longshoreman, published a seminal book called True Believer. He noted that people who have been infected by true-believerism – a staunch commitment to (and psychological dependence on) right belief — easily move between different belief systems. Fanatical Christians turn into fanatical communists turn into fanatical feminists turn into fanatical Greens turn into fanatical anarchists. Merrily spins the carousel.

Only some of us are true believers, monomaniacal zealots who shape their entire lives around an ideology. My aim is to make a stronger, more encompassing claim: we are all believists. We have all been suckered into vastly overestimating the value and usefulness of ideas. I think of believism as the elevation of beliefs, ideas, mind constructs above living beings, accompanied by the conviction that shared beliefs are unifying and essential for agreement and successful collaboration.

When small groups of Greens were forming all around the country in the late 80s, the first order of business was to articulate the “platform” – a set of shared, strongly-held beliefs. This was seen as a necessary preamble to political effectiveness {cough, cough}. The Greens were convinced that in order to change the world, they first had to have a carefully crafted ideology. They were only the latest casualty of an approach that goes at least as far back as early Christianity.

The first Christians were small groups of people who tried very hard to follow Jesus, to live by the Golden Rule and the commandments to love God and love one’s fellows. They took care of each other so admirably well that they managed to make inroads into a hostile empire determined to suppress them through ridicule, loathing, and persecution. But two, three hundred years later, we see a very different picture. Believism had taken over Christendom. The early house churches had been infiltrated by people who were eager to alter their beliefs but not their way of living. In the “year of our lord” 325, the bishops at the Council of Nicea fell upon each other in a fratricidal war that focused not on how best to follow Jesus Christ, but rather on beliefs about him. Creeds and intellectual speculation, rather than day-to-day behavior, became the focus of the co-opted religion.

I present to you for consideration the possibility that believism is a trap. That it does not make sense to look for one’s kindred people on the basis of belief. Believing is cheap. It’s easy. Anyone can mouth the right words after a bit of study; might even feel convinced. But if they are an asshole, what’s the difference? The group will go down in flames as gazillions of those infiltrated by assholes have done from the beginning of time. Beliefs cannot cure a person who treats his or her fellows poorly; they only provide yet another way to bully people.

Believism rests on a lie. It stokes the fear that without shared beliefs, unity and cooperation is impossible. But examining the history of any belief-based movement from Christianity to communism and beyond shows that schisms flare up as soon as the movement makes some headway, and that intimidation becomes the cement to hold the broken vessel together. When we stop being entranced by its own propaganda, it’s easy to see that believism actually gets in the way of cooperation. People who end up fighting each other over shades of belief forget to look out for each other and to band together – are unable to band together – to stop bullies in their tracks. Believism divides us. Trying to “know” people by their beliefs and ideas rather than “by their fruits” is bound to lead to confusion and conflict. Believism divides us! It creates enclaves of same-thinking folks who are unable to get along with anyone else, and ultimately unable to get along with each other as well.

Don’t get me wrong; it is wonderful to be able to talk and work with people who are on the same wavelength, without the need for lengthy explanations or the need to establish basic common understanding. I have nothing against shared beliefs per se. They have their usefulness and their pleasures. But isn’t it time to stop getting seduced by pretty ideas? Like fire, they make good servants but bad masters.

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