Things I Believe

I was reading this long and rambly but really interesting monologue from a former First U of Rochester interim minister and decided she had a good recommendation. I have generally tried not to write too much about my beliefs on here for a variety of reasons, so I’m nervous about sharing them now. Nonetheless, I hope you will find them somewhat interesting to consider at least.

What follows are some various thoughts I think about big important topics Unitarian Universalism has led me to decide about for myself. Feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments!

I think I’m usually pretty happy to talk with people about what they believe, as long as we are both clear on respecting where the other currently is in their beliefs. I’m often afraid to talk about my own beliefs because they are often misunderstood and attacked, but I’m very curious to learn about others’ beliefs even when sometimes they end up being inadvertently hurtful to me. I want to help people learn what they believe, and nurture them to find the most meaningful, loving beliefs for themselves. I want the phrase “love radically” to apply to this part of my life, but it often ends up getting me hurt by people I care about.

To me, people who don’t believe in a force beyond what we see, and don’t see a wonder and magic in the universe beyond what we understand, are uninspired and lack an ability to dream. They value pragmatism over poetry. That’s generally okay though, we are all people and plenty of people don’t think what I believe is the best way themselves. However, I’ve felt attacked when my beliefs are devalued (considering that I try not to push my beliefs on other people) because I prefer a world with unseen magic. But I suspect the atheists are probably right in the end, that our world just runs on science.

I believe a sense of spiritual connection and wonder is important to each human, regardless of religious beliefs or lack thereof, to make us more conscious of those around us, more compassionate, more humble, and more inspired. The more lacking we are in these two things, I think, the more arrogant and divisive we risk becoming. The world is a pretty crazy wondrous place and deserves acknowledgement for that.

I believe people I disagree with are okay people too. Those who commit atrocities and genocide should feel the guilt according to the scale of what they’ve done, but there is no Hell. I would like to believe in a world where even bad people are loved and welcomed by a god that understands their pain, but I think at this point in my life I’m coming to the conclusion that this might be too naive for me to be comfortable with. I don’t want to believe they might get away with being insensible to their guilt.

I think killing can occasionally be justified. When the suffering outweighs the value of the life – perhaps in the case of a terminal illness. Or if it would end a genocide. I want to avoid humans damning each other too much though, because it’s not humanity’s place. An omnipotent, loving god as many people believe in, would know how to deal with wrongdoers most fairly and lovingly, the way a good parent can correct a child with love, and ideas like Hell and human judgement have no place in that, no more than domestic violence would be something God would condone.

I believe in secular prophets, divine only in the sense that they have been inspired to great wisdom that moved the human race forward. To me, Jesus was probably just as human and just as divine as Gandhi or any other great person in history who preached loving change and wisdom. I don’t believe these people were “sent” to us, but that they were regular people who received wisdom and ability to affect positive change beyond what most humans manage in their lifetimes. I think that to honor them as divine is perhaps a sort of idolatry and passes over their humanity – the idea that any of us can rise to their level. But it’s a good idea to learn from any wise person, so it’s not bad to follow prophets as divine as long as one is loving, and not closeminded, about it.

I believe in a metaphysical influence on our lives, whether an anthropomorphic higher power or just a connecting love that runs through the universe. “God” is the term we use to put a face on this metaphysical force, a more familiar anthropomorphization. I prefer “goddess” as a reflection of the way we are nurtured by the world around us, the way the world around us gives birth to amazing things, and the desire for a mother figure in the position of higher power. I also like the term goddess as a reminder of a much longer tradition of worship styles than our modern Judeochristian views. Earth-based religions have a lot of appeal for me because of the way they touch on very old roots of belief, and seem to place less emphasis on fighting over who’s right about beliefs. And I find a calendar of holidays based around astronomical phenomena more meaningful than one based around arbitrary days decided by mythology.

Love and connection bring us closer to a higher spiritual plane. The more connected we are to our world and community through love, the more a part of the flow of the universe we become. The more we work for change to love and nurture other people, the more nurtured we will be, metaphysically.

I find it comforting to believe in “a better land” beyond death, or the ability to join in a flow of loving energy beyond death. I think when we die we probably realistically just stop and decay thanks to worms – but as with most of my beliefs, I find it “makes life more bearable” to subscribe to some non-scientific ideas. When faced with death of someone I care about, I prefer to think that what made them them, went to a better place, and will continue to nurture the universe for the rest of time. Perhaps even if this is just their atoms returning to be recycled into stars. My beliefs might fluctuate a lot…

As part of that, I think an important part of death is to be returned to the Earth in some way, preferably in a symbolically significant way. I think symbolic traditions, rituals, and myths are important because of their role in joining us to the flow of humanity, and by extension, the universe.

I hope that when I die, I can say “nothing left to do.” Not so much because I will have run out of things I’m working on necessarily, but because I will have done all I “needed” to do in my life, and it will be others’ turns next.

I don’t really believe in “the answer” – I think even physics will only ever lead to more questions. Life would be boring without more questions and mystery and wonder. I do kind of like the idea of some dude at the end telling us who was right in their beliefs and patting them on the back though – but never sitting in judgement on our spiritual beliefs or lack thereof. It’s mostly because it’d be nice to know what “the answer” was once you’re dead, or something. Yeah I’m a little conflicted about my beliefs, but Unitarian Universalists are allowed…

I don’t really like the idea of being nothing more than a biological machine: I choose to believe we have something special inside of us, whether it’s a soul or something else. I don’t know that I make a big deal about “souls,” but the spark of life is something important and sacred, and makes each of us who we are rather than just a biological machine.

So I think those are some highlights of my beliefs. They’re a little vague and fluid, but that probably covers the main things that stay fairly consistent.

4 Responses to “Things I Believe”

  1. Orion Burcham
    | Reply

    Ok, this is long overdue. Time to respond! Sorry to keep you waiting:

    Thank you for sharing this. I always love learning about other people’s beliefs, and getting to better understand how they think in the process. I’ve also found that many of my core beliefs go against cultural norms. They can be quickly ridiculed if I open my mouth to certain people, so I appreciate you putting yourself out there. While I have many thoughts on what you’ve written, I none of them involve me sitting in judgement of your beliefs. :)

 Ok, on with the show:

    – – –

    “To me, people who don’t believe in a force beyond what we see, and don’t see a wonder and magic in the universe beyond what we understand, are uninspired and lack an ability to dream. They value pragmatism over poetry.”

    WRONG! Just kidding. :) This is a very interestingly worded- I think I would need some clarification to know whether or not I agree. On one hand, I’m definitely one of those “atheists who believe the world runs on science” you mention later. I don’t believe in a god, and afterlife, or even morals (that sounds crazy, so more on that later). I’m a fairly hard determinist, and I think animals as biological machines. I try to live by the tenants of the scientific method: to stay agnostic, and to require logic and evidence for my beliefs.

    On the other hand, I definitely believe in forces beyond our understanding, and the wonder and magic of the universe is what gets me up each morning. Nowadays I believe that human happiness = growth, and the chance to learn and marvel at the majesty of reality makes me happier than most anything else. To me, learning more about the universe helps me better understand myself. Understanding how things work makes it easier to pursue one’s dreams, and in this regard, I think pragmatism can be poetry.

    – –

    “I believe a sense of spiritual connection and wonder is important to each human…”

    “I believe in a metaphysical influence on our lives, whether an anthropomorphic higher power or just a connecting love that runs through the universe…”

    I think I may be opening a can of worms here, but I’m often not sure what people mean by the word ‘spiritual’. Occasionally, I’m not sure they know either! :p (Present readers excluded, of course). I’d love to know more about your thoughts here. Usually, I feel like I’m ignorant of people’s meaning, like I missed out on the cultural meeting where ‘spiritual’ was defined.

    Where I grew up, some people quite literally believe in spirits. Others use the term to mean a nebulous collection of ideas- usually concepts from various religions that can’t be observed: extra planes of existence, links to the afterlife, metaphysical connections, etc. To them, it was one step less than actual belief in those things- an acknowledgement that, since we can’t directly observe them, they can’t be confirmed. But it wasn’t an abandonment of those ideas either. To me it seemed like a middle step: “Maybe this stuff exists- who knows? Existence is vast and mysterious.”

    I appreciate the wonder, and respect the agnosticism. Many peoples’ spiritual beliefs are very close to them, so I breach the subject with sincere respect. That said, the problem I often have here is that many of the ideas were man-made to begin with.

    (Here’s where I jump firmly info annoying territory!)

    Take the concept of being helped in this life by our dead relatives. For this to be true, there would need to be…an afterlife! Our consciousnesses and memories would need to be preserved after death, which means they would need to exist outside of our brains (which decay completely). Beings in this afterlife would need some influence over our world, in a way that’s usually invisible.

    It may absolutely be the case that all this is happening. Absolutely! But there’s just zero evidence for any of it. No one would be happier to hear some than I, but so far I haven’t. But, there is plenty of evidence that people have wanted this to be true. Tests have shown that humans are amazingly good at finding reasons for things, even when they’re wrong. It’s also been shown that stimulating a part of the brain can reliably produce a feeling of being visited by an unseen presence. 

None of this means our ancestors aren’t watching over us. It doesn’t even mean someone shouldn’t believe it, and I would never tell that person they’re wrong (because I don’t know). After all, there are countless forces beyond our understanding. But I can’t sincerely go there myself, without at least some reason to believe. I don’t see this as a choice: without a reason, how could I believe it?

    – –

    “I think when we die we probably realistically just stop and decay thanks to worms.”

    Lol- I love this. “Thanks, worms!”

    – – –

    “Those who commit atrocities and genocide should feel the guilt according to the scale of what they’ve done”

    “I don’t want to believe they might get away with being insensible to their guilt.”

    “I think killing can occasionally be justified…”

    Ok, earlier I said I didn’t believe in morals. Time to clarify that!

    It’s true that I don’t believe in a universal sense of right and wrong, and with this also goes many concepts that are crucial to our culture: responsibility, fairness, or the idea that people deserve or earn things. You can see where this might get me into some trouble. :p

    My original reason for thinking this came from the Tao Te Ching, which was the first religious text that really made sense to me:

    “When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly.
    When people see some things as good, other things become bad.

    Being and non-being create each other.
    Difficult and easy support each other.
    Long and short define each other.”

    As a kid, this really got me thinking. These things really were all relative, and couldn’t exist without their counterparts. However, everything couldn’t be like that- there did seem to be some constants of the universe, like the physical forces. So…why were these different?

    The answer I arrived at is that they’re all human concepts. They had no meaning – and probably didn’t exist – outside of our heads. Learning more about what a concept is (in a neurobiological sense), and how it’s stored in our brains, really helped drive this point home for me. It was an amazing thought, that so many millions of lives have been lost, and fates shaped over the eons, by people mistaking their own concepts for constant universal truths. What an astounding concept. Well is it for me, anyway. I mean, hey- shut up!

    So, I started questioning my own beliefs- trying to discern which of them were about universal constants, and which were based in purely human concepts- things I had adopted, learned, or developed. I feel like this process has brought me more personal clarity and peace that most anything else. I often make mistakes here, but I’m grateful to have learned it.

    – –

    “I don’t really like the idea of being nothing more than a biological machine: I choose to believe we have something special inside of us, whether it’s a soul or something else. I don’t know that I make a big deal about “souls,” but the spark of life is something important and sacred, and makes each of us who we are rather than just a biological machine.”

    I gotta say, I absolutely love being a biological machine. :p It just makes so much damn sense, and helps me better understand myself and others. The more science reveals about our biology, the more deterministic and machine-like we seem to be. I can understand someone feeling like this devalues us in some way, or removes our individuality, agency, or specialness.

    I’ve never really seen it this way. Science isn’t about imposing truths that dictate reality. It’s always been about observing truths that explain reality! It’s about expanding, not bursting, the bubble. Nothing that comes out of science can make something any less or more than it is. What it can do, is help us understand that amazing thing better.

    In the case of life, I see understand its mechanics as helping us understand our place in existence. It means we follow the same set of rules as everything else in the universe, which connects us to the rest of the matter in the world. It makes amazing theories possible, like the idea of life on earth being ‘seeded’ from other planets. It helps us answer great mysteries, like what happens after death, and the nature of disease, confusion, passion, and love.

    I think one of my core beliefs is that things don’t lose value by being explained. Instead, explanations help us appreciate what value is.

    – –

    ”I think an important part of death is to be returned to the Earth in some way, preferably in a symbolically significant way. I think symbolic traditions, rituals, and myths are important because of their role in joining us to the flow of humanity, and by extension, the universe.

    I hope that when I die, I can say “nothing left to do.” Not so much because I will have run out of things I’m working on necessarily, but because I will have done all I “needed” to do in my life, and it will be others’ turns next.”

    Excellent. I completely agree. :)

    • ellen
      | Reply

      I’m preparing a post to deal with a couple of things you (and other people over the years) have raised with me, but with all my photos to sort through and write about lately I can’t promise when it will be ready.

      The bit you called out as “interestingly worded” was carefully worded for exactly the reason you pull out. There are some people I’ve talked to whom I think it would be fair to describe as “militant atheists,” who can be quite antagonistic about any sort of “magic” of the universe. I tried to phrase what I was thinking in such a way to express my opinion that it is wise and humble to, as you say, “believe in forces beyond our understanding, and the wonder and magic of the universe” and accept that this belief takes varying forms among different people, regardless of whether you see science or metaphysical power at the back end of concept.

      I’m glad you were able to find meaning in what I wrote. :) Thank you for the well-thought-out comment – I think that you make good points and basically my response to your belief system would be that I just choose, in the knowledge that I am probably wrong, to believe we aren’t simply biological machines and that there is some sort of binding power or entity in the universe. All I can hope for is for people across the spectrum to find it in themselves to respect that and have good open-minded discussions with me about it.

      • Orion Burcham
        | Reply

        I look forward to your post. One thing it’d be great to hear your thoughts on is how you are able to choose to believe things you think are probably wrong. I don’t mean this in a demeaning way- I think I honestly don’t understand how to do it.

        One major drawback to my philosophy is that it doesn’t inherently offer very much comfort. It’s great if you find peace from things making sense (which I do). But if what you learn is painful to hear (like understanding how little control we have, or feeling like life has no ultimate purpose), there’s no real place to hide. Those (whatever the logic is) are just the facts.

        At some point in the past, I would have said “But The truth matters more than comfort! Deal with how things really work will always make me better prepared for life!” In other words, “What doesn’t kill me makes me mentally stronger.” Nowadays I don’t think this is true. That ideology forgets that we’re human, and need to be somewhat comfortable/happy to survive. Part of our sanity relies on believing we have more control over life than we do. And If you can’t making decisions because “nothing actually matters”, the opportunities you truly want will go to someone less encumbered.

        That being said, I don’t think I know how to choose to believe something I think is wrong. I also don’t think I’d want to, even if it gave me happiness. I don’t think either option is very good! A friend recently asked me, “Would you rather be happy, or right?” I have absolutely no idea how to answer. “Would you rather be wrong, or sad?” It’s an impossible question.

        • ellen
          |

          Well, I think for me the question of “happy or right” is exactly what this is about: choosing to be happy rather than worry so literally about being right. I find value (my search for truth and meaning) in my beliefs which gives them a form of “rightness” for me. If we are making policy decisions or something, then literally being right should win. But for my (and most people’s) day-to-day life, it really doesn’t matter what the “right” answers about why we are the way we are are. I have never been to the moon, and I have no evidence personally that the dinosaurs in museums aren’t hoaxes, so I have to take it on faith that science is accurate. In believing in science, or humans being biological machines, I’m believing just as much in what other people have told me as people who conform blindly to orthodox religions. In fact dinosaurs are cool but also kind of weird me out because they strike me as just as fantastical as the Garden of Eden. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but neither have I myself proven all this stuff – I just learn it from books or museums or whatever. Once you start looking at what you believe – things you believe are facts and things you believe are made up – and things you don’t believe, I think you start realizing that one just has to decide for onesself at some point. So I believe in science, but I also don’t think it should be a problem for me to fill in science with magic.

          We joke about computers running on magic with little tubes or elves carrying the data around – but that is actually a pretty good metaphor if you aren’t picky. So in a way it is “true” for people who do not need/care how a computer literally does its business. Just replace the terms with more scientifically detailed ones. Same with my beliefs: on a daily basis I don’t need my life to run on science and so I am content to have it run on magic to a certain extent (I’ve always been an “imaginative” kid). I need to know how computers work, and so I know they are not magic. I’m hoping this makes sense. It is a sort of fluid thing – science is there when I need it, but simple explanations do fine and help me understand more clearly how I should be behaving.

          I’ll see if I can think about this more cohesively and roll it into another post for you. :)

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