Friday, February 7, 2020

Believe to exist… Can mankind survive without beliefs?

Believe to exist… Can humankind survive without beliefs?

"In god we trust" - adage found on U.S. banknotes

The answer is: “No”. 

Believing in nothing is to lose the meaning of life and to become apathetic. But then, why and what do we need to believe in? What do YOU believe in? Maybe God(s), yourself, astrology, magic, legislation, or science? All humans live and (inter)act in the same world, but they do not believe in the same things. When it comes to beliefs, so many questions arise! Whether it is the content and idiosyncrasies of some type of beliefs (such as myths concerning the Loch Ness, the Yeti, dragons, paranormal activities, beliefs in the theory of flat earth…) or the reasons why we need to believe! 

First things first, what is a “belief”? A belief is a conception of reality. It guides the perceptions we have of ourselves and of our environment. Each person's beliefs are unique. However, their content and their form are influenced by our groups, social and cultural affiliations (Dany et al., 2008). The sociologist Gérald Bronner (2014) distinguishes knowledge from belief: information and knowledge are elaborated logically and are verified, whereas beliefs are irrational arguments and theories. Thus, a belief is composed of high levels of emotion components and low levels of information. The more a belief’s content is emotional, the more we will tend to endorse it.


Why do we need to believe in something?

Firstly, at an individual level, there are different reasons why we need to believe. We are inclined to accept beliefs because they satisfy some of our most basic needs and existential queries. They answer fundamental questions; why life? Why death? Why this world rather than another? etc. For example, many people believe in an afterlife. Why? What’s the point of holding such beliefs? Cova (2014) suggests that it is because it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to imagine the mental states of a dead person, a mind without mental activity. We could also add that the belief in an afterlife is attractive because it appeases the anguish caused by the prospect of our demise. Therefore, beliefs are guides for action, they give meaning to life and help us face it. Believing is invigorating and it helps people to move forward through life (reading horoscopes every morning give strength for the day!).
Secondly, we have a social need to believe. Believing in something means sharing thoughts, values and thus being part of a group. Whether it is a concrete or abstract group, through religion or non-institutionalized beliefs, sharing beliefs gives us the feeling to belong somewhere. Our beliefs therefore provide us with social support and give meaning to our short lives. If we take a further look at religious practices and beliefs, we can see that they can be beneficial; for example they can contribute to a better physical and mental health due to a sense of belonging, lower stress levels, etc. (Bailly, Roussiau & Fleury-Bahi, 2011). Moreover, such beliefs can motivate the individual to behave properly at all times. This type of behaviour increases their chances of being part of human coalitions and of having a strong sense of belonging and well-being (Cova, 2014). On the other hand, going to the church, talking to the deceased, checking your horoscope might only be a habit, a pressure to follow the norm or endorsement for the practice, without actually believing in it. In other words, you don’t need to firmly believe to take part in the rituals (Molénat, 2014).

Are there Universal Beliefs?

Although beliefs are guided by the society in which we live, there seem to be some invariants regarding the foundation and the content of beliefs (Journet, 2014). For example, beliefs in ghosts, divinity, magical creatures, resurrection, or supernatural phenomena are found in every culture! Similarly, dragons are present in every culture all around the world. However, the way they are perceived - evil or with beneficial powers, forms, features - depends on the culture. Journet (2014) argued that such “collective imagination” may have been inspired by existing animals, dinosaur bones or other natural mysteries of the time (e.q., volcanoes). Why are such beliefs created all over the world? What positive roles have they played for humanity? Misunderstandings and uncertainty create emotions that are difficult to cope with. As mentioned above, these beliefs enable to give meaning to our environment. They also elicit a moral order. That’s why tales, myths and legends often contain moral prescriptions. The initial objective was to dictate disciplinary duty.

What about derives of beliefs?

The past few years, our approach to information has changed, for the means of communication have changed. The constant progress of knowledges and the democratization of the internet has increased the rate of false and dubious information and beliefs by modifying people’s relationship with knowledge. With the amount of divergent information that exists, there is an increasing distrust toward institutional, scientific and journalistic information. This can lead to alternative beliefs like rumours, sectarian practices, conspiracy theories, etc., (Bronner, 2010, 2014). 

So… Are your sure of what you believe in? 

Sarah Leveaux - PhD Student 
Université Lumière Lyon 2



Bronner, G. (2010). Actualité des croyances collectives. L’année sociologique, 60(1), 11-18.

Bronner, G. (2014). Internet, incubateur de croyances. Sciences Humaines, 260(6), 26-26.

Cova, F. (2014). Sommes-nous naturellement crédules ? Sciences Humaines, 260(6), 23-23.

Dany, L., Roussel, P., Carayon, S., Blois, S., & Apostolidis, T. (2008). Adaptation et validation française de l’inventaire de croyances et perceptions associées à la douleur. Pratiques psychologiques, 185(1), 1-18. doi : 10.1016/j.prps.2007.12.009

Journet, N. (2014). Existe-t-il des croyances universelles ? Sciences Humaines, 260(6), 24-24.

Molénat, X. (2014). Pour l’amour du rite. Sciences Humaines, 260(6), 25-25.

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