On a Typology of Beliefs

Our attitudes and actions are often governed by our personal beliefs and the overall belief system under which we function. There are a great many sources for the beliefs we hold: early indoctrination and instructions received from parents and teachers, subtle influences from books and media, our own reflections, and our cultural, national, and religious affiliations. We may classify beliefs on the basis of three different criteria: rationality, effects, and ownership.

First, we have rational beliefs, justifiable on the basis of facts, logic, and analysis. Not all these factors may always be involved. The belief that the sun rises in the east is a rational belief until we have analyzed all its aspects. Irrational beliefs are those which blatantly contradict what is clear on the basis of observation and analysis. Thus, the belief that the sun moves in the sky could become irrational if and when one becomes aware of all the observational data which establish the spinning of the earth. Finally, there are transrational beliefs. These are neither rational nor irrational. Belief in after-life, the sanctity of a prophet, and our eventual merger with whatever gave rise to the cosmos are transrational beliefs. They can’t be established on rational grounds, and they don’t contradict any known aspect of the world. A transrational belief may or may not be obvious to reason and analysis. It is often (not always) meaningful, uplifting, hope-giving, and psychologically beneficent.

Next, we may classify beliefs in terms of their effects: Eubeliefs (from the Greek prefix eu, good) are beliefs whose overall impact is positive, i.e. for the good of oneself and/or of others. Dysbeliefs (from the Greek prefix dys: bad) are harmful or hurtful to oneself and/or to others.

Beliefs may also be classified on the basis of ownership. Svabeliefs (from the Sanskrit prefix sva: one's own) are beliefs that one dearly holds. Such beliefs may or not be shared with or by others. As an example of svabelief, one may believe that everyone in a committee is stupid or less intelligent than oneself. Parabeliefs (from the Sanskrit prefix para: another's) refer to the beliefs of others that one encounters. For example, the belief system of a Muslim is a parabelief for a non-Muslim. Sanghbeliefs (from the Sanskrit sangh: group) are beliefs shared by a group or community. The doctrines of a religion constitute a system of sanghbeliefs.

Any given belief may fit into more than one of the categories mentioned above. On the basis of this classification, we can not only put our own beliefs in perspective, but also better understand the beliefs and behavior of others. It is interesting that many people are affected in positive or in negative ways by parabeliefs. Of course, most of our actions and attitudes are based on svabeliefs, but it is less obvious why some of us in one part of the world are concerned about the beliefs of distant peoples about matters that don't concern our own lives. Yet, it is this concern, which may sometimes become an obsession,that provokes efforts to convert others to one's own religion. Religious wars, inter-religious disrespect, and conflicts in science-religion dialogues arise from one's reactions to parabeliefs, generally based on the conviction that they are also dysbeliefs.

Ultimately, as the poet William Cowper said, “Each man’s belief is right in his own eyes.” Our cherished beliefs are the ones that bring us the greatest comfort.

A recognition of the nature of beliefs may help one understand and cope with the beliefs of others with less inner turmoil.

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