Ian Sample, in his article, “Tests of faith” (24/2/2005), cites Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist turned psychologist at Washington University, St Louis, Missouri, as saying that the persistence of religious belief into adulthood is in part down to a presumption:
“When you’re in a belief system, it’s not that you stop asking questions, it’s that they become irrelevant. Why don’t you ask yourself about the existence of gravity? It’s because a lot of the stuff you do every day presupposes it and it seems to work, so where’s the motivation to question it?” he says. “In belief systems, you tend to enter this strange state where you start thinking there must be something to it because everybody around you is committed to it. The general question of whether it’s true is relegated.”
Sample is interested in explaining a scientific basis for mass religious belief.
I’m more interested in the role of belief in regards to wider aspects of what becomes acceptable behaviour in society. For example, belief systems can be malign. What fascinated me when I visited the folk (people’s) museum in Berlin, some years ago, was a display of costumes and other artefacts from the Nazi era. We’ve all seen the army uniforms. It was the clothing of your postman, doctor, youth: all with a ubiquitous swastika. Everyone was in on it. To not conform would be abnormal.
Back in Northern Ireland, there is a disturbing acceptance that because everybody around you is committed to segregation, there must be something to it. Especially when this is endorsed by public policies: segregated schools, segregated public services, all causing duplication, inefficiencies, and a huge waste of money.
Boyer’s psychological tests on children display a natural understanding of good and bad behaviour. Yet it is the adults who will ultimately conform the child into the prevailing belief system, which is itself formed by what prevails in wider society. Unfortunately, in a divided society, it’s the division itself which becomes enforced in the belief system.