An uncut, rough copy of the work I wrote for a speech tournament.
| Imagine this. You’re walking down the street, just minding your own business, when suddenly; a man taps you on the shoulder. “Greetings!” he says. “My name is Hamlet Vivaldi! After my family endured several generations of seclusion from society, I have returned to reclaim what is rightfully mine– for I am the heir to the throne of the lost city of Atlantis! My goal is to raise the ancient city from the ocean depths, and restore it to its original beauty. And all I need from you – is your credit card information.
There are likely many responses to such a scenario. Some would simply shrug him off and walk away. Others would openly laugh at him. Shy people would probably cringe, stammer a bit, and shuffle away from the guy. I would play along for a while – after all, I don’t have a credit card.
However, you might have noticed something about all those different responses. Not one of those hypothetical people took him seriously. And to be honest, who would? The instant this “Hamlet Vivaldi” had opened his mouth; he was instantly categorized as a joker, a con artist. To believe such a ridiculous thing would be, well, ridiculous!
But how much different is this from the stories and facts that we hear every day? We’ve been told that the world is round when it seems flat to all of our senses. We’ve been taught that everything in the universe consists of miniscule particles, invisible to the naked eye. After one takes into account all the crazy and wild things they have already accepted about life, it’s not so much of a step to believe in the words of “Hamlet Vivaldi”.
Out there in the world, this massive world with over 8 billion people in it, there are an incredible amount of beliefs, superstitions, values, and faiths. Some are believed by only a few, some are believed by millions. One might make perfect sense to one person, and sound like complete garbage to the next. The sheer variety and number of ideas, ripe for the taking, is simply overwhelming.
In order to dig deeper into this subject, we have to know what we’re actually talking about. “Belief”, as defined by the convenient and modern resource, dictionary dot com, is: confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof. Now, dictionaries seem to enjoy using big words, which confuses me, since I thought their purpose was to explain things in a simple way so people could actually understand it. But what the text is saying is this: a belief is something that someone considers true, but isn’t known to be a universal fact. There’s room for opinions, which is where the fun part comes in. Discussion. Disagreement. Debate. You, and everyone else, can call one belief utter nonsense, then turn around, and call another belief utter fact. It’s a sign of how far human civilization has progressed – no longer do we see the truth of statements in black or white, but rather in varied shades of grey that differ between each person.
I chose to write my original oratory on belief and faith simply because it has always fascinated me. The fact that something can be held as truth, without sufficient evidence or proof, is astounding to me. The fact that the same belief can be held by millions of people just boggles my mind! How could belief be good? How might it be bad? What I hope to convey to you all today is my urgency for society to begin questioning its beliefs. I shall compare both the positive and negative benefits of this topic, and then explain what path society should take regarding it. This is the weird, wonderful world of faith and belief.
I’m surprised that I’ve managed to talk this much about belief without mentioning the dreaded word… religion. Religion is by far and by large the best example someone could possibly think up as an example for beliefs, but it’s also a very controversial topic, and a rather sensitive one at times. However, I’d like to first bring it up because it’s the foremost widespread belief. Millions of people in the world believe and live by a similar doctrine, share the same values, and honor the same text, all without a solid foundation of proof or evidence. To a complete stranger that knows nothing about such beliefs and religious ideas, the fact that so many people would unite in such a way might be hard to digest, but there you have it. But why does this phenomenon of mass belief happen? After I thought about this for a while, I realized there was a simple concept that could explain such widespread faith: peer pressure.
Peer pressure was that thing your teachers might have lectured you on. “Don’t give into your friend’s bad influences,” the teachers would say. “Don’t give into peer pressure.” Well, peer pressure is much more than just giving into bad influences. It really boils down to this: the more people you see around you doing something, the more you’ll think it is ok to do it too. And that applies to beliefs as well. If your parents believe in something, most likely you’ll believe it too. If everyone revolving around in your life believes in something, how could you ever believe otherwise? And the more people begin to believe in something, the more likely that something will spread – like a virus – to more and more people, until there’s a huge population united by a similar belief. Such is the phenomenon of peer pressure, of the spreading of ideas, and indirectly, of widespread beliefs.
So we’ve covered why many people would believe in the same thing. But if we back up a bit, there’s a more specific question to be asked. Why would people believe in things in the first place? This especially rings true for beliefs that simply lack logical sense, beliefs that might sound quite strange to those who don’t share the same viewpoint. For example, the superstition that watching a black cat cross the road in front of you spells bad luck. I watch my cat, whose fur is black, cross the room in front of me every day! I’m not dead yet! It’s laughable now, yet was taken quite seriously many years ago. The question is, why?
The answer is clear if you think for a moment. What are beliefs for? To explain things otherwise unexplainable, of course. It’s the same reason why the Greeks believed lightning came from the gods, why paranoid settlers burned so-called witches at the stake. When something is not known, human nature – our minds - require that we fill in the blank. What we fill it in with however, is the strange part. It doesn’t have to be accurate, or even be justifiable. Just in existence, to reassure the brain that it has knowledge about everything it needs to know about. Belief in general is all, at a basic level, explanations for things that we aren’t quite sure about, things that we want to know more about but can’t. Faith is a remarkable thing, one that can really change the way people deal with life.
Faith and belief can have amazing effects. It can bring someone assurance, confidence, self-esteem, even happier lives! It’s said that much of the quality of your life depends on the quality of your outlook on it. If that’s true, then belief is the best way to improve the quality of anyone’s life.
What would a society, be without belief? Nobody would believe in the government to do things right, nobody would believe in others to get jobs done, nobody would be willing to take risks, take gambles, or jump into action because not a single person believed! The world would be a lonely one, a depressing, dark, grim, and primitive planet. Most people take belief at its definition value, to consider something to be true. But in all actuality, it goes much, much further than that. To believe is to trust a friend to help you, to be willing to take a risk or a gamble, to have confidence in things that you or others might do.
The most important factor in the definition of belief I just described is the interactions people have with each other. Teamwork is an awe-inspiring feature of life. Civilization nowadays is, at the smallest level, a super-massive network of people working with each other, trusting each other, believing in each other to do a small portion of something much larger than them.
To have an effect on a collection of people means that belief has an effect on every individual as well. Religion makes another appearance in this sub-topic, because of the positive, in fact, miraculous, effect it has on believers. The prospect that beyond this life there is another one is extremely appealing, and provides a huge incentive for those who believe in it to live fulfilling and constructive lives, which in turn benefits the community at large. It creates a sense of peace, and happiness, which would be difficult to obtain any other way. Of course, religion is not the only belief that improves the quality of life. Believing in working out or staying diligent throughout life will also make one happier in several respects. In short, belief can be an important factor in the quality of someone’s life, which instantly makes it one of the most important factors of anything – what’s more important than better lives? You’d be hard-pressed to find an answer.
Of course, belief isn’t an angel showered in glowing light. Like everything in the universe, there is a flip side to faith, the opposite side of the coin. The concept of belief is a two-edged sword – it can both help and hurt you.
Imagine again that you’re walking down the street. No, there’s no strange man called Hamlet Vivaldi that tries to convince you that he’s the heir to Atlantis, but there is something else. Where a portion of the sidewalk is, there is instead a gaping hole, deep and dark. You want to fill up the hole, but you don’t have cement, or the tools to make cement. So instead, you take colored paper that looks like cement, and use it to cover the hole like a large tarp. Now the sidewalk looks normal again, and you feel better, more comfortable. But what happens when you try walking down the sidewalk?
The primary problem for belief is that it fills in a blank in your brain with something that isn’t necessarily true. It leaves no room for judgment or further questioning. There’s no point in questioning something that you already know, after all. This becomes an issue when you take into consideration that what your mind filled up, was a blank, a deep gaping hole in the sidewalk. The effects of belief might have covered that hole, but regardless the hole is still there. That blank in your mind is still there. You have merely covered the hole with a flimsy paper tarp that crumples when you try to step on it.
From this base problem a whole slew of difficulties can emerge. When you try to base other inferences off a wrong belief, suddenly the whole thing goes wrong. When you spread a wrong belief to other people, the problem is instantly compounded. Think of it like a math problem with several factors. If one of those factors is wrong, but you don’t know it, how will you fix the problems that will no doubt occur? This is the reason why different viewpoints, different outlooks can be so valuable when checking your work, and why it usually a good idea to drop doing something late at night and instead work on it in the morning, when your mind is fresh, clear, and most importantly, different from the fuzzy and foggy mind you might have had several hours before. In a way it’s a terrible enemy, because you cannot fight those who you are a part of.
Religion makes yet another appearance here, in possibly its most controversial form. It’s true that millions of people, maybe even billions of people believe in some sort of religion or another, but having more people believe in the same thing does not make it more true. Religion has created unity and peace between people many times in history, but at the same time it has generated wars and dissent; within that same timeline. The crusades, persecution, stereotypes, hate crimes, all of those came from the presence of organized and mass belief.
Stereotypes in particular are very damaging to the integrity of all humankind. When Adolf Hitler commanded a German force into exterminating Jews – people he thought were inferior to the Germans, that was a stereotype. That stereotype killed over six million people. The Ku Klux Klan is another example, a group that terrorized African Americans in the US for over a decade. Stereotypes separate people, trick people into believing incorrect facts, and cause them to make bad inferences and terrible decisions. They are the base cause to some of the most horrific events in human history.
Of course, religion, and generally belief doesn’t have to be a bad thing in that particular way. If everyone believed in the same thing, for example, there would be no dissent, no wars. But suppose that belief was wrong. Supposed everyone’s faith had been misplaced. Can you imagine the implications? As our society continues to advance, eventually there will be conflict between that belief and what’s actually true. And it’s a widely known fact that humans are reluctant to change, to move out of their comfort zone. If that happens, there will be an entirely different war: a fight between the truth and what’s believed.
At an individual level, however, the issue is slightly different. It comes down to whether you wish to live by a belief, or to fight to find the truth. To live by a belief will bring you the peace of having information instantly, but you might be wrong the whole time, and not even know it. To fight for the truth may mean living many years, perhaps your whole life in a state of searching, and you may never get what you’re looking for in the end. However, the reward is a state of mind that has well-deserved confidence behind every fact that you know. Both choices can bring confidence, but entirely different forms of confidence. Both might feel real, but one is well-placed and deserved, while the other is simply a gamble at the truth.
Personally, I firmly “believe” that to search for the truth feels much more fulfilling than accepting an unconfirmed belief, however widespread it might be. I wish to question everything questionable, to back up my claims and criticize them at the same time. I wish to reap the rewards that belief can offer, but not just by covering the hole in the sidewalk with colored paper. I wish to search for that cement until I find it. And that’s what society as a whole has to do as well. If humankind is to truly advance past the level of civilization that we currently have, we need to drop the old habits that no longer fit this age. Civilization needs to start questioning what really is true, and what is only perceived as such. Once we reach that stage, humankind will be ready to work together as a whole, and achieve so much more is so much littler time. So as I wrap my speech, this is my question to everyone here:
What will belief mean to you?