Reader Question #2: How do you start believing when you don’t (even if you know it would be good for you)?

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This comment came in response to a previous article, Why believe in divinity if you can’t prove it’s real?

One slight problem: if you know you’re just deluding yourself in order to live longer and healthier, how do you even believe? For those that aren’t, the fact that being religious is correlated to better health is of no significance. -Quintin

Khaire Quintin,

"If you gain, you gain all. If you lose, you lose nothing. Wager then, without hesitation, that He exists." - Blaise Pascal

“If you gain, you gain all. If you lose, you lose nothing. Wager then, without hesitation, that He exists.” – Blaise Pascal

Ah, you’ve identified Pascal’s Wager and its inherent problem! This one comes from early modern (Renaissance) philosophy. The wager goes something like this: God either exists or doesn’t, and you either believe or don’t, creating four outcomes: If God doesn’t exist, and you believe, then you have a finite loss; if God doesn’t exist and you disbelieve, then you have a finite gain; but if God exists and you disbelieve, you have infinite loss; and if you believe then you have infinite gain. Where would you place your wager? In this scenario, the best bet would be on God existing because then you’d have a finite loss if you’re wrong, and an infinite gain if you’re right.

Now, this was early modern Europe, so Pascal wasn’t contemplating the existence of multiple gods, and if he were, there would be more than four outcomes. But we’re talking about the health benefits of believing in something divine, not what we believe in, so Pascal’s Wager serves the same purpose here.

Back to the problem.  If rationality tells you that divinity doesn’t exist, how do you place your bet on it existing?

The solution is to act as though you believe, and then belief will follow. Take up ritual behaviors and spend time with people who believe as you want to believe.

Now I know what you’re probably thinking, “Rituals? That sounds kinda wiggy and archaic.” But people are naturally ritualistic.

You were taught to brush our teeth because of the belief that doing so will prevent cavities and gum disease. You weren’t used to doing it when you were very young, and it felt weird and in inconvenient, but now it would feel unhealthy and gross not to do it, all because your parents once told you there were health benefits to doing so and made you start practicing. You did it on faith before you saw the benefits of it. Now it’s a part of your every day life, and low and behold: fewer dental problems.

health

You believe in nutrition and exercise, right? So what about meditation, prayer, and other rituals?

We are also naturally tribal. If you want to lose weight, one of the best things you can do is to surround yourself with people who are health conscious. You will eventually pick up their habits and mindset and begin to lose weight, all without thinking about the biochemistry involved. You do it on faith that “fewer calories in + more calories out = weight loss”. But what is a calorie anyway? Have you ever seen one? Ever felt one? We’re told it’s a unit of energy, and see it in numbers on packaging, but it’s not a physical thing that we can directly sense. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, per se, but it is outside of our concrete experience. So how is believing in something divine and greater than us different than believing in the almighty calorie? Does it depend on who you place your faith in?

Carrots are another good example. You eat a carrot believing that it is good for you, without knowing how it works or why you can’t take a pill of Beta-carotene and other multivitamins to get the same effect. Nutritional science is still in a very early stage of development and it hasn’t figured this one out yet. Something about carrots works well with our biochemistry, but we have no clue how or why. But the good news is that you don’t need to know how a carrot works to know that it’s good for you. You just need to eat the carrot, go about your day, and see the benefits later on.

health-benefits-of-yoga-1

People have joined spirituality and exercise by practicing Tai Chi or Yoga for hundreds or thousands of years because of the health benefits.

Simply believing that eating well and exercising won’t make you live longer; but putting that belief into practice will. To practice, start creating rituals (just like regularly exercising and preparing whole healthful foods at home) and surround yourself with a community that believes and practice the same way. And together, they will help you live longer and reinforce the belief. The same is true with believing in divinity, it’s like any other lifestyle change. We don’t know how divinity works, but there is a relationship between believing in it and living longer, and the connection is probably due what we do when we believe. I’ve written a lot about the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and why orthopraxy is the most important of the two. Start doing, and belief will follow.

As for people who already believe, they are like children of health-conscious parents who never had to kick the junk food and TV habit. They didn’t have to create new rituals or find a new community, they already have them. They’re the lucky ones. And they’re not the primary audience I’m speaking to in that article, aside from saying “Good job! Keep going, and here’s why…” But they are great people to surround yourself with.

What say you, readers? Has ritual and community changed the way you think? Do you notice benefits of believing? What’s your personal experience? What is your advice to someone who wants to start believing?

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