Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Psychology of Belief

It's All in the Mind or is It?
The great American poet Robert Frost was asked once what he had learnt about life after his many years of living. He replied succinctly, as becomes a poet of his stature: "It goes on!" Brief and to the point. I love his answer as there is no bullshit there. In the end of the day the only thing to do with life is literally "to get on with it" as it were.

These thoughts are occasioned after attending a funeral yesterday evening of a marvellous old lady and grandmother who spent most of her life being helpful and of service to all whom she happened to meet. Her name is/was Marie Brady and she ran the Day Care Centre in East Wall, Dublin, for over twenty years on a voluntary basis. Her two daughters and her grandchildren were in a state of shock at the suddenness of her leavetaking.

The priest, whom I know, is a rather philosophical fellow and can show his sheer humanity at occasions like these. He said that there are two events over which we have absolutely no control in liofe and they are birth and death respectively. It is our duty and responsibility to make some sense of the adventure we call life which is the line as it were joining these two discrete points. It is up to us to find some way of making sense of our adventure. For Marie as for my own mother the Roman Catholic Faith was the structure within which some sense was made of the mystery we call life. For others it will be all the variety of religions that there exist in the world. For others yet again it will be their job, their academic career, their art, their writing, their research. For those who are more materialistic it will, of course, be the gathering of material wealth. Then again for others like me it will be the complementary health movement, the Self Help Movement, the goal of getting to know the depths and heights of the human psyche.

In the end of the day I both think and feel that "making sense" of the project (a concept Jean Paul Sartre used) we call life is the only thing that is worthwhile. How we make sense of it is another matter. There are, of course, so many people in the world who simply fail to make sense of the project. These I should imagine are lost souls among whom we can number murderers, criminals of a psychotic nature, depressives of all kinds, people who for one reason or another are beyond the helping of their fellow humans. Many of these end up as suicides and as homeless poor creatures. Their very living is indeed a living death.

In short, I think and feel, that it all boils down to what each of us an individual beings really need in our lives. I remember once an Oxford don replying to the question of belief with these words or wordssomewhat similar: "Oh yes, I once was a firm believer. I needed to believe when I was younger. Now I don't believe, not because I convinced myself that God did not exist. Rather there came a time in my life when I no longer needed him. You see I grew out of it as it were." His words struck home because this man was not trying to score a point on his listeners or on his questioner. Rather he was being sincere in what he was saying. No more and no less can we ask of any human being.

I have written in these pages many times that my own life project has been similar to a great and large extent. I have studied theology to postgraduate level and did my Masters thesis on the great John Henry Newman's philosophy/theology of belief. I loved his approach which was based on a deep and well argued philosophy of mind, a unique psychology of belief long before psychology was ever discussed in theological circles. At the time I was a firm Christian believer. Newman always was fond of saying that unbelief was not a question of the head - that is intellect - rather it was, he said, a question of the heart. Likewise with me. I have not worked out in any way whether God exists or not. In fact I feel the question for me is unimportant, though not totally irrelevant. What really is important is whether I have some structure for pusuing my own personal spiritual quest of making sense of my project called my life. Readers of these pages will know what these structures are for me. As a practising Catholic I lasted until I was 40 years of age. I am now 49, so the for the last 9 years I have pursued my spiritual quest in group therapy, individual therapy, group work of various kinds and degrees, many personal self-help courses, creativity, poetry, writing and indeed blogging.

Really, I have an aversion to those people whether on the extreme evangelical Christian wing or even the extreme evangelical scientific wing (like Richard Dawkins)who try to convince people that they are wrong in what they believe. This, I think and I feel, is where a good psychology of belief comes in. Whatever we believe in we believe in that because it is fulfilling a felt need for us. My mother had the structure of Mother Church to give her life meaning. In fact, in her later years the local Church provided her with a social outlet and many friends and activities. Trying to argue a person into or out of belief is neither here nor there, because logic has really nothing to do with it. To return once again to my friend J H Newman, logic will not convince us to believe in anything, because quite simply as he said so well in his Apologia, "the whole being moves," not just one aspect of it like logic!

Intellectuals seem to get the idea that belief is only a matter of what is clear to the rational mind. There is so much more to the human psyche - there is that whole non-rational (as distinct from irrational, of course) side to humankind. Belief lies somewhere in a wholeness of approach to life. A firm believer can be just as logical and as rational as an atheist or an agnostic and his/her faith can be just as logical as the scientific stand of the latter. Once one believes, it's just a question of marshalling your arguments as it were. Likewise, once one disbelieves it is also just a matter of marshalling your arguments also. You are not trying to convince another person - you are just trying to convince yourself. In short, then, our stance in life is based on more complex foundations than either evangelicals of either the Christian right wing or of the evangelical scientific right wing will allow if I may use these loaded phrases to describe them.

In the end I think and feel that the whole question of belief/unbelief is in short one of making sense of life in a way that gives meaning and in a way that fulfills the legitimate psychological felt needs of the human person! It is now 11.00 A.M. and I'm sitting in DCU at my computer station waiting for the pupils to come back from their break.

A presto, amici.

The above picture shows musicians on the Pont des Arts, Paris, Summer 2006. Music after all is the language of the soul. It has a meaning that transcends words.

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