Be­lief as Attire

I have so far dis­tin­guished between be­lief as an­ti­cip­a­tion-con­trol­ler, be­lief in be­lief, pro­fess­ing and cheer­ing. Of these, we might call an­ti­cip­a­tion-con­trolling be­liefs “proper be­liefs” and the other forms “im­proper be­lief”. A proper be­lief can be wrong or ir­ra­tional, e.g., someone who genu­inely an­ti­cip­ates that prayer will cure her sick baby, but the other forms are ar­gu­ably “not be­lief at all”.

Yet an­other form of im­proper be­lief is be­lief as group-iden­ti­fic­a­tion—as a way of be­long­ing. Robin Han­son uses the ex­cel­lent meta­phor of wear­ing un­usual cloth­ing, a group uni­form like a priest’s vest­ments or a Jew­ish skullcap, and so I will call this “be­lief as at­tire”.

In terms of hu­manly real­istic psy­cho­logy, the Muslims who flew planes into the World Trade Center un­doubtedly saw them­selves as her­oes de­fend­ing truth, justice, and the Islamic Way from hideous alien mon­sters a la the movie Independ­ence Day. Only a very in­ex­per­i­enced nerd, the sort of nerd who has no idea how non-nerds see the world, would say this out loud in an Alabama bar. It is not an Amer­ican thing to say. The Amer­ican thing to say is that the ter­ror­ists “hate our free­dom” and that fly­ing a plane into a build­ing is a “cow­ardly act”. You can­not say the phrases “heroic self-sac­ri­fice” and “sui­cide bomber” in the same sen­tence, even for the sake of ac­cur­ately de­scrib­ing how the Enemy sees the world. The very concept of the cour­age and al­tru­ism of a sui­cide bomber is Enemy at­tire—you can tell, be­cause the Enemy talks about it. The cow­ardice and so­ciopathy of a sui­cide bomber is Amer­ican at­tire. There are no quote marks you can use to talk about how the Enemy sees the world; it would be like dress­ing up as a Nazi for Hal­loween.

Be­lief-as-at­tire may help ex­plain how people can be pas­sion­ate about im­proper be­liefs. Mere be­lief in be­lief, or re­li­gious pro­fess­ing, would have some trouble cre­at­ing genu­ine, deep, power­ful emo­tional ef­fects. Or so I sus­pect; I con­fess I’m not an ex­pert here. But my im­pres­sion is this: People who’ve stopped an­ti­cip­at­ing-as-if their re­li­gion is true, will go to great lengths to con­vince them­selves they are pas­sion­ate, and this des­per­a­tion can be mis­taken for pas­sion. But it’s not the same fire they had as a child.

On the other hand, it is very easy for a hu­man be­ing to genu­inely, pas­sion­ately, gut-level be­long to a group, to cheer for their fa­vor­ite sports team. (This is the found­a­tion on which rests the swindle of “Re­pub­lic­ans vs. Demo­crats” and ana­log­ous false di­lem­mas in other coun­tries, but that’s a topic for an­other post.) Identi­fy­ing with a tribe is a very strong emo­tional force. People will die for it. And once you get people to identify with a tribe, the be­liefs which are at­tire of that tribe will be spoken with the full pas­sion of be­long­ing to that tribe.