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 be­liefs.” A proper be­lief can be wrong or ir­ra­tional, as when some­one gen­uinely an­ti­ci­pates that prayer will cure their 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.1 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.

1 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 time.