Do Faith & Beliefs

To Believe (or not to believe): The Psychology of Belief

What should I believe? Should I believe something? Well, that depends. Beliefs, in general, are mental convictions about various phenomena. Things that we accept irrespective of whether or not such beliefs are actually observable or empirically verifiable. Psychologically speaking, beliefs are important as they can inform action. Beliefs reflect our attitudes, which in turn shape our intentions, and finally, how we act. For instance, a belief in the importance of going to church or the sanctity of Sunday will often result in regular church attendance and keeping the Sabbath sacred. Or, consider the Islamic belief in the importance of offering the ritual prayer five times a day. This belief will result in most observant Muslims striving to not miss any of the five canonical prayers. Both Christians and Muslims believe in worshiping God, but how they act on that belief and fulfill that intention depends on the particulars of their respective traditions. This process is famously understood as “the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB)” by Fishbein & Ajizen. Simply put, belief can lead to actions which are informed by that belief (so a Christian attends Sunday service and a Muslim the congregational Friday prayer). 

Belief and faith as a process of spirituality

Beliefs are crucial to those traveling the path of Self-discovery since it can motivate the said person to explore and engage in spiritual practice. Such efforts tend to result in various spiritual experiences that further strengthen belief, which leads to faith, which is a conviction resulting from experience(s). This experiential conviction renews one’s efforts and can lead to higher experiences resulting in certainty (Yaqin in Sufi terms) or knowledge (Jnana from the Hindu perspective). Advanced mystics no longer rely on mere belief but rather on direct experience. They do not talk about the fruit, or imagine the fruit, or wish for the fruit. They have tasted it, and because they know its taste and where to find it, they can share it with others. By way of comparison, rudimentary belief and generic adherence to a given precept may yield very little in terms of taste, direct knowledge, and real experience. But it is indispensable at the beginning and the gateway or stepping stone to certainty. 

Sufis explain this three-stage process as a movement from intellectual certainty (Ilm al yaqin), which when followed up with practice, leads to the insight that is borne out of various experiences or the “eye of certainty” (‘Ayn al yaqin), which finally leads to awareness of Reality (Haqq al yaqin). In the Hindu traditions, this progression can be understood as the movement from Vishwas or Astha (belief) to Shraddha (faith) and finally, Jnana (real knowledge). The same can also be understood from a famous anecdote of the Prophet Muhammad (upon him peace) wherein historical religion (Islam) and primordial, universal religion (Deen al-fitra or Dharma) are separately explained by the angel Gabriel to his companions. In this episode, the Angel clarifies that the eternal, universal religion lies between the stages of belief (Iman) and Perfect Consciousness (Ihsaan), The Archangel points out that initial and rudimentary acceptance of the Unitive principle and practices of the Muhammadan way, such as prayer, fasting, charity, Hajj, etc., are considered Islam. This acceptance renders one a Muslim but does not assume faith.

There is a Quranic account that illustrates this subtle distinction. It concerns some Bedouins who assert that they are “believers” (Mu’min). Their claim is rebuked by God who says to them that they have merely surrendered (i.e., accepted the religion of Islam), and are therefore Muslim, but faith (Iman) has not yet entered their hearts (Quran 49:14). At the same time, the Quran also has many verses that acknowledge how sincere non-Muslims can be considered true believers (2:62, 3:69, 22:17). The Angel Gabriel alludes that the real journey begins with faith in subtler concepts and realities (Iman). The next stage is that of spiritual excellence (Ihsan), which is divided into two parts. First is when belief is strengthened with initial awareness of the subtle Reality, and second when this condition is established in a clear and complete awareness of the said Reality. This is a stage of perfection and is reflected in the famous saying attributed to Imam Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, and the Master of all Sufis, “I would not worship my Lord if I did not see Him.” It corresponds with the aforementioned ideals of Haqq al-yaqin and Jnana. However, belief in the subtle, that there is something greater than what the physical senses, mind, and intellect can perceive, is the necessary starting point for approaching the Reality of the mystic. In an Islamic context this specifically refers to the faith in the “Unseen”, scriptures of other traditions, Divine messengers and angels, in predestination, and the final judgement, which constitute the six pillars of faith (Iman). In this sense belief is the begininng of Spirituality, along with practice and universality¹. Faith (Iman) is the next step, and realization is the final destination (Ihsan). 

Belief is just the beginning, and not the end.

Belief is always a means to an end and at best a foundation upon which one can build further. Unfortunately, it is often mistaken to be an end in itself – the foundation tends to become the building! And this can lead to sheer dogmatism, which is of no value and can often be a detriment to further progress on the path. Remember, belief is necessarily a conviction about something that one has not reliably experienced. For example, one may believe that prayers are answered because an authority figure said it was so, but until one prays and experiences his or her prayers being answered, this remains an unverified conviction. If one holds onto a belief as though it is the destination, it can easily lead to parochial sectarianism, and cause stagnation and even regression. Unfortunately, history is replete with the extremities to which such dogmatic belief can ultimately lead humanity to – these are dark places that hopefully, we never revisit.

To conclude, belief can be thought of as a double-edged sword. It can cleave open great doorways of insight when combined with appropriate action and perspective. But when held on to doggedly, it is more likely to become self-destructive and may harm others too. It is worth noting that the house of certainty is never fully built for there can always be room for more. After all, is not the Self, Infinite? Why then settle only for its foundation? It is for this reason that teachers on the path engage in contrarian practices to shatter dogmatic patterns of thinking as well as some of the tightly held, but often calcified, beliefs of their followers. We hurl the truth against falsehood, and it crushes the latter: and lo! it withers away” (Quran 21:18).


¹For more on how belief in integral to spirituality, read the article ‘What is Spirituality’ 

© Essentialspirituality.org