The purpose of religion is not to build beautiful churches or temples, but to cultivate positive human qualities such as tolerance, generosity and love – The Dalai Lama

A human being is a part of the whole, called ‘Universe’ by us, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, confining us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons closest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living beings and all nature in its beauty. No one is able to fully achieve this, but striving for such a feat is in itself a part of liberation and a basis for inner security – Albert Einstein (emphasis mine)

In a recent post, I discussed the science behind strict materialism and the alternative hypothesis that consciousness is somehow fundamental to the universe. I don’t think we have the evidence to conclude which of these is correct, but I think it’s fair to say that either one is reasonable as far as we currently know. So, in my opinion, belief in materialism is reasonable, as is belief in something like the eternal philosophy, which underlies all major religions.

Obviously, even if some sort of universal consciousness appears to exist, that does not mean that the superficial beliefs of the world’s religions are true. They cannot be, because they are often contradictory despite the fact that their followers believe that their faith is the only “true” faith. This, and the fact that much of the damage such as wars of religion, inquisitions and bigotry results from some religious beliefs, has led some people to argue that humanity would be better off without such beliefs. If you take that to the extreme of not wanting to believe in anything transcendental, then I think you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Damage can also stem from beliefs other than religion, as evidenced by the recent attack on Ukraine. On the other hand, religious believers will accuse secularists of having no basis for morality. I also think this is an extreme position. Morality can arise from what gives meaning to our lives, as claimed in secular humanism.

I view the question of which beliefs are helpful in the spirit of the two quotes above: What kinds of beliefs cause us to strive to rise above negative instinctual tendencies and cultivate our higher nature? And which ones encourage us to “widen our circle of compassion”? In my opinion, people have the capacity for self-transformation so that we can live more in accordance with our highest ideals, and this is the way to achieve true happiness, so any beliefs that motivate us to do this are helpful. An important part of self-transformation is ethical behavior (for example, following the Golden Rule rather than just “looking out for number one”).

Evolutionary biologists theorize that since we survived in hunter-gatherer bands, our “circle of compassion” was instinctively for our own band (“us”) and not for members of competing bands (“them”). Unfortunately, this tendency to separate our fellow human beings into “us” and “them” remains with us, only now can it be based on religious beliefs (or lack thereof), race, gender, etc. Any belief that allows us to overcoming this tendency to separate us and motivate us to unite is helpful in my opinion, while beliefs that separate us are not. An example of a religious belief that separates and therefore does not help is “ours is the only true belief”.

An example of a non-religious belief that doesn’t help is taking materialism to the drastic end point of nihilism: The universe came into existence out of a random meaningless process, and humans have no free will, so our lives are meaningless. As a result, we have no basis for ethical behavior. But it is not, in my opinion, a necessary consequence of materialism. Even if the universe has evolved in a meaningless way, our lives can still have meaning if we have free will. According to secular humanism, “man has the right and responsibility to give meaning and form to his own life”.

I believe that while people often go through life “on autopilot” as if we didn’t have free will, we do have free will when we apply ourselves to it. Accepting this, that we also have the ability to change, and that this is the true path to happiness, is the minimum belief required to motivate us to do the work of self-transformation. That will be the subject of my next amateur philosophical post.

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Published by BionicOldGuy

I am a mechanical engineer born in 1953, Ph. D, Stanford, 1980. I have been in the mechanical CAE field for decades. I also have a lifelong interest in outdoor activities and fitness. I had both hips replaced and a heart valve replacement due to a genetic condition. This blog describes my adventures to stay active despite these bumps in the road. View all posts from BionicOldGuy

Published April 6, 20225 April 2022

This post Amateur Philosopher’s Corner- On Helpful Beliefs – BionicOldGuy was original published at “”


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