05/23/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Do You Believe? Conscience vs. Reason: Can Values Be Fact?

Belief systems are a funny thing. They're hard felt, hard won and nearly impossible to shake. And unfortunately, most of them are often built on things other than facts.

Polls frequently tell us what the American public "believes." We "believe" that health care reform will not make a difference in our lives; we "believe" that our government has too much power; we "believe" that government programs necessarily mean a socialist take-over of our country. And we believe that socialism is wrong, that our current system is right, and that we are the only country in the world that has the answers. Whatever the questions are.

That the polls reflect a profound ignorance, that those polls merely reflect an ingrained belief system, makes no difference. The polls, then, are touted as speaking the "mind" of the American populace. And thus untruth begets untruth begets a belief system founded on inaccuracy. In fact, a recent poll reported recently in The Daily Beast underlies this beautifully, and frighteningly:
In it, 67 percent of Republicans and 40 percent of those overall "believe" President Obama is a socialist, and 57 percent of Republicans and 32 percent of those overall "believe" that Obama is a Muslim: facts of course, notwithstanding.

Although the article says that "education is a barrier to extremism," still we soldier on in this manner.

Many of these belief systems are perpetrated by the ignorance that comes from listening to and subscribing to sound bites that include less and less real information every day. People catch snippets of anger from one talk show or another, get their own ire up, have their belief systems reinforced, and then, more and more uninformed by less and less true and real information, or information of any depth and breadth, spout opinions--ultimately mistaking those opinions for facts that cannot be argued against. Others are reinforced by a simple lack of secondary and college education. But ignorance is a powerful thing.

It's an awful and sad conundrum.

A recent series of statements by one perpetrator of an ignorant and ill-informed belief system is Glenn Beck's diatribe against social justice being a tenet of Christianity (Christianity being a belief system of its own, founded on contradictory information; but more about that below).

Beck took it upon himself to then attack a Christian minister named Jim Wallis, primarily because Wallis is a "close advisor" to President Obama. As Obama is a Marxist, socialist, leftist (you name it), then by extension anyone who associates with him must be too. And therefore anyone who associates with the wrong-headed President must, by that logic, be wrongheaded, too (not to mention not Christian). That's a belief system. And hundreds of thousands of people buy blindly into it.

Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans also buy into the "fact" that capitalism is associated with freedom and freedom is what we stand for in America, which means, by extension that an unfettered capitalist system is therefore American and right (correct). It follows, then, that any regulation to capitalism, or any re-ordering of the system to try and equalize its inherent flaws, is anti-American, anti-Christian (logic being that we are a Christian nation founded on Christian principles; no matter how flawed THAT argument is and how historically inaccurate). So, in order to preserve capitalism and the American way (which apparently is a belief system based on only ONE way), stones both metaphorical and physical need to be thrown at anyone who disagrees. Got that?

Recent protests, in which members of the Tea Party spat, shouted, held up hateful signs, called names, and generally misrepresented the United States as a country of lowbrows and idiots, were nothing more than bullyfests, as Representative Barney Frank pointed out on the Rachel Maddow show recently. While telling the audience that laws against bullying had recently been passed in his state of Massachusetts, Frank, rightly so, wondered if those laws could possibly be effective when the children those laws were supposed to influence were being influenced even more by seeing bullying as acceptable behavior in the national media. Not only did things get grossly out of hand in Washington before the health care vote, but daily on national television and radio bullies have the pulpit; it's all a matter of who can shout the most lies the loudest.

A schoolmate from my childhood is a follower of Jesus Christ and a literalist. According to her, everything in the New Testament is the word of God (i.e., Jesus), which means, therefore, that Jesus is coming (soon, she hopes) and will bring a rapturous peace to the entire earth. For those who believe in Jesus as the Messiah, that is. The only problem being, of course, is that everyone will be dead when this happens. Her death and that of her children and fellow believers does not bother her, though; because everything will be wonderful and hunky dory. Unless, of course, it won't. If she's wrong. But of course she isn't wrong, she can't be wrong; because her belief system is so entrenched, so unmovable, that it not only brooks no dissent, it brooks no discussion at all. She is joined, I know, by millions of others who may or may not be surprised if anything they believe comes to pass. But they still hope that they can get there (heaven, the afterlife) with their belief systems intact.
Meanwhile, despite huge evidence to the contrary, even by those who once shared her beliefs in the infallibility of the New Testament and the Gospels, she and others are just biding their time here on earth, hoping to stay good enough to get the ephemeral reward at the end of times.

And that dovetails nicely with Beck's pronouncement against social justice. I mean: why bother with all of that when this world, this earth means nothing in the long run (and less in the short run) and we are just all biding our time, amassing wealth and possessions to make the current stay in this earthly prison as pleasant as possible? Damned the less fortunate. Right? Unless, of course, we can convince them to buy into a belief system that A) Sees life on earth right now as ephemeral and therefore unfair, so we must live with the injustice of it and hope for the best after death or B) Everyone who isn't you is out to get you so fighting back with anger, racism, and other ignorant belief systems is the only way to go.

Does the logic of this escape you? It escapes me. But then everyone knows that belief systems aren't logical. Or do they?

Another tenet of those who have firmly entrenched belief systems that argue against the logic of , say, science, is that science, by its very nature, cannot co-exist with a belief system that accepts the possibility (even probability) of God (or someone like him). So any discussion of global climate change or evolution for example is met with an argument in favor of Jesus Christ and against science. But, then again if one is just biding one's time here on planet Earth, that makes a kind of perfect sense. By the time the end times arrive, so what if the polar bears are extinct and Kansas is beachfront property? So what if the poor are poorer and there are more of them, and the skies are black, and people are dying from both starvation and overeating (there's a conundrum for you)? What does all that matter as long as the ones who could get theirs got theirs, while there was still something to get. Here logic fails, too; because those who GO to heaven are supposed to be the good guys: The ones who think about others along with themselves, maybe even before themselves, right? At this point, though, it's looking a lot like hell will be overpopulated and heaven will go wanting.

But for the many who can't seem to reconcile faith and science, belief systems and physics and biology and chemistry, values and the conscious mind as opposed to the more ephemeral "soul," author and provocateur Sam Harris offers some help.

He argues that "values are a certain kind of fact," and "an obligation toward ethical creatures," i.e., other thinking, feeling, conscious creatures like us. Other humans. All humans, in fact.

In a recent TED lecture, Harris argues that there are right and wrong answers as to how to move along the "continuum of well-being" and that that there are "truths to be known about how human communities flourish whether or not we understand these truth and morally relate to these truths."
That's a mouthful, and something people who have unshakeable "beliefs" probably don't even want to think about. As much as they should.

Harris says that the idea of human well being begins in the brain and that our culture changes our brain. If we can "visualize a space of possible changes in the experience of (our) beliefs," then we can actually have a collective morality, a collective idea of what is good and evil, right and wrong, agreed upon by all. Although Harris is quick to point out that science cannot answer every moral dilemma, I think he does argue that it can provide a template for viewing the world as a whole, and not just our tiny piece of it and how that tiny piece affects just us, as opposed to the world at large and the greater good.

In other words we could get, scientifically, to a universal morality, a universal concept of human values. Because it is possible, he says, for a whole culture to care about the wrong things. By extension, then, it must be possible for a whole culture to care about the right things.

Interestingly enough, there are probably at this point, a large number of people in this country who are convinced that that is the case with the US now; that we don't care enough about personal freedom, the right to bear arms, distrust of government, hatred of the Other, and so on. And in fact, at present, with the current climate rife with misguided assumptions, prejudice, racism, sexism, violence, anger, and the rest, Harris' utopia seems a far-off vision, no matter how desirable. As far off, perhaps, as the rapture. And just as illogical.

I have long decried what I see as a lack of conscience among the American public in particular; a singular lack of agreement on just what is right and just what is wrong in terms of human behavior. It's easy to point to history and say it was ever thus, but the rise of a sort of collective media experience has, it seems, also given rise to a sense that anything that gets us noticed is good. And that not getting noticed is the same as being completely invisible. One doesn't have to cite the early beginnings of reality television, shows like The Jerry Springer Show, on which perfectly ordinary human beings distinguished themselves by being perfectly horrific, to realize that as a society we have finally sunk to the lowest common denominator. We are now at a place where all opinions are fact, all are equal, and all are almost always both equally conscience-less and equally devoid of fact. In a society where, with the push of a button, one can send one's opinions, anonymously if one chooses, out into the universe to be debated as though, even in their vilest content, they had merit, what real hope is there that a collective sense of what is right and wrong for society as a whole can be found?

I have also long believed that it was the conscience which guided us--if we just listened closely to it and did not let it be bombarded by what was expedient as opposed to what was morally correct--but I am more than willing to entertain the notion that it is our brains rather than our souls that will ultimately be the guiding force. If our brains can educate our unconscious so that it understands the very nature of good and evil as moral absolutes, while not necessarily advocating that it must be our (America's) way or the highway, it may just be possible to not only survive our four score and ten on this good Earth but to leave it a better place, a truly better place than we found it. It would serve us well to think less about the end of things than their beginnings, to use science as a jumping off point for good, to keep both our hearts and minds open to the possibility that we may never know all the answers but that the questions need to be asked over and over and until we actually listen to them.