To Believe

I suppose that part of my journey delving into magical and religious practice is to understand the utility of belief in greasing the wheels of life (… a mixed metaphor of dubious provenance if ever I wrote one). After all, I am very much a nihilist and as the old adage goes “[if] Nothing Is True [then] Everything Is Permitted.”

One very fundamental tenet of Chaos magic and similar systems is that you can choose your belief to suit your purposes, or even more chaotically choose your belief just to see what happens. It’s very much the alchemy to religion’s science - the “fuck around and find out” of belief systems if you will.

Personally I’m not much of an adherent to the random choosing of belief, or at least not yet. Those that are prepared to precipitate “madness”, however you want to define that, clearly don’t have much to lose societally, and I’m very not in that place. I’ve invested a lot of time learning how to fit in with your human society, and it’s been hard won.

At any rate, I can see the wisdom of picking belief to facilitate some kind of premeditated functional purpose. It turns out that in adopting that philosophy, pretty much every attempt to adopt a belief to my own personal utility has really ended up with me shedding one instead.

To disbelieve

When you engage in the practice of reasoning about what arbitrary belief you could adopt in order to better yourself, effectively you’re examining the beliefs you already hold in order to modify them to better fit the result you want. But ultimately I’m not of the ilk to reason that my beliefs should really shape my reality - I think they change how you perceive problems, focus your time, your interactions, your mode of communication. After all, we don’t have that many IRL Disney Princesses despite Mickey’s psyops and propaganda divisions' best efforts.

So I ask myself what beliefs facilitate things like a less anxious approach to life - less dwelling on the worst that could potentally happen, less expecting the worst from people, less expectation on myself to solve everyone’s problems. What I come away with is the realization that I believe I have responsibility over those things, despite having very little agency over them.

I like to use the analogy that we have at least two worlds we have to deal with at any moment: the model of the world in our own heads that we use as an abstraction to reason, predict and generally model our interactions with the “real” world, and the physical consensus reality. A lot of satisfaction can be gained when we can converge the two (and conversely a lot of mental anguish when we can’t) and there are two ways to do this: shape expectation to reality or change the physical reality to expectation.

In looking at my own beliefs, I realised that I tend to do the latter: expecting the world to react sensibly to COVID for example and getting stressed about the human cost of it not. But I don’t have agency over that, and I realised that I was hurting myself by carrying around the belief that people should be better and more caring. The thing is they’re not, and to compound that to believe that they are is to diminish your own good qualities. Another example: pretty much every kind person I know who has suffering in their life at the moment will caveat it with “… but that’s nothing compared to what the people in Ukraine are going through.” This one grinds my gears really hard. Somehow we have created a social and moral system in which the kind of people who consider others will disregard the immediate problems of their own lives because of some perverse flavour of subjectivism in which only other people’s problems count. I’m looking at you here Western theology… At any rate, the belief here serves nobody. Are you empowered to solve the problems in Ukraine? I mean sure you can try to help but the problems there are caused by much more powerful people who want us to think that everyone has their part to play because “democracy”. On the flip side, for better or worse we live in our own personal problems and are at least in some way empowered to fix them, and to do so is not selfish or tone-deaf.

Oh look I made it through without saying “cultural hegemony” or “ruling class”.

The tl;dr

Yes I put it at the end. Sorry not sorry.

The ultimate point of that meandering diatribe which probably didn’t come through is that we all have beliefs that don’t serve us in any functional way, and actually serve to empower the ruling class by means of cultural hegemony. These norms are so intrinsic to the way we’re raised that it’s incredibly difficult to spot them without explicit effort, and even then breaking the cycle is hard - you can watch other people succumb to these beliefs, point them out, have them agree with you and then continue to perform them simply because they can’t quite give themselves permission to break rank. None of us truly can because the power of how the crowd thinks and acts is a powerful, heady pheremone. It’s almost like breaking the laws of physics. Like magic.