Rising above our entrenched beliefs

Australia’s senior Islamic cleric Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali created quite an uproar recently when in one of his sermons he implied that sexual assaults on women only take place because women ‘provoke’ men to do so by their choice of clothing. If women wore the hijab (headscarf and/or veil) and stayed inside their homes, they would be safe. Hilali’s argument was not only illogical, but also highly insensitive, especially for those women who have been the victims of sexual assaults, as was discussed in my column titled, ‘Rape: is the victim at fault’ (The Post, December 2, 2005). I will discuss the Islamic point of view on whether women are responsible for sexual assaults due to their dress in one of my future columns. Presently, I would only like to talk about how such notions penetrate our minds and stay there.

Recently, I came across a very interesting article on the Mental Immune System (MIS), which said that raw material for beliefs and ideas reaches us through our senses and our brain then arranges that massive input. The MIS mostly seeks ideas that already exist in the mind and organises them, thus reinforcing its defences. “Given the tabula rasa – blank slate – nature of the mind, early input becomes of paramount importance in determining its further development” (‘Religious Beliefs and Mental Immune System’ by Amil Imani).

There are numerous so-called scholars of Islam whose sermons have no Islamic insight whatsoever and are only full of hatemongering views. These are those clerics who instigate hatred against non-Muslims. The ignoble fact is that they not only spread intolerance against non-Muslims, but also incite violence against fellow Muslims by preaching sectarianism. Women in particular are their worst target. It is not a mere coincidence that people who subscribe to such extremist points of view are actually brought up in an environment where these views are considered to be true. Children at a very young age are fed these ideas by their parents at home and/or by their teachers at schools or madrassas. Have we ever thought for a minute why there is an inborn hatred in our hearts against Jews? Why do we dislike Hindus so much, especially the Indians? If our hate was simply limited towards Hindus, then how come we do not hate the Sri Lankans, some of whom are also Hindus? The simple truth is that the place and the conditions surrounding birth and growing up play a major factor in shaping a person’s feelings and beliefs.

The core of one’s language and accent, religious point of view, political views, etc., is acquired at the very early stage of life. If someone has been listening from an early age to sermons preaching that killing an infidel would definitely lead one to achieve paradise, little wonder then if that person decides to wage jihad against non-Muslims and kills innocent ‘infidels’ on his way to achieving martyrdom. The extremist Sunnis kill Shias and vice versa, believing that their side is on the right path and the others are misguided. The ideas put into our heads in our early life is why almost everyone ends up believing that he/she has been extremely lucky being born in the only ‘correct’ religion and/or sect of that particular religion, no matter if it meant being born in a Third World country.

A child’s mind is like a raw slate: you may write whatever you like on it and it would remain imprinted there. Parents, elders and teachers tend to nurture the child in their own mould. There are certainly some benefits in this; for instance, family values can be taught to children and ingrained in their minds at an early age. Also, family bonds and ties do not just come from relations between people. How similar and compatible they are in their traditions, customs and values actually paves the way for these bonds and, subsequently, strengthens ties.

The herd behaviour that is practiced among most humans does have its survival benefits, not only in humans but also in animals. When you stay closest to the centre of the group, you minimise your chances of getting engulfed by a dangerous predator. Such an application of this behaviour, however, is also found not only to avoid physically precarious situations but also psychological conflicting and contradictory viewpoints, usually present among people originating from varying geographic, ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds. The leaders of the herd are a few – if any – and not everyone is either capable or considers himself/herself capable of being the leader by thinking outside the box, by thinking as a leader and not as a follower, by consciously and objectively choosing and aligning their views without any prejudice and bias, but taking every instance on merit and give the credit where it is due and provide criticism when needed regardless of what has been preached and taught to people.

From the day people are born, they are fed ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, morality and immorality, etc. Those ideas tend to become their axioms as they approach maturity. They judge every issue using their own set of axioms. What people do not realise is that everyone’s axioms are relative. Person A’s set of ‘good and bad’ may not match that of Person B. It would take a lot of effort for someone to convince them otherwise about their set of ‘rights and wrongs’, and that can only be done by proving to them that there may be a contradiction even in the core values of what they believe to be right. Many people are ‘lucky’ in that they never go through such a shock, and those who do rarely want to get out of the herd and get exposed to the dangers of the outside world. They are also taught self-preserving ideas, which would make them feel guilty if they even question what has been fed to them. Even if they do have a few questions and cannot comprehend the logic behind their beliefs, the guilt would make them ignore their pursuit for determining and distinguishing fact from fiction.

For instance, many in this country would shudder at the thought of questioning any of their Islamic beliefs. They do not appreciate the fact that real truth cannot be falsified. They are afraid even to test the validity of the ‘truths’ they have cherished since their childhood. This has another important side-effect. Even if they happen to believe in something, they can hardly present clear arguments to defend their viewpoint. They rarely know why they believe in something except that they do and that their parents and society around them have done the same for many generations. One must remember that many of our beliefs have been taught to us by ignorant, self-serving mullahs, who do not want us to question their teachings, for we might uncover the truth. Therefore, these clerics instill fear in our hearts, so that no one dares to question their teachings.

Then there are those who think that ‘seeing is believing’. People who think they have experienced a supernatural phenomenon at one time or another in their life would look for metaphysical explanations, rather than applying logic, rationality or science. But most people who have had a supernatural experience due to some medical ailment or some other logical reason would rather believe in the ‘unseen’ rather than admitting the ‘truth’. Research tells us that there is one schizophrenia case in every 100 individuals in virtually every population and about 1.5 percent have a schizophrenic experience at least once in their lifetime. Schizophrenia is not the only mental illness, there are many others as well. Yet not many of us are willing to admit that there may be a logical explanation for our ‘mystic experience(s)’.

Another reason for not being able to change is that many people really lack any sense to understand problems. Therefore, they spare themselves the trouble and follow the lead of their forefathers, who in their view were smarter or luckier than them and ended up on the correct path. Most of us consider ourselves lucky to have hit the jackpot by being the chosen ones to be born in a place where the ‘truth’ really prevails.

The only way we can be ‘lucky’ in the true sense of the word is if we stop entertaining fixed ideas. We should be open to change, provided that we are given ample opportunity and convincing evidence. We should try not to be biased, rather we should be objective. Only in that way would we be able to continue our quest for the truth, and if it ever comes to us, we would not have our mental immune system blocking it.

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