Quaker Universalist Voice

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The Role of Belief

A Review of James E. Alcock, Belief: What It Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions are So Compelling (2018)

We all have beliefs and are relying on them as we live our lives.  Should our Quaker beliefs be subject to assessment and, if so, how?  This feels to be a more urgent process in later life as we reflect back on experience, both personal and in our tradition.  How fragile are our beliefs and what are the tools for their assessment are the subjects of a new book?

J. Alcock, Belief: What It Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions are So Compelling (2018) provides the perspective of a social psychologist on the role of beliefs in the human condition through the current scientific understanding of psychology.

The book is also an additional pearl on the necklace of comparable volumes sketching the history and overview of important ideas for Quakers and all humans.  Particularly related to this book are J. Hecht, Doubt: a history (2003) and D. McMahon, Happiness: A History (2006).  All three are large books, reflecting accumulating human insight into our condition and agency.  They are worth a peak for anyone.  Be aware of their common focus on the Western tradition of the larger human tradition.

This Alcock book is structured in six parts.  The first four parts explain the psychological research about the vulnerabilities of human perception, memory, contemplation, and reality testing. Part 5 describes the effects of these vulnerabilities in the contexts of magic, religion, paranormal, and illusions.  Part 6 offers a partial solution, mitigation, and protection through critical thinking, all of which solution tools are vulnerable to distortions as well.  For the author, systematic application of critical thinking is our best defense.  Such is the human condition.

While the research and examples derive from the author’s study and the surrounding research of the field of psychology, with its heavy concentration in the western tradition, the author clearly intends to offer his analysis and solution as universally applicable to all humans in all cultures and for all times.  He does not make a causal argument based on genetics or evolution, but he implies that all humans are intrinsically vulnerable to false beliefs, show little progress in transcending false beliefs, and can all take partial comfort in critical thinking on the path of good lives.

Quakers: This analysis and recommendation applies to Quakers also.  Quakers are not exempt.  Any Quaker swims in a wide imaginative sea of beliefs, anchors beliefs in a thin understanding of reality, and, like all humans, seeks to distinguish between beliefs and reality.  We Quakers are among that group of blind persons describing our very partial experience of the elephant standing before us. We too must apply the quality control offered by critical thinking to our beliefs, risking the possibility that our important beliefs are based on insufficient evidence or none at all.  The stakes are high.

This book is particularly important as a resource for persons, Quakers and others, in the final chapter of their lives.  The book provides helpful insight and content for reflection, but it offers no surety or guarantee through critical thinking.  Most current younger persons will miss the consequential and painful significance of false beliefs, reflecting their personal anticipation of their personal invulnerability to false beliefs and their higher expectations for their personal ability to use critical thinking to avoid false beliefs.  Older Quakers recognize the stakes.

For Quakers, we must do our best to understand the stakes, our vulnerability to false beliefs, and the importance and limited protection provided by critical thinking.  We must rely, to significant extent, on our tradition, experience, and reason in personal and shared reflection and discernment now and then trust in the future.  This applies to Quakers in whatever chapter of life they present themselves.  This book helps in that reflection along the way and in final preparations.  This is no small undertaking.  This book offers assistance.

Religion is the current packaging in language, ritual, and practice of understanding and interpretation of reality through collective spiritual experience.  Any religion is the packaging of human experience.  That religion is tested in ongoing experience and its evolution over time can lead to extinction or flourishing as it meets the challenges of experience.

The book is well written and clear in its presentation.  It provides an overview from a psychological perspective.  It is clearly a culmination of a lifetime of reflection on belief.  The endnotes are full and an important resource for graduate students.  The index is helpful for the reader in navigating this substantial book.

 There are some 10k identified religions, ranging in size from few to hundreds of millions of adherents.  Religions constantly evolve and disappear in history.  All religions have bizarre aspects which are invisible to their followers’ critical thinking.  For example, Alcock uses the example, among others, that eating flesh and blood of a savior from heaven is embraced by some 2 billion followers of one religion.

Alcock argues that current psychology identifies religion as hardwired in the human brain and that religion is a universal for all humans.  Religion is the default belief and behavior management system in all humans.

Alcock argues that religion is natural, normal, powerful, pervasive, persistent, and important in the brain of all humans.  Based on careful studies of children, all humans are born with magical causation thinking, agency detection, dualism, promiscuous teleology, discriminatory reality testing of religious beliefs, and retention of ontological violations, which are reinforced and confirmed by wishes, dreams, and emotional experience, offer answers to existential questions about human purpose and death, and provide a sense of personal control, self-confidence, social group identity.


  • Which Quaker beliefs (including testimonies) are open to assessment?
  • Is it true that all humans hold beliefs and are in need of critical thinking?
  • Do any of our Quaker beliefs present danger to others?


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