Our own fundamental beliefs, our rules of conduct, we must all make for ourselves. We may listen and read, but the views of others we cannot take on credit; we must rethink them and “make them our own.”H.G. Wells
If you do one specific thing for yourself and nothing more, what is it you would do? For all of us, regardless of our religions, spirituality, or lack thereof; knowing our own personal beliefs is the most important piece of self-knowledge we can gain.
H. G. Wells wrote First and Last Things after a group of his friends compared their personal beliefs with one another and found they had multiple inconsistencies in their individual systems. For a book written at the beginning of the 20thcentury, it’s remarkably fresh in the 21st and offers personal insights into going about finding your own beliefs.
I’ve linked the Project Gutenberg edition for your own perusal since it’s a free download and the digital editions are easy to search. Be forewarned! The Kindle edition is 2k+ pages long, so it’s not a quick read!
Why is knowing and having your own personal beliefs important? Well, let’s look at what H. G. Wells has to say on the matter.
The bulk of men are obliged to be amateur philosophers,–all men indeed who are not specialized students of philosophical subjects,–even if their philosophical enterprise goes no further than prompt recognition of and submission to Authority.H. G. Wells
H. G. Wells remarked in his own attempts to put down his beliefs that he was a rank amateur. He was a great intellectual of his day and an undeniably brilliant writer. He wrote some of the first great futuristic science fiction the world had ever seen. War of the Worlds and The Time Machine are two of the great unparalleled classics in the science fiction genre, superseded only by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
A philosopher he was not. But neither are most of us. This should encourage you. If you have the capacity for thought, for reason, and for learning, then figuring out what you believe should be a necessary exercise.
Wells even gives you a starting point: he begins with metaphysics and branches out from there.
Metaphysics deals with the basic underpinnings of any belief system. What do you believe about the world? What are your thoughts on facts? What makes a fact? What makes fiction?
These are all questions you must answer for yourself. H. G. Wells spends an entire volume answering these questions.
Without your own answers to these questions, you are blindly following the crowd. And you may end up finding out that where your crowd is leading you is not somewhere you want to go.
Like all crowds, there is usually something quite nasty at the very end. Remember Phantastes? The great wooden image that the crowd of people were worshipping in the woods was nothing more than the hiding place of a monster, which ate all the children they offered it. Only Anados, who wasn’t part of Fairy Land, could see through the disguise and slay the monster. He did not follow the crowd.
We were all, we found, extremely uncertain in our outlook upon life, about our religious feelings and in our ideas of right and wrong. And yet we reckoned ourselves people of the educated class and some of us talk and lecture and write with considerable confidence.”H. G. Wells
“Who am I” is a question most of us only answer superficially. We may answer anything from “I am a Christian” to “I am a Democrat” but we never really flesh out what those things mean to us. If we do, then we may just parrot whatever someone else has said.
Memorizing someone else’s words may be an excellent brain training exercise, but it’s a horrible way of deciding what to believe. You are not St. Paul, Maimonides, Ibn Sina, or Aristotle. Which means you cannot believe or think in the same way they did.
Worse still, it is accepting everything at face value without testing it, living it, and following it to its logical conclusion.
If that is how you want to live, that is up to you. But I warn you: others have done the same thing. It’s called authoritarianism and there are thousands, if not millions, of people who can testify to its poison. Most of them are in mass graves.
Those who have changed religions or are deconstructing their faith know exactly what it’s like to fall into the fundamentalist trap.
If, however, you want to be as Marcus Aurelius, and stand as an unmovable cliff, then considering what you believe is as necessary as breathing. And you must do it for yourself—no one else can do it for you.
I hold that the broad direction of conduct follows necessarily from belief. The believer does not require rewards and punishments to direct him to the right.H. G. Wells
What you believe is what you naturally will act out—whether or not you realize it. Which means you constantly must purge what doesn’t work for you and keeping firm with what you believe. If you do this successfully, you don’t have to be threatened with damnation, punishment, or bribed with a reward to be right.
Being true to what you believe is only possible when you know what it is you believe. If you are like most of us and only submit to authority instead of attempting to answer the questions for yourself, then you can’t ever really be true to who you are. Because you don’t really know who that is.
And if you don’t know who that is, then you can never really be certain of where you are going or who is leading you. Are you being controlled? Or are you acting on your own cognizance? Do you actually love your God for who he is or are you paying lip service because you are too afraid of damnation? Do you feed the hungry because they are hungry, or are you seeking after some greater reward?
Without knowing the answers to these, are you being and doing good? Or are you acting out of fear? If, as Ecclesiastes and the Brahmans of old claim that you reap whatever it is you sow, then perhaps you need to make sure that what you are sowing isn’t dead.
The ultimate reward of belief in anything should be that you know yourself better. If you are religious, this means you know your God better, as Catherine of Siena maintains. If you aren’t, then you have still formed a valuable relationship with the one person you are stuck with your entire life—yourself.
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