What we believe influences our taste, our most consequential choices, our self-esteem and sense of our own weight in the world.
When we are viewed from outside and classified, what’s typically picked out are the inherited features (“nature”) and the conditioning (“nurture”). The parts actually played by nature and nurture are not easy to calibrate – especially since their shaping power mostly passes beneath conscious awareness.
There is, however, one shaping factor that does enter consciousness relatively undisguised: our beliefs about our nature and nurture.
For a belief change to deserve the name “conversion,” it must reach toward the fundaments – the beliefs that underlie and support our surface opinions. That being so, conversions must be major events in the drama of who we are.
How does a conversion happen?
Is it a result of second-order conditioning, a new layer of stimulus-response that blankets the primary layer? If we have volunteered for a conditioning process (so that we can stop smoking or stop procrastinating), then our very beliefs are what made the therapeutic process available to us. Our habits have been changed but not basic views.
If on the other hand we’ve been coerced (as in brainwashing), that’s not a conversion. In such a case, we’ve been terrorized, shamed or tortured to the point where we’ve “confessed” to what we don’t actually believe. (If we believed our confession, all those coercive preliminaries would’ve been superfluous.) Of course, once we have said XYZ under duress, and been made to perform some action that demonstrates fake sincerity about XYZ, a reinforcing mechanism takes over the human psyche. We will try to make future verbal and physical performances line up consistently with XYZ. Achieving this miserable kind of consistency, we can come to think we are what we have heard ourselves say and seen ourselves do.
A real conversion is not like that. In it, we come on a fundamental level to think differently from how we thought before. That changes our idea of who we are – and used to be – and will be. Why? Because – as we now think (given a higher vantage point, a better connector for the dots, a refuting instance) – we were mistaken before and can see truer now.
But how could we ever allow such a deep, self-wrought transformation to happen? It must be terribly costly. Our sense of who we are will be threatened. Our friends and supporters may pull away. So many fine threads of being are still tied up with our now-rejected beliefs that, when these fine threads too get rewoven, we may wonder whether our former friends weren’t right after all. It may cross our minds that we’ve now become our own worst enemies.
It is not a small thing to change a fundamental belief.
I have been a fervent Fidelista, a conservative, an atheist, a theist, a determinist, a believer in free will, a gnostic, a Jew, a traditional woman, a feminist (though not a party-liner).
It’s been “conversion” after “conversion,” each one carrying the pains and costs itemized above. I regret none of it. It was a search for truth – the Ariadne’s thread through the labyrinth of life. Whether or not we have some innate ability to recognize truth (or at least to self-correct when we become aware of false notes), we certainly aren’t born knowing it. Still, as Aristotle said, it is truth that:
All [men and women] by nature desire to know.