As this is written late in August, the Beijing olympics have concluded, and once again the world has been reminded what a powerful thing belief can be. On one hand thousands of athletes from around the world have run, jumped, swum, dived, and played, at levels once thought impossible, but proved doable by the efforts and concentrated belief of the newest generation of world-class performers.
In the meantime, the same government that sponsored those relatively friendly competitions was wielding clubs and guns to put down the efforts of thousands of Tibetans to freely practice their beliefs. That same government— clearly threatened by what was perceived as another set of dangerous beliefs—has, in recent years, moved to crush the innocuous Fulang Gang movement, notwithstanding the recent semi freedoms accorded to a few tame religions. Who can forget the actions of that solitary young man in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, who halted a column of oncoming tanks in 1989? What exactly he believed is unclear, but no one can doubt that it was something he thought worth dying for, like freedom.
In the West these days the very idea of ‘belief’ has fallen into a kind of disrepute. It is, after all, mindless belief that is blamed for the insane actions of fanatics threatening the security of Western civilization, as in 9/11. It is belief which is held accountable for the persistence of foolishness on many politically incorrect fronts, and numerous academic authorities deride the “uninformed belief structures” of those they consider less sophisticated. These self-elected elites prefer a more agnostic, academically nuanced position. Ironically, though, such posturing actually betrays a secret fear of the power of belief.
While most religions have long held that faith could move mountains, and the secular princes have denied it, there can be little doubt that only fools truly doubt the power of organized belief. The same authorities, which dismiss the validity of many widely held beliefs, are nevertheless eager to harness its power for their own ends. Witness the current practices of the Chinese government, and, for that matter, of many corporate and political advertisers in the West. Moreover, these days, with every new discovery in quantum physics or holistic healing, it becomes more clear that belief is a force which must be reckoned with—sustaining perhaps the very fabric of what we consider reality.
Much like fire, belief can be a force for good or evil. It all depends on how it is deployed. But it is certain that the absence of some kind of true belief is a very sad state, indeed. The recent release of the new X-files movie has the subtitle “I want to believe,” which sums up the predicament of world-weary skeptics everywhere.
Has the well-intentioned effort to escape the clutches of superstitious fanaticism produced a world led by virtual modern-day Hamlets unable to decide if they will be or not? Can such a society defend itself against the mobilized believing forces of a darker order? It remains to be seen.