Belief by James E. Alcock

Belief by James E Alcock.jpg

“Our beliefs guide us, motivate us, and define the world for us,” writes James Alcock, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at York University in Toronto in his big new book Belief: What It Means To Believe and Why Our Convictions Are So Compelling. “Nothing demonstrates their hold over us as much as a willingness to die for them. But what does it mean to 'believe'? And how is it that some beliefs are so powerful that they are impervious both to reason and to evidence that challenges them?”

In the 600 pages of his book, Alcock examines hundreds of types of belief, from the world's most popular religions to the widespread folklore of things like UFOs, near-death experiences, spiritualism, numerology, the Bermuda Triangle, and so on. He discusses with the confidence of a front-line specialist all the ways belief systems are born, maintained, warped, and even discarded – and how the whole spectrum is publicized and publicizes itself.

There aren't many writers who can handle such a broad-spectrum approach, and Alcock does it very skillfully, although there are moments when his clear desire to be fair leads him sometimes to stretch the concept of “belief” beyond any useful parameters. For example, at one point he recounts the familiar Creation story from the King James Bible, then he recounts a Creation story from American Indian oral tradition, and then he recounts a layman's version of the current cosmological idea of the Big Bang – following up all three with a few lines that might alarm just about anybody on the belief spectrum:

All three stories may seem fantastical in their own way, and all three are accepted on faith by those who believe them. While the first involves trust in the validity of the Book of Genesis and the second in the oral traditions of North American First Nation peoples, the third requires trust in the conclusions of modern science. While scientists understand the logic and the data that support the Big Bang explanations, it is beyond the layperson's ability to do so.

Needless to say, this gloss is deeply, deeply wrong. The current Big Bang idea of the universe's origin doesn't require “faith” – and “faith” in this context isn't the same thing as “trust,” which the layperson should indeed have in the observations of trained and experienced scientists, because scientists aren't proclaiming their Big Bang-related findings, nor are they insisting that those findings be accepted merely on the strength of those proclamations. If a layperson were interested in knowing whether or not to invest belief in those Big Bang-related findings, scientists could provide disinterested, verifiable reasons for that belief. If a Christian or a Lakota Sioux were asked to produce corresponding reasons of their own, the most they could do would be to say, “My grandparents told me the story is true, and I loved my grandparents.” Saying that all three stories require “faith” neuters the whole concept of faith – which is a dubious thing to do when you're writing a boot about belief.

Fortunately, Alcock mostly sticks to much more solid ground, and it almost always comes down to the same solid ground: inevitably, the human brain. The book is everywhere concerned with how the brain constructs beliefs, how it can be fooled, and how it deconstructs and reconstructs beliefs. This multi-pronged inquiry into how and why people believe the things they do achieves a neat mental accumulation of bringing the whole meta-concept of belief itself into question. In his professional life, Alcock no doubt sees both the best and the worst of what that concept can do to a person, and Belief is an involving summation, a valuable addition to the libraries of believers and nonbelievers alike.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.