Stubborn Opinions Blind You

Your everyday beliefs about the world around you are so strong they can warp your perception of reality. Your convictions alter your reasoning and even twist your interpretations about obvious things, such as what you see and what you do.

Psychological experiments show that our fixed beliefs can distort our observation of events to the point where some people claim to see the effect before the cause of that effect. While in other experiments, participants created vivid spatial illusions to mold reality to their belief systems.

Such distortions of perception are a result of cognitive bias, a mental inclination that is not limited to religious beliefs. In fact, neither of the experiments referenced above have anything to do with religion. Unexamined and uncritical scientific beliefs, philosophical beliefs as well as religious beliefs all affect how we see the world and how we understand it. Headstrong opinions about the way the world is, or the way it should be, can obscure the truth.

What you see is evidence of what you believe.

– Wayne Dyer

Granted, it’s difficult to live and work without some ideological framework. But we should always be willing to question our preconceived notions about the way things—how we view the world around us.

The culture and era in which we live directly affects our views, consciously or not, making it impossible for us to be entirely objective. Even so, scientists and philosophers encourage us to dismiss our a priori notions in order to look objectively at the evidence and the arguments.

As difficult as this may be, it’s good advice because, without exception, everyone has positions they like to defend. A scientist may embrace beliefs about the material nature of the universe, while an atheist is convinced there is no God.

Confirmation bias is one type of cognitive bias, described in simple terms as wishful thinking. It’s the common tendency to collect and interpret information so that it either conforms to, or confirms, our existing beliefs. As such, it’s a demonstration of the direct influence of our desires on our beliefs. When we desperately want something to be true, or we fervently believe it to be true, we will do whatever is necessary to make it appear true, creating any number of excuses or even fabricating evidence.

Your assumptions, suppositions, premises, prejudices, and cherished theories are all preconceived notions that either help or hinder your sense of reality or your interpretation of events. Even though many of your ideas may be close to the truth, those that are not function as mental barriers to any comprehension and acceptance of a greater truth.

If you choose to believe that something does not exist, it will not exist to you. The same applies if you are unaware of the existence of any condition or quality. It is a psychological fact that nothing can become real to you if you are not conscious that it exists.

That which you become conscious of, comes to exist to you.

– A. K. Mozumdar

Unlocking the door to the experience of God first requires your conscious awareness and acceptance that there is a spiritual phase of reality. And I’m not referring to blind faith, but to mental awareness. It’s often the case that we simply do not notice, or refuse to grasp, what is going on around us.

The Obvious Is Elusive

We often miss the obvious. Sometimes we are so focused on one thing, we don’t see what is right in front of us. At other times, we don’t expect to see anything, or we simply refuse to believe a particular event could possibly occur.

Psychologists Arien Mack and Irvin Rock coined the term inattentional blindness to refer to people’s inability to perceive something that was either right in front of them or going on around them. One of the best-known experiments devised to test this theory is the “invisible gorilla test,” also called the “selective attention test,” first conducted by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons in 1999. You may be familiar with this test as it has been popularized through several publications. Nevertheless, it’s worth reviewing in order to make a point.

In this experiment, participants volunteered to watch a video in which two groups of people—one dressed in white, the other in black—pass around basketballs. Researchers asked the volunteers to count the passes between those players dressed in white and to ignore those in black.

Afterward, they asked all participants if they had noticed anything unusual while watching the video. In all tests, about 50 percent of the participants reported seeing nothing out of the ordinary. But the other 50 percent noticed something quite unusual. Someone dressed in a gorilla suit strolled through the scene, turned to the camera, thumped their chest, and then walked away. Most of those who had missed the gorilla were incredulous and insisted on watching the video again.

The whole intent of this experiment was to show that people who focus on one thing can easily overlook something else. In much the same way, when you focus too much on your daily, material environment, you can entirely miss the obvious reality of your spiritual environment.

The presence of your inner Spirit is like the gorilla strolling through the room. But when you focus too much on your family problems, work environment, or shopping lists, you can miss it entirely. Your everyday distractions take your attention away from the reality of the spirit presence within you. This presence is a very real phenomenon, one that you can fully experience in your subjective, inner world just as much as you would experience the gorilla in the objective, outer world.

And there are other ways in which we either miss or ignore the obvious. When I first moved to a big city, I was astonished at the continuous roar of traffic. But after three months, it faded away to a white noise. Similarly, as we rush through life, we can numb ourselves to the presence of the Spirit and it becomes just another white noise. But we can discern this divine presence if we listen carefully.

There are many things we take for granted as we struggle through the vicissitudes of life, so much so that we often fail to notice or recognize their true significance or character. For instance, in the days of Isaac Newton, or perhaps Galileo, very few people thought about gravity as a distinct, measurable force that had a direct relationship to the mass of an object. Gravity was so pervasive and so commonplace, most people did not think of it as something distinct or definable in everyday life.

In much the same way, our human ability to be self-reflective—to be morally conscious of our thoughts, actions, and decisions—is one we often take for granted, as if it were an inherently human trait. But this common ability actually demonstrates the workings of the Spirit Teacher living within all of us.

Illusion and Reality

If the volunteers in the gorilla test were told about the gorilla beforehand, they subsequently noticed it every time, as we would expect. Once we become aware of a thing or an event, we notice it more frequently. Cognitive science calls this the frequency illusion.

Let’s say you purchased a new car, Model X. Before you bought this car, you rarely noticed them on the road, or anywhere else for that matter. But now that you own one, you begin to see them everywhere—on the road, in the parking lots, even your neighbor has one. This is the frequency illusion. The cars are not the illusion because they actually exist. The illusion is that the car is appearing more frequently. But this is true only because you never noticed them before—and so it is with the things of the spirit.

To find the Model X of spirit life we first need to know what it looks like, the design of the grill, the look of the taillights. Once we know what to look for, we begin to see it everywhere.

Seek and you will find.

– Jesus of Nazareth

The spirit world is an alternate phase of universe reality, and whenever you look for this spiritual reality, you gradually become aware of the spirit life existing within you and around you. This, in turn, makes you aware of the very real possibility of being transformed in spirit—being born of the spirit. It’s a spiritual transition full of challenges, adventure, and exploration, and all it takes to begin is your desire to embrace it, all the while accepting in your heart that God and spiritual forces will help you along the way.

Tea and the Telescope

You may have heard the story of the novice monk who was having tea with his master, a wizened old monk. The young man bragged on and on about his great knowledge of the world while the old man poured the tea. But the novice soon got a nasty jolt when scalding tea ran off the table and poured over his legs. Yelling in pain and jumping up, he realized the old monk had over-filled his cup—and was still pouring.

“Father!” cried the novice. “My cup is full!”

“Yes,” said the old man. “And that is why you learn nothing.”

In our stubborn arrogance, we often entertain preconceived notions about how things are—the state of the world as it were. But our ideas can be completely misleading, if not just outright wrong. The trouble with pride, vanity, and misguided convictions is that they effectively block or impede our reception of new knowledge, novel ideas, and spiritual insights.

When our cups are full, we feel self-sufficient and self-satisfied but, as the wise old monk knows, this attitude of mind is not one that reaches out for truth—it is unteachable.

If we desire a genuine spiritual experience, our minds must remain open and receptive to innovative and fresh ideas, to new possibilities. The moment we become entrenched and obstinate in our views is the moment we learn nothing new. Indeed, it is an unfortunate human propensity to persist in fixed views about the world and then to ridicule or persecute others who disagree.

If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.

– Confucius

Galileo’s Experience

In 1615, the Italian astronomer, Galileo, was investigated by the Roman Inquisition for supporting the theory that the earth traveled around the sun, a theory put forward sixty years earlier by the Polish astronomer, Copernicus.

But the church of the time was convinced that the earth was at the center of the universe, a creation in which hell was at its center and heaven was up in the skies. And many prominent people agreed with the church, thinking Galileo’s idea was absolutely ridiculous, if not intrinsically evil. After all, anyone looking up to the heavens could clearly see the celestial orbs revolving around them. Only a fool would deny the obvious.

Unfortunately for Galileo, the Inquisition concluded that heliocentrism was heretical—it was “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.” He was found guilty of heresy and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Galileo’s story is instructive in several ways. First, it shows how things or events that appear so obvious to the human eye—such as the sun, moon, and stars revolving around the earth—may not be the truth at all, or they may be only a partial or relative truth because, of all these celestial bodies, only the moon orbits the earth.

This reminds us that, although the truth is all around us, the lazy or fearful eye rarely sees it. Perceiving truth requires keen observation and diligent investigation as well as courage and an open mind willing to set aside preconceived notions.

Secondly, Galileo’s experience shows how original ideas can terrify people. Most people do not like change, especially when it seriously shakes their worldview, political power, or social status. They do not like philosophical rebels such as Galileo, who come along and try to upset the “natural order” of things.

Other intellectual rebels were not as lucky as Galileo. Giordano Bruno was another 16th century philosopher and a contemporary of Galileo. He went as far as to claim the stars were distant suns that had their own planets—worlds that could foster life—a shocking view for the time. But his real undoing was his denial of core Catholic doctrines, including eternal damnation and the virginity of Mary. It all proved too much for the Inquisitors and they burned Bruno at the stake.

People are afraid of innovative ideas, especially when perceived as acts of defiance or as threats to the established power structure or political order. The willful intolerance to opposing views by religious and political heavyweights has caused thousands of years of grief on our world. Even today, tyrants continue to lock up or kill those who disagree with them. Even so-called democracies suffer from intolerant and uncompromising partisan views. And intolerance persists on personal levels when so many of us try to forcefully assert our views over those of others, whether they concern politics, religion, or economics.

But wise people know that intolerance is nothing more than an ugly mask of fear. It’s an anxious need to always be right—a lingering dread of having our cherished ideas shattered. Those who honestly and courageously believe their virtuous ideals with the utmost confidence never fear criticism. Bigotry is the sign of a weak and fearful mind and, one day, the world will appreciate that no civilization can ever hope to cultivate an enlightened society while intolerance persists.

We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.

– Martin Luther King Jr.

While intolerance is often associated with religious views, it’s a matter of historical record that humanity has suffered far more death and destruction through endless clashes between conflicting political and economic ideologies. Take, for instance, the long wars fought between liberalism and authoritarianism, or those between capitalism and communism. Other instances include wars over land and resources, or colonialism and rights to rule.

The evidence for this is laid out in the Encyclopedia of Wars by Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod (2004). They report that less than 7 percent of all recorded wars were religious wars. And the casualties from these wars account for less than 4 percent of all war casualties.

During the Spanish Inquisition, which is a favorite example of many anti-religionists, researchers estimate that 3,000 people died, a number much smaller than most of us might imagine. Another touted example is the Crusades, a Latin Christian offensive in the Middle East that lasted about 200 years. In this lengthy encounter, estimates of casualties range between one to two million.

We can add to this the Irish-British conflict, one disguised as a Catholic-Protestant war. Or the Muslim-Hindu conflict after the partition of India. Or the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, except for the Inquisition, all these conflicts involve ethnic or national groups fighting over land, resources, and political power—not religion.

Compare these so-called religious wars to Russia’s Civil War under Stalin, which lasted three years and killed almost nine million, or Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China that lasted ten years and killed over three million. We could easily add to this the tens of millions who died in the First and Second World Wars. And in the recent Congo wars in Africa, some estimates are as high as five million dead in only four years. But none of these wars were religious in nature. In fact, they were decidedly secular.

It follows that those who would throw out any notion of religion because of sporadic religious conflict must, by the same reasoning, throw out any notion of politics or economics. Clearly, this is absurd. Politics in general is not the problem; it is whether a specific political structure or ideology is tyrannical or democratic, whether it is cruel and unjust or kind and fair. And for economics, it depends on whether a specific system benefits only an elite few or all members of society.

It’s not difficult to see there are good and bad, or efficient and inefficient, political and economic systems. If we understand this, then surely we can extend the same reasoning to religious affairs.

The third lesson taken from Galileo’s story (and Bruno’s) is how people will stop at nothing to protect their vested interests and enshrined ideas, not only by perverting and manipulating the truth to justify their malicious intents, but even to the point of murder.

The Roman Inquisition concluded that Galileo’s heliocentric idea was “foolish and absurd in philosophy,” but it was not. In fact, his idea was firmly grounded in observation and sound premises. The Inquisition also stated that Galileo’s idea “explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.” But nowhere in Judeo-Christian scripture does it imply that the earth is the center of the universe.

This kind of narrow-minded, agenda-based interpretation continues today when either scientists or atheists reject even the possibility of spirit reality. Or when so-called religious fundamentalists dismiss any notion about the evolution of life, despite the mountain of scientific evidence proving otherwise.

Thankfully, modern society is overcoming the tyranny of religious authority, and rightly so. The secular revolt in Western society helped to liberate the populace from corrupt religious power, leading to improvements in government, social institutions, and education.

But in the well-intentioned frenzy, many righteous dissidents, not content with the defeat of religious tyranny, continue to revolt against any notion of spirituality or, heaven forbid, the possibility of a divine Source—a Creator God.

It should be clear that any attempt to free society from religious totalitarianism does not require wiping out all sense of moral, spiritual, or divine value. Indeed, the complete secularization of society can only lead to increasing cynicism and conflict.

Without God, neither freedom and liberty, nor property and wealth will lead to peace. 195:8.12

– The Urantia Book