Belief Contamination

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The abhorrence we feel when encountering beliefs that contradict our own is so universal and so powerful that it’s hard to imagine it’s the result of anything other than natural selection, programmed into us by evolution because it gives us some kind of survival advantage.  Even if we’re able to tolerate beliefs that are different than our own, remaining so creates a tension from which we can never quite become free.  Even if you believe it’s going to rain today and I don’t, we’ll both need to work, however subtly, to tolerate the fact that we have different views.  When we start talking about more important beliefs then, like whether or not it’s okay to spank children, we really may find ourselves biting our tongues.  When we get to politics, anger over any disagreements is typical.  And when we talk about religion—well, people kill one another over disagreements about that.

I’ve long wondered why, even when we posture tolerance on the surface for beliefs different than our own, encountering beliefs that contrast with ours seems to leave us feeling so uncomfortable at a deeper level.  We could argue any such difference represents a threat to our ability to believe as we do—and in some cases I’m sure that’s true—but our reaction seems to be the same even when we believe as we do with certainty.  Perhaps sometimes we lie to ourselves about how certain we are and the niggling doubt that encountering a contradictory belief stirs up in us is enough to remind us of it and rattle us.  But sometimes we really are certain we’re right and still find ourselves struggling to reconcile the fact that another person doesn’t agree with us.  I remember well my interaction with an acquaintance years ago who simply held the most bizarre beliefs (in a non-psychotic person) I’d ever encountered.  I found myself having to constantly suppress the urge to correct almost every sentence that came out of his mouth.

Not that the point I’m trying to make is that I was necessarily right and he was wrong; it’s that I didn’t feel threatened by what I considered to be his grossly inaccurate beliefs so much as contaminated by them.  I’ve since found myself wondering if the strange sense of defilement I felt in having my mind invaded by what seemed to me to be a profoundly deluded thought process explains why so many of us prefer to associate with people who think just like we do, who believe just what we do, and feel simultaneously repelled even from people we profess to love when we discover they hold beliefs radically different from our own.  (This isn’t to say our horror at learning our loved ones believe in God/don’t believe in God/are Republicans/are Democrats might not also be fueled by our concern for them.  After all, what we believe is critically important, not just because it determines how we think about and treat others, but because it determines how happy we can be.)

Except that I don’t believe our negative reaction to finding out that people about whom we care believe differently from us is fueled by a desire to help them become happier.  I think, in fact, our negative reaction is far more consistent with a response to a threat.  Not a threat to our ability to believe as we do, but rather a threat to our very existence.  At some level, coming into contact with contradictory beliefs seems almost to trigger our fight-or-flight response, as if the existence of contradictory beliefs might threaten, if not our lives, our personal way of life.

Perhaps because, in fact, this is often the case.  We live in the midst of a sea of other people whose beliefs do impact our lives.  It does matter what others around us believe.  Which is perhaps why contradictory beliefs create such overreactions in people (far too often tragic overreactions).

As a physician, I’ve learned to tolerate all sorts of bizarre beliefs and cognitive distortions in my patients.  I still feel, to this day, in some sense “contaminated” when I encounter significantly distorted views, as if I need to separate myself in some way from the people who hold them.  But I now recognize that true tolerance of beliefs different from my own doesn’t require me tolerate the different beliefs themselves but the feelings that encountering such beliefs engenders in me.  I believe it’s intolerance toward those feelings that leads to radical intolerance of the people who believe them and which is therefore responsible for untold horrors—man’s inhumanity to man—throughout human history.  This isn’t to say we should tolerate delusional or harmful beliefs.  To the contrary, where such beliefs cause harm, it’s our duty to speak out.  But out of compassion, not anger or hatred or fear.  We must rein in our emotional reactions and enter into rational dialogue humbly, with a willingness to believe it’s our own beliefs that are misguided or don’t best accord with available evidence.  But in order to do that, we must first find a way to tolerate the negative feelings that encountering different beliefs than our own seems to engender in us all.

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  • The extent of the threat one feels when faced with opposing views is directly proportional to the level of “faith” one needs to maintain those views. Rational thoughts, positions and world views that can be explained and substantiated by empirical evidence are not as susceptible to fear of challenge.

  • How about some examples. Rather than try to imagine scenarios you believe this theory to be true, help me out by giving us one or two?

    I have been troubled by some facts I have learned, for example, about the Chinese people who have an entirely different view of animals such as dogs and cats than I do. I think of them as pets or even service dogs, working dogs like cattle ranches, etc.

    What I don’t think about them is that they are unimportant in any way just by virtue of being themselves.

    Specific acts have (you mentioned feelings of contamination) engendered in me horror, shock, the desire to disbelieve, disgust, and immense sadness. I’m sorry I ever heard of these practices such as the view of these animals as food or as material for our wants and needs like their fur for lining our coats or being made into “cute” little trinkets such as figurines depicting real animals. The purpose for these beliefs or what causes them I think I might eventually accept but it is the method used to attain or accomplish the end product that causes my mind to rebel.

    These practices sound to me like something someone might make up as propaganda or exaggeration but investigations were done by reputable sources and people who risked their lives, actually, in order to obtain evidence of the truth of these practices.

    I’m talking about (it has been videotaped but God help me if I might find the faith to keep on living should I ever witness it) the Chinese practice of skinning dogs and cats alive in order to use their fur for such (I believe) obscene purposes. Since there exist alternatives for material for coats and trinkets etc. I can find NOTHING which would help me in any way accept someone who would do this as being a civilized human being. It would be one thing to first use animals so but the unnecessary and absolutely obscene methods of getting their (trust me—no pun intended) raw material will horrify me till the day I die. One of my greatest desires is to NOT KNOW this because it seems to me there is little I can do to change the outcome for even one of these poor savaged animals.

    Can you explain to me how this theory of yours might apply to the scenario above? I must accept the fact that it is mostly out of a selfish desire that I not be made so extremely uncomfortable with this knowledge. I can think of nothing, no understanding (I don’t want to understand for it might risk my sanity) by which I can ever be comfortable knowing that this is an act that occurs if not legally, then with a legal establishment who looks the other way.

    If you view this as off-topic, I do apologize but there are beliefs and opinions I have about the sanctity of life of any kind that might as well be a part of my DNA. Finding out these things has drastically changed my life in that during quiet moments, random moments, visions of this sick reality flash into my mind and all I feel trying to not think about them is selfishness. It hasn’t moved me to do anything to change this because what could I do? Which makes it all the more horrifying. I cannot enjoy any single particular moment of my life at the same time as I think of or know of these barbaric practices. In that regard, I have been contaminated by them because it is now part of me. I cannot UN-KNOW these things. I don’t want to be comfortable with this knowledge but I don’t want to be uncomfortable either because that is the same as the euphemistic “get over it” admonition we often hear.

    Maybe I am already insane from this knowledge because it has been years since I inadvertently acquired this knowledge and it is as fresh and horrifying in my mind as the day I first heard it.

    HOW do you live with something that you believe shouldn’t be lived with? Is it just a matter of training yourself to accept your selfishness and self-indulgence so that you know it goes on you just “don’t think about it” anymore. I don’t see how to not think about it without becoming nearly as callous as those who do these things. I could never feel anything but revulsion and even fear upon meeting some individual who did this thing for a living and then went home to be the best parent there is because I just cannot believe there are not some serious disconnects in the minds every single practitioner. There is NO ANSWER and so I must accept that for the remainder of my life I will have these visions that come unwanted to my mind. Which brings me back to this just being a selfish obsession of mine.

    Anne: I should have made this clearer in my post, but the kind of belief I was talking about was non-moral belief, or beliefs about facts, not beliefs about values. When people commit atrocities, we should not accept them at all, but rather should fight against them. (See my previous posts, Evil Triumphs When Good People Do Nothing and Become A Force For Good.) To answer the first question in your last paragraph, if you are truly as bothered as you say, you should take action. Don’t accept or believe the sentiment that there’s nothing you can do. Figure out what you can do and do it. I suspect that will also help free you to some degree from the revulsion you feel.


  • I wonder if I respond to this am I proving you somewhat correct. The words abhorrence and intolerance are harsh and make me wonder if I am missing a gland or some sort of emotional chemical which is what most if not all thoughts and feeling come from. Love, fear, religion etc. all have some sort of endorphin type base. People who have this abhorrence do not for what ever reason know there is truly more ways “to skin a cat” than one. I cannot think of anything I can’t do at least two different ways from being born to dying. Getting out of this chair, scratching my head, surgery, and every thing going through my mind right now. Even breathing.

    We believe or do things because they make us happy. Your strange beliefs don’t make me unhappy. My very good friend believing the world will end next December 2012 does not cause abhorrence in me. I don’t even feel sorry for her. It just is. Why be upset about what is?

    Or have I once again missed your point? Can you handle it? Of course.

  • Alex, I think the threat is that we may have to change (our belief). It is a temporary hump to get over. It is off-putting at first, and then you may gradually become accustomed to the new and strange idea, notion or belief system. It is like breaking in a new pair of shoes—they feel stiff, awkward at first, or even painful. But we know that this will pass.

    I also believe that we are not all alike in this, some being “naturally” more tolerant than others. These are the mild-mannered and easy-going among us, or the extremely patient, or the extraordinarily open-minded. Others seem naturally more defensive.

    And there are times when I will react with defensiveness and other times when I will be more open . . . depending upon circumstances. I stand by how inconsistent I may be!

    Which may muddy your waters and dilute the point you are making. There are, however a few things that I feel strongly about. But I don’t feel strongly about every one of my beliefs and may flex easily on that latter group of beliefs.

  • I think the source of this “intolerance” to others who challenge our belief systems (or frankly, just strongly believe things that are contrary) does in fact stem from a evolutionary developmental process—namely—the ego.

    What is our ego except a belief system about who we are? And what comprises the ego more than just about anything—our beliefs, our opinions, our likes and our dislikes.

    To someone that hasn’t confronted the ego, and taken a hard look at the “man behind the curtain,” shattering one’s belief system is the same as death itself.

    And yet, it is just this self-reflection and “witnessing” of our own thoughts that helps us transcend the fear-based programming of our reptilian mind.

    We must learn to realize just how well our ego serves us—it can keep us alive at almost any cost. And yet, it can also be the source of great suffering—both for ourselves and for others.

    So viewing the ego not as our sole (our soul) identity, but rather only as a useful tool that can be “put away” when it is not helpful, is the path we each must find.

    Thanks for this illuminating post about belief systems and tolerance. Happy Holidays, Alex.


  • Hi Alex,

    Since you deserve it, I have added you in my list of best four bloggers.

    Just click at the following link:



    Pawan: Many thanks. I’m glad you’ve found my writing helpful.


  • That last paragraph was one of the best I’ve ever read. We are all born with innate fears whose original intent was to help us survive—and they did. So we can’t deny we have them, which is the common response, personally and politically. But to learn to accept them and not let them dictate our actions toward others, THAT is what being a “civilized” society is all about.

    I’d also like to add that one of the most wonderful things about women is that they seem to not have such a strong visceral reaction to others’ differences in beliefs. God bless them!

  • I would like to know how to change the views of a daughter-in-law and father-in-law who are both battling for power and control. Daughter-in-law is using grandchildren as bait to get her way. She doesn’t like the controlling father-in-law so she has decided he is not to be trusted, and says the grandchildren should never be allowed alone with him.

    Father-in-law will not talk to son and daughter-in-law because of this mistrust. Therefore grandchildren are out of the picture also. Now father-in-law wants his wife to not see any of the family members either to show she is on his side.

    Paulette: What a painful situation! With emotions running so high, people are making drastic decisions they are all liable to regret later. My only advice is to father’s-in-law wife who father-in-law expects to act cruelly in order to show support. I wouldn’t. Father’s-in-law decision to stop speaking to his son and daughter-in-law is his choice. Somehow, both sides must be helped to see that the real cost of all of this is to the grandchildren, who are being deprived of their grandfather. Someone (perhaps father’s-in-law wife) needs to work to help cooler heads prevail. If readers have better advice, please sound off.


  • Interesting article. I like what Stefany wrote; eloquent. Alex, I respect your response to Anne. All I was thinking during reading that article was “start w/writing a letter.” David is funny w/the gland thing… and somewhat agrees, as I do. It is historical to react. I myself have done so to an extent. The endorphin is not the basis but a reaction. Chris uses a great example w/the bump and the shoes; it reminds me of hitting the stone twice (The Holy Bible). He is also correct “in the eye of the beholder.” I do not agree that it is a threat to change, merely a thought. Steven writes about the ego but since the ego is our balancing point, it sounds more like he is discussing the Id. Allen makes a sexist comment and “civilized” is only another figment w/all the corruption going on … I would suggest to Paulette to look for proof of allegations and go from there. Alex is right that no one wants the children to pay the price.

    My opinion? I do not feel threatened for my own collapse or crag in my beliefs. I expand my thoughts to a before & after life level. We are here to make a difference, say your opinion, change your OWN mind, but mostly, to listen. That is why we are all writing. We are just between, here for a “minute” to say something, do something… view this from religion or science. Empirically we have all the proof we need: life & death.

  • Question for Paulette and her dilemma:

    Ask members of this family if they see themselves as a team. Or do they think of themselves as two teams, opponents? Or do they see themselves as individuals, rugged individuals?

    If they (can) see themselves as a team, they might want to cultivate more/better teamwork. What is the goal? What is the “win” for the team? One of the goals is generativity—Alex said it, the best interests of the children going forward. That the children will learn. Maybe the thing for all of us to learn is tolerance . . .

    We cannot change one another’s thinking. Nor is it respectful to try to do so. And I agree that listening without reacting is the MOST respectful.

  • Hi Alex,
    For once, I found myself disagreeing with lots of what you wrote here (though without any sense of “abhorrence” or “contamination” 🙂

    We judge others’ beliefs based on our own subjective values. So when you speak of someone who “held the most bizarre beliefs I’d ever encountered,” my challenge would be “bizarre to whom?” The beliefs are not bizarre to that person, they are just bizarre to you. They are “neutral” beliefs that you find bizarre. It’s like when you’re stuck behind another driver who’s going too slowly. Too slowly for whom? He’s going at exactly the right speed for himself.

    As a Buddhist I have many beliefs that seem perfectly normal to me (the eternity of life, karma, cause and effect) but am very aware that lots of other people find these ideas bizarre or in occasional cases (karma, notably) even distasteful, just as I did when I started chanting 26 years ago. I can never prove that I am right and they are wrong.

    When Pakistan argues with India, who is right? They both are. When Christians argue with Muslims, who is right? They both are. In our own heads we always think we are right.

    The key as you say is to act from compassion, not anger, hatred or fear.

    Commenting on his approach to dialogues with people of different countries and faiths, Daisaku Ikeda says: “Choosing dialogue is the key to building peace and achieving a victory of our inner humanity. The greater the differences between us, the more I concentrated on trying to understand as deeply as possible the other person’s thoughts and feelings.”

    Finally, from an esho funi perspective I don’t think we can ever be “contaminated” by others’ views. As with all of life, other people stir up from within our hearts poisons that are inherently there.

    All best for 2012!

    David: Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I suppose, as with all abilities, the ability to tolerate beliefs that are different from our own varies from person to person, as well as from belief to belief. Yet it wasn’t actually so much the content of my friend’s beliefs I found difficult to tolerate as his degree of delusional thinking. He was, for example, convinced that he could recapture his ex-girlfriend’s heart by beating up her new boyfriend. I certainly agree with you that his beliefs weren’t bizarre to him, but not that they were correct. In certain realms, disagreements between people or countries don’t involve parties that are right and wrong, as you say, but parties that only have different but equally valid perspectives. But with regard to beliefs about the eternity of life, karma, cause and effect, or whether or not it will rain tomorrow, there are correct answers, whether or not we can ever know them with certainty. I disagree that when Christians argue with Muslims they can both be correct. The doctrines of each contain mutually exclusive principles that cannot be correct simultaneously. Either one is correct or they are both wrong. Finally, the feeling of being contaminated as I described it is just that: a feeling, not a description of actual contamination. Like you, I also believe the “key to building peace and achieving a victory of our inner humanity” is dialogue. But dialogue requires us to recognize, not suppress, whatever negative reactions we may have to another’s differing beliefs and to tolerate those feelings so that we can enter into dialogue with an open heart and mind.


  • In my life, this feeling of “contamination” is why I’ve never had a TV, hardly ever read papers or watch movies, and only interact closely with a handful of people. Lots of activism, keeping up on current events (but no gory details), reading, deepening friendships. I hope it’s not just selfish avoidance and/or rose tinted glasses…

  • What an interesting notion! I can’t say I have ever experienced someone else’s beliefs as contamination. If they belong to a strain of belief-systems I have encountered before (and have examined to the best of my ability) I react in accordance with my judgments about that system (as you say, honestly and with compassion). But if the beliefs are novel and bizarre (your term), my what-might-I-be-missing response is triggered. I think I am always on the lookout for perspectives that might reveal what the rest of us have failed to see—or looked at in the most useful way.

    I wonder if this response might not be more common among those who in some sense exist as “outsiders” in any given culture. When you are an outsider, what you have to deal with most often are threats from the group rather than threats from the individual. You are accustomed to not having any socially-constructed back-up for the way you look at things (no group of like-thinking others), thus any other individual weird perspective does not trigger defensiveness. What is more likely to trigger the uncomfortable reactions you describe, for outsiders, are situations in which “everybody” agrees on a certain way of seeing things.

    This raises a question (for me): To what extent does tolerance on the part of “insiders” derive from how secure in their position they feel? This might look like “faith” or it might look like inability to contemplate alternatives, depending on one’s perspective.

    Re: Paulette’s dilemma. Surely we need to know in what way the d-in-law is using her children “as bait” and for what. To keep children away from a controlling sociopath of a f-in-law is wise, but to keep them away because the d-in-law is a controlling sociopath requires intervention of a different sort! As always, the devil is in the particulars…. Having served as a Guardian ad Litem for some years, I am acutely aware of how what is really going on in a given situation is often not what it seems like at first glance.

  • Thanks for your inspiring post, Alex, which triggered some good responses. I agree with Allen that your last paragraph, citing tolerance and compassion as a form of resolution, was the most powerful. I empathise with Paulette’s family dilemma and its inherent complexities.

    I believe the need for empathy and compassion is central to harmony and goodwill in all relationships. I’m curious to know if you’ve heard of Compassionate Communication, also known as Nonviolent Communication(NVC)? It has been described as a language of compassion, as a tool for positive social change, and as a spiritual practice.

    It’s based on the fundamental principle that underlying all human actions are needs that people are seeking to meet. Understanding and acknowledging these needs can create a shared basis for connection and cooperation.

    Understanding each other at the level of our needs creates such connection because, at this deeper human level, the similarities between us outweigh the differences, giving rise to greater compassion. It transcends the limitations of religion, race and creed.

    When we focus on needs, without interpreting or conveying judgements, criticisms, blame, or demands, our deeper
    creativity flourishes, and solutions arise that were previously blocked from our awareness.

    This form of ‘consciousness’ has transformed people’s lives and relationships all around the globe.

    For what it’s worth you can visit my links for more information and updates: