Beliefs, A-Liefs, and Seeing the Way Things Are

Tis education forms the common mind,
Just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.

Alexander Pope

One of the major tourist attractions in Chicago is the Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower and also formerly the tallest building in the world. Upon reaching the 103rd floor, visitors have the opportunity to walk out on “The Ledge,” glass boxes that reach four feet past the outer walls of the building.

More interesting than the magnificent view is the reactions of visitors. Walking out onto clear glass 103 stories up is scary. And fun. And exhilarating. And some simply can’t bring themselves to do it.

An ad for the building says, “Get out on the ledge if you dare!”

Now, the glass floor consists of three layers of half-inch thick glass and is designed to hold five tons. You’re not going to fall through the floor. So. What scares people?

Tamar Gendler, Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science at Yale, has named what is happening an alief. An alief is something that hits you out of the blue. Out of the recesses of your psyche. You “a-lieve” from the gut. Your a-lief says, “Freeze! You’re going to fall.”

You “be-lieve” just the opposite. Your mind, your reason, tells you that The Ledge is well-engineered and is there merely as a thrilling curiosity.

I find the believe/alieve distinction valuable. (In a be-lieve sort of way.) Feeling you are going to fall through the glass floor is gut, immediate. You can reason yourself out of it. You may even bring your frozen legs to carry you out onto the glass. You may even laugh at yourself for being afraid. But if human beings didn’t have the alief reaction, The Ledge would be a waste of money, not a major tourist draw.

Poet Alexander Pope formulated the point: “Just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.”

I belong to a clergy group made up of Muslims, Jews, Christians, and humanist me. We do public debates, trying to model ways that religious dialogue can be done without resort to anger and name-calling. After expressing my agnosticism, I’m often asked something along the lines of, “If you were bleeding and dying by the side of the road, wouldn’t you pray?”

I answer as honestly as I can. Yes, I would pray. Not because doing so proves the existence of supernatural forces, but because I grew up in a religious tradition that taught intercessory prayer. I don’t believe it, but I will always a-lieve it.

This twig was bent by fundamentalism.

And, by the way, I’m not going out on that glass floor, either.

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