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The Subjectivity of Belief


From observances of superstitions and taboos to the enormous sway of global religions, every culture exhibits some form of belief system. No culture has been found which does not, in one form or another, espouse its own such system. Then, as must be expected, these systems are highly esteemed by the cultures holding to them. As Ferraro notes, the witchcraft of one culture is just as valid to it as the meaning of prayer is to another. This is essentially why belief systems are so adamantly defended; an alien culture may view other beliefs as irrational and easily proven invalid through science, but each belief of any kind nonetheless serves to answer a basic need within those subscribing to it. In the realms of belief, superstition, and taboo, everything truly is in the “eye of the beholder”, for no outsiders can fully appreciate a meaning which they did not themselves compose, and consequently do not rely upon.

Behind Superstition and Belief

In a sense, belief appears to be a necessary and natural extension of human thought. Things occur, on personal, natural, and societal levels that are not due to either human effort or any natural system in evidence, and the human animal is distinctly uncomfortable with this. Everything considered as proven and known to any society, or even person, is known and accepted because it ultimately makes sense. Reaction follows action, and cause produces effect. Consequently, when any effect at all seems spontaneous, it is a universal human mechanism to turn to a belief-based explanation. These explanations, then, take on logical stature, and virtually no cultural belief is not seen by that culture as perfectly rational.

Moreover, as noted in George Gmelch's study of how superstition and belief play into the American game of professional baseball, people tend to not merely like, but demand, accountability for that which offers no evident logic or rationale. More precisely, it appears that there is an inherent human impulse to identify a cause or reason for any misfortune. The player who does poorly in a game associates the performance with his having stepped on a chalk line prior to the game, or he merely remembers having done so as an oddity, and therefore establishes the act as responsible for the bad game. Other players maintain different, personal taboos, ranging from wearing caps to eating certain foods. What is most interesting about this particular arena is that, to the average American, these superstitions are harmless, understandable quirks related to the players' senses of personal ability, and the same American may well view a tribal ritual from, for example, an Asian courtship practice as groundless and pointless. The key element of a needed rationality, present in the former instance, is completely absent to the American in the latter because the context is unknown to him.

It follows, then, that a common human characteristic is being unable to accept as reasonable a belief system at variance with a known one. As noted, every belief must be in place because it satisfies a specific culture's or person's need for a kind of reason. It explains something, and it explains it perfectly well to the party devising and holding to the explanation, no matter how utterly irrational it may seem to an outsider. Then, an exponential development is likely to take place in such cultural scenarios; the culture creating the belief is prone to become possessive of it. Time and again, history records that a chief component within one culture's overtaking of another, either through conquest or peaceful means, is that the visited culture dreads contamination. It is as though the culture has a visceral sense that the belief system, created by it, can only belong to it as a true rationale.

There is, as well, a curiously consistent aspect to virtually every form of superstition and/or belief present in any culture; namely, if certain, physical parameters or acts are involved with it, these things must be observed absolutely precisely. Form is followed to an exacting degree in the rituals of the Catholic Church, which boasts a following of many millions, and the same commitment to form is invariably witnessed in the rites of isolated, small tribes. Symbols are a crucial element in this type of belief, if only by virtue of their physical presence. In much the same way, the baseball player who values the socks he wore on a winning day as talismans invests the garments with a kind of emotional power. The instances are, of course, inherently diverse, but the force of symbolism is ultimately the same.

Additionally, belief systems tend to manifest a persistence indicating an even greater need, and one also unique to, and shaped by, each culture. That is to say, scientific knowledge does not always supplant superstitious belief, and many cultures incorporate the two to fully address all potentials of life. It may be that mankind has an innate need to believe in something actually not in accord with science, for entertaining openness to supernatural explanations may act as a kind of “leveling” mechanism. More exactly, human beings may not be equipped to accept all reasoning as logical and scientific, because the obligation to then always do so is too daunting. Based on this known factor of the tenacity of beliefs, it appears that people at least partially require symbols and superstitions to acknowledge human fallibility, even as they most certainly employ them to explain and enhance occurrences in individual cultures.


“Reasoning” aside, it seems probable that various cultures will always create or identify certain beliefs as uniquely their own, as history has indicated this to be something of a cultural inevitability. Provided the belief systems in question do not harm others, what is absolutely essential is that mutual regard be maintained for what can never be truly appreciated beyond one culture's parameters. Essentially, what is created by a culture in this regard absolutely belongs only to it. The subject is inescapably subjective for, in the arenas of belief and superstition, everything truly is in the “eye of the beholder” and no outsiders can fully understand a meaning which they did not themselves devise, and do not require.