Why are Beliefs Held so Dearly? Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Why are Beliefs Held so Dearly?

3 Conversations

Defining Terms of Belief
A Critique of Belief | Neurotheology - is God in our Heads?
The Evolutionary Advantages of Faith | The Biological Basis of Belief
Why do we have Beliefs? | Why are Beliefs held so Dearly? | The Stages of Belief
The Contradictions of Atheistic Assumption in the Social Sciences | Science as Religion
Joining and Leaving a Minority Religion
Why Someone Might Choose Neo-Paganism Over Mainstream Religion
On Medieval Heresy | The Perceived Dichotomy Between Sexuality and Spirituality
Religion as a Tool for Social Control

Why do people die for their beliefs? Why will they kill for them? Just what is it about beliefs that makes friends fall out, and turns the suggestion 'let's just agree to disagree' into wishful thinking?

Logical Levels

Our beliefs and values are core to who we are. This view has been formalised by Robert Dilts, who was one of the early developers of NLP1 along with Richard Bandler and John Grinder. Dilts developed a model of human behaviour he calls 'logical levels'.

In this particular model, we are each of us in the middle of our own world. In one direction the self reaches out towards the Family, then Community, and then the World. In the other direction, the self reaches out through Identity, Values and Beliefs, Capabilities and Skills, Behaviour, and the Environment.




Values and Beliefs
Capabilities and Skills

We can test this model by considering how personally someone will take a challenge, and how pleased they will be by a compliment, depending on which level the remark is directed at:

'Messy offices you have here' is not particularly challenging; and equally a compliment along the lines of 'you live in a nice town' is merely social chit-chat. These operate on the Environmental level.
'I get upset by the way you contradict me in front of my boss' is more likely to provoke a response; and 'I like the way you always take time to find out how the client is doing' is a nicer compliment. These operate on the Behaviourial level.
'You really should not do marketing presentations, you do it very badly' is getting much more personal; as is 'We need you to write up this paper, you are the only member of the team who can put our case across so we will win.' These operate on the Capabilities and Skills level.
'What you are saying is completely immoral, and fundamentally flawed because...' cuts even nearer to the bone; and 'I completely agree with you when you say that this is the way to maintain ethical integrity' is a much more powerful endorsement than any of the others. These operate on the level of Values and Beliefs.
'You are a stupid and illiterate fool, a complete idiot' is how the most aggressive insults are structured; and the most powerful compliments are along the lines of 'you are a complete star' or 'you are a wonderful human being, beautiful in mind, body and soul.' These reach to us so deeply because they operate on the level of Self.

The Model in Practice

This way of examining how we look at the world is useful because it enables us to make our praise, and indeed our criticism, far more effective by selecting the level we aim it at. Interestingly, John Grey2 points out that men respond best to compliments at the Capabilities and Skills level: '...you make me feel like a natural woman'3 while women respond better to compliments at the Identity level: '...you were wonderful tonight'4.

It is also useful, because it gives us a framework to assess when we may suddenly and inadvertently be treading on dangerous ground. If religion to me is a few fancy buildings in my local environment or just a pattern of habitual behaviour at the weekends, while your faith is the core of who you are, then my flippant remark will be your blasphemy. This was exactly what happened to Salman Rushdie when Iran laid a fatwa on him for blasphemy in his book The Satanic Verses. The western liberal reaction was not only horror, it was also confusion. They simply could not see why the Iranians were so deeply offended. But the two groups were operating on different levels - it is no wonder they could not communicate effectively.

We are having to deal with exactly the same issue on a geopolitical scale, and it is interesting, (and terrifying), to note that fundamentalism in the Middle East is now being matched by rising fundamentalism in the West. It is arguable that the attacks of 11 September, 2001, were intended to bring about this switch of logical levels within the West, from dealing with the Middle East on the levels shown as World or Environmental in the diagram, to dealing with it at the Values/Beliefs or even the Identity level of American patriotism.

It is worth noting explicitly, since this is a project on belief, that religion can sit more or less anywhere within this model, from Environment through to Self, but how the person experiences religion, and the amount of influence it has over the person's life, will depend on which level within the model the religion is held.


Like all models of the world, Dilts' model is only one way of looking at a small sub-set of reality. It is however a useful way of understanding why people sometimes appear to overreact to innocent remarks, why others will happily die for their country and why some negotiations stall with no effective communication being made.

But why should we react in these ways? Our behaviour has been largely determined by our evolution, but our development of faith has developed alongside this, as is shown by our next entry, The Evolutionary Advantages of Faith.

1Neuro Linguistic Programming, which is (among many other things) the study of the structures and processes of thinking.2Author of Mars and Venus3Carole King4Eric Clapton

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