Why Do You Believe What You Believe?

To believe has been defined as “to accept as true, genuine, or real.” The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines every person’s “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” This right includes the freedom “to change his religion or belief” if he wants to do so.

WHY, though, would anyone want to change his religion or belief? “I have my own beliefs, and I am happy with them,” is the commonly expressed view. Many feel that even mistaken beliefs cause little harm to anyone. Someone who believes that the earth is flat, for example, is not likely to hurt himself or anyone else. “We should just agree to differ,” some say. Is that always wise? Would a doctor simply agree to differ if one of his colleagues continued to believe he could go straight from handling dead bodies in a morgue to examining sick patients in a hospital ward?

When it comes to religion, mistaken beliefs have historically caused great harm. Think of the horrors that resulted when religious leaders “inspired Christian zealots to pitiless violence” during the so-called Holy Crusades of the Middle Ages. Or think of the modern-day “Christian” gunmen in a recent civil war who, “just like medieval warriors who had saints’ names on their sword hilts, taped pictures of the Virgin to their rifle butts.” All these zealots believed that they were right. Yet, obviously in these and other religious struggles and fights, something was terribly wrong.

Why is there so much confusion and conflict? The Bible’s answer is that Satan the Devil is “misleading the entire inhabited earth.” (Revelation 12:9; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 11:3) The apostle Paul warned that many religious people would, sadly, be “doomed to perish” because they would be deceived by Satan, who would “produce miracles and wonders calculated to deceive.” Such ones,  said Paul, would “shut their minds to the love of truth which could have saved them” and would thus be ‘deluded into believing what is a lie.’ (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12, The New Testament, by William Barclay) How can you minimize the possibility of believing a lie? Why, in fact, do you believe the way you do?

Brought Up to Believe It?

Perhaps you have been brought up in the beliefs of your family. That may well be a good thing. God wants parents to teach their children. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:18-21) The young man Timothy, for example, benefited greatly from listening to his mother and grandmother. (2 Timothy 1:5; 3:14, 15) The Scriptures encourage respect for what parents believe. (Proverbs 1:8; Ephesians 6:1) But did your Creator mean for you to believe things simply because your parents believe them? Unthinking adherence to what previous generations believed and did can, in fact, be dangerous.​—Psalm 78:8; Amos 2:4.

A Samaritan woman who met Jesus Christ had been brought up to believe in her Samaritan religion. (John 4:20) Jesus respected her freedom to choose what she wanted to believe, but he also pointed out to her: “You worship what you do not know.” Many of her religious beliefs were, in fact, mistaken, and he told her that she would have to make changes in her beliefs if she was going to worship God acceptably​—“with spirit and truth.” Rather than cling to what were no doubt cherished beliefs, she and others like her would, in time, have to become “obedient to the faith” revealed through Jesus Christ.​—John 4:21-24, 39-41; Acts 6:7.

Educated to Believe It?

Many teachers and authorities in specialized fields of knowledge deserve great respect. Yet, history is littered with examples of renowned teachers who were absolutely wrong. For example, regarding two books on scientific matters written by Greek philosopher Aristotle, historian Bertrand Russell stated that “hardly a sentence in either can be accepted in the light of modern science.” Even modern-day authorities often get things drastically wrong. “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible,” was the confident assertion of British scientist Lord Kelvin in 1895. A wise person, therefore, does not blindly believe that something is true simply because some authoritative teacher says it is.​—Psalm 146:3.

The same caution is needed when it comes to religious education. The apostle Paul was well-educated by his religious teachers and was extremely “zealous for the traditions of [his] fathers.” His zeal for the traditional beliefs of his ancestors, however, actually created problems for him. It led to his “persecuting the congregation of God and devastating it.” (Galatians 1:13, 14; John 16:2, 3) Worse still, for a long time, Paul kept “kicking against the goads,” resisting the influences that should have led him to believe in Jesus Christ. It required a dramatic intervention by Jesus himself to move Paul to adjust his beliefs.​—Acts 9:1-6; 26:14.

Influenced by the Media?

Maybe the media have greatly influenced your beliefs. Most people are glad that there is freedom of speech in the media, giving them access to information that can be useful. However, there are powerful forces that can and frequently do manipulate the media. What is often presented is biased information that can insidiously affect your thinking.

In addition, to appeal to or to attract a larger audience, the media tend to give  publicity to what is sensational and unconventional. What could hardly be said or printed for public consumption just a few years ago has become commonplace today. Slowly but surely, established standards of behavior are attacked and whittled away. People’s thinking is gradually becoming distorted. They begin to believe that “good is bad and bad is good.”​—Isaiah 5:20; 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10.

Finding a Sound Basis for Belief

Building on the ideas and philosophies of men is like building on sand. (Matthew 7:26; 1 Corinthians 1:19, 20) On what, then, can you confidently base your beliefs? Since God has given you intellectual capacity to investigate the world around you and to ask questions concerning spiritual matters, does it not make sense that he would also provide the means to get accurate answers to your questions? (1 John 5:20) Yes, of course he would! How, though, can you establish what is true, genuine, or real in matters of worship? We have no hesitation in saying that God’s Word, the Bible, provides the only basis for doing this.​—John 17:17; 2 Timothy 3:16, 17.

“But wait,” someone will say, “is it not the very ones who have the Bible who have caused the most conflict and confusion in world affairs?” Well, it is true that religious leaders who claim to follow the Bible have produced many confusing and conflicting ideas. This is because they have not, in fact, based their beliefs on the Bible. The apostle Peter describes them as “false prophets” and “false teachers” who would create “destructive sects.” As a consequence of their activities, says Peter, “the way of the truth will be spoken of abusively.” (2 Peter 2:1, 2) Still, writes Peter, “we have the prophetic word made more sure; and you are doing well in paying attention to it as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”​—2 Peter 1:19; Psalm 119:105.

The Bible encourages us to check our beliefs against what it teaches. (1 John 4:1) Millions of readers of this magazine can testify that doing so has added purpose and stability to their lives. So be like the noble-minded Beroeans. ‘Carefully examine the Scriptures daily’ before you decide what to believe. (Acts 17:11) Jehovah’s Witnesses will be happy to help you to do this. Of course, it is your decision as to what you want to believe. However, it is the course of wisdom to make sure that your beliefs are shaped, not by human wisdom and desires, but, rather, by God’s revealed Word of truth.​—1 Thessalonians 2:13; 5:21.

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You can with confidence base your beliefs on the Bible