Prior convictions and the end of ideology

When our beliefs become their most rigid

Posted Nov 07, 2009

People get set in their ways as the years pass by. When we get older, we settle into routines, our beliefs crystallize, and we adhere more strongly to our ideological worldview (our personal set of beliefs and values). When we're young, by contrast, we need to be open to possibilities. A great deal of flexibility is necessary, for example, if we're to learn a first language and adapt to a million other things in our environment.

But flexibility becomes less important once we develop a stable understanding of the world. We then have years to build up justifications for our beliefs; we fill our lives with spouses and friends and role models who share and validate our worldview; and our beliefs eventually become a major source of psychological stability for us. Hence, our beliefs get reinforced and solidified throughout our lives.

This developmental sequence has always struck me as wrong. Rather, it seems like the opposite is true: that our ideologies are actually more rigid when we're younger. Indeed, it's our earliest years that instill our most fundamental convictions: whether life is fair or unfair, whether other people are trustworthy or treacherous, whether the world is safe or dangerous, and whether things like destiny, true love, and God exist. We don't normally think of these perceptions as ideological, but they're certainly the basis for all ideologies that follow.

Our first realizations that the world doesn't work the way we expect it to can elicit powerful resistance. This resistance, for example, is often the basis for large-scale societal changes, spearheaded by young adults who refuse to accept a world that doesn't conform to the way they think it should. In fact, seeing young people behave so stubbornly is often endearing because their certainty and passion appear to be genuine.

However, our ideologies tend to soften in adulthood, the more our assumptions clash with our experiences. Childhood myths, which serve important protective functions when we're younger, become difficult to maintain when we're no longer sheltered from many of life's contradictions and complexities. For this reason, seeing older people behave stubbornly can be exasperating because we think they should know better.

When adults do express their views with absolute confidence, their goals seem to be more instrumental (e.g., to reassure others, to influence others). Consider politicians and protestors who defend their positions, lawyers who argue their case, or parents who warn their children about the dangers of drugs. Do their words usually correspond to what they really believe?

There's an unforgettable scene in Don DeLillo's novel White Noise, in which the main character, Jack Gladney, seeks refuge in a church after sustaining an injury. One of the elder nuns tends to his wound, and they begin to talk. Jack, who is agnostic, asks her about the church's current view of heaven. To his shock, the nun tells him that she doesn't believe in heaven - nor in angels, saints, or even in God. Nor, she reveals, does anyone else in the clergy.

"But you're a nun. Nuns believe these things," he protests. "Faith, religion, life everlasting...Are you saying you don't take them seriously? Your dedication is a pretense?"

"Our pretense is a dedication," she explains. "Someone must appear to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we professed real faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe...Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us."

Stunned, Jack questions her further, but we soon realize that she's being completely serious.

Now this isn't to say that everybody's convictions are destined to fade away. Many of them don't.

It's just easier to be confident in your assumptions when they haven't yet been put to the test. This is what makes the ideology of youth, our first ideology, the most enduring one.

(This post was co-authored by Josh Foster.)