The Grip of Belief

 by Terry Walstrom

In Physics class the Professor gathers his students together on the first day of school in the gymnasium for a stunning demonstration in what he terms "absolute certainty."

The class is naturally intrigued, curious and eager to observe.

From the metal joist supports in the gym ceiling a cable is hanging all the way to eye-level in the center of the space; like a fireman's pole. But, at the end of this cable is a 100lb metal wrecking ball! What is this all about?

The Professor begins his demonstration.

"In science there are things we are so certain of we call them LAWS. They are beyond refutation. Scientists depend on them and you should too. For example..." the Professor walks over to the wrecking ball and continues talking...

"Sir Isaac Newton discovered the principle that to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is called a LAW of MOTION."  The Professor gazes around at the students who are still anticipating something extraordinary to come.

"There is also a Law of Conservation of Energy. All it means is that you never get more out of a system than you put into it. In other words, there is no free ride!"

Then with a sly smile he concludes: "Who believes what I said is true?"

All hands go up easily. The Professor smiles.

"How many of you are ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN?"

Nobody hesitates; all hands stay up.

"Very well, let me test your convictions about certainty and belief. I need a volunteer."

An athletic jock-type student ambles forward with a mock macho swagger.

"Okay, here is what I'm going to do. I'm going to have you step 10 feet back away from this 100lb wrecking ball."  The student complies to the sniggering and smart aleck comments of his class mates.

"Now, I'm going to push this ball forward until it is one inch from your nose." The Professor grabs the ball and pushes slowly as he walks toward the student until the ball almost touches his face.

"I am going to let go of this wrecking ball and it is going to swing backward all the way to the other side about 10 feet and pause and move forward again BACK TOWARD YOUR FACE."

The jock shakes his head like he's just heard really unbelievably bad news. The students grow loud and agitated.

"Since you believe that the Law of Conservation will not allow this ball to come any closer than it is now, you cannot possibly have your head smashed to a bloody pulp by the impact. For that would mean more energy somehow crept into the system; which science tells us is impossible."

 Immediately the volunteer vanishes back into the crowd who "boo's" him unmercifully.

"Anybody else want to show their faith in science?"  Several candidates are unwillingly offered by the crowd but each one shakes loose and declines in protest.

"Very well then. I myself will demonstrate Absolute Certainty." And with that the Professor holds the ball in front of his nose and lets go.

The ball arcs directly away from him in a ponderously slow heave across the gym and pauses 20 feet away. With the sure swiftness of a freight train it hurls ominously forward on a dead ahead path toward the Professor's fragile skull! At the last possible millisecond the ball pauses at maximum arc a little more than an inch from his outstretched nose and swings ever back again!

There was dead silence, groans, screams and then a cheer as the dramatic demonstration came to a close. Thunderous applause ensued as the students hailed the extreme bravery of their Professor.

"Why are you cheering? It was impossible that I could be hurt. I knew that but you didn't know it. Why? Because my Absolute Certainty trumps your so-called "belief." You said you believed the Laws of Conservation but, you only had a weak shadow of it in your mind. You were actually shocked and amazed when I wasn't fractured into bits!"

"Until you recognize the difference between "thinking" something is true and absolutely "believing" it--you haven't learned today's lesson at all."

      I was one of the students in that demonstration all those years ago. I considered it an amazing demonstration at the time. I still do. And yet, one day I would display the same Absolute Certainty of Belief that would put me seemingly in harm's way that the Professor displayed all those years past.  But, it had nothing to do with science or any Law of motion.


Humans, and other living creatures, must survive by taking the best possible action that ensures continued life. In short, actions produce results; but, they have to be the best possible actions to produce the best possible results.

 How do animals (or humans) learn? Cause and effect make a huge impression on the brain. In effect: IF I do THIS, then (I observe) THAT happens. RITUAL behavior is born.

 In certain primitive societies it is believed that dancing brings rain. This belief stems from the fact somebody (long, long ago) was dancing when rain broke out. The next time there was a drought, dancing was begun. If no rain came it did NOT disprove the belief. No, it Reinforced it! How? The dance was continued (as long as it took) until the rain came and the ritual was proved to be true!  Ritual trumped reality!

   Today in laboratories, mice and pigeons are trained to perform certain ritual behaviors and then given a reward of food when the ritual is completed. But, notice this! If the reward is DIScontinued... the ritual behavior continues and even INCREASES!  This research scientists call Superstition.  The mouse or pigeon superstitiously continues a worthless behavior because the conditioning won't go away; behavior continues long after the disproof of its worth!

 Among human beings the same course is often observed. A man will win a bowling tournament wearing a certain shirt and immediately the shirt becomes part of a superstitious belief system; a ritual. The shirt is now his "lucky" shirt.  He won't bowl without it!

 The brain is conditioned so easily mainly because a ritual behavior that produces food seldom does any harm. It costs only time and little energy. In short: the "possibility" of reward outweighs the loss of time and energy in performing a superstitious ritual.

 In human children there is a strong tendency toward "nominal realism." That is just a fancy term that describes what happens when children learn the names of objects. The child can become convinced that objects and names are the same thing. In other words, the object and the name are confused with the resulting expectation that names can affect objects. This leads to magic thinking. A magic word can physically transform things or events! A "lucky" charm_actually_influences events. So too with the utterance of the name of a deity spoken in prayer. All infantile beliefs!

   A rough example of this would be confusing a Map with the territory it describes.  Who would do this? Dowsers!  Dowsers dangle a pendulum over a map with the belief the pointer "knows" where the water is!  This infantile confusion is what "nominal realism" is all about.

 The tendency to collect vast numbers of behavioral rituals and false beliefs in social groups is well documented historically.  Members of a group take turns, as it were, pressuring and being pressured by the group.  One risks social ostracism by displaying skeptical behavior. Survival depends on acceptance by a social group; consequently, the tendency to discard skeptical thoughts is strong.

 A confident person is more likely to take positive action than an indecisive one. Consequently, any ritual that produces confidence and reduces anxiety and uncertainty reinforces itself as a positive activity!  A rabbit's foot or other "protective" object (or belief) reduces anxiety because it causes the believer to act AS THOUGH they were protected. Confident is as confident does.

 Professor Gustav Jahoda in his "Psychology of Superstition" (London 1969) observes:

"for a living being lacking insight into the relation between causes and effects it must be extremely useful to cling to a behaviour pattern which has once or many times proved to achieve its aim, and to have done so without danger."



It is very important for us to be able to use whatever information we have in a constructive, productive and predictive way. When we do this successfully we are said to be "rational."  But, often people are haphazard and inconsistent and develop bad habits of irrational behavior which is far more common than we might suppose.

Stuart Sutherland; THE ENEMY WITHIN (Penguin 1994) :

Sutherland discusses obedience to authority, conformity, group behaviour, misplaced consistency, rewards and punishments, drive and emotion, and the handling of evidence. He notes that people tend to seek confirmation of their hypotheses, whereas they should be trying to disconfirm them. Here he is expressing Karl Popper's view of the logic of science: "although it is impossible ever to prove a rule with certainty, a single discrepant observation refutes it."

The tendency to want to prove we ARE RIGHT outweighs the far better strategy of trying to refute our own dearly held beliefs.

Further, statistical analysis of the accuracy of "intuitive" or "gut" feeling predictions show them to be wrong 85% of the time!  Yet, the majority of people continue to place far more TRUST in these methods than in rational analysis.

Observation tests made of "eyewitness testimony" reveal how often wrong it is. Studies have determined that people do not recall events witnessed as "raw" data memories. Instead, these recollections are colored by what their beliefs, expectations and world view tells them the events "should be."   Two people with differing belief systems recall identically observed events with contradictory testimony about those observed events!

From this we can determine how seldom RATIONAL humans are and how often they proceed IRRATIONALLY.

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With the above observations in mind we might turn our attention to the efficacy of belief in religious "truths."

1. Religion is often presented to us when we are young and intellectually unable to be skeptical. We trust what we are told and our world view is permanently colored.

2. We expect our belief system of religion to be absolutely true since it comes from an inerrant God. Consequently, we constantly find ways of proving it is true. Conversely, we ignore every evidence contrary to our expectation.

3. Religion carries with it many rituals. Ritual behaviors relieve our tensions and depressions in carrying the notion of "effective action" and getting positive results.

4. Prayer and Faith cannot be subject to disproof. We continue praying until we get some "signal" that our prayer is answered. If something bad happens it becomes a case of not displaying "enough faith." 

5. Religous beliefs are reinforced by the social pressures of the group we belong to. Many groups are completely exclusive. Thus, all possibility of disproof is unavailable for observation.

6. The confidence, absolute certainty, positive attitude and determination that comes from believing your are RIGHT propel the "faithful" person into confident behavioral demonstrations. The faithful convinces himself and others as a result.

7. A True Believer has their ego and their future completely tied up in a package deal that must be reinforced and strengthened constantly to remain effective.  As a consequence ever more active participation must be engaged in or the real world intrudes and extreme depression results.

ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY is often demonstrated by the true believer in the form of putting their life and their fortune in peril. Only in this way can the believer continue to feed themselves on the "reality" of their superstitious world view.

Is it any wonder that Jehovah's Governing Body constantly plays the trump card of brinksmanship in predicting world events that can instantly disconfirm their very belief system?  They dare themselves and their fellow believers and even God himself to refute the certainty by demonstrating it is all a fantasy tissue of lies. Absolute confidence!

This seemingly reckless course of action is the only sort of self-proof a true believer can permit themselves to experience.  When the events predicted do not occur what happens?  NOTHING!  It is a spur to invest even more faith into the ritual behavior. The rain dance continues as it must.  Eventually, the dancers believe, the rain will come and wash away any who doubt the absolute certainty they display.

Religious belief and the laws of science have one thing in common. Those who truly have convinced themselves will not budge as the wrecking ball comes hurtling toward their face!  They both will stand firm to the eventful moment of truth.

Such is the nature of belief.

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When I was an active Jehovah's Witness who was willing to suffer imprisonment rather than violate my "Christian neutrality" I was placing myself in a test situation.  I recall the combination of fear and confidence that seemed ever-present inside. I knew what behavior was expected of me by the group; after all, the Bible was filled with examples of the faithful who let themselves be incarcerated.  I knew my personal approval depended on my demonstration of willingness to comply with the rules of the group. But, the most peculiar aspect of my own behavior was the emotional exhilaration of plunging into dangerous belief!

I can only compare it to driving full speed in your automobile with your eyes closed! The sensation of feeling a "high" was exuberantly present and pervasive. Perhaps it can be compared to skydiving. The skydiver has faith their parachute will open and consequently leaps out of an airplane and plunges headlong toward destruction below. All this is done for the absolute thrill of sensation and the rush of endorphins. Flirtation with death and taking control of one's mortality brings a tidal wave of ecstatic emotion!  After such a leap the skydiver often reports they "have never felt more alive!"

So too with heading into prison amongst murderers, molesters and hoodlums--the fear and the absolute certainty of rightness co-mingled like the most powerful drug a human could take. I was on a "high" for two years!

But, no high ever lasts because the human mind and the human body are mortal and subject to the forces of reality. What goes up MUST come down! The inertia of everyday living has a braking effect on fantasy life and self delusion. The Real World has power too!

The bargain a True Believer makes with their belief system is the bargain of a drug addicted person. Unless more and greater stimulation is available the destructive evidence of reality wipes away the high. The personal cost of the high is so vast no one can afford it without stealing from everyone around you; your family, friends and society.

For the Jehovah's Witness the ruin is always at the door. The ability to balance the full-time demands of being a husband or wife, being a father or mother, being a provider or homemaker and, yet, plunging headlong into the demands of the Kingdom Hall and the governing body is overwhelming at last!  Something has to give!

The result of magic-thinking, superstition, ritual behavior, and absolute certainty is a toll of human misery evidenced by the tens of thousands of ex-Jehovah's Witnesses whose lives were torn apart by their eccentric devotions. "Enough" is never enough and the Watchtower Society chews them up and spits them out with alarming regularity. Human lives are the fuel for the monstrous machine of propaganda; the publishing empire of Brooklyn's cosmocratic governing body!

The rituals of door to door ministry, books studies, Kingdom Hall attendance, "happy talk" and avoidance of "worldly" normality can only reinforce the spell of behavioral superstition until a crisis intervenes in the life of a JW.  Financial problems, illness, accidents, legal problems, or sexual abuse switch off the flow of imagined goodwill from the body of the hypnotised drones and turn their brotherly love into mere nothingness.

If you have a personal problem the support vanishes! Why? Because there are no "individuals" allowed in Jehovah's service. The group is the living machine that carries the message forward to bring in more and more fuel for the Kingdom work. Anybody who falters or stops the flow must be expunged. They must heal themselves are be put to "death." The fact that this "death" is an attitude of being treated "as though dead" does not lessen the destructive impact on the damaged believer at a time when they are least able to withstand the blow.

The stories of the wrecked lives of former Witnesses should be ample evidence what the illusion of absolute belief produces when the illusion itself is shattered by reality.

I urge every active Witness, every friend or family member whose loved one is a Jehovah's Witness to read these stories and consider them cautionary tales of extreme warning!

The moral of the story is: JUST SAY NO! to the drug of absolute certainty. The costs are the real "high."


Terry Walstrom

 Terry's Story

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