“Belief and disbelief are utterly distinct from and unconnected with volition. They are the apprehension of the agreement or disagreement of the ideas which compose any proposition. Belief is an involuntary operation of the mind, and like other passions, its intensity is precisely proportionate to the degrees of excitement.” So wrote Percy Shelley in his early prose piece entitled A Letter to Lord Ellenborough, a remarkably eloquent statement from the pen of an eighteen year old boy. And while this passage is a very small part of a fairly long text that deals with the persecution of deists in England, I quote it here because I find it at once interesting and a little scary. I find it daunting because it seems true but its truth has problematic implications for politics. This is because belief doesn’t just form the foundation of religion but people’s politics also seem to be founded on some basic beliefs about what can or should be, what the goals of society should entail etc, etc. We have all experienced this firsthand. Someone has a particularly noxious political belief which they attempt to justify with an elaborate rational discourse which is really just a sophistic defense of some core beliefs. I have argued so many times with people about politics only to find, after a long process, that they have some outrageous belief about people that is not based on any rational discourse but is just a frightening bigotry. (I recently saw this in action when someone was speaking with utter derision of the Tamil protestors that were on Parliament Hill here in Ottawa for nearly a week – disrupting traffic and trying to gain attention for their cause. Instead of addressing the important issues that the Tamil’s were attempting to raise about the bigotry and brutality that the Tamil people have suffered, this person just waved them off as ‘stupid trouble makers.’ ) This is, for me, particularly disturbing in right-wing ideology which is so often rooted in an underlying belief that certain people are simply more worthy of prosperity and power than others. In action we can see this in their continual and nauseating attack on the most vulnerable people in society. This is not to imply that the political positions of left-winger’s are not rooted in certain beliefs; they are indeed. However, I simply find the beliefs of the left, for the most part, more attractive and beneficial than others. They are, I think, rooted in compassion, equity, and a society that not only the strong or connected enjoy prosperity.
Yet, all of this still leaves us with a difficult quandary; how do we engage in political struggle when at the heart of these struggles are beliefs which are not necessarily subject to rational discourse?