Chapter 5: Belief as Memory

When I was four years old, I helped my grandma do some housecleaning. She asked me to plug in her old, Electrolux canister vacuum. I had seen her plug it in before, and was happy to prove to her I could do it myself, without her help. So, I grabbed the plug and shoved it into the socket.

Blam! I was on my butt crying before I could even imagine what hit me. Grandma, comforting, asked “What happened?”  I showed her how I held the plug with the tip of my thumb and index finger in contact with the metal prongs.

“Oh dear. Don’t hold the metal,” she said, “only hold the rubber. That’s _MG_3415the safe way to plug something in.” I’ve remembered that for 45 more years, and have never repeated my mistake. One painful memory keeps me strongly believing in the “correct” way to handle an electrical plug. One memory. One experience drives a lifetime of behavior.

One morning when Tariq was four years old, he played outside his home, kicking a battered, makeshift soccer ball against the wall of his house in the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan. His mother swept the dirt floor inside. His grandfather spun tales with other village elders, in the shade of a 400 year old olive tree across the dirt road. Tariq drove a hard shot on his imaginary goal, and the ball caromed back, past him. He ran to chase it down across the street.

BLAM! Tariq was knocked to his stomach, face in the dirt, ears ringing, back stinging, before he could even imagine what had happened. He opened his eyes to see the feet of village men running past him. He lifted his head and looked to where they were headed, toward his house, toward his mother, toward a smoking pile of rubble.

In the hours that followed, his grandfather held him close, repeating over and over something to the effect of “Those fucking infidels. Those fucking American kafir!” Tariq’s house and mother were gone, and he knew who to blame. The shrapnel scar on his leg would remind him forever. One memory. One experience driving a lifetime of action.

Beliefs are nothing more than memories that guide our action. A combination of personal experience and wise advice of elders, in these cases. I had one small electrical shock burned into my memory and it informed my actions for the rest of my life. I wonder what Tariq will believe at age 49?

Surely EVERYTHING we believe is not memory of some traumatic event?

Of course not. But every belief is a memory of some experience; if not directly experienced, then observed. If not observed, then relayed through hearsay. If not relayed through hearsay, then repeated and indoctrinated through custom and culture. Some memories are thrust upon us against our will; others we seek out to inform us and help us get where we want to be, like say in a girl’s pants.

Freddy is 17 years old, shy and awkward around girls. He feels his erection every time he passes a cute girl at school. How should Freddy approach a woman, if he’s never been with one? His parents have never told him about sex, and his Church shames him into considering all things sexual are sinful outside of marriage? He watches pornography on the internet, and masturbates. He hears his friends talking about their purported conquests, or about “what the bitches like.” These experiences may be his only source of memory, of BELIEF, on how to engage sexually. What will Freddy do when finally, inevitably, push comes to thrust?

When it is time to act, we call on our memories to tell us what to do. We rarely allow ourselves to rely on pure instinct, though instinct and reflex are deeply embedded forms of memory, too. They are the memories of what worked to assure survival in our ancestors, passed on to us in genetic code and developmental history. In light of modern genetics, we are clearly not a “tabula rasa.” Choosing to abandon or fight instinct is quite a challenge.

Given the available resources, Freddy is likely to choose to repeat something he’s seen a dozen-dozen times in videos, blended with what he instinctually feels. Freddy’s girlfriend perhaps will do the same, wondering why she doesn’t enjoy having her hair pulled while Freddy forces himself inside her, shouting “Take it, bitch!” The girls in the video seemed to enjoy it so much.

Porn is implanted, indirect memory of observed experiences.

Can memory, viewed as “belief guiding action,” get any more removed from actual experience than porn? Absolutely. There’s something better than porn. You see, even though Freddy might not have sex with women every day, he does walk past them. He attends classes with them and talks to them. There is something tangible, testable about that. Girls are real. What memories do we have that are not based in experience, nor encoded in our genes? Cultural hand-me-downs.

Liam is told every day to kneel and say his prayers, because God loves him so much, and as mum says, “For God’s sake can’t you show a little love back?” When something good happens to Liam, his mother says, “Praise Jesus. God is Good!” When something bad happens to Liam, Father Fitzpatrick tells him God has a plan, and though he may not understand it right now, Liam should know that an all loving God is watching out for him and someday the plan will make sense. These are memories of God, implanted one by one, with nary a single actual, direct experience of “Him.” Oh, we’re told to associate experiences to “Him.” That warm sensation you had? Surely it is love of God, burning in your bosom, and not remnants of a burrito, or some chronic health problem. Each time an association is made, another memory is implanted.

Liam’s sister tells him, “I prayed all last week and today we got word that Grandma’s coming out of the hospital! God is great. This is a miracle.” Liam has a hearsay memory implanted about the power of prayer, and yet another indirect “memory” of God doing good things.

Sister Benedict tells Liam he is so fortunate to be born into the faith of the one, true God. He is guaranteed a place in heaven, she tells him, that heathens in foreign lands, unexposed to the Gospel of Jesus shall never have a chance to experience unless they come to Our Lord and Savior and accept him as God.

At soccer Liam plays goalie. A speedy opponent baffles the backfield defense, and before he knows what has happened, BLAM! A rifle shot is headed his way off the foot of the lithe, black-haired boy. Liam dives on instinct… instinct drilled into him over hundreds of hours of repetition; instinct born of memory of practice, muscle memory: a belief that diving will get him to the ball, because it has worked in practice. He deflects the shot at the last possible second, wide right.

Liam rolls, springs to his feet, while looking skyward. He touches his St. Christopher medal and blesses himself with the sign of the cross as he has been taught to do, hundreds of times before, because God is good, and all praise goes to God even on the soccer pitch. He looks at the shooter and trash talks, “God’s on my side, ya feckin’ Paki!”

Tariq cannot believe these worthless kafir are so stupid and bigoted that they can’t tell the difference between a Pakistani and an Afghan. “I’ll be back again, Inshallah! And you’re going to take it then, bitch!”

And so they both go on acting on the implanted, unfalsifiable memories given them by teachers and culture, and religion.

Inevitably, push will come to shove and Liam or Tariq will be asked to choose: Us or them? For us or ag’in us? Moments arise in every one of our lives, forcing us to face situations never previously experienced. All we have to go on are the indoctrinated, pornographic memories planted in us over decades.   What should I do, in this situation that appears to ask me to go against my faith? Given no actual experience, I guess I’ll do what I’ve been taught is the best path forward. Turn off my mind. Act on faith. Trust in God’s plan for me… and the dictates of holy men who somehow have pipelines to God and can tell me what God’s will is for me when I can’t do so for myself.

Some memories are demonstrably false, refuted through clear evidence, and perhaps easily abandoned in favor of more true and consistent experience. Others never face the test, and even when they do the choice to abandon a specific memory/belief is difficult because it has somehow become a part me and my very identity. Choosing the opposite of what you have been taught is a bold move. Do you have time or desire to rebuild the foundations, once certain keystone memories have disintegrated, exposed for what they are (Implanted indoctrination designed to guide you to a specific, tribal action: stay with your people.)

We need to be able to challenge our memories, and when required, abandon them. A single bad experience with electricity must not lead me to avoiding it in all forms the rest of my life. That’s the easy one. How do we challenge and abandon beliefs woven much more deeply into our psyche by decades of indoctrination and/or genetic memory?

We can do it. Even though our eyes tell us to see certain things, we have figured out how to identify optical illusions and not believe them as true. But because the illusion is so deeply hard-wired into us, we have to teach each generation how to disbelieve this and other deeply held convictions, or face the consequences of being manipulated by them like our ancestors.

Only one thing can change a belief, once implanted as a memory. Dissonance. Contrary experience. What can possibly serve as counter evidence to an unproven, unexperienceable memory of God or the afterlife? The choice to challenge or abandon those memories becomes painfully binary. All in, or all out.

Alternatively, we could do the teaching work of preventing false, unjustified, unsupported, untestable memories from being implanted in the first place. It is a different form of indoctrination, but one less pornographic in its explanations of things unseen and unexperienced.

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