Can We Understand Different Belief Systems?


I have been pondering a question today and I wanted to put it out to all of you: Can you truly understand someone who doesn’t believe what you believe if you’ve never shared that belief? Can you even if you have shared that belief?

I ask this because of the difference between empathy and sympathy. If, say, someone loses a parent, and you have also lost a parent, you can empathize with them. You’ve gone through what they’re going through. You have a common understanding as a result. But if you’ve never lost a parent you can’t empathize with them. You can sympathize, but you can’t empathize. Sympathy is to feel bad for them or their situation, or you can offer some level of emotional support. So, if you can sympathize, if you know that what happened is bad but you’ve never dealt with it, can you truly understand what the person is going though? Can sympathy create understanding?

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30 responses to “Can We Understand Different Belief Systems?

  • UHHS

    This is a very interesting question and I don’t know if it has a clear answer. I think it depends on a lot of things, like how open minded the person is and how good they are at sympathizing. There are some beliefs I will never believe and never have but I can imagine a world in which I did and can understand why someone would. There are other beliefs that as much as I try I can not wrap my head around yet. I think people have the capability to understand any belief if they can just think about it the right way because people generally have the same underlying emotions and drives.

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  • Dawn

    One of the most interesting things I have come to believe about human emotions is that, at their core, they are fundamentally the same for everybody. The things that make me angry might not be the same things that make you angry but I would be willing to wager that anger feels the same way to us both. That is why I can empathize with your anger even if I would not get angry if the same thing happened to me.

    So I think that it should be possible for people of different beliefs, whether they are theists or atheists, to empathize with each other if they are at all familiar with the fundamental irrationality known as faith. If you have ever had pure faith in anything at all, then you should be able to understand other people’s faith, whether those other people are Christians, the Jews or the Muslims — or Buddhists or atheists or even Republicans.

    The issue, it seems to me, is not whether people are able to empathize and understand but whether or not they want to. I suspect that most of them don’t. I also suspect that people have a stronger impulse toward conformity than they would care to admit.

    I am not an atheist and I am not a Christian (or a Jew or a Muslim, for that matter). I probably don’t believe the same thing you do about spirituality and that doesn’t bother me in the least. I feel no desire to convert you or anybody else to my beliefs. I don’t care who or what you worship or whether you worship nothing at all; I don’t consider that to be any of my business. Many others, even those who would not be labeled as extremists, are not comfortable with that kind of detachment. I suspect that degree of tolerance about other people’s belief systems would require them to admit to themselves that they might be wrong, and most of them don’t seem to be able to handle that.

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  • eurobrat

    That is a very interesting question. I have wondered this myself, especially as I’ve observed relations between liberals and conservatives lately, and how polarized things have become. Does anyone even make the attempt to understand where the other side is coming from anymore? I think it would be possible for me to understand someone with political/religious beliefs I’ve never shared–but what would make it possible is that the passion and the motivations which cause me to hold fast to certain beliefs is similar to the passion and the motivations of the people on the other side, only expressed in different form. So there would still be something we had in common there…something that makes me go “Ah, I know what it’s like to be as fervent about my beliefs as this person is.”

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  • lukelarner

    I reckon it’s almost impossible. Each person’s belief system is based on a mixture of their axiomatic presuppositions and life experiences so without sharing both of those things it’s probably not possible. That’s no excuse not to try though!

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  • charles

    When I was a Christian, I could not understand the view of an atheist. It felt like a physical impossibility to consider the idea that there is no God. One day, what felt like a switch in my brain labeled “faith” turned off. All of a sudden, I could begin to understand. Until I was actually open to all possibilities, I was unable to understand certain viewpoints.

    I suspect now that I am less able to understand the viewpoint of a Christian. All I have is a memory of what it was like to be one. Right now, that memory is recent. Over time, I’m guessing it will fade. We all have biases. All we can do is admit them, and try to overcome them by continually interacting with others, including those we disagree with.

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  • cheekos

    Critical thinking involves considering all of one’s options before making a decision. You cannot weigh the different strategy available to you if you do not also include the unexpected.

    The conundrum that the Blog Post suggests includes emotional thought–hAving actually been there, done that. But, a truly fact-based decision or viewpoint might also in lure concepts and ideas that the original person-in-question hadn’t even thought of is possible.

    For instance, someone who approaches a narrow stream might look for a way around it, since they cannot swim and do not know the depth. Someone else, who can swim, might walk straight in. Or, let’s say they we’re a long-jumper in high school, they might try to jump it.

    So, understanding someone else’s belief system, at least to me, might not be as important to you if you believe that it is biased, not clearly thought0out or just wrong. The point is not actually understanding someone else’s way of thinking, it’s determining which is the best approach for your way of thinking.

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  • siriusbizinus

    Sometimes I’ve considered this question as well. Sympathy and even empathy are avenues by which people can recognize the feelings of others to form closer relationships. Within all of this lies an idea that one human using sympathy and empathy can recognize the pain of others. But absent some sort of capacity to read minds, no one can fully understand other people. Even empathy has its limitations.

    The question then becomes, is a full understanding of others necessary? I do not think so. Recognizing that I can sympathize but not empathize might make me ask more questions to receive a clearer explanation of the feelings of others. Even recognizing the limits of my empathy can begin the journey of inquiring about the beliefs of others. While this may not be perfect, it is the best we have of what we’ve got.

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    • charles

      I agree. Asking questions with warmth and respect can increase understanding and bring people closer together. Even if someone does not completely understand me, what I appreciate is that they want to understand me better and that they recognize that they don’t completely understand me.

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  • BrettsFuture

    The true definition of sympathy is not ‘to feel bad for’ it is more akin to ‘feel one with’. Using this definition of the word then yes you can create understanding. Even if you haven’t gone through the exact same thing yourself the emotions that are stirred by something like the death of a loved one have deeper roots within the psyche. It is not the death that upsets us so much as the ‘meaning’ we attach to the death. It is within this ‘meaning’ that sympathy and understanding can be achieved.

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  • theoneinthedress

    When you say belief, I read it largely as “faith”, as this is where many of our viewpoints differ. As a child, I called myself a christian without understanding, simply because I grew up around Christians and identified as (really) a midwesterner. I now use the term with understanding and relationship. When one truly believes his or her doctrine, is there room for true understanding? I empathize more with extremely religious people of other beliefs now than I did before. I even sympathize with people who misread their own texts and truly believe that a god has led them to do wrong, because the entire point of religion is that you DO have a set of doctrine which you believe is representative of the ideal way of life, and you DO believe that the text from which your knowledge springs is truth, and you DO place that text and relationship before your own understanding of the world. If you follow a specific doctrine because it sounds nicest to you, but in truth you believe that there simply is a creator and we can never know who the creator is, that sounds more like Agnosticism to me, though it’s agnosticism tagged with the belief that formal doctrine provides loose guidance and (usually) community and a sense of identity. I think we can have complete acceptance without full understanding. I believe that true faith is such a unique substance that we can only truly experience it once and, therefore, it is an experience entirely our own. Even others within our own belief systems came to understanding in their own way, and we can never have their experiences. Even if we hear their entire story (which would certainly magnify any commonalities and differences between us) we would still be understanding those experiences through the magnifying glass of our own history, understanding, aptitude, priorities, and generalized perspective.

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  • juicingjen

    Before I had cancer, when I’d hear someone say,
    “I have cancer”
    I’d think and say – I’m so sorry
    But I didn’t understand
    the full impact
    of what they’d be going through
    And even after going through cancer
    Now when I hear someone say
    I have cancer
    I do understand more deeply
    what they will be going through
    I have a deeper sense of empathy
    and understanding
    but the truth is
    their path will have twists and turns
    that my path did not
    and visa versa

    Knowledge and empathy have depths
    and one can only explore them
    the further into the depths they go

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  • danblogs994

    Interesting idea, I suppose that our limited perception and experience of the world around us can restrict how much we can empathise with other people. For example, and I know this is not quite the same, but I’ve been ‘hungry’ before but have never been in the situation where I have been starving, feeling deep, unquenchable aching for food so cannot empathise fully with say, third world famine. I suppose in much the same way I find it difficult to fully understand those who are religious, as I am not, but I try to be respectful and polite and I do take an interest in what they have to say. An interesting little article and I look forward to reading more of you blog in the future. Followed! 🙂

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  • Mohammad Magout

    I can suggest reading “The Myth of the Framework”, which was one of the last book written by Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper, to help you answer or learn more about your question. In this book Popper seeks to disprove the “myth” of the “the impossibility of mutual understanding between different cultures, generations, or historical periods” without a common framework. Maybe Popper was talking more about rationality, science, and logic (sorry, I read the book many many years ago), but I think it is still relevant to your question, which seems to be more related to emotional issues.

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  • jtteop

    It’s genuinely very difficult to reach people as I’ve been discovering. If they don’t know what you’re talking about they will just try and fit it into something they do understand whether it fits or not.

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  • amoafowaa

    Interesting. I’ve also been pondering on this. I am reluctant to judge people’s beliefs and emotions if I have never “stepped into their shoes”. Because chances are, you underscore or over-score being wrong both ways. I believe whatever the beliefs of people, once they have hope in them, it works for them. This thought makes me understand and respect choices of others.

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  • sula362

    hmm, I am a little confused here. You start off asking if it is possible to believe what somebody else believes if we do not, and then end up asking if sympathy creates understanding. To me those are 2 questions. Let us stay with belief systems for a moment. It seems to me that Atheists have a lot of problems in most cases understanding anybody who believes in a God, regardless of which God it is. Even with sympathy I think they will not understand where the belief is coming from, for to them it makes no sense, and as you say, they cannot empathise as they do not believe in any God at all. So let us look at a Christian for example, with somebody who believes in Islam, or Buddism. I think here you will get understanding, both through empathy – I also believe, therefore I can understand you believing ( even if it is wrong in my eyes), and through sympathy if they like the person then they will accept the others beliefs as valid for them. However where there is no sympathy, then there will be no acceptance, hence all the religious based conflicts in the world.
    Acceptance is not really understanding, unless that is what you mean. Moving away from belief systems, I know a blogger who is eternally depressed and complains about her lot in life all the time. If she had reason to complain, then I would understand why she was complaining, and sympathise, even if I could not really empathise. However as I cannot see why she complains, and she herself admits she should not, then I grew frustrated with the constant complaining and stopped commenting on her posts, or not even reading them at all. However if her constant complaining is a symptom of a depression, which is a mental state and not her fault, then I can feel sorry for her. I can even begin to understand where the complaining is coming from – but that is understanding the root of it, not the complaints for themselves. Hope this makes sense. Since starting writing this comment, you have received a couple of others. They stuck to the belief question, so maybe I thought too deep

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    • hessianwithteeth

      I was using sympathy and empathy as elements that build understanding between people with different beliefs. With what I have read, it is not merely those of us who don’t believe in any gods that find it difficult to sympathize. We do find it difficult to understand one anyone would believe in a god, but that is not the only element of belief. I’ve read many posts by Christians who talk about Muslims as if they were three-headed monsters as opposed to human beings. I watch the news and Jews are killing Muslims, Muslims are killing Jews, and Christians are defending the Jews over the Muslims only to turn around and say that the Jews are going to burn in hell. These are the three closest religions around today as far as belief systems go, but none can seem to sympathize with the other two. These are cases of extremeists, and I think moderates do a better job of sympathizing with one another, but I do question whether or not they are capable of truly empathizing with each other.

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      • sula362

        ah okay, got it. I agree with you. Extremists of any persuasion are not interested in understanding the other point of view. Theirś is the only correct view, and that holds true not only in religion, but also in politics. Moderates as you say can sympathise and accept the other point of view, as valid for them. Regarding whether they can empathise, is not the Christian defending the Palestinian Muslim against the Israeli Jew an example of empathy? “We feel your pain, and we will stand up with you”
        As for if the 3 can co-exist and sympathise with each other, as you say, they are all very close. It is the same God at the head of each one. On an individual level, the people of the different religions can co-exist, but it seems to only need something small to ignite the differences between them. The religions themselves are to blame for this. They each teach that they are the only true faith, and that all others are wrong and will burn in hell or whatever as a result. With that as the base of the beliefs then how can we ever hope for lasting peace?

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      • George Davis

        I’ve seen people of different faiths empathize with each other at funerals. What might be harder would be understanding someone else’s feelings related to their religion – the comfort they get from incense and singing versus silence, for example.

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    • NovaSaber

      ” It seems to me that Atheists have a lot of problems in most cases understanding anybody who believes in a God, regardless of which God it is. Even with sympathy I think they will not understand where the belief is coming from, for to them it makes no sense, and as you say, they cannot empathise as they do not believe in any God at all.”

      Other way around. Theists, especially the ones that are hostile towards atheists, often seem to be incapable of even comprehending the basic fact that atheists DO NOT BELIEVE in their god. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read something that claimed that atheists hate god, or are angry at god, or are rebelling against god, etc. Or what’s probably even more offensive, they claim that we worship their devil, which is of course another thing that we do not believe exists.

      By contrast, I don’t think I have ever seen an atheist or skeptic accuse a believer of not really believing what he or she says he does.

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  • webbzephyr

    I do not believe it is possible for anyone to truly know their own mind, much less someone else’s. As such, the mental processes which result in the production/inspiration of beliefs are personal, and therefore inaccessible to another (at least in full–verbal explanations inevitably fall short due to the shortcomings of words and differences of interpretation).

    That said, I do believe that it is possible for a person to better understand the beliefs of another who holds a similar set of beliefs to their own. The empathetic potential would be stronger in this case. But as uncertainty is part and parcel of the human condition, and as belief steps in to provide the illusion of certainty where uncertainty is unsettling, I believe that a certain level of empathy is possible across all belief spectrums.

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  • She's Lost in the Subway

    I had a similar discussion with a white friend the other day who insisted that he could empathize with the black man’s experiences in society. I couldn’t convince him that in irder to empathisize he’d have to experience some form of discrimination. He had not. Empathy and sympathy have nothing to do with belief systems. They are evidence of emotional understanding. Even animals can experience a form of sympathy.

    Childbirth is a perfect example. Men will never understand the peripheral experiences of childbirth (pregnancy, contractions, nursing. Intuition) because they biologically CAN’T. But they can certainly sympathisize while they watch the changes their partners experience.

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  • Dnim Nwo ruoy daer | Are you happy?

    […] We Understand Different Belief Systems? click here for more […]

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  • chicagoja

    Can we understand different belief systems. Generally not, or as Kevin Michel said, “Every conscious thought you have, every moment you spend on an idea, is a commitment to be stuck with that idea and with aspects of that level of thinking, for the rest of your life.” However, some people do have the ability to tolerate people with belief systems which are different than their own. Unfortunately, it appears that there aren’t nearly enough of them.

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  • T.S.

    I don’t think someone’s belief defines them as a person. My Humanist philosophies influence my actions, but they aren’t the full scope of me.

    I don’t even know what my best friends believe, but do I understand them? Yeah, because we act and think similarly. What they believe about what happens after we die or the possibility of an omniscient entity is arbitrary. We still share similar values.

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    • hessianwithteeth

      Our beliefs don’t define all of who we are, but we do attach emotion to our beliefs. Some more than others, to the point where honest conversation becomes impossible. I think we can understand most people quite well, because we can have these conversations. But I think our emotions affect our ability to truly empathize with other belief systems.

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  • drpuerner

    I’m not sure, in your scenario, if you can get 100% true understanding… But I think sympathy and empathy can get us damn close. How close? Close enough to have brought humanity from inception, to society, and to the present. Our ability to achieve a working approximation of one another is part of what’s taken us so far, but perhaps our inability to reach a 100% understanding of one another and people of differing viewpoints is what’ll keep us where we are, or worse of course.

    What do you think?

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