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“Why Do We Believe What We Believe?” Critical Thinking workbook by Hank Pellissier

Posted: Thu, February 01, 2018 | By: Critical Thinking

Lesson 1: - Intro

We are going to start by examining something written by the Buddha.

Buddha was a philosopher born in India 2,500 years ago. His ideas are still studied and practiced by millions of people around the world.

Here is something he wrote on Critical Thinking -

Kalama Sutta (the Buddha)

Do not believe anything on mere hearsay.

Only after thorough investigation and reflection, using your reason and experience, accept something as true – and then, only if it is conducive to the good and the benefit of yourself and the world at large.

Do not believe in traditions merely because they are old and have been handed down for many generations and in many places.

Do not believe anything because people talk a great deal about it.

Do not believe anything because you are shown the written testimony of some ancient sage.

Do not believe in what you have fancied, thinking that, because it is extraordinary, it must have been inspired by a god or other wonderful being.

Do not believe anything merely because presumption is in its favor, or because the custom of many years inclines you to take it as true.

Do not believe anything merely on the authority of your teachers and priests.

Apply these same rules to my own teachings

What do we think of this teaching by The Buddha? Any comments? Any questions?

How does it remind you of what you learned in iDoubt Lessons 1-5 ?


Relaxation Exercise - Family Guidance

Now we’re going to do a brief relaxation exercise. It is called “meditation.”

Don’t worry if you’ve never done this before – it’s easy.

I just want you to close your eyes, and get comfortable in your chair.

Do that, and take a few deep breaths.

Let your breathing be slow and easy.

I want you to forget everything you might be worried about, or looking forward to.

Try to forget any problems you’re thinking about.

I just want you to remember what you’ve been told in your life, on how to live your lives, and what to believe in.

I want you to remember what your parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and older brothers and sisters have told you.

Remember all the advice they gave you.

What have they told you to believe?

Our families, especially our parents, give us a lot of advice. We often listen to them, we are guided by them.

Perhaps we want to grow up and be like them.

I want you to think carefully and remember all the advice and guidance they have given you.

Think of all the funny, and scary, and threatening, and kind and gentle, and serious ways they warned you, or encouraged you,

Or told you of your potential to do something.

Okay, we’re done now, you can open your eyes.

Now I want you to write down everything you remembered that they told you in the blank space below.

Write down all the “beliefs” you have gotten from your family members. You don’t have to be serious about this, you can be funny if you want, just be honest.

After you write it down – plus a + next to it if you believed what they told you and put a –- by it if you don’t believe what they told you, and put a ? by it if you’re not certain.

Spend at least 8 minutes on it.

When you’re done, we’ll talk about which ideas, which beliefs you adopted - which ones you don’t believe, and why - and how you’d like to change anything you believe, if you want to.



Now, if you want to, please tell the class the beliefs that you have learned from your family members.

What have they told you that you believe is true, and you try to live your life now according to those beliefs?

What have they told you that you do not think is true?

You don’t have to tell us if you don’t want - I don’t want anyone getting punished for anything they said.

Let’s spend 15 minutes talking about the beliefs we have inherited from our parents.

Famous Quotes Exercise

Let’s take a break from talking about ourselves

Let’s look at quotes by five famous people who are expressing their own beliefs - that you might agree with or might not agree with.

Just circle your favorite quotes, the quotes you like, cross out the quotes you don’t like, and put any questions or remarks you might you have at the bottom of the page or in the margins.

We will spend 5-10 minutes on this. I am going to read them all out loud slowly, and explain any words you have questions about.

Hank has changed the writing quite a bit so it is easier to understand.

Socrates (a Greek philosopher who lived 2,500 years ago)

“the unexamined life is not worth living”

‘People have only one thing to consider—whether they are acting rightly or wrongly.”

“It is not living that matters, but living rightly”

“The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be”

“Let those who would change the world first change themselves”

Confucius (a Chinese philosopher who lived 2,500 years ago)

“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but is rising every time we fall.”

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”

“It is easy to hate and difficult to love. All good things are difficult to achieve, and bad things are very easy to get.”

“What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”

“The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions. The object of the superior man is truth.”

“To see the right and not do it is cowardice.”

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”

Helen Keller (a blind American woman who lived about 75 years ago)

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”

“Never bend your head. Always hold it high. Look the world straight in the eye.”

“Life is either a great adventure or nothing.”

“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”

“What I am looking for is not out there, it is in me.”

“Happiness… is not attained through gratification but through devotion to a worthy purpose.”

Gandhi (an Indian man who lived about 75 years ago)

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

“An eye for an eye ends up only making the world blind.”

“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.”

“We are the product of our thought. What we think, we become.”

“Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.”

“To believe in something and not live it, is dishonest.”

“The only tyrant I accept in this world is the still voice inside.”

Now let’s hear which quotes you liked and agreed with. Please tell me and your classmates.

Which quotes did you not like? What do you not agree with?

You can think about these quotes between now and the next lesson.

LESSON 2: Indoctrination (Political, Religious, Social)

Today we’re going to talk about indoctrination.

The definition of indoctrination is: teaching someone to accept a set of beliefs without questioning.

This happens when we’re children, but it can also happen in later years; it happens in homes, at schools, in places of religious worship, at college campuses…

A severe form of “indoctrination” is called “brainwashing.”

The 1,000 people who died in the Restoration of the Ten Commandments cult - most of them in Kanungu - were “brainwashed.”

They were told to believe something, without questioning it.

We know that won’t happen to us, don’t we -because we are already Critical Thinkers - we are already Skeptics and Questioners.

Let’s start the lesson today by talking about our own experiences with indoctrination into religious and political ideas.

Maybe you went to a church? Or a religious school? Maybe your parents were political revolutionaries?

What I want you to do is write down, underneath, all religious ideas you were supposed to believe, that were taught to you in churches or schools,

And I also want you to write down all the political ideas you were taught to believe, either by your parents, relatives, or perhaps teachers.

Before we do that exercise, let us see that Hank Pellissier, the American who wrote this lesson, has written, explaining what he was indoctrinated with, below.

Hank Pellissier’s Religious Indoctrination (from Catholic School)

Jesus was kind to poor people and beggars - it is good to be charitable.

Jesus thought most rich people were “bad” — it is good to distrust rich people.

Jesus didn’t complain much when he was tortured and crucified - it is good to not be a whiner!

Hank Pellissier’s Political Indoctrination (from his Father)

Don’t pay taxes if you can sneak out of it.

If someone is on my property or in my house, they need to behave or get out of there.

Okay, now it is your turn.

Write down all the religious and political opinions you were indoctrinated with - in the space below.

Put + by a belief if you still believe it, put a – by it if you don’t believe it anymore, and put a ? by it if you’re not certain.

Spend 10 minutes on this exercise, and then we’ll discuss your answers.

Everybody Finished? Now we will discuss your answers for 10-15 minutes.

Indoctrination (Social/Cultural)

Next, let’s talk about social beliefs we have.

Do you and your friends believe the same ideas? Are they good ideas or bad ideas?

Are they ideas about how to behave or not behave in school? How to act around your parents and certain people? How to treat those who are not close friends? Ate they beliefs about sex, or marriage, or future jobs?

Spend 5-10 minutes here writing down the cultural beliefs that you have.

Welcome back. Now let’s talk about those Social and Cultural Indoctrinations for a while.


Now, before we end the class, we’re going to examine more quotes from a book called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics & Religion – by psychologist Jonathon Haidt.

I think his ideas are very interesting but I am not saying you should agree with him. I want you to think about his ideas critically, skeptically.

Just listen to his ideas as I read them, and scribble your opinions in the margins. Or put a + or a —

What do you agree with? What do you disagree with? I will explain anything that you find difficult to grasp.

Jonathon Haidt - The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics & Religion

“… when we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe it?” Then we search for supporting evidence. if we find even a single piece of pseudo-

evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have a justification, permission to believe. In contrast, when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Must I

believe it?” Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it.”

“people… have strong gut feelings about what is right and wrong, and they construct justifications for those feelings.”

“If you want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you need to see things from that person’s angle. If you do truly see the other person’s way,

deeply and intuitively, you might find your own mind opening in response.”

Let’s talk about those ideas. Does everyone understand them? If not, I’ll explain them more more. After you do understand, we will talk about whether we believe him to be correct, not correct.


Your homework between now and the next lesson is to think about people’s beliefs - not your own, but the beliefs of people you know very well.

Do you think they believe it because they view it as actually TRUE?

Or do they believe it because they “want” very much for it to be true? Do you see the difference? Is there a benefit they receive saying it is true?

For the next lesson, bring in a description of a person you know - you don’t need to identify them, or read what you wrote to the class - just and explain to us how you think they formed their belief system.

LESSON 3: Beliefs based on Fear

First let’s start with the homework I assigned in the last lesson.

Did anyone bring in their writing of a person they know, that explains how you think they fired their belief system?

If you did, you can hand it to me. I would like to see it.

Does anyone want to read what you wrote down, to the class?

The next category of beliefs we will talk about are fear-based beliefs. This is a huge category. Many of us have opinions based on what we’re afraid of.

Sometimes it is fear of being physically hurt, or fear of being embarrassed, or fear of being ignored or abandoned, or fear of loneliness, or fear of being disrespected, or fear of being helpless and powerless.

What people do is: they decide what they want to avoid or love - and then, they create a belief system that justifies their feelings.

What I want you to do here in this workshop is write down what you’re afraid of, and underneath that, write down any beliefs you created to justify your fear or emotion.

This might be very personal, and you don’t have to share it with the group. You can write it down and immediately destroy it. What is important is that you realize it and remember it.

Hank Pellissier — who designed this exercise - wrote down some of this own fears. They are below.

He has done this to help you understand the exercise and perhaps to give you some ideas about what you are afraid of yourself.

Let’s see what Hank said before we write down our own. Put a + by the fears Hank has if you have them to, and put a — by the fear if you don’t have it.

Hank Pellissier’s Fears and Beliefs based on His Fears

I Fear Death

I am afraid of dying so my belief is - I deny I am going to die. I read science and medical news, hoping there’s a way my death can be avoided. (Perhaps a robot body?Or something that hasn’t been invented yet…)

I Fear Shame

People with a lot more money than me, make me feel uncomfortable, and people with a lot less money, also make me uncomfortable.

I believe people who are richer than me might think I am depressing or stupid; and…

I believe people who are poorer than me might hate me, or think I am a lucky or undeserving spoiled jerk.

I Fear Physical Weakness

I am afraid of being weak, old, and sick myself, so I exercise a lot to stay in shape and try very hard to stay healthy.

I am also uncomfortable around sick and dying people.

I Fear Disrespect

I believe people should not interrupt me, or others.

I believe people should return my phone calls and email inquiries promptly, and pay me on time, and remember my name, and never ignore me.

I believe my children should obey me and not ask why.

I believe it’s okay for me to get angry and shout at people who disrespect me, and for me not to forgive them. (this is a belief I am trying to change)

I Fear Loneliness

I believe friends should be “real friends” – who sincerely want to help me in my life, if I ask for help.

I Fear Helplessness & Powerlessness

I believe bosses should never ask me to work for free, or do tasks I don’t want to do.

I believe I should get reasonable “independence” in my marriage.


What do we think of Hank’s fears, and the beliefs he now has, to justify those fears?

Do we have any of the same? Which ones?

Which of his fears do we not have?


Now let’s write down our own fears, and the beliefs we came up with, to accommodate those fears.

This is not an easy exercise, it is difficult. You will really have to think about yourself.

Please try to write down as many as you can.

You don’t have to share them with the group - I just want you to recognize them.

Please spend 5-7 Minutes writing them down in the blank space below:

Your Fears and Beliefs Based on Your Fears

Are we all done now? Let us finish. Does anyone have any Fears they want to share with the class?

Go ahead.

I have my own - here they are. What do you think of them? Do you have the same fear and beliefs to accommodate these fears?

(Teacher shares his or her fears, and beliefs to accommodate those fears)

LESSON 4: Revelation (the inner voice)

The definition of “Revelation” is this: “something revealed by God to humans.” Many people in the world, like Christians and Muslims, have belief systems that are based on revelations that prophets or saints supposedly received from God.

This is confusing because there are many prophets that claimed to talk to God, but the God they talked to told them to believe information that another God talking to someone else, disagreed with.

How many people have had revelations?

Many of the leaders of the Restoration of the Ten Commandments cult said they had revelations — they said Mary (the mother of Jesus) appeared to them and spoke to them. They also said Jesus Christ appeared and spoke to them, and many saints and angels appeared and told them “revelations.”

We are all Critical Thinkers in this class, we are all Skeptics and Questioners. We know how to ask for proof and evidence, and we don’t believe everything we hear or are told to believe.

So when we hear that many revelations occurred Kanungu, and saints talked to people, and then those people burned up hundreds of followers in a church, it is sensible for us to say “I DOUBT IT.”

We can doubt that revelations occurred, we can doubt that angels and saints and Jesus appeared, we can doubt that the burned people went to heaven, we can doubt that the leaders were “good people.”

What do we think about this? Let’s us talk for 10 minutes about the massacre in Kanungu.

We can take our turns talking about it - but if anyone says something that someone else doesn’t believe, just say - loudly - “I DOUBT IT!”


Now let us go back to the lecture.

Beliefs - as you can see - that are based on “revelation” are complicated for many reasons.

Religious leaders often say their revelations are very true but other revelations experienced by other religious leaders - are not true revelations.

Even more dangerous is the fact that schizophrenics (crazy people) and other people with mental illness often hear voices, and see visions.

Are these “revelations” true, or are they just insane things that insane people are experiencing?

Another complication is that many people, even many famous people, have heard “voices” telling them to believe certain ideas.

A list of the famous people includes Socrates (Greek philosopher), Charles Dickens (English writer), Sigmund Freud (psychologist), Winston Churchill (English Prime Minister), and Joan of Arc (French general, who was a woman).

Martin Luther King Jr. (African-American civil rights activist) also heard a voice that he said was Jesus Christ. The voice told him, “Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.”

Let’s examine some writing by people who have inner voices, that tell them what to believe. These are all religious people – one is a Catholic, another a Muslim, and the third is a Buddhist.

Circle the lines you like, and cross out the lines you don’t like.

We will talk about your choices in 5 minutes.

Teresa of Avila

“It is love alone that gives worth to all things.”

“Do that which best stirs you to love… Love turns work into rest.”

“The important thing is not to think much, but to love much.”


“When you do things from your heart, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”

“You were born with wings, why crawl through life?”

“Forget safety. Live where you fear to live.”

“Everything in the universe is within you. Ask all from yourself.”

“There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen.”

Cheng Yen

“True happiness is measured by love, not by possessions.”

“Be grateful always, for everything and everyone, at every moment.”

“Never lose courage. Nothing in this world is impossible when you are determined.”

“Never do things just to satisfy others.”

“Use wisdom to contemplate the meaning of life. Use resolve to organize the time you are given.”

Now let’s talk about these Iines.

Which ones did you like?

Do you think all of them can be true because they are from “voices”?

Do you think none of them can be true, because they are from “voices”?

Let’s discuss this for a while.



Here are some questions for us to discuss. We will talk about them one at a time.

#1. How can we determine which inner voices are saying the truth, and which ones are not?

#2. Do inner voices have spiritual value? Or are they just crazy? Are some crazy and others the words of God or saints or angels?

#3. The big religious books - Bible and Koran - based on “revelation”? Do you think all that information is true?

Thanks for participating in this class - is was the most difficult topic we have discussed so far, but the next lesson will be even more difficult.

LESSON 5: Rational Beliefs

Today we are going to talk about Rationalism.

Rationalism believes we should only believe information that our skeptical minds can determine to be true, using “Reason”, “Logic” or Critical Thinking.

What is a Rational Belief?

  • The belief represents reality
  • The belief is logical

Rational Beliefs are based on Scientific Thinking

Rationalism believes what is true can be determined and predicted.

For instance: the amount of money your will earn with a farming project can be figured out with addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

Rational Beliefs can be proved with Evidence.

This makes them different from beliefs based on family or tribal traditions, fear and other emotions, or faith in divine revelations.

The opposite of a Rational Belief is an Irrational Belief.

The worst Irrational Beliefs are self-destructive ideas,

like “I am hopelessly stupid,” “No one will ever love me,” “The world is out to hurt me,”

Or “I can never quit drinking, I can never make money.”

A survey of hundreds of people was conducted - it showed that people who have a lot of irrational beliefs are more likely to suffer from depression, hopelessness, and worry.

This means Rationalism – basing your beliefs on Science, and Logic – is healthy for you.

To understand Rational Thinking better, let’s read quotes by thinkers who are Rationalists.

Circle the ideas you like, and write comments in the margins. We will talk about what you agree and don’t agree with afterwards.

Sam Harris (American philosopher)

Reasoning must be separate from feelings. Do not include your feelings when you decide what to believe.

If you believe something just because it makes you feel good, that is “self-deception” and “wishful thinking”

Faith in revelations, if it is ever right about anything, is right only by accident.

Only scientific thinking can predict with 100% correctness, what will happen.

Ayn Rand (Russian-American philosopher and novelist)

Devotion to the truth makes you a good person

There is nothing more heroic than a man or a woman who assumes the responsibility of rational thinking.

If you don’t know something, the thing to do is not to get scared, but to learn.

The hardest thing in the world is to do what we really want. It takes the greatest kind of courage.

Happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose.

Oprah Winfrey (African-American businesswoman)

“The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams.”

“Surround yourself with people who are going to lift you higher.”

“The greatest discovery is that a person can change his future by merely changing his attitude.”

“You become what you believe.”

“Whatever happened to you in your past has no power over this present moment, because life is now.”

“Your job is not to do what your parents say, what your teachers say, what society says, but to figure out what your heart calling is and to be led by that.”

Now let’s talk about those quotes.

Which ones did you like? Because you agreed with them? Let’s start at the top.

Which quotes did you not like?

Are there any quotes you want to remember?

Now we are going to write down our rational beliefs and our irrational beliefs.

First I want you to write down your rational beliefs in the space below.

Remember, these are beliefs you have that are based on logic, they are based on science, and mathematics, and on observations you have made.

I will give you one to start with:

“Every animal, including humans, has to eat, or it will get weak and finally die.”

Now I want you to write down five rational beliefs you have in the space provided:






Let’s talk about those rational beliefs for a while.

Everybody can tell us what they wrote down.

Do we all agree that those are rational beliefs?

That they can be proven, and that they always work?

Now let’s talk about Irrational Beliefs.

We probably all have some things we believe that are not actually true.

Hank Pellissier, who wrote this, has an irrational belief that he wanted to share.

It is a bit funny. His irrational belief is this:

He thinks if he loses his temper and yells at his two daughters to behave, they will get scared and never misbehave again.

It never works, they keep on misbehaving, but he continues to believe that yelling at them will work.

This is irrational because it has never worked, at all, and there is no proof that yelling at them ever will work.

Okay, please write as many irrational beliefs as you can






Let’s talk about those Irrational beliefs for a while.

Everybody can tell us what they wrote down.

Do we all agree that those are Irrational beliefs?

Why do we have those irrational beliefs?

Did we get them from our families? From traditional? From our tribe? From superstitions? From religions?

Are they beliefs that are untrue, but we believe them because we are afraid not to?

Or believing them makes us happy, even though we know they aren’t true?

Let’s summarize what we have learned from lessons 6-10 — Why We Believe What We Believe

What have you learned so far?

I hope you understand your brain creates a belief system in many different way - but not all of your beliefs are true.

If you want to abandon any negative, untrue beliefs that you have about the world or yourself, you can do that.

There are untrue and perhaps self-destructive beliefs that you have, that you adopted from family members, friends, enemies, teachers, community and religious leaders – you can say goodbye to them forever and adopt new beliefs as your principles

Rational beliefs that are healthy and true, that can empower you to succeed at your goals.

I want you to write down below what you have learned in this section - Why We Believe What We Believe.








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