When Passion Isn’t a Virtue


Over the past couple of years, I’ve grown increasingly concerned about society’s propensity to hold extremely passionate beliefs. Society has come to elevate being passionate about a belief to something of a virtue. We often praise those who hold the same beliefs as us for the passion with which they hold their beliefs, and, frequently, for their refusal to compromise or adjust their beliefs. What society seems to have collectively ignored is that when beliefs are held too passionately on too widespread of a scale, the negative ramifications can be quite severe. Political and cultural polarization, stagnation caused by an inability to compromise, and social fragmentation, are among the potential consequences of fervent self-righteous belief. Now especially, with polarization the most acute it has been in decades, it is important to be intellectually rigorous about your own beliefs. I believe it is incumbent upon us all that we examine our own beliefs constantly and temper the passion with which we hold them. Each person who interacts with society must understand that they have an influence not only on what is believed but also on the impact of those beliefs.

Principally, the problem with holding passionate beliefs too ardently is that it makes it very difficult to realize when you might be wrong. When we assign too much importance to or develop too much passion for our beliefs, our very identity and personal pride can become directly intertwined with that belief. Often, we also develop a worldview around a particular set of beliefs, a core ideology, as it were. The way we understand and interpret the world around us relies on that core set of beliefs. Changing our beliefs, as a result, can constitute a fundamental alteration to the way we see the world, and perhaps even an assault on the identity that we have built for ourselves. Resistance to such jarring changes can lead to a rejection of any information that doesn’t conform to the beliefs we already hold, as well as a loss of the ability to view our own beliefs with any semblance of impartiality. We become almost afraid of challenging our own beliefs for fear of the change that may result. Sometimes, it is also a question of honor. We don’t want to admit to the world that a belief we have devoted so much passion toward is wrong; it feels humiliating.

In other words, when we become too passionate about our beliefs, we cease to be sufficiently critical of our beliefs. To truly claim that we believe something because it is true, we must accept the responsibility of being intellectually rigorous towards our beliefs. But when we become too passionate, it becomes very difficult to examine our own beliefs and find the flaws in our thinking. Combined with the human tendency to infuse deeply ingrained biases and assumptions into our beliefs, holding our beliefs with passion is not always a good thing.

It must be understood that what we believe has little to do with what is true. There exist countless examples where millions of people hold mutually exclusive beliefs. Both beliefs cannot be true; one or both of the beliefs must be false. And yet, millions hold these opposing beliefs to be true, which must mean that millions of people are holding false beliefs. All of us hold false beliefs; it would be strange, if not impossible, to find someone who didn’t hold any false beliefs. What we believe, in large part, has to do with what is convenient to believe. So-called beliefs of convenience are beliefs that we come to believe because they serve some sort of purpose in our lives. Frequently, they are beliefs that fit into our preexisting worldview and confirm what we want, whether consciously or unconsciously, to be true. Assumptions, prejudices, desires, and the influence of others, often unnoticed by the believer, can all play a part in forming a belief of convenience. We might contrive elaborate justifications, draw on specific evidence, and even come to ardently hold a belief independent of the initial motivation. But still, the belief is a belief of convenience that is not rooted in an attempt to arrive at true beliefs, but rather in what is convenient to believe.

Regardless of how well reasoned and evidenced a particular belief is, you can never know with complete certainty that the belief is true. Further, whether a particular belief is just a belief of convenience or is arrived at through a rigorous examination of the available evidence doesn’t tell you for certain whether the belief is true or not. To quote Voltaire, “Doubt is uncomfortable, but certainty is absurd.” It’s absurd to think that we know anything for sure. Examine any belief rigorously enough, and you can come up with possible flaws or alternate explanations. The truth might even be beyond the comprehension of the human mind; we cannot know for certain. In a sense, then, all beliefs are leaps of faith, however, not all leaps of faith are equal. Beliefs with more evidence are smaller leaps of faith than beliefs with no evidence. While technically a leap of faith, the sheer immensity of evidence supporting the belief that the earth is round makes it a quite small leap of faith indeed.

By no means do I intend to suggest that we should never believe anything with a reasonable level of certainty. Let’s be pragmatic; we can’t just walk around all day never believing anything at all for fear that we might be wrong. We need to adopt some beliefs, otherwise, we would never be able to make any decisions. What I instead advocate is for all of us to be more intellectually rigorous. Rigorously examine your own beliefs and the beliefs of those around you. Challenge your assumptions, and most importantly, always recognize the possibility that you might be wrong. Be humble concerning what you think you know, and when you are confronted with information that doesn’t conform to your beliefs, do not blindly ignore and attack it. Instead, genuinely weigh the new evidence and consider whether your belief should be adjusted. Intellectual humility should be exalted as a virtue, not blind, self-righteousness, passionate belief.

Being too passionate can make it much harder to be intellectually rigorous about your own beliefs. I believe that this is one of the major contributing factors to society’s growing polarization. The nature of the internet these days is such that it’s easy to isolate ourselves in communities where passionate beliefs are praised and moderate ideology is scorned. Within these isolated echo chambers, information that goes against these passionate beliefs is rarely encountered, and rarer still, for the reasons I have discussed before, treated with any real intellectual rigor. As we spend more and more time in these spaces, our beliefs become more extreme and more passionate, making them harder to change or compromise on. Often, we fall to the “backfire effect”, when challenging information only further reinforces our preexisting beliefs. Our passion causes us to tie too much of our pride and identity to the belief; an attack on the belief becomes a personal attack on our very identity. From the standpoint of intellectual rigor, detachment from our beliefs, however cold-hearted that may sound, is preferable. 

Another effect of holding passionate beliefs that cannot go without mentioning is the chilling effect that it has on our ability to compromise. When we can’t compromise, progress stalls, and the problems in our society aren’t solved. The results are evident for anyone to see. “Our government doesn’t do anything,” is a common refrain, but consider that each of us may play a part in this. When we hold and express our beliefs with too much passion, we affect others. On opponents, the effect is to also make them more passionate in their opposition to you, which makes compromise yet harder to reach and polarization even more severe. On those with the same beliefs, the effect is to reinforce a groupthink effect that has a dampening effect on the critical examination of beliefs. Polarization is not some intangible thing that exists beyond our control. We all influence the polarization present in our society, and it is our social duty not to intensify polarization.

Looking back through the pages of history, we can find an abundance of false beliefs that were once passionately held by millions of people. Today, it seems obvious that these beliefs were wrong, and yet, millions held these beliefs with great passion. Future generations will look back on many of the beliefs we hold today with just as much horror and disgust as we do towards many beliefs of our ancestors. They will ask how we could possibly have believed something so foolish with so much passion, and how it was that we did not notice the flaws in our thinking. It is imperative that we examine our beliefs with the knowledge that we are probably wrong about many, many things. If we are close-minded and resolute that what we believe is the absolute truth, we will fail to properly address the flaws in our thinking, and we will suffer because of it. This is the danger of being too passionate about our beliefs.