The urge to believe in something is part of human nature. No one can live a long life without having a belief in something. At least, I am not aware of anyone who has managed. Many people choose religion as their core belief, because it comes with a handy predefined set of rules and some kind of historic “credibility”. Others believe in materialistic things and the pleasure resulting from these, in political/philosophical ideologies, in space travel, singularity, immortality, animal rights, a better world, equality, freedom, democracy and so on. While most people combine multiple beliefs (often with one umbrella belief that dominates and influences all other sub-beliefs), everyone has chosen or being introduced to at least something to believe in at each moment of his/her existence.
Unfortunately, in the democratic and developed countries, I currently notice a crisis of beliefs. People struggle with finding something to believe in. There is a widespread disappointment in many of the modern “mainstream” beliefs. The era of constant economic growth has ended or at least taken a long pause. World peace looks as distant as it always has. The trust in the governing organizations and the democracy itself is eroding in many countries. The disruptive consequences of the digital revolution, of globalization, of climate change and the current migration wave cause a lot of people to worry about their personal well-being and standard of living. With the possible exception of climate change, these concerns often are either irrational/exaggerated or at least destructive and not very pragmatic. But they are persistent and hard to erase from people’s minds.
Many of the beliefs linked to mainstream ideologies have taken a lot of damage, thereby causing at least some people to turn to beliefs featuring intolerance, discrimination, extremism and fundamentalism. I see the rise of right-wing populism, nationalism and religious fundamentalism that can be witnessed in Europe as well as the U.S. as a direct consequence. If people do not see any benefit anymore in believing in mainstream ideologies that promise constant improvements for everyone, the seemingly logical response for some is to adopt a belief that exclusively promises constant improvements to their specific group (ethnical, cultural, religious etc), often through discrimination of other groups.
Assuming that having something to believe in is indeed part of human nature (I am not aware of facts indicating the opposite), the populist, racist, fascist, fundamentalist and reactionary beliefs that currently are on the rise can only be pushed back if a persuasive alternative belief is being provided.
Here is see the biggest failure of today’s political leaders in the Western world, and their biggest task: They need to give citizens something new to believe in. The old mainstream beliefs of the last century have lost a lot of their clout. That’s why new, inclusive, unifying and convincing beliefs are required (The thing about effective beliefs is that while they always come with uncertainty about their validity and realizability, they are good enough to actually being adopted by people).
As long as political and civil leaders do not create and present new kinds of beliefs that convincingly give the outlook of prosperity, common well-being and a better life for everyone, racist, fascist, fundamentalist and populist beliefs will remain and likely even spread even more.
That by the way is one of the main reasons why I want to see experiments with and implementations of an unconditional basic income. While it is unclear if it actually can work, it is a fresh, new kind of idea which in the best scenario would actually mean a huge step forward for humanity. It is a belief good enough to pursue, for now.