Is It Good To Be A True Believer?

I’m currently revising Book 3 in my supernatural thriller series. In the first quarter of the story, one character takes a swipe at another for being a “true believer”. (The characters are Eric Holmes and Cyril Woods for those who are following the Awakening series.) I run into this phrase in my other profession, law, as well. Typically I defend companies or corporations against lawsuits, and on a few occasions my colleagues and I have referred to the lawyers on the other side as true believers, meaning attorneys who express a passion for or conviction about an issue that goes beyond the specific case they are handling. In the presidential primary season, too, one is apt to hear candidates professing to be the most devoted to their party’s values. All this got me thinking about what it means to be a true believer and whether it’s a good thing.

According to, a true believer is “a person who professes absolute belief in something” or is “a zealous supporter of a particular cause.” Synonyms listed are crusader, fanatic, and ideologue.

On social issues, it’s almost always true believers who spearhead change. They are the ones with the passionate conviction to face universal disagreement and, at times, physical violence to achieve changes such as women’s suffrage or an end to slavery. On that front, most of us tend to admire those who crusade for causes we favor, but may be at a loss to understand those on the other side.

Sometimes I agree with the results of a true believer’s action even if I don’t share an “absolute belief.” The summer I studied for the bar, I did a legal fellowship with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. The non-profit believes “housing is a human right in a just society.” Seeing housing as a right raises questions for me, such as who is required to build the houses to which other people have a right, and how will those workers be paid? Or will they be forced to work for free? Nonetheless, I believe it is a worthy goal for a society that all of its people have a safe place to live. I admire the results the Coalition obtains, particularly in ensuring homeless children have equal access to education. I don’t need to be an ideologue or a true believer to support the organization.

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The lawyers I know who fall into the true believer category, as with any person performing any job, have strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, they persist long past when other lawyers might get discouraged, and this sometimes means they win cases that seemed unwinnable or help change the law in ways they believe are vital. On the downside, true believers often can’t see the flaws in their own arguments or the merits of the other side. If you can’t see your weaknesses, you can’t address or correct them, and if you can’t understand the other side’s argument, you’re much less likely to know how to counter it. These downsides are at the heart of why lawyers are advised not to represent themselves.

Absolute belief on a personal level can result in an unwillingness to consider new information. An acquaintance of mine is certain white males have no advantages in the job market. First, he says that once discrimination in employment based on race became illegal, there was no more discrimination, and second, he says he has never been afforded any preference based on his gender or race. I shared with him my experience working for a small business when I was in my early twenties. I sat in on interviews for a person being hired to do a similar job to mine. I liked one candidate, and the manager agreed the young woman had more relevant experience and presented more professionally in the interview than did the other woman being considered. But because the candidate I wanted to hire was African-American, the manager thought she would be a bad fit. Everyone else at the company was white, and some of the older male employees often said racist things. I pointed out that the answer to that was to tell the other employees to cut it out and that it was against the law to hire or not based on race. The manager still hired the young white woman instead.

The acquaintance who heard this said flatly, “I don’t believe that.” He’s not required to believe me. But in the ten years I’d known him before that, he’d never accused me of lying about anything or even of exaggerating or having a poor memory. This article in the New Yorker might explain why this time he did. The research cited within it showed that when new information contradicts a long-held belief that is intrinsic to a person’s concept of self, the person generally rejects that information. It doesn’t matter if it’s an emotional appeal, a personal story, or a series of studies, the person simply doesn’t accept the contradictory information.

I took an on line survey recently that was meant to evaluate the survey taker’s reasoning style. Mine showed as Skeptical. Perhaps because I am skeptical by nature, I wondered how accurate a twenty-minute survey could be. But I did identify with the description of skeptics as people who subject their own views and the views of others to scrutiny. My inclination when told about a study, regardless of its findings, is to look at who conducted it and why and what sorts of controls there were. When I feel strongly about a topic, I try to read and listen to the other side and think of an example where I might disagree with my initial position. When I hear a politician say something, I consider also what words the person chooses and what that person is not saying, no matter who that politician is.

Probably that tendency to look at all sides is why true believers fascinate me. I envy their certainty. To be absolutely convinced you are right must offer a great sense of purpose and clarity. All the same, always questioning and exploring new ideas and facts has served me well as a lawyer and as a writer, so I’ll stick with my own approach. Though I can’t say that with absolute certainty.

Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you’d like to be notified of new releases and read reviews of M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller) books and movies, click here to join her email list and receive free a short horror story, Ninevah, published exclusively to M.O.S.T. subscribers.