On Veterans' Day, as a Vietnam-era vet, I always ponder why Johnson and Nixon believed they were right to issue orders that killed and maimed so many of my brothers and sisters, and the sons and daughters of other nations. Today, why does George Bush think he's right, while most everyone thinks he's wrong? Why do Benedict, Sistani, and Robertson believe they speak for the same God?

And, why do I believe I have a right to challenge their interpretation of reality?

Humans appear to have a psychological need to deceive themselves. We pretend to have answers about the most fundamental issues - the nature of reality - where there are only unanswered questions. We depend on delusions.

David Brooks, in his August 11, 2005 New York Times op-ed piece, wrote "while global economies are converging, cultures are diverging, and widening cultural differences are leading us into [an unprecedented] period of conflict, inequality and segmentation". In my writing, I have called this deteriorating situation an "increasing fragmentation of species consciousness", where self-segregating cultures become even more isolated and use modern media technologies to further circumscribe their own members' minds.

Obvious examples are the virulent religious antagonisms fueling 21st century terrorism and the equally powerful, although presently less violent, divergences in America and other societies. Wealthy elites and sectarian cults have gone beyond traditional class barriers to separate themselves from the "unwashed" and "unsaved". They build fortress neighborhoods and use divisive social policies to insure they aren't "contaminated" by those who are different. In an ironic twist of the democratic principles of free enterprise and private property, the founder of Domino's Pizza is constructing an entire city in Florida where the university, businesses, and homes are reserved only for conservative Catholics.

Psychologists should be on the forefront of research into the existential basis of this phenomenon. Something more than superficial lifestyle choices are at work here. The human species appears to be engaged in a profound "re-tribalization" process, at a time when the weapons for defending one's culture and territory far exceed the destructive power of rocks and clubs. The inability of such a fragmented species to reach consensus may threaten its very survival.

At a recent meeting of psychologists in California, several presenters gave talks that either explicitly or implicitly dealt with the role of worldviews with regard to individual development or societal trends. While no one attempted to give a "one-serves-all" definition of worldview, a number of participants talked about the need for a better understanding of the role of personal worldviews in shaping human emotional and behavioral responses to issues or events.

The notion of something that might be studied and/or used in education, therapy, and even broader social interventions under the rubric worldview is sort of like the U.S. Supreme Court's definition of pornography: "You know it when you see it". A still nebulous definition notwithstanding, attempting to look at worldviews may be a step toward dealing with the profound breakdown of comity now threatening modern society. In their most fundamental form, different worldviews explain why we must answer "No" to the second question below:

Aren't you curious why we don't agree on certain issues? If two people have the same facts about an issue, then - if they both are logical - would they not draw the same conclusions?

These questions were raised by a doctrinaire writer with whom I had an e-mail exchange on the causes and possible remedies for terrorism. Despite an external reality that a Martian observer might see, when two humans discuss an issue, they likely to do so through two different - even mutually exclusive - a priori sets of assumptions or beliefs about the nature of reality and the human place in it. For all perceptual, emotional, and behavioral purposes, they live in two different realities. With such species dissociation, different groups are psychologically unable to draw compatible conclusions from the same fact.

Worldviews are an element of consciousness and impose a personal order on the data coming through our physical and subtle senses. Such a mechanism is essential to human functioning. Without this core set of assumptions, the psyche would break up from the centrifugal force of internally inconsistent beliefs.

Worldviews deal with the most basic questions in life. What is the design and purpose of nature? Why do things work as they do? One's worldview serves as his or her "lens" for interpreting self, others, and external events. It asserts answers like the following to the most fundamental of questions:

Yahweh created me. Mind rules. God/Allah decides all. Nature is neutral. Allah/God is just. The universe is an accident.

Because worldview assumptions derive from history and cultural practices, they are mutable through experience or new learning. We can change these worldviews through a rational transformation of specific beliefs. Sometimes such transformations are stimulated by a powerful subjective experience. In either case the person considers and tests alternatives (based on new inner or external evidence) to his or her ingrained worldview. However, such change is not easy and requires several steps of conscious reevaluation and change (see other Perspective articles).

The first step is the most simple, yet the most difficult: Recognition that my perception of reality is based on assumptions that may be true or may not be true. If this first step does not stir up strong emotional reactions in the individual, it is likely that one is not yet dealing with worldviews as defined in this article. An intellectual discussion of worldviews that does not touch on the deeper and most strongly held beliefs remains a superficial exercise.

When I cannot find evidence that one who does not share my worldview will agree that it tends to support my assumption, I must conclude that I am taking it on faith. It is this "taking on faith of one's own or one's group's assumptions" as the absolute truth that leads to fragmentation of societal consciousness.

In the context of religious and spiritual worldviews, the United States of America is in effect a "polytheistic" society. Let me explain. An individual is not usually polytheistic, i.e., "worships more than one god". Any social unit can call itself polytheistic and provide for the worship of different gods. However, the American society does not do that. Most people assume everyone worships the same god, just under different guises. However, a comprehensive analysis of worldviews would, I believe, reveal that this nation is actually "polytheistic". All people do not believe in or worship the same ineffable origins of our universe. They worship their own worldview's assumptions about it.

Thus, where the definitions of their god are mutually incompatible, groups actually believe and behave in a "polytheistic" way. Although they may use the same word - God, their definitions are so widely different that they, for all practical purposes, live under and worship different gods. To the extent groups believe their concept of "god," by whatever name, and their "god's word" (as interpreted by them) is The Truth, they set themselves apart from all others with no less certainty than Babylonians who worshipped Ba'al and Hebrews who worshipped Yahweh 3,000 years ago. No wonder the Quran, from the newest of the large supernatural religions, describes polytheism as a path to Hell.

Because each group's assumptions are taken on faith, based on a priest/rabbi/imam's inspirations (likely to be infinite in number), over time the diverging worldviews result in deeper fragmentation of human consciousness. Resulting divergent religions (caused by worldviews that shape the way people actually experience life) always increase the potential for political and physical conflicts.

However, to understand the depth and complexity, and the threat to human survival, of the current maelstrom of worldviews that socially and politically rend today's world, we must look deeper than the traditional labels (the names groups use for their alleged divine beings and give to their unique religions). Such an analysis is necessary to understand how to cope with members of any group that would impose their theocratic views on the policies of governments.

Given their deist perspective (belief in an unnamed creator or supreme power, but not in the anthropomorphic god of 18th-century religions) and actions, it appears that America's Founders Fathers had an intuitive understanding of the competition for power that could arise among competing religious worldviews. They recognized that some groups in a "polytheistic society" (my term) with fundamentally different concepts of reality would attempt to impose their assumptions on others through the political process. They foresaw a struggle to impose laws that would regulate what should be private matters in each religion. Thus, they established secular U. S. institutions with constitutional barriers to prevent one religion imposing its worldview on the rest of society.

This problem is not limited to religious worldviews. Scientific theories and philosophical schools are also based on assumptions and beliefs founded on partial evidence, always subject to revision based on experience. When groups holding them also consider their worldviews as The Truth, and dismiss other ways of knowing, they are in effect worshipping their own divergent "realities."

Until we find a way to transcend the hardened worldviews that now divide the species, we will not be able to "put Humpty Dumpty (the fragmentation of human consciousness) back together again". To help pierce the defensive shields of superficial labels and symbols described here, we must look honestly at the non-self-evident assumptions that underly conflicting worldviews. The first and essential step requires each of us to admit the part of our own worldview assumptions that are taken on faith, a faith that we cannot expect some one else to accept just because we believe it. The second step requires a recognition that when it comes to blind faith, anyone's sight is as good as another's.

[Paul Von Ward, a psychologist and interdisciplinary cosomologist, is the author of Gods, Genes, & Consciousness and Our Solarian Legacy: Multidimensional Humans in a Self-Learning Universe. He may be contacted via email at paul@vonward.com. His website is www.vonward.com.]