What is belief

A stack of interesting comments on the thread about getting it; about whether or not it took; about the feeling of belief. It’s interesting that they all converge, those by people like me who as far as they can tell never got it, and those by people who did get it at some point but then dropped it or flung it away. They all converge on how elusive and rare it is. Of course this isn’t a random sample, to put it mildly, and people who currently get it would produce very different comments. But the idea that this thing is elusive is interesting all the same.

It’s caused me to think that we mostly (we current non-believers) don’t really “believe” things much at all, not in the active, feeling sense that “getting it” is about. That’s not what we do with…what to call it: the furniture in our heads. Data; information; items received.

We can divide that into two big categories: things that other people know, that we learn on their authority, and things that we know from our own investigation. Items in the first category we don’t really actively “believe”; we accept them, depending on how reliable their sources are, while knowing that we don’t actually know them ourselves. Items in the second category we don’t really “believe” either; we know them, because we know how we got there.

In reality the two categories are a continuum; the more we know for ourselves the more the first evolves into the second. But neither really seems to involve any kind of feeling “belief”; it’s rather a question of more or less understanding. Once you know, belief becomes unnecessary, and before you know, belief is excessive. Belief is caught between the two, and disappears.

An example I thought of, a rather trivial one, is the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. I don’t “believe” anyone else wrote his stuff, but that’s because I know some things, quite a number of small things. I know it’s not remarkable that there’s no record of his attendance at the Stratford grammar school (but I also know that there is no such record, so I know not to use his attendance as evidence that he wrote the plays and poetry, because in fact it’s the other way around – the plays and poetry are why it’s likely that he attended the school). I know there are written references to him dating from the early 1590s that name him as author of some of the plays, in particular one by a jealous angry university man who considered him a vulgar upstart. I know Ben Jonson said many things about him and that some were preserved by him or by other people, and that they are ambivalent; waspish and critical at one moment and awe-struck at another. I know his colleagues said things about him. I know a patchwork of little things like that, that make it silly to think that he didn’t write his stuff. So in a sense, yes, I don’t “believe” the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays, but “believe” isn’t really the right word.

This is a matter of cultural capital though, isn’t it. It’s bound to be. I’ve had opportunities to be schooled out of “belief” – or I was never schooled into “belief” in the first place, or both. That’s not true for everyone. I find this thought unnerving. Not surprising, but unnerving.




  1. says

    I’ve often come to the conclusion that the processes going on in my brain when deciding to accept or reject a proposition look nothing at all like the processes going on in the heads of certain others. It’s not like I have always been a reasonable person. When I was a kid belief was easy. When you’re a child it makes sense to believe things with nothing but authority to back them up. Eventually though we have to put away childish things. I never really say it to the faces of these people but it really does seem like they have never grown up, whether it be in their cognitive function or in their stages of moral reasoning. Sometimes I feel bad for thinking it because it feels unfair, until I hear the things they say and read the laws they try to pass. It is a very interesting set of questions to ponder. Great post.

  2. says

    Yes it is interesting. The comments are proving to be interesting – yours included. I’m enjoying crowd-sourcing this.

    Santa Claus is the classic example. I used to think that was just me, but it’s not at all – it comes up constantly. I was deeply annoyed about it as a child; I thought it was most unfair of the adults to tell me a lie and keep repeating that no no, it’s really true. I think I was right about that.

  3. says

    Based on my own limited understanding of how the human mind works I can see a certain amount of real potential with this question. Not long ago I was intrigued by reading a book by the psychologist Bob Altemeyer called The Authoritarians. In it he talks about right-wing authoritarian personality traits and in one chapter he mentions some experiments done under hypnosis with a technique called the “Hidden Observer.” In the experiments individuals who profess strong religious beliefs were directed to let an essentially unbiased internal observer, hidden inside their own mind, answer questions for the test subjects. When questioned about having sincere doubts about the existence of God, many of these individuals’ hidden observers had no problem answering that they were doubtful. These people wouldn’t make any such admission consciously and were insistent that they had no doubts from what I understqnd.

    I’m not suggesting that these are the most rigorous or reliable tests to use if one were going to make an argument but they do hint at a possible explanation. How different people can compartmentalize and deal with cognitive dissonace might be a factor. Maybe those of us that can’t so easily deal with conflicting ideas or holding opposing viewpoints simultaneously, maybe we are the ones most likely to be drawn out of the world of faith by virtue of this nagging desire to reconcile the irreconcilable. I’m not really suggesting this is the case. It’s just an idea. I really don’t know.

  4. Goblinman says

    I’ve recently started making a distinction between “belief” and “faith”–although I’ve had to define them for myself in a way that’s a little different from the common definitions (in order to actually make the words useful).

    I define “belief” as the general sort of “I think this thing is true with the knowledge I have”. (It actually covers both your categories, Ophelia, mostly out of an effort to always keep myself open to the possibility that I could be wrong about any of my beliefs). So, “belief”, to me, includes not only scientific facts, but also intuitions and even things very deeply held–I think they are true, but any of them could be untrue.

    “Faith”, on the other hand, I define as the type of belief often associated with religious thought. To the religious person of this type, faith itself is a virtue–especially when it is contrary to evidence. This is different than what I’m calling “belief” because “belief” changes when contrary evidence is presented.

    I know Greta’s talked about this some. I think faith is possibly the main thing keeping modern religion afloat, since it essentially makes irrationality and doublethink a virtue. Without it the whole system would capsize.

    I think there’s another, emotional, aspect to religious belief too that goes beyond “faith”. When I was religious (reform Judaism, thankfully) I was never much into “faith”, but I definitely liked being part of the community, and I enjoyed the services. It all made me feel a part of a large whole, both with other people and with the universe. So, in that sense I was a genuine believer. I don’t think I ever had “faith”, though (and I don’t regret that).

  5. AylaSophia says

    I had a pretty similar experience with belief myself. I was raised, for the most part, non-theistic: my sister and I were baptized, and we occasionally went to Christmas or Easter services with the extended family, but it was understood that we were doing things as a way to be with the family, not out of some religious motivation or obligation to God. There were a few years, however, when my liberal hippie parents discovered a liberal non-denominational Christian church in town. My mother started attending the services, and so she sent my sister and I to Sunday School at the same time.

    I was around 8 years old, so Sunday School focused more on “bible stories” and less on concepts of redemption and sin and faith. They told me that Jesus was born almost 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, and he lived in Nazareth, which is in Israel, etc. And I believed them– in the same way that I believed my teachers when they told me that Columbus sailed from Spain to America in 1492, or that George Washington was the first President of the United States. I never Believed, not in any bigger religious sense.

    The Sunday School stopped after about a year, and I never had much interest in religion beyond that. I didn’t give it a second thought, really, until college. So I’ve always been a bit mystified by the whole idea of Believing in something the way religionists do.

    I agree with Goblinman above, though. I think “faith” might be a better term for that particular concept.

  6. says

    Yeah I have to say some of the most irksome arguments I’ve ever been in have involved religious people insisting that it takes more faith not to believe in their deity. The faith/belief/acceptance nonsense that is all too often thrown about by believers has to be the most dishonest line of argument to date. Obviously when they say they have faith they aren’t talking about the same phenomenon I engage in when I expect a light bulb to illuminate upon flipping a switch. I’ve actually had to have that argument before.

  7. eric says

    Philosophically, I lean towards Pierce: belief is reflected in what you do. Unwilling to jump out the window? Then you believe in gravity (or its equivalent), despite any protestations otherwise.

    Less philosophically, I think the most elegant solution to the knowledge vs belief demarcation has been science’s: seek clarity rather than demarcation. Forget setting some bar above which you say “know” and below which you don’t. Strive to report your confidence. Try and improve on it with future experiments. Be clear about what your confidence in the measurement is, and how you arrived at/calculated that condfidence. Then let your audience decide whether its sufficient for them to agree or disagree with your finding.

    I am very confident that if I step out of my 6-story window, I will fall. If you quiz me, I can tell you why I am confident. But frankly, I’ll leave it up to you to decide whethre to label my confidence “knowledge” or “belief.” Your choice of label will not change anything; its just a label.

    The label “knowledge” or “belief” is to my understanding what an op-ed is to a factual story; they are not the facts itself, just the person’s opinion on what those facts mean.

  8. Musical Atheist says

    It’s caused me to think that we mostly (we current non-believers) don’t really “believe” things much at all, not in the active, feeling sense that “getting it” is about.

    That’s very interesting. Greta Christina says something about the slippery way we can hold beliefs in her post ‘What’s the harm in a little woo’:

    I remember, from my own woo days, how vague and half-assed my beliefs could be. And I remember how easily I would slip back and forth between thinking of my beliefs as literal, and thinking of them as metaphorical. Mostly, they would slip back and forth depending on how hard they were being questioned.

    I think this is a kind of social comfort belief, and it’s not exactly insincere. It’s a level of belief that arises out of a particular mood and social situation and then may get suspended or dropped in another situation. I think that a lot of people (myself included) experience this fluctuating type of belief without really examining the inconsistency with which one holds it from day to day. But it arises out of a social mood and is interpreted according to social norms, so how can one sustain that state of feeling all the time? Hence the conflict experienced by people in highly religious communities, who feel God’s presence very strongly on occasion, but suffer torments of self-hatred, doubt and fear because they can’t feel it all the time. So a lot of religious ritual has to be geared towards maintaining and renewing that group state of mind.

  9. Sastra says

    Years ago I watched a UTube video (I can no longer find it, sorry) of a kind of Candid Camera stunt pulled by a couple British comedians. They’d put up a booth outside of a Scientology Center and proceeded to give “Could YOU become a Scientologist?” surveys to people passing by. Volunteers were asked a series of questions ranging from something like “Do you think you could believe that you could improve your abilities by undergoing mental exercises?” to “Do you think you could believe that your body is inhabited by the ghosts of space aliens who escaped a war 75 million years ago by hiding in volcanoes?”

    What surprised me the most was the way the people taking the survey approached the questions. It was as if they were being asked about physical strength. “Do you think you could carry 5 lbs. for a block and a half? What about 10 lbs for a mile?” The answers were all along the lines of “yeah, I think I could believe that” or “well, it would be hard, but maybe I might be able to believe that” or perhaps “gee, that’s a tough one; I don’t think I could accept that.” As far as I could tell, they weren’t evaluating the assertions for their truth. It was as if they were checking on their will power. Could they believe … if they tried really hard? If they made their mind up to do it — could they accept absolute crap as something they really, truly, fervently consider true? How stong are they, really?

    I suspect religious faith triggers different parts of the brain than we use when analyzing data and arriving at a conclusion. Instead, people use those neurological sections which deal with social issues of trust and loyalty.

    Could you stand by a conclusion the way you would support a friend or defend a family member or uphold a pledge? Will you remain faithful? Thus the astonishing ability to spin and excuse and ignore and deal with what ought to be intense cognitive dissonance but which instead appears to simply be a challenge to ingenuity. Religious faith appears to have a strong component of commitment — as if it was pulling on the mental factors and habits we use in relationships.

    When people try to legitimize ‘faith’ as some ordinary, necessary component of living without absolute certainty — they have faith the sun will rise tomorrow, they have faith in science, they have faith in their doctor, they have faith that their car is in the garage even when they can’t see it, etc. — I ask them if they’d agree that they have, say, a religious faith in their doctor? Do they accept what their doctor says in the same spirit as they would accept the word of God? Do they have a religious faith that their car is in the garage?

    If they did, they would either 1.) refuse to ever go look in the garage because they ‘know’ the car is there or 2.) look in the garage, see no car, and then insist that they never expected to actually see a car in the first place … because that would be shallow.

  10. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Jarreg #6

    Yeah I have to say some of the most irksome arguments I’ve ever been in have involved religious people insisting that it takes more faith not to believe in their deity.

    I’ve had this argument as well. I’ve noticed a couple of things about it:

    ● It’s always their deity which requires less faith to believe in than not to believe in. They agree that disbelief in Zeus, Odin and Huitzilopotchli is simple and straightforward. Incidentally, I’ve had this argument with Christians, Muslims and Hindus.

    ● While Dawkins may be a Type 6 atheist, many goddists are Type 1 believers. Rick Warren has said that given a choice between reality and the Bible, he’ll take the Bible every time. Rejection of reality requires some heavy duty, industrial strength, weapons grade faith.

  11. bad Jim says

    I’ve always had a problem with thinking that anyone but Shakespeare (or another actor) could ever have written his plays. Sure, Bacon, Marlowe and Oxford had university educations, but none of them spent their lives in the theater, dependent upon the appreciation of the audience and exquisitely attuned to what worked, what pleased them, what tripped off the tongue. Besides, back then universities didn’t offer degrees in English literature, not least because most of it hadn’t been created yet.

    If you compare Shakespeare to his contemporaries, you aren’t struck by how much more erudite he is. To the contrary, what you notice is how natural he sounds, how the words could hardly be otherwise, and that polished illusion is the product of a very practiced art.

    Then again, in some quarters it’s thought that the Iliad and the Odyssey weren’t written by Homer but by another artist of the same name.

  12. says

    Ophelia, I think you are quite wrong about Santa Claus! Demonstrating that an attractive story, told with conviction by adults you had no choice but to trust with your life, could be a lie was the biggest favour anyone could do for your freedom. You may not have needed it, but I think it sure helped me even though I never really had the bigger lie to contend with.

    On the matter of where belief comes from, I think Sastra pretty well nails it with the identification of religious faith as a token of commitment to a community. Sometimes I wonder if the capacity to submerge one’s independence of thought and become part of a collective machine was what gave the modern humans packs an advantage over Neanderthals and that those of us who don’t “get” religion may be the result of interbreeding with those bigger brained but perhaps less team-oriented creatures.

  13. Brigadista says

    Douglas Adams talked about the use of the word ‘belief’ in an interview with the American Atheist (reprinted in The Salmon of Doubt):

    […] First of all I do not “believe-that-there-is-not-a-god”. I don’t see what belief has got to do with it. I believe or don’t believe my four-year-old daughter when she tells me that she didn’t make that mess on the floor. […]

    I liked the explanation he went on to give on this point as it echoed a feeling that I had had for some time regarding the inadequacy of the language that is frequently used in this context. I agree with many here who make the distinction between ‘belief’ and ‘faith’. The former requires some form of acceptable progression from cause to effect, from grounds to conclusion, whereas the latter would seem only to require uncritical acceptance, resignation even.

  14. caravelle says

    What you say about belief really matches up well to the way I think of things.

    @Jarred : I think one factor about childhood though is that you simply know less, so there’s more scope for uncertainty. I know when I was a child I didn’t actually believe my stuffed toys were alive, but I was somewhat agnostic on the question – I’d treat them well just in case, and imagine how cool it would be if they were alive. I thought of God very much the same way really.

    When I thought about it years later (long after I’d “put childish things away” and stopped considering the outside chance that they could be alive) I realized that with what I now knew of biology I couldn’t believe they were alive if I wanted to – things that are alive actually need their muscles and brains and metabolisms to do all those things live things do, and it is just physically impossible for stuffed toys to do those things. If stuffed toys were to come alive that would completely upend every single aspect of my vision of how the world works – something that wouldn’t have been true when I was seven and I’d never really thought of those things. (actually I had thought of them, heck I still have a pair of pyjamas with a little cut in the sleeve I did to find out whether they’d heal. I just didn’t have the background information to understand how improbable such things really were)

  15. sailor1031 says

    “Maybe those of us that can’t so easily deal with conflicting ideas or holding opposing viewpoints simultaneously, maybe we are the ones most likely to be drawn out of the world of faith…”

    Well this is the whole point really. If the religious world view were correct then it would be wholly consistent with what we see and experience. It isn’t, so it can’t be correct and we don’t accept it.

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