One thing I have learned during my two-and-a-half years working with the so-called freethought movement — including freethinkers, secularists, atheists, agnostics, humanists, and skeptics — is that many in this community have a strong aversion to the word “belief.” I first became aware of this at a talk I gave a couple of years ago at the Center for Inquiry in Washington, DC. It popped up again this past spring when I participated in a public discussion on morality at New York University. Most recently, several friends shared a cartoon strip on Facebook that illustrates the bad reputation “belief” has gotten with many secularists (I’ll use this singular term for readers’ ease, and because, well, I like it).
The cartoon strip (pictured here) features one character asking another one: “Do you believe in evolution?” The second character responds that belief carries religious connotations, so he tries not to use the term. Also, the character says, it would be odd to say he “believes” in a scientific theory that is supported by massive amounts of empirical data. Instead, he should say he “accepts” it.
This describes in precise manner the two different arguments I have encountered. The first is that belief either carries religious baggage or is the same thing as faith (a word usually tightly associated with religion). The second is that belief, even if a reasonable concept, is unnecessary. That’s because secular people don’t “believe” in anything — they just accept facts.
The first argument has always struck me as an unsubstantiated conjecture. There is little evidence that belief carries significant religious baggage, and it is absolutely not true that belief is the same thing as faith. I find the second argument equally unconvincing, as there is a need for an intermediary between facts and human psychology. As such, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain what I think belief is, and argue for why I think we should — and, in fact, need — to use the word.
What is a belief? Broadly speaking, a belief is a proposition a person holds to be true. It is an attitude toward some suggestion about how the world is. I submit that there are at least three ways to use the word belief.
The first is to believe that things and objects exist. A simple example would be that you believe that you are reading from a sheet of paper or computer screen (laptop, desktop, Kindle, Nook, iPad, etc.) at this very moment because your senses are relaying such information to your brain and you see no good reason you are being deceived. A more complex example would be your belief that a country exists, even if you have never visited the country. You can still believe such a place exists because you have read about it, observed photos, and other people you know and trust have told you about their visits. There is little reason to doubt them, and little evidence for a global scheme to invent countries.
The second way is to believe in the power of an idea, perhaps to accomplish some goals. For instance, you might believe in constitutional democracy because in your studies, and experience, it seems a very good way to govern a society, or to accomplish certain ends you think are necessary for humans to live in relative peace and happiness. Or you might believe in reason because from what you have read and learned and experienced, it appears to be the best tool to use to discern the truth, decide what to accept, or what to do in a given situation.
A third way, and the one that is most relevant here, is to believe in the validity of an idea. For example, you might believe in the scientific theory of evolution because the evidence for that claim appears overwhelming. Similarly, you might believe in human-caused climate change because you have surveyed the various books and scientific studies on the matter, and have determined the claim is most likely true.
These three ways of believing are somewhat different, and certain beliefs might fit into multiple categories or rest between two. However, all beliefs share a common trait: that person has to think he or she stands in some particular relation to the truth of the claim held. They all track back to the process of accepting or rejecting a proposal about some way the world is.
The third example above is precisely the one that many secularists complain about. My secular friends might counter that no, they do not “believe” in the theory of evolution or climate change. They “accept” it. Their position is thus implicitly that humans can have direct access to reality as it is, without need for psychological (or other) intermediaries. The facts are out there, one need only accept them; belief is irrational, whereas secularists base their lives on facts.
Yet this does not hold epistemologically or psychologically. It seems rather simplistic to think you can base your entire life on facts. There are many facts we do not currently have, and certain areas where we have only a limited number of facts. As such, we often need to rely on something other than facts. Furthermore, even if the facts are out there, they do not exist in a vacuum. They need to be held up by something. For instance, a scientist works to collect a wide range of facts, but she doesn’t stop there. She then works on a theory to explain said facts. This theory is based on the facts, but it is distinct from the facts themselves. It is better thought of as an explanation of those facts. Beliefs are our expressions of confidence in the facts and the theory (and the process by which we gained them). Your degree of certainty that a certain explanation is true is based on the facts — the more the better — but there is still the need to state your degree of confidence in the facts and the theory. This leads to the psychological phenomenon we call belief.
For some people, this is too messy a situation to handle, and they often slip into a world of black and white — the kind of world where belief is bad and facts are the only thing worth having. This is a mistake. While many beliefs are simply true or false, typically, many fall somewhere in-between. Instead of black-and-white, either-or thinking, belief ought to be seen on a sliding scale, proportionate to the claim and the pertinent evidence (a la David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, page 101). Extraordinary claims require more evidence, while ordinary claims require less. The closer to the bottom of the scale you are, the closer you get to faith; the further up the scale you get, the closer you are to truth and knowledge, to fact, with belief being a way of saying one knows something, but not all.*
It is important to note that leaving room for doubt does not leave people debilitated. You can think you have it right while leaving room for (reasonable) doubt. Many have a problem with some degree of uncertainty, but it is essential for true intellectual honesty. The philosopher Bertrand Russell quipped in The Problems of Philosophy, published in 1912, that the chief task of philosophy is to teach people how to believe with some sense of uncertainty, and without closing the doors to new evidence. Nearly a century later, that assertion still holds.
* I see no reason why the degrees of confidence we have in particular beliefs cannot translate to systems of belief. As such, I think belief systems (i.e., worldviews) can be arranged on the same kind of sliding scale.
Note: this essay was originally published on the blog Rationally Speaking.