About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

In defense of belief

by Michael De Dora

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 above) 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.


  1. Interesting post, Michael. I definitely agree that there is no reason to cede the use of the term "belief" to those who use it in religious contexts. "Belief" is just one the many different propositional attitudes we can take to a given assertion.

    I do think, though, that in religious contexts (at least in the one I grew up in) "belief" is often used as a synonym for "faith," which is why we "nonbelievers" (see?) might feel a bit squeamish about using it for assent to the content of scientific theories.

  2. Faith is also a dirty word among many secularists, humanists, etc. But truth is we all have faith. It doesn't have to be toward gods or God. For example, many academics have faith in knowledge and their books and published materials, faith that it would somehow do good work beyond themselves. Among humanists and eco-folks, they have faith in humanity.

  3. This is very much true. To base our whole life only on the facts is to become robotic; incomplete, without intuitions. As it's rightly said in the article, we do not have enough facts. Deep down we do need beliefs to have a fuller experience of life.

  4. @thibault: this is exactly the sort of loose usage of terminology that makes people want to avoid the word "belief" in the first place. How do you define "faith" if it's applicable to so many different propositional attitudes?

    Academics don't have "faith" in knowledge. I don't even know what that could mean. They also may hope that their work will have an effect, but I doubt many would say that they even strongly believe that it will, let alone have "faith."

    And humanists and "eco-folks" (whatever that means) don't have faith in humanity, they have some beliefs about the possibility of progress based on their view of human nature, which may be false or true, but unless they hold those beliefs in the face of contrary evidence I don't know why you'd want to call it faith

  5. I have to say that I am a little bit like those you are talking about Michael, but I see your point. In the way you say it, it's perfectly right, but usually it is not like that. It's like the regular use of the word "theory" and the scientific use of it. Which is a source of confusion for the evolution theory.

    Nevertheless, I think we have to keep in mind also that we have also the words yes and no, and sometimes, for fluidity and easiness of speech, it is easy to go say yes, we discovered it since our signal is at this level of confidence.

  6. Oyster Monkey, it's very clear that we can't know everything. Faith is when we ultimately surrender to what it is that we can't know (at least for the moment we're in) and we still move forwards with a certain conviction even though we do not have the facts or evidence to prove it. You can't prove everything. Faith is not evidentiary based but conviction based.

    "Eco-folks" is just a term I made up to indicate a loosely defined group of environmental activists, and so forth etc. Ultimately, many secularists have faith in humankind, a kind of belief that yes humans do overall make progress for the better. Can this be really be proven? No. But not every way of living as a being is done by fact. We all live with varying mixtures of faith and fact.

  7. Darshan, you are right that to live by facts alone is to be robotic. Truth is that no one actually live by facts alone. We all put faith in different things. This includes people, like Oyster Monkey (I'd assume?), who would claim to have no faith. Even the faithless actually have faith and use it to live in their everyday lives.

  8. hi, thibault halpern:

    "But truth is we all have faith."

    I disagree. The reason secularists, humanists, etc think faith is a dirty word is because it too has close religious connotations, along the lines of what Michael writes about belief, but in this case I think the connection is more warranted than with the term belief. If you are going to say "we all have faith" then you need to clarify what you mean by faith. It can mean the same thing as "trust" but if using it in this sense, per your examples, then trust is a better word because it is less fraught with double meanings.

    Like it or not, "faith" in practical usage is too closely associated with its second meaning of "belief without proof" to be useful without annoying elaborations. And in practice, true faith often means believing something regardless of the evidence against it. Blind faith often is to be held, indeed become stronger, the more evidence there is against the belief.

    Better to dispense with faith altogether and use the term trust where appropriate, e.g. we have (provisional) trust in our scientific theories because they have proved very reliable in explaining phenomena and making predictions, etc.

  9. Much of this discussion is about semantics, and the constraints of language when it does not provide enough paronyms (a paronym is a weaker form of a synonym: two words having close but different meanings, like "cry", "scream" and "shriek").

    In the present context, the religious use of "belief" and "faith", as distinct from its use in the case of scientific theories or objective facts, implies a leap, as in a leap of faith, i.e. an act of believing without objective or rational justification.

    I believe in the existence of Mongolia, which I never visited, or the historical existence of Genghis Khan, because there are abundant proofs about it, and thinking otherwise would imply believing in massive conspiracy and "unbelievable" coincidence.

    Even in the case of theories, belief is also based on rational motives. I may assert that I believe that the running speed of gazelles and cheetahs co-evolved by natural selection, not because I have seen them evolving over millennia but because (even in the absence of fossil evidence) there is overwhelming evidence of the pervasiveness of natural selection in similar cases, and there is no alternative theory (with similarly solid grounds) to explain the current anatomy of both species.

    But believing in the Holy Trinity or the existence of Hell is a different matter: it requires leaping outside the world of reason and evidence into the void of pure unfounded belief. We don't apparently have two different words to designate these different kinds of belief, but it would be handy if we did.

    In an ideal, rational language we should be able to distinguish these cases through different words, saying for example "I have faith in the Holy Trinity", "I believe in the theory of evolution" and "I trust that my friend is innocent", just as English speakers (but not Spanish speakers) distinguish between to hope, to wait and to expect (all of which translate into Spanish as "esperar").

  10. I don't have a problem with people saying "believe" or "faith", although I try to stay away from it.

    Question though, regarding the use of it when endorsing the power of an idea, couldn't you substitute the word "trust" in for "faith/belief?"

    eg. I have trust in the power of constitutional democracy.

    Or is this just semantics?

  11. E.J. Johnson, I AM talking about faith as belief without evidence! That's what I've been saying all along, that because we can't prove everything that ultimately we all have situations, phenomena, circumstances etc. where we proceed forward by believing that something is so without evidence! It's a conviction.

    Why would you want to let religious folks hijack the term "faith"? Take it back! ;-) (said with some tongue-in-cheek).

    And in certain contexts, yes faith is about believing without rational basis. I certainly don't believe all that we do and proceed forwards with is rational. We are both rational and irrational creatures. Of course, this being said in a blog titled "Rationally speaking". *chuckle*

    In other word, what I am trying also to promote is to redeem the mysteriousness in life for those who see themselves as faith-less and fully rational. Recognise the mystery in life. It's certainly not all mysterious but so much of it is an unknown.

  12. CW, you trust in the power of constitutional democracy but you certainly can't predict its future though you can have a good guess at it. So there is some faith in that too.

  13. @thibault: There is a huge difference between believing something provisionally based on incomplete evidence (your point that we can't know everything is true) and believing something in spite of a total lack of evidence.

    There is also a difference between objective and subjective probabilities, which means that you can sometimes determine whether some belief you do hold is one you ought to hold based on the preponderance of real, objective evidence.

    It sounds like you're making an argument for some kind of all out epistemic skepticism based on our cognitive abilities being limited, but there are plenty of other (and to my mind better) options for evaluating our belief practices that recognize our limitations but still can help us hold warranted beliefs.

  14. More important than the question of whether you "believe" or not is what it is exactly that you believe in.
    I'm perfectly comfortable saying that I believe in things that are supported by evidence or logic of some sort. And I'm also perfectly happy to say that those who "believe" in irrational myths are wrong.

  15. This discussion reminds me of the example Bertrand Russell presented about the proposition that "ALL philosophers are drunks" The table of debaters (philosophers probably), got stuck on arguing for hours just what were and were not 'philosophers'.
    Russell's point was that they should have asked the proposition maker what HE meant in this particular sentence by the word 'philosopher'.
    Words don't mean...people mean things with words. Wittgenstein took things a step further and suggested asking how the speaker was "using" the word...and what was he using it to do.
    It seems that it is a waste of time arguing about the meaning of a word....if the speaker is available to tell us what THEY meant on THAT occasion of the use of the word.

  16. Thibault,

    I think you're conflating the various meanings of "faith". In particular, I think you're pretending that "faith" is equivalent to "trust".

    I have faith in my wife that is nothing like the faith one has in a god. We've spent years together where we actually see each other, and routinely communicate new thoughts. There is simply no comparison between the faith that I have in her- and the way that I am "faithful" to her- and the faith I might have in a god. To even compare them is insulting. Our faith in each other extends from firsthand experience and evidence that is available to others observing our relationship. When "believers" "talk" to "god", they're only re-telling themselves the things that they've read from other people about "god". Here, "faith" requires believing entirely without evidence.

    To use your understanding of "faith", we would have to say that we sentence people to prison on faith- because we weren't there when the crime was committed. That's absurd. Not knowing everything does not mean that evidence wasn't used at all, or that there isn't a pattern to rely on. Not knowing every detail does not make something "faith" in the same sense that one has faith in a deity.

  17. DJD, at heart I'm trying to allow for mystery and the unknowable in a way of being that we would like to see as logical. I am trying to suggest that we can marry logic and evidence with no evidence and belief with conviction (faith) without having to have the two be against each other--all of this within a sphere of living as being. I am also making the claim that we all operate with evidence, murky evidence, and lack of evidence.

  18. Well said. I agree with you. Your point about the word "belief" having different meanings as well as differing levels of certitude is an important concept for people to understand.

    I posit that this same circumstance applies to a great number of the words we use in English and perhaps in any living language.

    The problem, as I see it, stems from each person living in their own unique universe. By that, I mean, no two humans grow up having the exact same experiences. Thus, no two people can share the same perspective. Perspective is the way that we view the universe in which we live. Our view of the universe, or our perspective, is in turn our own reality. Thus, there is a different universe or reality for each person. This makes communication through verbal or written communication error prone at best. Were we all to communicate via thoughts, miscommunication would probably be non-existant. However, as each thought we have is based on our own reality, no two people are going to understand a verbal communication the same way.

    In other words, even though you and I both speak English, that does not mean that we are speaking the same language. I may understand the same words you are using in a completely different way.

    Hence, the majority of contentions of the world are surely born of miscommunications.

    Thank you for the article.

  19. thibault halpern: "Why would you want to let religious folks hijack the term "faith"? Take it back! ;-) (said with some tongue-in-cheek)."

    Why? Even granted tongue-in-cheek, why fight against centuries of common usage, the religious folk can have faith. I don’t think the term faith has been hijacked, it’s a part of what it means to be religious. The whole point of fideism, for instance, is that truth can be derived from faith alone, in direct contradiction to reason as a source.

    I agree with Hector that such discussions are really about semantics, I'm just trying to get such terms straight.

    Elaborating on Michael's sliding scale analogy, we can go (on the positive end) from actual knowledge or justified true belief (Gettier cases aside) to the negative end which doesn't so much end at faith but itself contains degrees of faith, where it starts to get stronger in an inverse relation to the evidence against it. Admittedly even a completely non-religious belief can be faith-based on this account, e.g. vaccines cause autism.

    I have no problem with stopping at what approaches faith (as potentially blurry as the line may get) and simply admitting I have no belief one way or the other (or suspending belief) barring further evidence.

    The point of committing oneself to reason or critical thinking is to attempt to rid oneself of as many irrational beliefs as possible, usually those instilled in us by our parents and culture. Now we could discuss the place of the non-rational, but that's another topic, assuming we're not just talking about matters of taste.

  20. E.J. Johnson, regarding your last paragraph which begins "The point of committing oneself to reason or critical thinking..."

    I won't be able to articulate this thought very clearly since it's not entirely too clear to myself but I sense it. Nevertheless I'll try: I'm wondering about Zen Buddhism here because I think it teaches us that sole rationality is a trap itself. In order to break open the mind, which can trap itself in rationality, it uses irrationality to jolt open the mind to larger experiences. This is where koans come in.

  21. Richard
    I agree...
    We can however, if we are aware that what you say is the case, endeavor to communicate with each other by clarification of each others meanings.
    We obviously do fairly well, as most of the time we can recognize indications that the other has understood....perhaps not absolutely...but normally well enough. It's when we take words out of our everyday usage in everyday contexts and talk at a philosophical level with word whose usage and meaning evolved in normal discourse.

  22. I agree totally with this Mike. It seems a lot of secularists aren't too familiar with epistemology because generally the field seems to me to define knowledge as have 4 criteria belief(what would we replace this with acceptance of an idea?), justification , True, Geitier criteria(which is currently unknown).

    I think generally we should push for using terms in less vague ways and be more concrete in how we use our terms. Thibault seems to be doing this.

  23. Michael, I agree with the cartoon and its expressed concern about "belief" for the reason that the Average Joe/Jane doesn't use the word "belief" in the philosophical sense you listed. Maybe "accept" for evolution or whatever isn't "strong" enough, but it carries none of the connotative baggage of the everyday use of the word "belief."

  24. Interesting post. To further confuse matters: in my native language, German, "faith" and "belief" are the same word (Glauben) ;-) - so I actually tend to use the two interchangably, even though I am aware of the slightly different meanings...

  25. Hmm, I think you're right on most accounts but I also think it's silly we're even having this argument in the secular community. Still, the fact that we can't adequately define belief is our fault and not our ideological opponents, so it's good that we talk through it.

    When you say you believe something you are making a statement about your model of the world. "I believe x" just means "x is a property of my world model". The three types you mention all fit neatly into this definition. Taking this definition, it's pretty clear that you can't only think in facts; if a fact is "inside your head", it is a belief. You can have degrees of certainty about your beliefs, but not degrees of fact-iness. It might be useful to define a fact as a belief we are 100% certain of, but if you really think about it this is almost always impossible or wrong. If you can imagine a way in which you might, just maybe, be wrong, you can't really say you're completely certain. And if you can't imagine a way the world could be different to make your belief false then your belief doesn't constrain your expectations of the world and is thus meaningless. So "fact" clearly has nothing to do with certainty - it is not a mental phenomenon, but a truth about the world. If we were being very epistemologically careful in our choice of words, we would say "I believe x is a fact", but since the "I believe" is implied we don't bother saying it. This is all fine and efficient, but sometimes people forget what facts and beliefs actually are, in which case we must be more explicit in order to remind them.

  26. hey thibault halpern,
    I've read some on Zen Buddhism but am far from an export. I'm curious as to how Zen Buddhism considers "larger experiences." Some sort of mysticism perhaps? If so are these more than just psychological states of mind? I speak of rationality only when evaluating logical or empirical claims. Still not sure why anyone would deliberately give themselves to irrationality, but I'm all for non-rational experience besides sex, e.g. the experience of sheer be-wonderment when looking at a night-sky full of stars billions of light years away and millions of years in the past.

  27. You can visit forests, fields, mountains, rivers, lakes, towns and cities, jungles and deserts, but there are no countries. Countries are a collective human delusion. The Earth pays absolutely no attention to lines people draw on maps. That being said while countries are a delusion the armed people in the grip of that delusion are quite real. It is best to pay due attention to deluded people with guns because while no one can force you to live in the real world they can certainly force you to die there.

  28. @ thibault halpern: thank you for being a voice here of *human* reason and the reality of its faith and hopes against the passive aggressive hostility of ultra-skeptical technics and its vicious circle of contempt for human limitations.

  29. Tom Mcdonald
    How does *human* reason differ from just plain old reason?
    What are you using the word 'faith' to mean in this context?
    What "human limitations" do skeptical technics have contempt for?


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