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Defining Belief: A Question of Faith

What is belief? Belief is one of those terms we use so frequently it is all too easy to forget how abstract the concept can be. What do we mean when we say we believe in something? Every day, people say they believe in God, in their country, in themselves, in others. But what do we actually mean when we use this phrase?

To speak of belief is, of course, to evoke religion and religious faith. The historically dubious record known as the Gospels has Jesus of Nazareth saying the power of faith can move the Mountain of Olives into the sea. Living what he preaches, Jesus casually goes for a stroll on the waters of a lake in the middle of a storm. However, when Simon Peter tries to join him, the man who will become the first pope (according to the Catholic Church) promptly begins to sink.

When I was a teenager becoming Confirmed as a Catholic through a crash course known as RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults – I qualified as an “adult” in this context because I was older than the traditional Confirmation age of thirteen), the parish deacon remarked at one point that it was a sign of God’s mysteriousness that He chose Peter to lead the early church. Personally, he said, he would have chosen John. Why Peter, the one who always gets it wrong?

Even then, I was puzzled that anyone would find it so mysterious. Peter always got it wrong at first, yes, but was it not obvious he was the one trying hardest to understand? Peter may have started sinking when he got out of the boat, a detail which is always construed as evidence of his lack of faith. This typical exegesis overlooks the (to my mind, more important) detail that Peter was the only Disciple with enough faith to leave the boat in the first place. How could any mere human find it easy to get out of a boat in a storm and walk on water? Doubt is widespread in the scriptures, even among those who have experienced the divine firsthand.

Which brings us back to the question of faith, belief, and whether an abstract concept of this sort can be measured or otherwise quantified. This applies to the secular conception as well as the religious. How do we measure the strength of personal convictions? By an individual’s willingness to die for their professed beliefs, perhaps? Many devoutly religious people would agree that suicidal fanaticism is more often a sign of mental unbalance than sincere belief. At least when that belief is attached to a different religion or ideology.

When I was in middle school, a girl in my art class said she did not believe in God because no one has ever seen Him, so where is the proof?

Now, obviously this was a simplification, but it raises the crux of the issue. What leads us to think we know one thing to be true, another untrue? What makes us willing to admit we do not know whether some things are true or untrue, but not other things, even things which are obviously questionable? On that occasion, I remember thinking I had never seen Germany because I had never been there (despite long wanting to travel there). Did that girl deny Germany’s existence as well?

Presumably not. But why is Germany so much easier to believe in than God? Because we are accustomed to seeing it on maps and globes? Because we are so used to hearing it invoked in discussions of the Holocaust, the World Wars, and the footage thereof? What does any of that, in isolation, prove?

I raise these questions not to lend credence to such absurdities as Holocaust denial or any other fringe position, but to remind the reader of the old Cartesian problem: I think, therefore I am, but nothing else can really be known for certain.

Knowledge, after all, is inseparable from the interpretation of the evidence provided by our sensory perceptions. As far as I can tell, there is no escaping this epistemological construct. My biggest criticism of the Abrahamic conception of God as “all-knowing” has more to do with the concept of “all” than with “knowing.”

For instance, how could even an omniscient deity actually know for certain they were omniscient? Yes, theoretically speaking, one could argue that if the deity in question was indeed all-knowing then it would follow that they would know they knew everything, but the problem would still remain – how would they know they knew everything? That is to say, how could one ever possibly know there would never be anything more to know? We cannot be aware of what we have not perceived. Therefore, even if the universe is finite and some self-aware divinity subsumes it all, there can be no way to know there is nothing more in existence.

Questions like these made me an atheist, but the question of belief cannot be escaped so easily. Belief is a component of everything we think we know and is therefore a secular issue as well. In religious terms, belief or faith can be quantified through miracles, as when the Catholic Church seeks out “certifiable miracles” to certify the holiness of candidates for sainthood. In the absence of miracles, how do we measure conviction, whether in God or anything else?

Is it possible for a religiously devout person to believe in God as unshakably as they believe in Germany? That was the undercurrent that troubled me about my classmate’s observation back in the day. Although I considered myself a believer back then, I could not have honestly said that God was as really to me as Germany, despite the fact that I have never been within thousands of miles thereof. I have, however, always been fascinated by German history and culture, and was a fan of the History Channel back when it was nicknamed “the WWII Channel.” Germany was, and remains, as real to me as anything.

Sometimes we speak of actions as proving the strength of conviction. We have already covered the phenomena of religious and political extremism. More often, and less pessimistically, we say things like “Actions speak louder than words.” But how much can even actions really prove? How strong is the relationship between our actions and our beliefs? Most of our actions, it seems to me, are more the result of instincts and reflexes than of any higher conviction. If anything, we seem to idolize conviction because it is the one thing capable, occasionally, of overpowering such ingrained instincts as self-preservation.

Why should it not be possible, after all, to believe deeply in a cause while also being a coward where one’s personal safety is concerned? The opposite is certainly possible. Persons with no strong moral convictions throw away their lives for foolish reasons every day. Even if we take Jesus at his word, does this not still devalue the principle of “He who would save his life shall lose it, and he who would lose his life for my sake shall find it”?

In the novel Silence (1966) by Shusaku Endo, and in its 2016 film adaptation by Martin Scorsese, the main character, a Portuguese Jesuit priest, contemptuously judges a Japanese Christian who repeatedly apostatizes when the persecuting authorities threaten him, always vowing to do better next time – in confession – and predictably failing. Yet, at the climax of the story, the priest, worn down by his trials and faced with the choice of apostatizing or seeing his flock brutally tortured, finally makes the ultimate sacrifice to outwardly renounce his faith and convert to Buddhism. Later, the cowardly Christian seeks out the priest at his home and begs him to absolve him. The fallen priest finally bestows the sacrament of forgiveness with sincerity, having accepted his own human failings but reconciled them with God’s greater love.

This is one of countless conceivable examples of the separability of what we call belief (or faith, conviction, et cetera) and actions. Another way of dichotomizing the issue might be words and behaviors. We are quick to condemn the appearance of hypocrisy in others, quicker to point out the underlying subtleties when the same accusation is leveled at ourselves.

I cannot pretend to have the answer to the question I have posed here. My point, rather, is that the casual use of the word belief is a thing of which I have grown weary. I have gotten tired, for instance, of hearing Christians speak of faith as though it were quantifiable, just as I am sick of non-religious persons claiming that atheism (agnosticism, et cetera) is not a belief system simply because it posits the opposite of what “religion” posits. The one thing I can say for certain is that belief is an abstract concept, a notion, an ideal, a thing that cannot be objectively measured, at least not without enormous progress in such fields as neuroscience, neurobiology, and evolutionary psychology.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Non-Fiction, Opinion Piece, Personal Narrative

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