Belief

 

It helps to clarify the ways we use the words belief, believe, faith, and doubt. For example, believers sometimes say doubt is integral to their faith, or even that without doubt there can be no faith. We need to know what, if anything, that really means.

 

Framing

 

If we believe a factual assertion, this usually means we think it is true. For example:  I believe Jesus was the son of a god.  The words I believe frame the assertion itself within an assertion about our attitude towards it. Other examples are: I think, I know and I doubt.

 

But a factual assertion is true or false, regardless of our attitude. Whether we believe, think, know or doubt it is irrelevant. So we have to separate out, or unframe, the factual assertion in order to assess it objectively.

 

Under this scrutiny, a factual assertion about the supernatural collapses. So what remains to understand is the attitude we express towards it, such as the reasons we may have for framing the assertion about Jesus with I-believe.

 

Diversion

 

The purpose of I-believe may be diversionary. The assertion I believe Jesus was the son of a god seems to be a factual one about Jesus. But the words I believe divert attention away from Jesus and onto me. Whether Jesus really was the son of a god is not the main point. What matters is what I believe, and there is no doubt about that.

 

In this way the I-believe device is one way to defend an irrational belief by deflecting factual questions. And perhaps this linguistic device helps us hold irrational beliefs while maintaining our self-esteem.

 

Doubt

 

Instead, the purpose of I-believe may be to disarm criticism by registering intelligent doubt: I believe Jesus was the son of a god, but I may be wrong - I am not sure - it is called faith or belief for a reason - if I knew, it would no longer be a belief - it would be knowledge.

 

This is the doubt-is-integral-to-faith argument. We frame the irrational belief with what looks like rational hesitation. It has been the evasion of choice for the sophisticated since conventional belief in the supernatural began to crumble a few hundred years ago.

 

If it is conscious, it is dishonest, because the doubt is fake. (See below for more on this.) But it may not be conscious. The maintenance of self-esteem often requires self-delusion.

 

Needless to say, to doubt that Jesus was the son of a god is to entertain the possibility that he was, on the basis of no valid evidence. Doubt is rational only if what we are doubtful about is rational. To doubt there is an invisible green goblin in my kitchen is as irrational as to believe there is. If an assertion is false, we do not suspect that it may not be true.

 

Certainty

 

For many believers, there is no doubt: I believe Jesus was the son of a god means Jesus was the son of a god. After all, in the ancient world it was standard procedure for gods to impregnate virgins and father semi-divine heroes. And most Christian sects have proclaimed Jesus’s divinity for centuries. So why should believers doubt it?

 

This certainty means the framing words I believe are redundant. We do not usually need to express belief in a fact. If someone said I believe the earth orbits the sun, we may wonder what sort of evidence could convince them.

 

(Instead, I believe may mean I have just come across this information. But that is not to express doubt about the information.)

 

Most importantly, I believe Jesus was the son of a god emphatically does not mean Jesus may have been the son of a god. That is a quite different assertion, expressing uncertainty.

 

But notice how odd it would be to say Jesus may have been the son of a god. Rational disbelief and the irrational certainty of belief in the supernatural are mutually exclusive. There really is a clear choice.

 

The point is, there is little reason to worship, pray to or have faith in someone who only may have been the son of a god. After all, he may not have been. And why listen to people who preach the possible divinity of Jesus, or the possible existence of a god? Certainty, or fake certainty, is what keeps the whole circus on the road. Plus a little fake doubt for the intelligentsia.

 

Far from being integral to faith in the supernatural, genuine doubt is its nemesis. And one of the oldest and toughest Christian sects, Roman Catholicism, has always recognised this. For centuries its leaders have claimed they possess the eternal truth, and that outside their racket there is no salvation. (Other rackets are available.)

 

Faith

 

Sometimes I believe in means the same as I have faith in. Both show trust, reliance or commitment. Sometimes this refers to abstract things such as love, friendship, music, democracy, science, rationality or truth. Here I believe in means I care about or value or think this is supremely important.

 

But we can also use these words to show the way we feel about people: I believe in you or we have faith in the people. Here confidence and reliance are prominent. And it is significant that we may believe in Jesus, but we do not believe in Socrates.

 

To believe in someone can be to invest them with some sort of power to help us, or at least exert influence. And we do not commit ourselves in this way unless we think the person or god is in some way able to act, spiritually if not physically. We do not believe in or have faith in nothing, or in someone who is simply dead.

 

I emphasise this because we often hear the expression people of faith as though no more details are needed. But there is no virtue in simply being faithful. For example, few of us commend the fidelity of Ku Klux Klansmen to the cause of white supremacy.

 

We must be free to commit ourselves to a way of life, to a set of moral values, to following the example of a teacher or leader, to a political cause, and so on. We can have faith in many things, good or bad. So the rationality of our faith, and its moral value, depends entirely on its object or goal. And faith in supernatural beings is irrational. Belief does not change the facts.

 

Peter Holmes 

31 January 2017