Belief is something often misunderstood. Taken to the extreme it can be blind us from the truth. It can enslave us to the will of those who would wish to control us. It can excuse us from responsibility and can even be used to justify atrocities that we would otherwise not commit.
But what exactly does it mean to believe? Is belief healthy or is it harmful? And is belief something which any of us can ever be free from?
When we say that we believe something, we are essentially admitting to the fact that we don’t really know. Because, if we know something—I mean, really know it—then there’s no need to believe it. That is the difference between knowing and believing.
Belief is essentially an assumption, a speculation, a conjecture. And what makes it a belief, rather than knowledge, is that it isn’t certain. There is nothing inherently wrong with believing if our belief is based upon reason. It only becomes dangerous when we confuse our belief for certainty.
When it all boils down, can we say that there is anything we truly know for certain? And when we say that we believe something, can we recognize that our belief is essentially an admission of uncertainty? Generally when we talk about belief we are talking about an idea that has been accepted purely on authority. This means that we have accepted something as true without really understanding it. We have accepted it on the faith that the person espousing it has certainty, and we accept it without necessarily examining it. But if we don’t take the time to examine it, then how do we know? How can we be certain of anything?
When I talk of my own belief I’m not talking about blind acceptance. I’m talking about holding a hypothesis based on knowledge, observation, logic and reason. This means that I have accepted some idea as probable, but until it has been proven as fact I must still admit some uncertainty. I must remain open to the possibility that my understanding is limited and that further evidence could prove my belief to be flawed or even false. And so, I must maintain a degree of flexibility, especially in the face of new information.
Unfortunately many people do not maintain this kind of flexibility. Most of us don’t really understand the nature of belief, and often confuse it for certainty. What is more troublesome is when our beliefs are based, not upon evidence, but merely upon hearsay, and especially when there is pressure or coercion to accept them, in spite of the lack of evidence to support them, or in spite of all the evidence against them.
There are many different reasons why we adopt belief without any evidence, the most common reason being social conformity, a need to be accepted by the group, to feel a sense of belonging. And then there is the matter of consensus. Everyone shares the same belief, so we naturally assume it be true.
Another reason we blindly adopt belief is simply because it comforts us; because it offers a convenient answer to life’s deepest mysteries and perplexities. We may not be certain that it’s the correct answer, but we feel it’s better than having no answer at all. It makes us feel safe and secure, whereas uncertainty can make us quite uncomfortable.
As I’ve already stated, there’s nothing inherently wrong with having beliefs, so long as we recognize the uncertainty behind them. We all have them. Even atheists have beliefs. The conviction that God does not exist is a belief, since you can’t know with absolute certainty that something does not exist. What makes belief problematic, or even dangerous, however, is when we forget that it is simply a belief and we begin to hold to the conviction that it’s an absolute truth.
It’s problematic in the sense that once we mistake our belief for certainty we become closed to any and all opposing ideas and evidence. We are unable to grow in our understanding of reality because we believe we already understand it. And it becomes dangerous when we begin to force our beliefs upon others in a way that is forceful, invasive or destructive, or when we use our beliefs to justify violent or apathetic behavior.
Something quite interesting about belief is the way in which we have the tendency to cling to it, even when the evidence is lacking or is stacked against it. We are often quick to defend, but rarely do we have the willingness to listen and consider. And when we express our beliefs it is generally for the purpose of persuading others to accept them. Rarely do people sit down to discuss their beliefs with the intention of simply broadening their own perspective. And why are we so fervent in our mission to convert everyone? We might say that we are trying to help others, trying to save them, which seems quite noble. But in most cases I think we are just trying to quell our own doubts.
Doubt and belief are two sides of the same coin, and that coin is uncertainty. Often when someone is trying very hard to convince others of his beliefs, what he is really doing is trying to convince himself. Deep down there is some doubt, and as long as there are those who believe differently, that doubt remains active. It would be more comforting for us if we could just bury it and forget all about it. But each time someone expresses a belief that is in alignment with that doubt, that doubt is triggered, and this causes us distress because it forces us to consider the possibility that our beliefs may be flawed.
If we could somehow convince everyone around us to accept the same belief as us, it would offer support to that belief. It would give us some sense of confirmation. It would help us to leave our doubt buried and undisturbed. And this is often why doubt is so adamantly discouraged, and even scorned, especially in religious institutions.
But I think that doubt is a very useful thing. It’s a subconscious mechanism which challenges unfounded beliefs. It causes us to question the very nature of our beliefs, to hold them under the light of reason. If we didn’t have this mechanism we would be prone to believing anything and everything.
Rather than ignoring and repressing our doubts, we should invite them to the surface. Our doubts, when allowed to arise, offer us the opportunity to more thoroughly examine our beliefs and bring us closer to truth. We shouldn’t be afraid to face our doubts. If something we believe is actually true, that belief will stand up to scrutiny. But I think it is because we doubt so strongly in certain areas that we are afraid to examine them more closely, because our doubts bring into the question the validity of our beliefs. But this should give us all the more reason to examine them.
Some people say that it’s childish to believe whatever we are told. I would say it’s naïve, but not childish. Children, if uninhibited, are actually quite inquisitive. If they don’t understand something, they will question it. They will ask “why?” a thousand times until they’re satisfied. We should have this kind of childlike mentality. We should seek to understand, not to blindly accept. We should have this kind of persistent curiosity that moves us to probe deeply into the matter. The only reason children blindly accept anything is because their authority figures discourage their questioning and often use fear and shame to instill beliefs in them. As these children grow up, they often hold to these beliefs out of fear, but deep down there is doubt, and that doubt is discouraged. But this doubt must be examined if we truly desire to know truth.
The first place to begin is by simply acknowledging and accepting our uncertainty. This can be very frightening. We are comforted by our beliefs. They make us feel secure. But all security is false security. We must learn to become comfortable with uncertainty, with not knowing. Only then is there any possibility of truly knowing anything.
We should exercise a healthy degree of skepticism concerning all things unknown. Skepticism is often misunderstood. People often equate skepticism with disbelief. They think that to be skeptical means to automatically disregard something as false. But this is not what skepticism means at all. The term originated with a Greek school of philosophers who called themselves “Skeptics”, a word which means “inquiring” or “reflective”. A true skeptic is not someone who immediately doubts nor believes. A skeptic is someone who investigates. To be skeptical means neither to accept nor reject, but to withhold all conclusions until the matter has been thoroughly examined.
One who is skeptical is willing to examine all sides of any argument without giving sway to preconceived ideas. This doesn’t mean that such a person is without preconceptions. It simply means that one is willing to suspend their own preconceptions in order to reach a more thorough understanding.
The true skeptic is aware of his own uncertainty, and he is not afraid to be proven wrong, because he holds the prospect of truth in higher regard than his own pride. And he knows that truth can only be understood through direct knowing, by which belief becomes unnecessary.
If it is truth that we seek, and not merely to be comforted, then we must embrace uncertainty. We must be willing to admit what we do not know. We must examine our doubts and question our beliefs. And we must open ourselves up to innumerable possibilities of a universe which we do not fully understand.