The Thing About Belief Is...

    I think often about the nature of belief. Given that I was a passionately devout Christian for many years and then, somewhat suddenly, realized I did not actually concur with much of the church’s doctrine anymore, I wonder what it means to truly believe something. Did I ever believe in God? I certainly felt a strong resonance with what I was taught by pastors, speakers, and Sunday school teachers; but that feeling went away. My intuitive sympathies were eventually overpowered by an undeniable reasoning that all but eliminated the possibility of things like a virgin getting pregnant or a man rising from the dead. I said I was a “believer”, but it became clear that though I had a sense of the mysterious and mystical facets of life, I did not know, in any evidence-based way, that what I claimed to believe in was actually real. I was intrigued, but not certain.

    Dictionary definitions of the word “belief” do little to clarify the concept. Official denotations include both the idea that it is a “feeling” that something is true and the idea that it is an “acceptance” of what has been demonstrated to be true. So, when a fundamentalist-type church asks a person to equate intuitive impressions with intellectual knowing (because, let’s face it, there is a gaping lack of objective evidence for most if not all of the Biblical narrative) they aren’t technically wrong. They are, however, entering a morally sketchy territory of disingenuousness in which the phrase “I believe” gets thrown around by congregants like drink choices at a dinner party. And this is my problem: that, as far as I experienced it, when one said one believed in whatever tenet one was told one needed to believe in it was almost never a statement of a personal discovery after extensive research and analysis but rather a proclamation of allegiance to the club. Belief, in my religious context, was about belonging, not concluding.

    It’s not that I have a problem with an intuitive kind of knowing, or the very natural desire to be a part of a group. My own personality type is such that I tend to navigate my daily life based on gut feelings and inexplicable preferences, as opposed to careful examination of empirical data. I ‘do what’s in my heart’, as we touchy-feely types would say, sometimes at the expense of what’s practical. As a logical extension of that inclination, I also think there’s not necessarily anything wrong with letting one’s organic internal leanings be the guide in terms of one’s personal spiritual and religious choices. However, if an institution like Evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity is going to base its authority on the historical factuality of certain miraculous events (not to mention the literal existence of a God) that are--or have been so far--all but impossible to demonstrate in any scientific sort of way, that institution needs to be forthcoming about that fact that the “belief” its adherents are referring to is not a knowing but merely a supposing.

    Christians, in my opinion, should start saying “I think” or “I feel” instead of “I believe”. Even as a post-Church, non-theistic apostate, I have made a massive effort to use the word “believe” as little as possible, and only in circumstances in which the thing I’m professing to believe is a thing that I find reasonably demonstrable to all. I’ve tried to hold myself accountable to more precise language, and to avoiding the fostering of an unnecessary, potentially harmful, feeling of certainty that comes with using the term “believe” over and over again. Having an opinion is fine; making the choice to go along with an explanation of the universe that is based on a supernatural story is the prerogative of any given person. But it is dishonest to accept, say, the existence of an invisible all-powerful being who is currently orchestrating existence and taking requests and not admit that this is a silly and unreasonable choice for a lot of people.

    Must these Christians be so anti-intellectual that they cannot admit the difference between intuition and reason, that they can’t admit they don’t actually know? Must they require that a thinking-prone person check her brain’s science filter at the door in order to gain acceptance and approval in the club? I know many aren’t like that. I know that there are, in fact, branches of Christianity and individual congregations in which believing in the literal nature of the more miraculous stories is not required, or even encouraged. Unfortunately, I was not raised in that version of a faith community. The concept of belief, much like the concept of God, will forever--or at least as far as my eyes can see--be so baggage-laden that I’ve had to put it down just about altogether; and yes, I can get a little frustrated about that.

    But it's okay. There are and always will be other words, though they’re never sufficient no matter one's history or context. Thus, a person should have as many as possible at her disposal at any given time. That is an example of something I am tempted to say I believe, but for the sake of integrity, I’ll just go with “or so I think” for now.