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Belief and faith

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This is an extended response to Faith is not necessarily belief, on Terry Sissons’ blog The Other I.

Graham Greene

Graham Greene

Talk of the distinction between belief and faith reminds me of the kind of conversations which crop up in the novels of Graham Greene. But in Graham Greene (if I remember correctly) the ‘faith’ seems typically a faith (or indeed belief!) that ‘belief’ will return after a session of doubt. The ‘faith’ is therefore something that persists through the doubt and loss of belief.

As a non-believer (in fact never-believer) I can only understand something like this in my own way. For example:

At time t1 person P believed that ‘Jesus rose from the dead’.

At time t2 person P no longer believed that ‘Jesus rose from the dead’.

However at t2 person P also believed that (= had faith that) he/she would at some future time t3 return to believing that ‘Jesus rose from the dead’.

(The beliefs at time t1 and time t3 may not be identical in every way, but they both qualify as beliefs that ‘Jesus rose from the dead’.)

But I think Terry is talking about a different – and in many ways more interesting – kind of belief/faith distinction. I’m also wondering if this kind of belief/faith distinction could perhaps be expressed as a distinction between two possible meanings of ‘belief’.

One is typified by ‘I believe in trusting people’. To believe in this sense is to adopt a maxim or way of life or ethical principle. The other meaning is typified by ‘I believe that humans evolved from ape-like creatures’. To believe in this sense is to think that something is the case – about the world, the universe, some aspect of reality.

Sadly it’s not simply the distinction between believing in and believing that, because, for example, ‘I believe in fairies’ usually means ‘I believe that fairies exist’. Plus there’s ‘I believe that people should trust each other’, which is more or less equivalent to ‘I believe in trusting people’. But subject to this caveat I shall use ‘believe in’ as a convenient formula for eg believing in trusting people and ‘believe that’ for believing that something is the case.

One of the problems with a lot of religious doctrine is that it seems designed to encourage people to conflate belief in and belief that, when in fact both mental health and moral health probably benefit from keeping them distinct.

I’m sure there are many religious people who give top priority to believing in and don’t agonise over believing that. In fact it might not be unreasonable to describe such people as ‘believing in not worrying too much about believing that’.

Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu

But it is very often beliefs that which justify beliefs in. On the face of it, a good example is that of Desmond Tutu, who I discussed in an earlier post on Faith and democracy. Desmond Tutu believed in the abolition of apartheid in South Africa because he believed that every human being is ‘made in the image of God’.

To believe in the abolition of apartheid is not to believe that something is the case about the universe, but to believe that something should be the case (so it is therefore to adopt a maxim, way of life or ethical principle). To believe that that every human being is made in the image of God may or may not be to believe that something is the case about the universe – depending on whether it is meant literally or metaphorically.

To mean it literally is to believe: that a God really exists; that that God really did create human beings; and that he really did create them in his own image. A way of meaning it metaphorically is for example just to see people as having been made in God’s image – almost in Wittgenstein’s sense of ‘seeing as’.

For all I know, Tutu may have meant it literally. In his case it hardly matters, as he has always seemed far too wise ever to deduce an unsound belief in from any unverifiable belief that.

But contrast that with the case of someone who believes that (a) there is something called a soul and (b) the soul enters the human body at the time of conception; and on the basis of this believes in the legitimacy of killing abortion doctors. See for example (thanks Terry): Tom’s Viewpoint.

This is probably yet another take on the is/ought question, which I’ve discussed several times before (eg So be good for goodness sake, Fabulously absolute #2, Fabulously absolute #3 and Fabulously absolute #4), and which does seem to permeate a lot of religious doctrine.

I think Terry’s use of ‘faith’ is very close if not identical to my use of ‘belief in’. It is to do with what ought to be the case rather than what is the case. A ‘community of faith’ is in this sense a set of people who all believe in the rightness and goodness of a certain way of life. I am sceptical though how many such ‘communities of faith’ succeed in keeping themselves pure of unverifiable beliefs that – which could be why there is not yet, as far as I know, a condom factory in the Vatican.

© Chris Lawrence 2011.


Written by Chris Lawrence

26 March 2011 at 1:51 pm

6 Responses

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  3. Chris,

    I’ve just read an article in the New Scientist you might find of interest – if you haven’t already read it. I think it offers some tantalizing possibilities.


    Terry Sissons

    30 March 2011 at 5:07 pm

    • Great, thanks.

      Very interesting. The title possibly over-states the case, but the text itself seems sound.


      Chris Lawrence

      2 April 2011 at 10:50 am

  4. Yes, Chris, you understand the distinction between faith and belief that I am talking about. It is not G Greene’s version at all.

    I have found the distinction between faith and belief helpful in bridging the gap between myself and some Christians, many of whom I have know most of my life and whom I cannot help but think are more generous, loving human beings than I. For some of them, I think belief is important in sustaining them. Others seem to be able to dismiss many doctrines as relatively unimportant wishful thinking emanating from Rome. Most, in my view, are philosophically unsophisticated, and until now, I have felt myself alienated from them. But I can see a bridge now I’d not understood before was there.

    However, like you, I too wonder to what extent a community of faith can persist without adopting some beliefs. It is possible, though, that a community can tolerate various interpretations – most importantly literal or abstract, symbolic interpretations. To some extent, it seems to me Buddhism has managed this better than many. Actually, I have to admit that there are many Christians who manage it as well, but Christian institutions don’t seem to.

    I also take your point that often it may be belief that supports faith and not the other way around. It’s an idea that bears further examination.

    Lastly, let me say that it did not occur to me that faith and belief were related to ethics and morality as you discuss it. But I can see the connection. Thank you for elucidating it for me.

    In fact, thank you for the whole continuing discussion.


    Terry Sissons

    26 March 2011 at 8:50 pm

    • Thanks Terry,

      Buddhism also crossed my mind as I wrote the post.

      My understanding of Buddhism is fairly superficial, but I agree it does seem relatively successful at finding institutional ways to keep ‘belief that’-type dogma in its place.

      This is not to say it is all pure ‘belief in’ teaching. On the face of it all four of the Four Noble Truths are ‘beliefs that’ – they are saying that something is the case about the universe. But the Noble Eightfold Path is as far as I can see pure ‘belief in’. (That in itself seems quite a neat distinction!)

      I would also be interested to know to what extent practising Buddhists really really (as Cheryl Cole would say) believe in the literal truth of the Four Noble Truths, and to what extent they see value in seeing life and the world as if the Four Noble Truths were true.

      Thanks again, Chris.

      Chris Lawrence

      27 March 2011 at 8:56 am

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