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Let’s Stop Using This Word (1): Believe


I believe in Jesus.
I believe in God.

I believe in the Tooth Fairy.
I believe in Santa Claus.
I believe in the Easter Bunny.

I believe that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the Sun in an elliptical orbit; the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes.

In our post-Christian culture, where anything that isn’t on YouTube is disputed whether it was historical, and even what is there is open to debate, the term “believe in” has been reduced to “actually happened historically like this.” Hence, if we want to convey what the Christian, biblical understanding is of “believe in,” let’s stop using the words “believe in.”

When, in Christianity and in the Bible, we use the word “believe,” it is not to mean “holding the opinion that a certain object exists objectively.”

πιστεύω, the verb, means: I believe, have faith in, trust in. The passive means: I am entrusted with. It derives from πείθω I persuade, I have confidence, I urge. πίστις, the noun, means faith, belief, trust, confidence; fidelity, faithfulness.

Even the etymology of the English word, “believe” derives through Proto-Germanic, hold dear, love, back to Proto-Indo-European roots for to care, desire, love.

Belief used to mean “trust in God,” while faith meant “loyalty to a person based on promise or duty” (a sense preserved in keep one’s faith, in good (or bad) faith and in common usage of faithful, faithless, which contain no notion of divinity). But faith, as cognate of Latin fides, took on the religious sense beginning in 14c. translations, and belief had by 16c. become limited to “mental acceptance of something as true,” from the religious use in the sense of “things held to be true as a matter of religious doctrine” (a sense attested from early 13c.).

So… belief is not a mental acceptance of one more invisible, unverifiable object in the universe (ie. God) than provable by Science. It is not getting over a certain percentage of boxes ticked that you can agree with in the Creed. It is actually about trust, love, entrust, and have confidence…

Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’

I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll


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6 thoughts on “Let’s Stop Using This Word (1): Believe”

  1. Jonathan Wood

    I think both dimensions – belief that something is true, or happened, is necessary. But if thats where it ends I’m not sure whether if it’s the full quid… or even a quarter of a quid?. So I think your point that “trust, love, entrust, and have confidence…” hits the nail on the head – but if it happens to be focussed on the teapot you mentioned between earth and Mars I would think those affections/attitudes are misplaced…

    1. Thanks, Jonathan. I would differentiate between “happened” and “true”. And a lot of the time we use metaphors to describe what happened. Mostly we are great at living within those metaphors – it seems that religions suffers with people taking the metaphors literally. Blessings.

  2. Where I come from, belief implies a degree of doubt:

    “I know that the 13 bus is scheduled to come down this road. I believe it will arrive here at 0750, but it might be earlier or later, or it might not arrive because it breaks down on the way.”

    Given that neither you, I, nor anyone else can prove the existence or non-existence of God, it seems a perfectly reasonable way to proceed.

    1. Thanks, James. I’m not sure that you and I are totally expressing the same thing. The whole scientific method is based on being open to corrections to current understandings – but I would not use the word “belief” in that context. I struggle to think of anything about which there is not an element of doubt possible (except a priori knowledge). Blessings.

  3. Dugald McCullough

    I was delighted to come across this questioning of the use of the word ‘belief’, Bosco. I have been thinking for some time that it seems the word ‘belief’ when used as a verb can mean any type of mental activity that the speaker wants it to:
    “I believe the girls are going to play tennis after luncheon”
    “I believe Jesus Christ was the Son of God”

    Instead of being precise and using the word that actually describes a distinct mental activity, such as ‘presume’, or ‘assume’, or ‘hope’, or ‘expect’, or ‘trust’, or ‘suppose’, or just plain ‘think’ (and obviously the list could go on here) there is a confusion or laziness which lets people just say ‘believe’ and they let that stand in as a descriptor for any of these distinct and disparate mental activities.

    But there is one mental activity that the word ‘belief’ refers to, and that no other word can, and that is ‘to invoke the supernatural’.

    When someone (usually a child) says ‘I believe in Santa Claus’, or a Christian says ‘I believe in Jesus’ they are indicating that they are invoking something supernatural by engaging in this human mental activity we call ‘belief’.

    I have heard people say ‘I believe in evolution’ which is an incoherent thing to say, it is impossible to believe in evolution. The theory of evolution does not invoke the supernatural, it simply presents a human-created way of making sense of objectively observed data and it is open to being superseded by another better way of making sense of the data should one come along. Theory-making is a completely different type of mental activity from, ‘holding dear’ to an idea. In believing, one is taking an idea to oneself and making it true, irrespective of objective data to support that idea. (Obviously, if there was objective evidence for the idea, then there would be no need to ‘believe’ in it).

    To share something personal, it seems I am unable to believe, and consider myself to be someone who is spiritually disabled. I am somewhat in awe of those who are able to believe in supernatural beings, and in other worlds such as Heaven and Hell. Just as some find maths an insurmountable challenge, and for others poetry is a completely foreign domain, I find I am unable to believe in anything. I make do with just this world as it is, but it seems to be enough for me – well, it has to be!

    People say to me ‘but surely you believe in love’, but, like most people in the world, believers or not, I make love (in the broadest sense). It is something I do, like everybody else, to the best of my ability, and, like anybody else who is doing it, my love is real and in the world. It is not something supernatural that I have invoked within my own mind by the mental process of ‘believing’ in it.

    Thank you for the opportunity to clarify my thinking here, stimulated by your idea “Lets stop using the word ‘believe'”. I would be most interested in what sense you make of whatever sense I have made.

    1. Thanks, Dugald. There is much in what you say that I agree with (and I encourage you to keep poking around this site). I wonder if I part company when you start talking about “supernatural beings” – I think there is a better way forward to thinking about God other than as a “supernatural being”. As well as looking around this website, I wonder if I might recommend a book: God is No Thing: Coherent Christianity. Blessings.

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