Unbelievers

partial view of cross-legged person on floor holding an open book

Photo by Utsman Media on Unsplash

Belief. It’s one of the most beautiful of human emotions; it’s one of the most evil of human emotions. It’s one of the most complex of human emotions. 

It’s one of those foundational words in the vocabulary of English. I “believe” that the sun will rise tomorrow. I believe that the earth is part of the Milky Way Galaxy. I can also say that I have “faith” that the sun will rise tomorrow and that the earth in part of the Milky Way Galaxy. But are the words interchangeable? Religions are called “faiths” but “belief” isn’t right as a word in the spot that “faith” often takes up, is it?

I can be part of a faith and not believe in it, can’t I?

Like romantic love, belief is involuntary.

The subtle distinction between “faith” and “belief” shows us that belief is largely pre-linguistic: it’s an emotion, not an idea. 

Doesn’t this demonstrate that the religious imagination is largely pre-linguistic? We may theologize that religions and philosophies are about meaning, purpose, self-coherence, the pursuit of virtue—things like that—but, when the rubber meets the road of a lived life, belief is what keeps a Christian in the Christian lane; a Muslim in the Muslim lane; an atheist in the atheist lane. 

Because believers believe. 

The word I most readily think of to put before “believer” is “true.” True believer. It just sounds right. It also describes a potentially dangerous person. 

After all, it’s not only religions and philosophies that trigger belief. Believers believe in capitalism, communism, fascism . . . themselves. You get the picture. 

Is belief always extreme? Not in the case of “believing” that grape jam tastes better than strawberry jam. Though in that sort of case, I am extremely unlikely to change my mind. Or think much about it.

I suppose there are milquetoast believers in such systems as Christianity and capitalism. But we don’t fear those, do we? Neither do we hear from those, do we? They don’t stop traffic; storm buildings; or preach on street corners. 

Pre-linguistic. Our bodies are so full of the knowledge of humanity back a million years and more. It’s the wince at the mention of a name. It’s the startled looks we see on faces around snakes and demagogues. We feel belief.

I believe in belief; but I’m not a believer. “Belief is the death of intelligence” wrote author and skeptic Robert Anton Wilson. I’m not sure about that. It sounds good. It even sounds true. But I’m not sure. 

Those of us who treasure knowledge and pursue wisdom will never achieve belief of the “true believer” sort. Yet, somehow, I still believe in belief. I’ve seen its beauty on the faces of some. 

Belief is beautiful; belief is evil. And it’s not going away. 

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