Exactly what does it mean to “believe” in God?

June 5, 2006 | By | 14 Replies More

In a recent conversation with a relative of mine who is a born-again Southern Baptist Christian, we got into a discussion about the afterlife.  My relative insisted that “hell is a real place,” while I pointed out that no one knows anything more about the afterlife than anyone else does.  I pointed out that although some people might believe there is a hell, they don’t actually know anything whatsoever about what happens to us after we die.  To this observation, my relative had no reply. 

That conversation came back to me when I read Erich’s recent post about the importance of false and oxymoronic religious claims.  One of the odd religious claims of Christianity is that eternal salvation is achieved solely through “belief” in Jesus Christ.  But what, exactly, does the word “belief” mean in that context?  Is belief something that can be measured on a discrete (i.e., binary) scale (i.e., you either believe something or you don’t), or is it measured on a continuous scale (i.e., you believe with varying degrees of certainty)?  And what happens when we are dealing with belief in the supernatural?  If someone says, “I believe I had eggs for breakfast,” in what way is that equivalent to saying, “I believe hell is a real place?”  Aren’t these two statements using fundamentally different types or degrees of “belief?”

This raises the question:  if eternal salvation is based on “belief” in supernatural beings and supernatural phenomena, then upon which scale (discrete or continuous) can that “belief” be measured?  If someone says, “I believe I had eggs for breakfast,” we might understand how that “belief” could be measured on a discrete scale:  it should be obvious whether the person had eggs for breakfast or not.  But when someone says, “I believe hell is a real place,” “I believe in God,” or “I believe Jesus is Christ the Savior,” then how can that belief possibly be measured on a discrete scale?  I don’t see how it can, because it is nothing like the statement, “I believe I had eggs for breakfast.”

This lead to a rather disturbing conclusion:  if “belief” in God (or Jesus) cannot be measured on a discrete scale (because belief in the supernatural cannot be as certain as belief in one’s breakfast meal), then the only other option is a continuous scale.  But then where along that continuous scale must a person’s “belief” be located to ensure themselves entry into heaven?  Assuming “belief” can be measured at all (we must assume God can do this), then God must also necessarily have some (arbitrary) point along that scale, such that a person’s “belief” must exceed that point to gain them entry into heaven.  This suggests that “belief” alone is not sufficient to gain entry into heaven, but rather a person must have enough belief to clear God’s threshold.

This raises yet another question:  how does a person increase the level of his or her “belief” in supernatural phenomena that cannot be perceived by any of the five senses?  I can think of only one method:  by actively searching for evidence that confirms ones’ desired religious beliefs and actively ignoring all contrary evidence. 

This, of course, brings me back to Erich’s post:  the importance of false and oxymoronic religious claims.  If we follow the above thinking to its ultimate conclusion, we see that false and oxymoronic religious claims help believers to convince themselves that they are increasing the level of their “belief” along the continuum.  Since they cannot rely on rational means (i.e., their five senses) to help them “believe” more strongly in the supernatural, they must rely on the irrational.  We would expect, therefore, that false and oxymoronic claims would be an inherent component of any religion that involves judgment in the afterlife by a supernatural being.


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Category: Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Grumpypilgrim is a writer and management consultant living in Madison, WI. He has several scientific degrees, including a recent master’s degree from MIT. He has also held several professional career positions, none of which has been in a field in which he ever took a university course. Grumps is an avid cyclist and, for many years now, has traveled more annual miles by bicycle than by car…and he wishes more people (for the health of both themselves and our planet) would do the same. Grumps is an enthusiastic advocate of life-long learning, healthy living and political awareness. He is single, and provides a loving home for abused and abandoned bicycles. Grumpy’s email: grumpypilgrim(AT)@gmail(DOT).com [Erich’s note: Grumpy asked that his email be encrypted this way to deter spam. If you want to write to him, drop out the parentheticals in the above address].

Comments (14)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    In my experience, "belief" in religious truths increases in the presence of other believers and otherwise decreases. Such an odd phenomenon! I've had the opportunity to have heart to heart talks with about five Catholic priests over the course of my life, each of whom admitted to me (in private) that they sometimes wondered whether God existed. In public, though, they all bellowed from the pulpit not only that God existed but that Mary was a virgin etc etc.

    One thing that could explain this sliding scale of belief is that the utterance of such religous truths facilitated social navigation and bonding. Hence, my reason for writing http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=217 .

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    This morning, a fellow on one of the religious television channels where I live was talking about how 1st-century Christians who refused to pay homage to Roman gods were put into the Colosseum as food for lions. I wonder how many Believers today (Catholic priests included) would be willing to make such a display of faith?

    Michael Shermer's book, "How We Believe," also discusses religion as a tool for social navigation and bonding. He points out that seeing a person in church every Sunday, praying toward Mecca five times a day, obstaining from eating pork, etc., creates a presumed level of trust that facilitates generosity. People are more likely to be generous toward their neighbor if they believe their neighbor (because they know him or her to be a "religious" person) will someday reciprocate.

    Interestingly (going back to the subject of "belief" in God), Shermer also discusses the messiah myth. The messiah myth — the belief that a supernatural entity will rescue you, grant you everlasting life after you die and give your enemies everlasting torment after they die — is a very common myth among oppressed populations. From the Native Americans of North America, to the Maori natives of the South Pacific islands, to many other (pagan) peoples around the globe, all have had messiah myths that coincided with their being oppressed by invaders. Given the machine-like efficiency with which Rome subjugated the ancient world, the appearance of a "messiah" is neither surprising nor unique.

    Further on the subject of "belief," Shermer discusses how liars sometimes become so good at lying that they begin to believe their own lies. Indeed, a liar is "rewarded," in a sense, for believing his own lies, because the most convincing of all liars is the one who believes he is telling the truth. This principle, of course, finds many examples in politics, but it might also help explain the origins of "belief" in religious nonsense: non-Believers could begin declaring a (false) belief in some religious doctrine, in order to gain the benefits of community that Believers enjoy; then, over time, they could learn to believe their own lies, because doing so enables them to enjoy even greater levels of trust within the community. Erich's examples of the 'questioning priests' could be illustrations of this — people who privately question their own faith, but have learned how to be convincing liars in public. After another decade or two of telling such public lies, it's not hard to imagine these priests eventually convincing themselves that what they are saying in public is true.

  3. Emily Harris says:

    Quick comment from a believer: Grumpypilgrim, you said that "one of the odd religious claims of Christianity is that eternal salvation is achieved solely through “belief” in Jesus Christ." I submit that salvation is achieved solely through Jesus Christ! Our faith is merely the instrument or avenue to which we are brought to be united with him. Union with Christ is central to the faith (do a word search of how much "in him", "in Christ", or the like is used in the New Testament – it's astonishing!).

    We are united to the Messiah by the faith that the Holy Spirit enables us to have. It's all a gift and no salvation or merit will EVER be "gained" by a human being save Jesus of Nazareth.



  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    Responding to Emily's comment, I have heard many, many preachers preach that each person who "believes" in Jesus is "saved." Emily's comment suggests that faith alone is insufficient, that salvation is achieved through "union with Christ." It seems to me this phrase raises more questions than it answers. Exactly what does "union with Christ" mean? Exactly how does a Christian know if he or she has achieved "union with Christ," because many Christians express considerable certainty that they will be going to heaven after they die? (Indeed, many preachers even express considerable certainty that their followers will be going to heaven, which would seem to me to be well outside their scope of knowledge.) And doesn't this more circuitous explanation (involving both "union with Christ" and the intervention of yet another invisible deity, the Holy Spirit) merely confirm my original post, which asked if some believers might have insufficient faith to get themselves into heaven? To the extent that I believe I understand Emily's terminology, I confess I see no significant difference between "salvation through belief in Jesus Christ" (my words) and the more circuitous (and, to me, jargonistic) explanation that Emily provides.

  5. Upachee says:

    I agree with Emily. Suppose you are on a high cliff and lose your footing. As you fall you notice a branch sticking out of the cliff right beside you. If you 'believe' that the branch is strong enough to support your weight but you don't actually reach out and grab it, you will be lost. If instead, you have doubts about the strength of the branch but in faith, reach out and grab it anyway, you will be saved. So therefore it is not the strength of our faith that saves but the strength of the branch that saves. It is our "union" with the Branch that saves not our faith in the branch. I concur that 'to believe' is better understood 'to trust'. Hope this helps.

  6. Andrew says:

    When you look at the context of the word "believe" and you define as the person who said the word defines it, you can easily see that it is actually a state of being, or more of a "discrete scale." The dictionary definition of the Greek words for "believe" and "faith," we see that they have basically the same meaning, which, in a nutshell, is "to put complete trust or confidence into something." The bible defines this in a very similar way, but with some implications that many who merely skim over verses will miss. Martin Luther studied the Bible, looking for a way to be saved, because he did not buy into the Catholic doctrine, which at the time said if you bought relics, you were forgiven; however in his study, he found an answer: the only thing necessary to have the eternal life is to have faith and believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, lived, died, and was resurrected. There was only one problem, he failed to truly define faith. Faith is not just believing that God is real, because obviously that would make Satan, who was cast out of heaven by God and therefore obviously aware of who God is and what he has done, eligible for eternal life with God. In James 2:19-20, the author states "You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?"

    The New King James Version. 1982. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

    Now here, the term "faith" implies something more than just belief in existence. It actually says that if you have faith, you will show your faith by the works that you do, otherwise, there is no faith at all. In John 14:12-14, Jesus says that whoever believes in Him will do what He has done (heal sick, speak the gospel to the poor, hurt, outcast, raise the dead, etc.) and much more! So, the point that I am trying to get at is this: if you believe in God, or have faith in Him, it will be shown by the fruits you produce, or the works you do. If you do no work, you have no faith, period.

  7. DDWILLI says:

    Well said Andrew! Our obedience is the evidence of our faith. The Lord said "if we love me, keep my commandments." John, James, and other Apostles make it very clear that our best efforts to follow the Lord's example and do the things He taught (being "doers" of the word, not just hearers) are necessary to know Him. I think our modern day understanding of the word "believe" is not the same understanding that was meant when Paul and others said that "those who believe in Christ will be saved". A "believer" back then was one who followed the example of and the teaching of the ONE who was the object of their faith. You cannot separate honest efforts of obedience from true faith…they are intertwined. Thus, faith without works is dead, being alone.

  8. So Andrew,

    This brings us right back to a fundamental question—do you do good works because you have faith in a god or do you do them because they are the right things to do? The former seems, of the two, more self-serving, because along with belief in a god comes the whole suite of benefits such belief is supposed to entail. Which makes the whole nature of "good" in good works relative, since if part of that faith is to do what your god tells you then you would perforce be required to do harm if that god so dictated. Good then would only be good according to the dictates of your god rather than your conscience.

    Doing good works because they are in themselves good would seem to be a superior choice. No reward is promised at the completion of such works, unless you can find reward in knowing that such works are good and needed doing.

  9. Stacy says:

    Interesting viewpoints.

    Going with your premise that belief is based on the 5 senses, would you agree that the Bible is something that requires using the 5 senses? Do you believe the Bible exists? Understanding where it came from requires research and study.

    I think the question of belief therein lies whether you believe that what the Bible claims is true, is true. And that is a discrete belief. Either all of the bible is true or none of it is.

    Knowledge gained however, does increase one's belief. Therefore belief is continuous as one's faith increases as a result of learning more of what is truth.

    Do you believe that what God says is true in the Bible is true? Check it out for yourself!

    The bible says: "Whoever has the Son has {eternal} life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life." 1 John 5:12-13


    Stacy Foreman

  10. MikeFitz17 says:

    This discussion has a lot of resonance for me on a personal level. My devoutly Catholic (and very literal-minded) sister-in-law and her husband have banished me, my wife and the rest of the family from their lives for a variety of religious infractions, including the fact that my wife and her non-Catholic sisters speak up for themselves and refuse to subordinate themselves to male authority. In other worlds, they believe they are the equal of men.

    My devoutly Catholic sister-in-law and her husband disagree. They disagree with the rest of us on other issues, too. In any event, their interpretations of certain Biblical passages have caused a big family rift that is unlikely to heal.

    It's not the Bible that's the cause of these family problems. Instead, the problem stems from my sister-in-law and her husband's intolerance and fundamentalist mindset.

    Same goes for every other religious-based conflict worldwide. Too often, the fundamentalists miss the forest for the twigs. As a result, millions of people have died in countless wars, pogroms and genocides.

    I cite my family rift as an example of the problems that occur when very devout and well-meaning people interpret the Bible's commandments inflexibly and without consideration of the contexts within which certain Biblical passages were written and interpreted.

    The same is true of many Christian doctrines aimed at regulating the thoughts and behavior of Christians over the centuries.

    When it comes to the Bible, as well as what major Christian thinkers have written over the millenia, I have concluded that all reasonable, educated Christians must pick and choose what they believe in, while ignoring the stuff that is either downright crazy, bigoted or makes no sense in our modern world — such as the Bible's and the Church Fathers' condemnation of women, gays and Jews, as well as modern science, in addition to support for slavery and corporal punishment of children and the torture and execution of "heretics" and witches.

    We can argue all day about whether the Bible must be accepted in its entirety as "true" as a necessary condition for membership in the Christian faith, or whether it must be interpreted and adapted to fit our world. We can argue about these things, but we'd be wasting our time. Life's too short.

    Above all, I believe Christians must approach non-Christians and the rest of the world with humility, empathy and compassion, plus a huge dose of common sense.

    Otherwise, Christianity is in danger of becoming a farce and a giant scam — which it already has become in the hands of the current leadership of the Republican Party, among others.

    Some of the truest words I have ever read about the conflict between the devout and the non-devout were written by the late Rev. Peter Gomes, a Baptist minister who served as Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University. These words should be carved into a mountainside somewhere and posted above the entrances of important public buildings. Yeah, they are that significant.

    Gomes wrote:

    "Religious fundamentalism is dangerous because it cannot accept ambiguity and diversity and is therefore inherently intolerant. Such intolerance, in the name of virtue, is ruthless and uses political power to destroy what it cannot convert. It is dangerous, especially in America, because it is anti-democratic and is suspicious of 'the other,' in whatever form that 'other' might appear. To maintain itself, fundamentalism must always define 'the other' as deviant."

    • Erich Vieth says:

      MikeFitz: Sorry to hear that you've been banished for speaking your mind.

      I very much agree with Gomes' definition of "religious fundamentalism." You suggest that believers must pave their own roads. I agree, and I do think that all of us are "believers" in the sense that we are all guided, to some extent, by things we cannot actually prove. As to the pick and choose suggestion. That has often been tried by Catholics who ignore the Pope's pronouncements on birth control (and other pronouncements), only to incur disparagement from the church hierarchy. This disparagement is summed up with the term "cafeteria Catholic."

  11. MikeFitz17 says:

    Erich: Truth to tell, we're all "cafeteria" somethings. By necessity, we all

    must pick and choose from every single belief system — whether it's a

    religion, cause, scientific theory or political party — to which we subscribe.

    We're all cafeteria Catholics, cafeteria Methodists, cafeteria Muslims,

    cafeteria environmentalists, cafeteria Democrats and Republicans, cafeteria

    capitalists, cafeteria socialists. You get the idea.

    When it comes to Christianity or Islam, not even the most self-consciously

    devout fundamentalist can obey every single edict or doctrine found in the

    Bible or Koran. Only an insane person would even try.

    That's because both these sacred texts contain too many contradictions, too

    much ambiguity, too much room for competing interpretations.

    That's the problem with fundamentalists. They lack the confidence to admit

    this basic truth. They want a vision of reality in which truth is static and

    painted in shades of black and white. But when you remind them of this truth, however discreetly and kindly, they label you a heretic or deviant.

  12. Jim says:

    What are you being saved from?
    The wrath of God.

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