The ‘Opinionated Dictionary of Religion’ includes the following entry:
Belief. noun. An idea presumed to be true but not known to be true; also called Mere belief.
If it had always been accepted that belief does not rise to the level of knowledge, religious intolerance might not have marred our histories. Religious intolerance arose with presumptions of certainty—the sureness that my sect possesses certified knowledge and therefore cannot endure your sect’s evident error.
But knowledge is an altogether different matter than belief.
Compare the statement ‘I believe a goat has horns’ with ‘I know a goat has horns.’ They are not identical sentences.
The former sentence hints at doubt and experiential distance from goats, while the latter suggests personal ocular or tactile experience of pointy projections atop sheep-related mammals.
A Swiss mountaineer knows goats have horns, while a Manhattan financier only believes they do. (Or is it vice versa?)
We know very little and we believe much. Of all the ideas crowded into our heads in a lifetime, the majority of them are a matter of belief, not knowledge. Mere belief.
Consider an array of ideas that are Mere beliefs for us:
Historical ideas, ideas about matters that predate our birth, are Mere beliefs for us, not knowledge. We believe a man named Shakespeare wrote a play called ‘Hamlet’ but we don’t know that. We believe Charlemagne was crowned in the year 800 but we don’t know that either. We believe Confucius was an ancient teacher of ethics but we don’t really know that.
We may assent to all these and believe them, but we have no certain knowledge of them. They’re Mere beliefs for us.
Also, ideas about matters beyond our expertise are Mere beliefs for us, not knowledge. We believe many hieroglyphics refer to an afterlife but we don’t know that if we’re not experts called Egyptologists. We believe the distance to the sun in summertime is ninety-one million miles (or 155 thousand million football fields or a trillion pillowcases stacked end to end) but we don’t know that if we’re not astronomy experts.
Again, we may assent to all these and believe them, but we have no certain knowledge of them. They’re Mere beliefs for us.
Also, ideas beyond the confirmation of our drowsy grasp, our sniffing nose, our glimmering tongue, our bent-back ears, our oval eyes, are Mere beliefs for us and not knowledge.
We believe a birch tree has soft bark but we don’t know that unless we handle the stuff. We believe a Jeffrey pine smells like butterscotch but we don’t know that unless we press our nose into its barked crevices and sniff. We believe Seville oranges are very sour but we don’t know that unless we lick their insides. We believe a piccolo trumpet creates high notes but we don’t know that until we hear the trumpet competently played. We believe a Fennec fox has massive ears but we don’t know that until we lay our eyes upon that frisky mammal.Again, we may assent to all these and believe them without sensual confirmation, but we have no certain knowledge of them without sensual confirmation. They’re Mere beliefs.
There are exceptions to knowing without the aid of our senses. We can attain certain knowledge of mathematical ideas, and we can attain certain knowledge about our current state of mind. I know 4 x 4 is 16 and I know I am thinking of almonds right now. These are certain.
There are also exceptions to certainty via the senses since the senses can be fooled. What does a straight stick stuck in water look like? What does a desert mirage look like?
If you want to claim intuition as a sixth sense and as a way to certified knowledge, you must permit that argument to every claimant:
‘By intuition and in my heart of hearts I know there’s a God’ is equal to ‘By intuition and in my heart of hearts I know there’s no God’ and equal to ‘By intuition and in my heart of hearts I know there’s a pink tea cozy orbiting a pink tea pot that’s orbiting the planet Mercury.’
There’s no other reply but to reject all claims that subjective intuition provides certain knowledge.
Knowledge of a thing never requires an act of faith, but belief in a thing always necessitates faith. We are willing to believe many ideas on faith when we don’t actually know those ideas are true.
And this brings up religious belief.
Since almost all religious persons are far removed from the origins of their religion, religion for almost all people is a matter of Mere belief, not knowledge.
The founder of a religion may have seen an apparition of God (in which case she or he did not merely believe that God exists but knew it), but for all subsequent participants of that religion, God is a Mere belief, not a datum of knowledge.
Belief-ideas may always be doubted; otherwise they would be knowledge-ideas.
Given the inherent doubt attending religious belief, it is remarkable that most religions insist that their followers claim certainty of belief, which is a contradiction in terms.
In some religions, a Believer (a telling designation) absolutely must pose as a Knower.
‘I know Jesus walked upon the surface of a deep pond,’ someone might say. But, really, they don’t know that. It’s a matter of belief and not knowledge.
Since posing as Knowers was ever a cause of religious intolerance, the world of religion would be much more serene if people were to accept religious ideas as Mere beliefs that, not being in the category of ‘knowledge,’ can never impart certitude.
Faith cannot erase doubt, and indeed doubt is the condition for the possibility of faith. Certainty expels faith. When I know for certain a lemon is sour, I don’t need faith to believe a lemon is sour. Faith therefore corresponds to doubt: faith/doubt are the two sides of a coin.
Without the provocation of religious certainty, religions lose one of the principal motives for engaging in intolerance.
Mere belief offers religion, what may be called, the virtue of uncertainty.
Featured image by Mlazear CC BY-SA 4.0