We are just two stiffs, laymen and lowly
normal folks grabbing a drink. At the end of this sentence, you and I will
venture a bit down the rabbit hole of what it means to believe something when
speaking to another living human being. And what it means to talk about belief.
Conversations on and about belief usually
begin and end with a single movement toward religious prescription and discomfort.
You would be hard-pressed to find people in our current hyper-publicized
culture who truly love getting real with beliefs on their own. “What do
you believe?” is a question often regarded as an assertion of skepticism and an
adequate response is only complete when citing a known sacred source. Something
infallible, so to speak.
As a result, discussions degrade because neither party
is allowed to internally confront themselves prior to the act of citation. More
and more people and texts thereby enter into the
discussion before we can even begin with the hard work of self-consciousness.
We come across this consideration of “what it means to believe” a lot in conversation. Mostly
subtly—but sometimes it manifests as more, to put it lightly, ‘aggressively blatant.’ So before you and I tend toward that argumentative center, there are a few things we should lay out on the table first: One, we
both share this world by circumstance beyond our conception; two, both of
us have one, or infinite, beliefs that cannot be fully justified in this short conversation.
Or, in fewer words: You’re here, I’m here, and regardless of our intimate beliefs
we are in fact here and not anywhere else.
Right? No? Well, regardless, do me a favor
and roll with me for a moment, and let us explore some potentialities of our
space. Let me level with you: I have been considering what ‘belief’ means, is and will be for as long as my memory holds up. Before that, I have vague
feelings of coming into contact with skepticism and association, much like
little kids do, or at least how our older selves cast light upon our younger inquiries.
Yet, even after perpetual searching, I have no proper definition of ‘belief,’ at least, not one that holds true for all situations.
You know what I’m getting at. From one
circle to the next, ‘belief’ always translates differently. And I don’t just
mean between a Mega-Church Minister and a Professor of Pure Mathematics; I am
speaking of two people in the same room, same day, studying the same subject,
having been friends for years.
For all intents and purposes we think that
they should agree with each other. At least a little bit. Yet regardless of
sociological factors, we cannot grasp the divide between our inherent relationships with belief. Even amid you and me —at this exact moment—it is uncertain
whether I am speaking of theory, structures, traditions, divine properties or
individual concepts. ‘Belief’ as a singular word sways innumerably between
Particular Beliefs—in contrast—are the distinct oddities that are articulated when
we deeply consider ordinary things. However, when we consider belief, in and of
itself, what comes of it? No distinguishable elements are present.
seems ‘belief” is a word that was invented to never be defined. This is, in
part, because the concept of belief points toward something we
cannot, and will not, know for certain. And as long as there are unknowable
things (hint: always) this concept will always remain outside concise
In asking ourselves the question “What do I actually believe?” we open up Pandora’s box. Why would
we even want do this?
I would like to believe that through
considering our own ‘belief’ (not beliefs) in all topics under, around and
within the sun, we begin to arrive at methods of discourse that allow us to truly
‘get real’ with one another. It’s not often that a lack of clarity can actually provide the most dynamic
creation of meaningful experience.
We can genuinely create something together.
Let’s pause and take stock of where
we’ve arrived. Even now, our own individual descriptions of belief leave something to be aspired to—it really is pretty vague. Yet maybe in such
active consideration, philosophically or otherwise, we can finally make some
alright claims: An individual belief is a tangible claim toward a worldview, but
belief (the action) is not a factually based assertion but more of a headwind,
or disposition, toward the way we interact with the world.
Maybe we can finally
say that the core belief of someone isn’t a structurally-based religion (as in the
belief in the existence of a
God) but whether or not they are certain of
it (belief in the ability of absolute knowledge.)
In fact, all of the public debates of
religion always revert to primacy questions of what came first or what created
what, or whether a particular belief can lead to an empirical action: i.e. How
does belief A lead to action B? (Who are we to blame?) Each of these debates
presupposes a shared definition of belief within all people in question.
and Facebook commenters alike use a vast database of factual information to
draw causation to other factual events. At no point in the conversation is
belief actually considered; instead, it is taken as fact, concrete and unchangeable. This creates antagonism, not understanding.
Rather than a bitter interaction between what we know against, or in contradiction with, what they know, these
conversations should be a consideration of how each of us relates to what is,
isn’t and could potentially be. Like a conversation between two strangers at a
coffee shop or a chai stand. Between you and me, now, we are participating in
something oddly exploratory yet inconclusive, only available in its
To approach our beliefs of ‘belief’ is what it means to have a genuine dialogue; it is the age-old
conversational project we all take part in. And what exactly is on the other
side of this conversation? Well, that is always just out of reach, but
nonetheless something important to consider.
D.B. Roberts PO ’16 is a philosophy of religion major. He is
currently in a pub in Dublin having a pint.