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why belief matters
Posted: 12 February 2014 05:54 AM   [ Ignore ]
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We have been having another discussion about the words “belief” and “believe” in the topic “what is the non-believers story.” I maintain that there is no such thing as a non-believer - everyone believes in something - and that we are being politically foolish if we accept this moniker, which the theists coined to wall us off into a corner. My comments have drawn strong objection from at least a couple of members. So I wanted to open this topic to invite a reasoned discussion on the subject. I emphasize “reasoned” because it is clear to me that much of what is said against the very idea of belief is based not on reason but on a naked emotional reaction.

First we need a definition. Both in standard dictionaries and in everyday practice, to believe something is to accept it as true. Some people have argued that the word is ambiguous but in fact, very few words that describe human behavior are defined as clearly and as succinctly as this one. “Accepting something as true” is readily applied to the life decisions we make every day. It is an essential and indispensable feature of life.

Of course, there are degrees of belief. A belief may be derived from reason, from experience, from emotion or from any combination of the three, and perhaps from other things. (I would have to think that through.)

It matters because we all have to make decisions. If I accept as true the proposition that by going to work this morning, I will earn money that will improve my well-being, then I will head out the door in about half and hour from now, and go to work. If I believe that a medical treatment offers me the best chance of a cure, then I probably will undertake that treatment. I may not necessarily believe that I will be cured, just because I believe that the treatment offers me my best hope. The various terms, such as belief and hope, are related to each other.

In my profession, which is the law, judges instruct juries to decide what they believe. The law defines that in the usual fashion: does the jury credit the testimony, or theory of the case, as more nearly representing the truth than the testimony or theory opposed to it. In New York, where I practice, the jury instruction is for the jury to decide whether each witness’ testimony is “worthy of belief.” It is an operational definition that the jury is supposed to use to decide whether to “count” the witness’ testimony as part of the meaningful evidence. This is an essential concept in the law because the jury, or judge in a bench trial, must decide the case. One might point out the law’s many imperfections but I would invite anyone who does that to fashion a better system. If anyone can do that, history will record her has having made a major contribution to the justice system.

In every field of endeavor, we must decide what course of action to pursue. To do that, we must decide what we believe, i.e., what we accept as true. “Hope” won’t cut it. “Suspect” won’t cut it. Not only is “believe” an acceptable word; it is the best one we have to express the idea of accepting something as true - with whatever degree of confidence - as a predicate to deciding on a course of action. This is entirely consistent with Bertrand Russell’s phrase “warranted assertibility.”

This word is in common use. Virtually leading humanist has used and continues to use it. Anyone who thinks that it can easily be dispensed with, in my opinion, is being unrealistic. We should not allow the theists to dictate our language to us. They don’t own belief, and theirs is not by any stretch of the imagination the only way way in which it is used.

[ Edited: 12 February 2014 05:58 AM by PLaClair ]
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Posted: 12 February 2014 08:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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accept it as true

Your definition does not address the epistemological philosophy. That’s really the issue. You only need to use those big words when you find you have a major disagreement about what is true, but you need to know, at least for yourself, how you’re defining “truth”.

history will record her has having made a major contribution to the justice system

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History does record the people who contributed to our understanding of belief; Aristotle, Hume, Popper.

We should not allow the theists to dictate our language to us.

Of course not. It would be nice if it were as simple as saying, “you’re using religious belief”, but they BELIEVE that our very ability to think at all comes from God. Kinda complicates the conversation.

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Posted: 12 February 2014 09:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Lausten, I don’t understand your point about epistemological philosophy. In the main, this appears to be more of a practical question. Do you have some examples to illustrate your point?

The purpose of language is to simplify conversations. Words are symbols, which we use to represent ideas, emotions and many other things. Inevitably, language is imperfect but I don’t believe theistic approaches to belief complicate understanding of the word “belief” or “believe” more than other approaches. My point about theistic belief is that it is unfounded in fact and often reason. But the word still applies because theists accept their propositions as true.

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Posted: 12 February 2014 11:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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PLaClair - 12 February 2014 09:10 AM

Lausten, I don’t understand your point about epistemological philosophy. In the main, this appears to be more of a practical question. Do you have some examples to illustrate your point?

Not sure what you’re misunderstanding. To a C.S. Lewis type believer, there is only religious belief. Their definition says it is impossible for non-thinking rocks to turn into rational thinking humans. They think God gave us everything, including the ability to believe or not believe in Him. So non-belief to them is defined as some sort of falling of away from God, not a possible option of God not existing.

Alternatively, you could claim a Cartesian or dualistic concept of belief, one that seems to come naturally to people, religious or not.

But I you and I are using the modern definition, the one developed through the philosophers I named. In casual conversation you don’t need to mention those names, you can say something like, “we can’t know everything, but we can follow the evidence and rely on existing consensus and we can know quite a bit with a high degree of certainty”. That gets you by for most reasonable people. In the US covers less than half of the population.

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Posted: 12 February 2014 02:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Lewis’ fans may say that but I have found that in most things they don’t believe it either. (There’s that word again.) Not to say it isn’t an issue but I can’t completely reframe my language to satisfy people who don’t think logically. I can adjust it a bit when I know that’s who I’m addressing. Or sometimes I’ll dig in my heels to create a little cognitive dissonance.

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Posted: 12 February 2014 04:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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PLaClair - 12 February 2014 02:16 PM

Lewis’ fans may say that but I have found that in most things they don’t believe it either. (There’s that word again.) Not to say it isn’t an issue but I can’t completely reframe my language to satisfy people who don’t think logically. I can adjust it a bit when I know that’s who I’m addressing. Or sometimes I’ll dig in my heels to create a little cognitive dissonance.

I think you’re missing my point. You brought up the discussion of the word “believe” and you tried to make the case that there is some commonly used definition of it. I’m making the case that there isn’t. Less than half of the people in the US would be able to explain something like the principle of falsifiability. If you don’t at least understand what that is or have some sense of the idea that we can’t know anything with 100% certainty, then you don’t understand the modern definition of the word. A much smaller percentage understands all the nuances that are required to carry on some of the philosophical conversations we have here.

I think you under estimate the influence of CS Lewis. Again, most wouldn’t recognize the history, but if you walked up to a person on the street and worked them through his thought experiment, thinking back through how we came from irrational monkeys, you could easily convince someone that the case for the evolution of consciousness is weak. Ken Ham makes entire movies showing this.

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Posted: 12 February 2014 05:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Yes, if that is your point I agree, mostly. Of course, the same is true of words like science, theory, evolution, humanism and probably thousands of others, which more than half the population understands very poorly. So as Humanists, how should we respond?

I do think we should distinguish between the general idea of belief and ideas about the proper foundations of belief. There is general agreement about the former, in my opinion, but not about the latter, as you point out.

[ Edited: 12 February 2014 05:48 PM by PLaClair ]
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Posted: 13 February 2014 11:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I think it’s useless to quibble about such esoteric topics as the meaning of belief. Whatever. More important is to take back the content of Christians belief system because it’s not theirs in the first place. Almost everything in the bible has precedent prior to the bible or in other places and times. The bible is a hodge podge of other peoples beliefs, so take them back. Golden Rule? That’s not Christian.  Jesus? He was a Jew, one of the first and best socialists, despised rich people, etc. You want to believe in Jesus? Ok then you better be a hard core socialist out to topple the moneychangers - the 1%. Take Jesus away from his supposed followers who are completely un-Jesus like.

[ Edited: 13 February 2014 11:06 AM by CuthbertJ ]
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Posted: 13 February 2014 12:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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PLaClair - 12 February 2014 05:45 PM

Yes, if that is your point I agree, mostly. Of course, the same is true of words like science, theory, evolution, humanism and probably thousands of others, which more than half the population understands very poorly. So as Humanists, how should we respond?

I do think we should distinguish between the general idea of belief and ideas about the proper foundations of belief. There is general agreement about the former, in my opinion, but not about the latter, as you point out.

You’re asking the question that all the best minds are already dealing with. Sagan did a good job of it, Nye did some great work with kids. At least scientists are recognizing the need, and hopefully won’t slip again and assume that because they are putting rockets on the moon everyone respects them.

I have several friends that I consider intelligent, but they are susceptible to the wildest conspiracy theories. I think it is due to the the greatest demand in history on the human mind to accept the authority of others. I can’t say crap about what the Higgs Boson is because I don’t own a Large Hadron Collider. I have no choice but to trust a system that has been known to make errors.

I’ve seen people snap because they start to question beliefs they’ve had all their lives. They realize how wrong they have been, and instead of continuing to use the system that they used to correct themselves, they start to doubt everything. They create their own self-verifying system. This insulates them from the problem of finding out what else they might be wrong about it.

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Posted: 13 February 2014 01:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I agree, Lausten, and am looking forward, eagerly, to Neil’s series. Things like that make a difference.

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Posted: 13 February 2014 04:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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They say “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”.  Well yes, in Rome the word belief is inevitably associated with the concept of god, after all the Vatican is IN Rome.

But we’re not in Rome, we’re in the US and we practice a ‘seperation clause”, which allows us to use the word belief in its proper place and definition. The entire concept of the establishment clause is to prevent linking Religious beliefs with Secular beliefs.  Let us practice the seperation clause and not let theists dictate our language.  They will just confound it!!

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Posted: 13 February 2014 06:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Belief: accepting as true a claim that has no objective evidence for its veracity.

Belief, like many other words, is a relative term.  It means to the believing person what he says it means. There is no standard.

I have no problem saying I have no beliefs. If there is objective evidence for a claim, I may accept it as probably true, but I don’t believe it.  Only claims with no evidence require belief. If there is no objective evidence for a claim’s existence, I reject it, and I have no problem rejecting it.

If anyone here can come up with something he claims I believe in that has no objective evidence, on the grounds that “everyone believes in something,” please let me know so we can discuss it. What is it that “everyone believes in”?

[ Edited: 14 February 2014 12:51 AM by Lois ]
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Posted: 13 February 2014 11:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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After reading posts on the use of the words belief and faith….  Whether one realizes or admits it we humans use belief and faith every day of our lives.  You might try to cut the terms out of your speech but they will still be operative regardless.  I’m pretty sure any decent psychologist would agree.  For example have you ever tried stopping the rationalizing we all do so often when making decisions?

So I thought it wise to add to those the often accompanying term identity.  A few other related terms are attitude, character and conscience.  This is all in the ontological category of philosophy and can be construed or argued we are created beings. 

The first two more often than not produce a change in one’s identity when moved from unbelief to belief in the gospel testimonies, etc and therefore a change in world view (creation vs some sort of evolution).

This change in belief produces change of heart/mind which leads to repentance.  This leads to a change in attitude and behavior and then faith/peace/patience/understanding/wisdom (i.e.  character) begins to grow with the addition of the Holy Spirit.

So then also there’s the changes that occur in the adoption of scientific/materialist/philosophic/religious beliefs which result in all kinds of variety of identity.  The main difference between these two and other belief systems is that true conservative bible believers ( not fake professing, far right or the far left liberal types) become similar or “like minded” and many topics/subjects get ironed out between ourselves like differences in doctrine or interpretation of scriptures while the other becomes less coherent like the differences in the posts above and the other threads.  A wide variety and opinion based discussion/argument ensues instead of harmony.

Thought I’d add this important clarification and addition of the term identity to this thread “Why belief matters”  because I can’t think of anything more important to a human being than what they chose to believe in this life and the change that is so well documented by countless human testimonies of changed lives by belief in Jesus Christ and the often frustrating puzzling lack of change that occurs in all the other belief/faith systems.  They may change but it is usually an adoption of some behavior, attitude which is superficial and takes energy and conscious effort to maintain vs real true change from within that takes only some willingness to conform/obey.
Another way to put that is natural stays natural and spiritually unregenerate.

[ Edited: 14 February 2014 02:30 AM by rodin46 ]
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Posted: 14 February 2014 01:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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IMO, believing is a function (state) of mind and no amount of analysis can alter the condition. It is a neutral verb, like “thinking”, we think and believe what our senses tell us. We are not always right, but that is beside the point.

Most contemporary philosophers characterize belief as a “propositional attitude”. Propositions are generally taken to be whatever it is that sentences express (see the entry on propositions).

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/belief/

[ Edited: 14 February 2014 06:02 AM by Write4U ]
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Posted: 14 February 2014 04:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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“Propositional attitude”: That’s an excellent way of putting it. The word “attitude” may come from sculpture, and refer to what the figure appears to be poised to do, such as throw a javelin or just sit and think. Because belief leads into action, “propositional attitude” is an excellent and succinct phrase, which I will try to remember to use. Thank you for the point and the link, Write4U.

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Posted: 14 February 2014 06:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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I am happy just being able to add to the conversation… reading.gif

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