Christianity focuses allot on beliefs. Faith is belief and trust in God. It’s important to “believe in Jesus” but before we get to what that might mean (another blog) let’s consider what it means to “believe” anything?
Although it is not a definition, IMO the best description of what it means to believe something was given by W.V. Quine and J.S. Ullian in their book “The Web of Belief.”
“Let us consider, to begin with. What we are up to when
we believe. Just what are we doing? Nothing in particular.
For all the liveliness of fluctuation of beliefs, believing is
not an activity. It is not like scansion or long division. We
may scan a verse quickly or slowly. We may perform a
division quickly or slowly. We may even be quick or slow
about coming to believe something, and quick or slow
about giving a belief up. But there is nothing quick or slow
about the believing itself; it is not a job to get on with. Nor
is it a fit or mood, like joy or grief or astonishment. It is
not something that we feel while it lasts. Rather, believ
ing is a disposition that can linger latent and unobserved.
It is a disposition to respond in certain ways when the
appropriate issue arises. To believe that Hannibal crossed
the Alps is to be disposed, among other things, to say “Yes”
when asked. To believe that frozen foods will thaw on the
table is to be disposed, among other things, to leave such
foods on the table only when one wants them thawed.
Inculcating a belief is like charging a battery. The bat
tery is thenceforward disposed to give a spark or shock,
when suitably approached, as long as the charge lasts.
Similarly the believer is disposed to respond in character
istic ways, when suitably approached, as long as the belief
lasts. The belief, like the charge, may last long or briefly.
Some beliefs, like the one about Hannibal, we shall proba
bly retain while we live. Some, like our belief in the
dependability of our neighborhood cobbler, we may abandon
tomorrow in the face of adverse evidence. And some,
like the belief that a bird chirped within earshot, will
simply die of unimportance forthwith. The belief that the
cobbler is dependable gives way tomorrow to a contrary
belief, while the belief in the bird is just forgotten. A
disposition has ceased in both cases, though in different
In this quote, we can see what the authors say, “[belief] is a disposition to respond in certain ways when the appropriate issue arises.” I read this description of belief early in my studies in philosophy and never felt the need to stray from it. As Quine and Ullian explain through their examples, the response can be an action or an utterance on our behalf. Sometimes I don’t think there is an actual action but our response might be internal/mental. E.g., when you hear something that doesn’t sound right. You will tend to think through your beliefs to check why that doesn’t sound right. But you still have the reaction.
To be sure, there are, perhaps some controversies which can arises in a definition that links belief so closely with action, especially in the field of morals where we talk about beliefs of what we should or shouldn’t do. I think it is clear that we can imagine examples where people do wrong even though they will correctly say they’ve always believed they should do otherwise. For example, someone may believe they should return library books on time. Their failure to return the book on time does not necessarily mean they did not believe they should return it on time. That said, their failure to return the book might indeed be an indicator that the strength of their belief was quite weak. To use the battery analogy, the charge that that belief holds is not very strong.
Despite some difficulties when we are dealing with moral beliefs about what we should do and whether someone can hold those beliefs and still not act appropriately, I still believe that a person’s actions can often be a better indicator of what they believe than their claims. For example, someone may say that they believe they will go to hell if they do not go to church every Sunday. If that person does not go to church every Sunday, I believe we are entitled to question whether they truly hold that belief. Actions often reveal beliefs better than words.
The other issue that can come up with beliefs is whether we have the capacity to change our beliefs. There is no question whether our beliefs can change. But what amount of control do we have over our beliefs? I don’t think we need to really delve into this question more than to state we have some control over our beliefs.
Whether that control is direct or indirect and the extent of the control is somewhat irrelevant to our task. If it were true that we had absolutely no control over our beliefs, then it would be wrong to assign culpability to people who have stubborn, irrational beliefs. At least if we believe that it is wrong to blame them for something that they have no control over.