“Belief” is more like an armchair anthropologist’s naive explanation of what’s going on with religious people than a description of what actually happens when someone sits in a pew or kneels by a bed.
The way the word gets used as shorthand for willful gullibility is all wrong.
These days, talking about religious “belief” is often just a tolerant way for non-religious people to make sense of religious phenomena from across the room by, in effect, saying that the religious phenomena they don’t understand don’t really happen. Stuff doesn’t happen at church, people “believe” stuff happens at church!
When talking about religion with armchair anthropologists, religious people might do better to just leave the word “belief” out if it. Or, at minimum, call outsiders on their specious use of the word “faith” by running some experiments on bumblebees.
Whichever way we go, the last thing we want is to buy their story about our story and then despair when the pieces don’t fit. We need to stop trying to import their definition of belief back into our religious lives.
In Steven Peck’s The Scholar of Moab, neither of the conjoined Babcock twin’s Oxford-educated heads “believes” in God. But that doesn’t stop one of them from having a relationship with him. In fact, not “believing” in God may be the very thing that makes that relationship possible. William, the atheist head, says this of his brother:
Edward, I know, believes in God. I’m smiling as I think of this. He’s told me many times that “believe in God” is not the right way to phrase it. He does not believe in God he claims, but he knows God. It did not come through a rational reading of Barth or Tillich, he told me. He was not convinced by Kierkegaard that he ought to make a leap of faith, or that he had to embrace a rational absurdity with the passion of the infinite. He said, “God came to me. Not as a person, or a vision, or some manifestation of the senses.” Rather, he explained, he became aware of His presence – an “other” that he has formed a relationship with. A presence he has befriended in a mutual exchange of being-there-for-each-other. That is what I’ve never understood. I’ve been with him my whole life. How can I have missed out on their close relationship? Did God for some reason choose him and leave me out – like Jacob and Esau? So must it be. But he claims that that is why atheists will never understand the so-called “belief in God,” because it is not a belief. It is a relationship. (226)
Imagine that a shrink wants to know if you love your wife. The shrink might ask: “do you believe you love your wife?” Whatever answer you give, it’s a bit beside the point because the shrink didn’t ask about your relationship with your wife. She asked about what you believe.
If your shrink wants to know if you love your wife, she should come right out and ask: “Are you faithful to your wife?” Now we’re talking about the relationship.
Similarly, if you’re having trouble in your relationship, don’t start by asking about beliefs. That’s three steps too removed. Start with the relationship, not with your beliefs about whether there is one.
“Believing” in love is the kind of thing people do when they’re not in love. People in love don’t “believe” they’re in love, they’re just in love.
Similarly, “believing” in God is basically what you imagine other people successfully manage to do when you think that you’re not already in relationship with him. God is not farther than far. He’s nearer than near. With the Babcock twins, God didn’t offer a relationship to Edward that he withheld from William. Edward just saw that the presence he already felt, the relation he was already in, was a relation to God.
Exemplifying our tendency to engage in armchair anthropology about religious “belief,” Hyrum Thayne’s wife explains to him that bumblebees can’t fly because “Science has proved their wings is too small” (170). Hyrum responds, “What do you mean they cant fly I see them fly all the time” (170). Then Hyrum’s wife produces her ace-in-the-hole, “belief”: “Its cuz they have Faith. Even though their wings are too small. They had Faith they can fly so they do” (170).
Here, “belief” saves the day by functioning as an all-purpose spackling capable of filling in whatever holes Science can’t explain. That is, it functions negatively as part of the scientific story about how things are. It doesn’t name a certain way of being faithful to a relation that is given but a certain way of believing in a relation that is not.
Hyrum is flummoxed by this explanation. But instead of leaving this quaint talk about “believing bees” in the domain of edifying speculation, he subverts the whole scheme by treating the claim about belief as a given observable fact to be measured and tested!
He rounds up some help from a college-educated friend, Adam, and they design an “experiment” that will test how much faith bumblebees have. Adam explains:
Well the experiment was designed to test how much ‘Faith’ Bumblebees had. I set it up with ten treatments, and with ten replications in each treatment. For each treatment, we would clip off a given percentage of the bumblebee’s wing and see if it could still fly. Hyrum thought if they had a lot of faith they could fly without wings and if they had an amount in-between they ought to be able to fly until their ‘Faith’ ran out. (176)
The aim of this project was “to find the point where they [the bees] started to doubt enough that their efforts were thwarted and they no longer believed they can fly” (210). On the basis of the experiments, Hyrum concludes that “Bombuses can have a little faith when their wings are clipped a bit. But all in all they cannot stand too much before their faith starts to waver. Let this be a lesson that a little Faith goes a long ways” (212).
There is surely something inspiringly screwy about this experiment, but what isn’t screwy about it is the way that Hyrum doesn’t treat belief as a can of religious explain-all that sprays a gentle mist of faith capable of softening, even in broad daylight, our lack of connection to the divine. He assumes from the start, like Edward, that faith names a relation to God that is as real and present and observable as our relation to rocks and rain.
Armchair anthropologists are welcome to think what they like, but as far as I can tell faith is more like gathering pollen and making honey with stubby wings than it is like using my imagination and writing bad short fiction.