“Belief” is difficult. Like all religion-related terms, it is overloaded with meanings from its past and overdetermined by its many uses in the present. Specific to Christianity, but also abstract and universal, belief is both too much and not enough. Its excess and excessive application make belief hard to do without. There are many Christian believers, and Christians aren’t the only people who believe. Some beliefs are so fundamental that those who believe them don’t know it, and people sometimes believe things they rather wouldn’t. Belief persists, despite attempts to avoid it. Stuck with it, as we are, this brief essay aims to help us think with belief and to do so with care.
Belief has at least two objects: truth and values. We can believe that something is true or real, and we can also believe in something. Belief in God is wonderfully ambiguous, as is belief in ghosts, science, and reality. Strangely less ambiguous are belief in people’s inherent goodness and belief that corporations are legally people.
Very secular people, whom I study ethnographically, usually tell me that they don’t believe anything. Belief, for them, is a name for the irrational, faith-based, and dogmatic. Paradoxically, a minority of nonbelievers insist that they’re believers because they want people to know they have a worldview, a life-stance, and a way of life. Nonbelievers, after all, are not nihilists. These nonbelievers not only believe in things—such as humanism or science—they are usually empiricists, meaning they have beliefs about knowing that determine what they believe is true. Though many would not acknowledge it, they participate in a discursive tradition, which shapes their practices, sensibilities, and feelings, as well as their beliefs and nonbeliefs. Secular people have long debated one another about what they believe or affirm to be true, and they have also debated what they believe in or value.
“Ideology” captures their ambivalent belief well because it can be both a rational, unifying system and false consciousness. Belief can also be unconscious and habitual. Doxa are beliefs that constrain belief; they are the stuff of critique, which is to say, a critical account of the grounds of criticism. Belief, so often, is also a conviction, an ethos, or a way of rephrasing creedal commitment.
Calling all of this “belief” is confusing, but semantic refinement can’t save belief from its excess; it can only conceal it. Part of the problem is that belief is rather Protestant. By this, scholars sometimes mean that “emphasizing belief” is Protestant, but because European languages are haunted by Christianity, the two senses blur into one another.
The strongest version of belief’s critique is a sober assessment of belief-centrism among scholars of religion and a warning against assuming that all people everywhere live with Christian-like interiority. Not everyone is especially concerned with beliefs or even claims to possess them. Belief-centered, Protestant-influenced assumptions about what constitutes religion and whose religious freedom deserves protection can facilitate wealth and land transfers and force assimilation in exchange for legibility.
Indifference appears to offer an escape. When I survey students in my large lecture courses about their beliefs, they can check, among other options, “I don’t really think about it.” Students in my courses, like all people, can be indifferent or fanatical or something in between. And throughout their lives, or even throughout a day, they can change. If scholars were indifferent to belief—which is to say, did not attend to differences among beliefs or the difference between belief and nonbelief—then perhaps among more than just a few of my students, belief would matter less.
True, not everyone “believes,” and lots of Protestants don’t believe in ideally Protestant ways, but what about those who believe themselves to be believers, or even seekers? Perhaps more troubling for scholars, who by vocation flee from insincerity, are playful ways of believing. Satanists, wizards, and pirate followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster blur the lines between belief and commitment. Trolling belief makes it mean far more than a narrow Protestant conception can hold. There’s nothing new about this cosplay. Reading Don Quixote, I can’t help but wonder: Does he really believe he’s a knight-errant? My curiosity about the sincerity of a fictional character is a testament to my credulity. Trying and failing to distinguish between the plausible but false and unbelievable but true can be fun and profound. It can also be lucrative.
Skeptics, from Socrates to Michel de Montaigne to Jacques Derrida, have encouraged us to question beliefs. Différance, after all, defers ontology and its assertion. Belief’s many meanings are stubborn, though, and they make belief capacious. Our Protestant-soaked English dares us to say that a skeptical discursive tradition itself entails beliefs, such as a belief about the proper relation to believing. It’s hard not to believe, in some sense of the term, so it’s hard not to be skeptical about the skeptic’s nonbelief.
The pragmatism of New Thought is still another way of believing, which resists the ambiguity of real and unreal in favor of the truth of efficacy. This was William James’s “over-belief.” The will to believe has the potential to render facts moot and remake the world in its mental image. This is poiesis: a kind of self-conscious world-making—a poetic believing as doing and doing as believing—that others like Martin Heidegger have also embraced. Donald Trump’s presidency, however, might be the first New Thought presidency, and his willingness to tweet reality into being embraces, however unsettling, a very ancient idea of poetry. Surely it’s no coincidence that Norman Vincent Peale was the Trump family’s pastor.
Belief’s excess—its persistent Christianity and its overwhelming vagueness—makes it difficult to use with precision. Still, thick with meanings, belief continues to matter. Avoiding belief means living in its remainder and risks losing sight of what people value and what they affirm is true or real. It also risks erasing our beliefs and pretending we don’t have any sort of them. Being indifferent to belief means not being able to see when beliefs make a difference.
Those who critique belief have shown clearly that it doesn’t always matter and that thinking with it drags forth a Christian inheritance. They have also shown that not everyone’s a believer in all senses of the term and that focusing too much on beliefs obscures bodies and their sensibilities. Rather than reasons to avoid belief, however, these are good starting points for thinking with it, and they demand that we think—and believe—with greater care.