Recently, as we were visiting his church out of town, an acquaintance who works hard to bring in the sheaves greeted me and my wife with the friendly remark, "I like people who believe in something." I wondered: Do the people we casually describe as believing nothing literally believe nothing? Or do they believe something after all?
The usual view is that regarding both particular beliefs and belief in general, a person either believes something, disbelieves it, or suspends judgment. I think this way of viewing the matter is too simple. Regarding belief, people act out commitment and belonging in at least four different ways.
The first way is alethic commitment: Committing and belonging because of considered belief that a thing is true.
The second is social commitment: Committing and belonging because of a sheer need to commit and belong, simply taking for granted that the thing must be true.
The third is conformity: Acting in a way that simulates commitment and belonging, not disbelieving the thing, but never really considering whether it is true.
The fourth is cynicism: Acting in a way that simulates commitment and belonging, even though believing the thing untrue, just because one has something to gain. For example, one may strike a religious pose among Christians, or an atheist pose among atheists, in order to “get along.”
To some extent, these four categories bleed into each other and are confused with each other.
Alethic belief bleeds into social belief, because we are social beings who cannot help but be influenced by each other. This is why it is more important to have the right peers than to attempt an impossible immunity to peer pressure.
Social belief blends into conformity, because we are careless beings who often live half-asleep. This is why it is so important to inspect our thought processes, even at some risk of confusion.
Conformity bleeds into cynicism, because we are intellectual beings who cannot remain in suspension between belief and disbelief. As William James wrote, the mind operates with the attitude, “better face the enemy than the eternal Void!” Even the so-called agnostic, who is says he “just doesn’t know” whether, for instance, Jesus is the Son of God, is practically committed to living either as though He is, or as though He isn’t. Every way of living is some way of living.
In fact, universal doubt is impossible, because even when we doubt something, we doubt it for the sake of something we are less in doubt about. I doubt that the shiny substance in my hand is diamond, because I can scratch it with a piece of steel, and I am not in doubt about the fact that diamond is harder than steel. Since every doubt in P supposes confidence in Q, we can doubt anything in particular, but we cannot doubt everything at once.
Besides, no one would cynically simulate belief in something he disbelieved, unless, for some reason, he thought his advantage lay in “getting along” – which is, in itself, a belief. Why doesn’t he doubt that belief? In this sense even unprincipled people have principles, but bad ones.
Back to my priestly friend, who likes people who believe in something. I don’t think he really meant to imply with his remark a person could believe nothing at all. But he daily contends with the thoughtless common habit of allowing trivial and unreasonable beliefs to crowd out questions about things which are not only more important, but ultimately even more reasonable. For the care of souls, he was looking for solutions.
Everyone believes in something, and whatever he believes, he believes it for the sake of something. The question is what.