Belief in a Secular Age

The other day I used the phrase “believe in evolution” and was promptly corrected. The challenge, of course, is that evolution is not a fact: in that sense, there is some faith involved in choosing to hold the view that evolution is how the world came to be. However, to use the world belief tends to detract from how evolution is a solid theory based on all the scientific evidence we have on how the world came into being. The problem here is not evolution, but how we use the word belief.

Joel J Miller in talking about (religious) belief (and Oprah) points to how Wilfred Cantwell Smith has highlighted how the word belief has changed (already in the 1970s):

“As he says in Believing: An Historical Perspective, belief once referred to our commitment to a manifest truth. Summarizing Smith’s summary, “I believe in God” meant “Given the reality of God, I’m with him. I trust in that reality and live accordingly.” It’s taking our subjective experience and aligning it with an objective fact. Call this believing 1.

In the seventeenth century, things began turning. The emphasis moved from trust to assertion. “I believe in God” now meant “Given the doubts some people have about the matter, I have decided for myself that, yes, God exists.” It’s primarily about asserting a contested fact. Call this believing 2.

What’s really going on is that we’ve moved onto what we can call believing 3, which is not about aligning our subjective experience with an objective fact—like subscribing to a creed in the older sense of the practice—but elevating our subjective experience to something approaching objective fact.” (“Oprah and the trouble with our DIY spirituality“)

Too often today the word belief is used in the third sense, as being something that is truly subjective, but which a person wants to claim as being objective. Not only is that language of belief problematic for talking about evolution (which is a theory that is very much based on objective factual evidence), it is also problematic for talking about Christian belief.

Even though the existence of God can not be proved without a doubt, Christian belief is hardly purely subjective. Faith in the Christian God is reasonable and defensible: not because it has all the right answers but because it helps us to ask the best questions and come as close as possible to the mysteries that radiate truth stronger than any simple answers ever could.