Science and Reason: Belief

Why do you believe?  Why do you believe something? Belief shows up in our language in more ways than perhaps we are aware.  We believe someone is in their office.  We believe that the weather today is going to be cold.  We believe in spanking children.  We believe in capital punishment.  We believe that . . .  We believe it important to . . . We believe an idea. We believe someone.  Why do we believe?

We can say that we have gathered our facts and drawn our conclusions, but if we stand on facts, why should we have to believe? The etymology of the word “believe” suggests that what is at the root of the word is holding dearly to something, caring about it deeply.  The ancient roots of the word even suggest loving the thing at stake.

Belief is a powerful function of the human being.  It runs through us by way of our feeling systems, our relationships, and our desires. Belief is important to us in this respect: it signals to our communities those things that are important to us–what we bring to them. What it does not do is replace the importance of reason.

I knew a teacher once who taught a world history course.  She announced to her students at the beginning of the term that even though the course did not begin this way, she was going to begin with the story of creation in Genesis, in the Bible, because she believed that it was the truth about the world.  She made the serious error of replacing the documented facts of history, science and literary criticism with her belief (what she held dearly to, what she cared about, what she loved).  In doing so, she made the critical mistake of confusing what moved her on the inside with evidence that was collected in the world she lived in. She had not made the crucial choice to face the gathered evidence and and integrate it into what she valued in her heart.

Here’s the point.  We all hold dearly, care about and love a variety of things for a variety of reasons.  We also live in a time when scientific research and human reasoning are placing before us details that require our attention.  We have the opportunity to plunge into those details of research with our hearts and make sense of them.  We live in a time when we can choose to care about something that is also validated by a variety of sources of reason:  what data offers, what deep reflection brings, what relationships signify.

We can choose to weave together a new set of understandings:  beliefs built on both good information and deeply considered values.  They do not have to be at war with one another.  Unconsidered beliefs, however, will close the door on good information.  Do we want to be that kind of human being?

Bob Patrick

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