What does it mean to believe in God?

When I ask what it means to believe in God, I am really being superfluous, because it is impossible to say what it means to believe in God without first answering what it means to believe. Stating it means to believe something is notoriously difficult. One hypothesis is that beliefs are thoughts about facts that occur to us in the form of sentences. For Descartes, thoughts that weren’t expressed in language were not thoughts at all, though they may be passions or feelings.

The first objection, though, may be that not all thoughts or beliefs are actually expressed in sentences but that they could be. For example, most everyone believes that a regular-sized automobile is larger than a normal basketball, but few people ever express that belief in the form of a sentence. It is averred that someone holds the belief if they would answer “yes” when asked whether a car is larger than a basketball. We might complicate things by asking whether a dog would believe a car is larger than a basketball, and it seems many dogs act as if they believe cars are bigger than basketballs, but they can’t express it in a sentence, even when queried.

So, is it enough to “act as if” something is true to substantiate belief in that something? Back to the original question, can we say someone believes in God if that person acts as if God exists? So, we might say someone believes in God if we see them praying, avoiding sin, or something else. On the other hand, we might run into serious conflict. Most people claim to believe in God and that God will provide a blissful afterlife. In other words, they express these beliefs in sentences. Their behavior, on the other hand, tends to reflect a general dread or terror of death or the afterlife. The behavior of many but not all self-proclaimed believers would indicate that they think death is the finality of life or the beginning of an awful punishment rather than a reward for a life well led.

Or, perhaps, these same people sincerely proclaim their belief in God, but their actions reveal a hidden belief that their lives have not been properly spent.

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
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8 Responses to What does it mean to believe in God?

  1. Anonymous says:

    To Believe or not Believe, is that the question?It seems that many people believe in many things, i.e. the Da Vinci Code, alien abductions, Lock Ness and the existence and non-existence of God.All of these kinds of things could be fallaciously argued (genetically) that they stem from some kind of fulfillment of a desire or emotion.Just as the religious believer is castigated for believing in God because of a fear of death and the uncertainty of an afterlife spent in eternal punishment, “the opium of the people”, so, too the atheist or agnostic could be said erroneously to not believe because of a certain emotional pride in not wanting anyone, including ultimate reality to tell them how they should live their life, as one atheist author of why god is not great said, “I don’t like people telling me who and who I cannot sleep with.”…..a definite emotional argument. The question then is are there reasons to think that God exists based upon the world of nature and is there anything that nature can tell us about its possible intelligence and architect that would be more than vague, ambiguous and superfluous?The question I would pose respectfully to the non-theist is, why is there something, rather than nothing? I find the answer, its just so, or it has always been, or “why does it need a answer?”, intellectually unsatisfactory.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I also ask the question, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” It seems to me that nothing would have many advantages over something. Nothing, an empty universe, and a universe devoid of life are all options that would eliminate the existence of suffering, which would seem like a good thing to me. Most people unquestioningly accept life as something good, but I can see no evill in a complete absence of life and consciousness. This neatly avoids the question of what it is to believe something, but that may need to be explored in another post. RLH

  3. Anonymous says:

    I would agree with you that the elimination of evil is to be desired. However, as Buddha taught, in order to eliminate all suffering we must eliminate desire. Perhaps an earthly precursor or taste of the permanence of the void? (If existence is good, then the void would not only eliminate evil and suffering but also that which is good, but alas the question of the void is yet another question) Is the elimination of desire possible to attain. I think that it is not. This would require desiring to eliminate desire. Which leaves one still desiring. Another great teacher, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6) Thus it is not in the elimination of desire (indeed a noble pursuit) but in having right desire and the desire to do the good, and to eliminate suffering.

  4. Anonymous says:

    My original claim wasn’t about eliminating evil but about creating it. If we had no universe, an empty universe, or a universe with no life in it, we would have a universe with no suffering. Once life is introduced into the universe, suffering will remain until life, or at least consciousness, is gone. Eliminating life will, however, eliminate desire. Randall Horton

  5. Anonymous says:

    My apologies for the digression. The conclusion that the universe and the life it sustains is good, because what ever exists is good, is a reasonable one.Life therefore is ontologically good. It cannot be demonstrated that life or existence is inherently evil, albeit one could argue that the Christian metaphor of a fall or rupture in nature has somehow occurred in the distant past.When humans choose good, then good is maintained and when they choose evil, they create a deficiency of good i.e. an absence of good. Absence of health is disease and absence of light, darkness. So, darkness and disease are deficiencies and not therefore ontologically positive and real, in and of themselves. At times even some good comes out of evil, because action is directed back toward what is true, good and beautiful.Not to be pejorative, but your solution to the problem of evil would advocate some kind of Cosmic suicide, or at least not be opposed to it, thus committing or allowing an evil to eliminate evil and the desire to do good. This my friend is too metaphysically pessimistic and depressing for a philosopher of life, such as me.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Claiming that life is good because it can’t be shown to be evil is, of course, the logica fallacy known as the “argument from ignorance,” which makes the claim that must accept a premise if you can’t prove the contrary. The most common example of this fallacy is that those who cannot prove that God does not exist should accept that he does. Another example are those who claim that if you can’t prove plants do not feel pain, you should assume they do.I neither require nor expect a cosmic suicide. I merely point out what I believe to be fact: life is the source of all pain, suffering, and sorrow. RLH

  7. Anonymous says:

    I did not attempt to argue that because life can’t be demonstrated to be evil it is therefore, good. I merely mentioned as an aside, that it can’t be shown to be intrinsically evil…no conclusion made. My argument is that life by its very nature of existence is good, and evil (notably human moral evil) is prima facie by choice. I concede to your last point that there is suffering in life, but not all suffering is evil. Life is also filled with joy and love…and the true, the good and the beautiful!

  8. Bicabel says:

    As nobody can prove me that God exists, the case of believing he/she exists or not is a matter of personal choice. Admitting the fact God exists does not mean that it is good or a source of happiness, because some people also think that God can punish them to eternal suffering. So believing in God can be as good as it can be bad. The general acceptance that life is good, does not mean it is “only” good. I think there is no advantage in ”nothing”. Once life and suffering would be eliminated happiness would also be. Perhaps there is no evil in the absence of life or consciousness, but ..where there is no life there is no feeling either, so what would the advantage be in something I could not be able to detect?

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