“Do you believe in god?” How commonplace that question is! It can be heard far more frequently than “Do you believe there is a god?” But who cares about the difference? Aren’t they the same question? Isn’t the questioner looking for the same thing in both instances?
I can’t presume to understand what a specific questioner wants to know, of course, but I can see a difference in the two questions, though it goes largely unnoticed. Consider what it normally means to say we “believe in” a person or institution. Our belief in Jane Doe is an expression of confidence in some positive characteristic Jane has, such as honesty, physical prowess, or reliability. Our belief in marriage or public education is an expression of some positive value of these institutions. I can believe in a low carb diet, treadmill exercise, or trustworthiness as a way of life. Obviously, we would only believe in something that exists. It is unlikely we would ever believe in the honesty of the moon, for the moon has no capacity for either honesty or dishonesty.
Similarly, if we do not believe there’s a god, it is impossible to believe in god. So, to be picky about it, the questioner in asking if you believe in god is assuming you think there is a god to be believed in or not believed in. You could, of course, believe there’s a god, yet find that god to have no saving graces. (Ancient Jews’ Jehovah is a candidate for that honor (as I’ve dwelt on in my posts “God is love?” Nov. 23, 2014, and “God is neither good nor loving,” May 31, 2016).
Going a step further, you could even believe there is a god, but that because it just doesn’t matter, there is nothing to believe in or not believe in. In other words, in the questioner’s concise inquiry is hidden not only the prior question of believing in a divine existence, but deists’ conclusion that that there may be no reason to “believe in” even then. In any event, the common question, “Do you believe in God,” obscures both the belief in and the primary alternative about belief separating theism from deism.
There is, indeed, a great deal packed within the original question. It is not complicated, but it does contain more than at first it appears. Christians spend most of their efforts with requirements they’ve adopted for belief in. As with other established religions, there has been time for the evolution of extensive, very detailed actions or behaviors to be observed and thereby used to demonstrate one’s belief in. There’s been enough of that dizzying growth of prescriptive piety, that we have about 40,000 Christian denominations. Denominations in Islam are fewer and in a polytheistic religion like Hinduism seem almost incalculable. In other words, belief in is demonstrated by an uncountable number of life choices, missteps among them leading to squabbles, hostilities, and sometimes death.
If that seems overblown, I invite you to consider Islam’s Shia/Sunni and Salafism/Sufism disputes and the struggles between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. However, even in the absence of discord leading to violence, the number of dissimilar derivations worldwide is staggering, despite their all springing from a single starting point: There is at least one supernatural, authoritative being or entity.
Clearly, for any individual within any one segment of theism (poly- or otherwise), these observations don’t really matter. Religious faith for the believer rarely rests on any rational foundation. From society and family, we absorb many preferred options, then treat them as universal, from social habits to political expectations to religion. It can accurately be said that a Christian is a Christian or a Muslim a Muslim—or type of Christian or type Muslim—because his or her parents or communities were. That isn’t true of everyone, of course, but the odds against it are enormous. It’s enough to indicate that if there’s a payoff for being in one religion versus another, it is far more likely due to dumb luck than careful theological inquiry.
Persons who wish to spread a proposition (e.g., that the moon’s other side is as scarred as the one we see or that political conservatives more likely eat breakfast than do liberals) can do so in different ways. They can quote authorities, appeal to fear, produce evidence, or hide untested assumptions within a seemingly reasonable claim. Though phrased as a question, “Have you stopped beating your wife” is an example of the latter.
Shouldn’t we do as we’re told in God’s Bible? Shouldn’t people be punished for disrespecting Allah’s Quran? You notice, I’m sure, that the unspoken assumptions are themselves built on still further unspoken assumptions that preceded them. There are many further allegations built on these. Religions are a long progression of unproven assumptions so that even minor differences along the way lead to the uncountable variations in religious faith that we find in the world now and in the past. (That uncountable progression was the subject of my post on Dec. 21, 2013, “What’s God have to do with religion?”). The number is even greater if we include religions that are now out of date, ones whose branching of beliefs faded out. There is as much evidence for Thor and Zeus as Jehovah, so who knows? A religion even more ancient than ones we know (or ones to come in a few thousand years) might be the lucky guesses!
And every one is built on a beginning assumption—the master assumption, you might say—that there exists a supernatural authority of unimaginable powers that has intentions about human beings. That assumption by itself goes nowhere, not even to anything religious, unless other assumptions are tacked onto it, then another and another and another. And along the way assumptions are inserted that—though there’s no more evidence for them than for the master assumption—call for us to sacrifice our logic, our senses, our good intent toward our fellows, and the instruction of our children in lives of reason.
Believing in God—or other such god-like fantasy—has like a virus unfolded in a geometric, undisciplined way worldwide, dulling our reason and driving us apart, begun as it seems to have been in our fearful reluctance to question the veiled belief that that underlies and makes possible belief in.