Sunday, January 28, 2007

What does it mean to believe in something?

This morning's message at church was about the pagan holiday Imbolc, which is the holiday celebrated to make note that the days are growing in length and that Spring is on the way. For the benefit of people in the congregation who are not Pagan, the minister gave a brief explaination of earth-based religion and it's place within Unitarian Universalism. She had an interesting thing to say about belief. I don't remember the exact words, but the gist of it was that it doesn't matter whether the things you profess to believe in are (literally) true or not, what matter is whether or not they help you to connect with...well...people, nature, or whatever it is you want to connect with.

This brought up in the mind the difference, often unspoken/forgotten/confused, between "believing in" something and believing something. Believing is having an idea of how you think the world really works when you don't or can't know for sure. To believe something is to believe that it is true objectively. If this belief is true, then it is true for everyone. It's not knowledge I'm talking about, though some seem to confuse belief and knowledge. (The phrase "I believe and KNOW" comes to mind--as if a belief that is believed strongly enough counted as knowledge. But I digress...) Belief of this sort is a placeholder for knowledge--it's a hypothesis that maybe just can't be tested yet, but should be as soon as that is possible. And then that hypothesis should be accepted or rejected according the evidence.

"Believing in" something, on the other hand, is the belief that that something is good, or useful, or thinking that there is some sort of virtue in believing it. It looks to me as if there are many religious people who "believe in" things without really "believing" them. It's like people saying that they believe in God when what they really mean is that they believe that one should believe in God. Or magic. Or the immortal soul. Or karma. Or [fill in the blank].

I don't really don't think there is anything wrong with "believing in" things, just so long as you don't get so carried away with really believing them that you insist that all other people must also believe them or they are just WRONG WRONG WRONG. "Believing in" is by nature subjective and I suppose this is what people mean if they talk about subjective truth (a concept which has long bothered me and still does to some extent).

I went to the Imbolc ceremony that the CUUPS group put on at my church tonight. Even being the scientific rationalist that I am, I can't resist a bit of ritual from time to time, and no group does ritual quite like Pagans. I've looked into Paganism before but was turned off by what looked like a lot of mumbo-jumbo and superstition. I still am turned off by a lot of this, esp. if someone tries to talk me into some astrology or tarot or something of the sort. But what I like about Paganism is the way that it follows real cycles in nature and in human life. There is nothing superstitious at all in celebrating the fact that the days are now getting longer and Spring promises to come, even though we are right in the middle of Winter. It is a season of hope--that from the dead of winter, life and warmth will return again. I have found that I can fully participate in this even while staying firmly grounded in reason.

I don't believe that the Lord and Lady of Paganism (mentioned many times in the ceremony) are real but I do believe in hope. I do believe in persevering though the Winter in the hope that Spring will come again.

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