In previous posts I have used a number of instances of the word belief in relation to what people think about their world and how they can describe it. But this is just one way of using the word belief. Now it is time to ask, what do we mean when we use the word belief. (I’ll keep the dry language as brief as possible.)
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, belief is defined as:
- an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof e.g. Religious belief or firmly held conviction
- trust, faith, or confidence in (someone or something) e.g. a belief in democratic politics
The Dictionary also gives some examples of common usage:
- be of the belief that: hold the opinion that; think: I am firmly of the belief that we need to improve our product
- beyond belief: astonishingly great, good, or bad; incredible: riches beyond belief
- in the belief that: thinking or believing that: he took the property in the belief that he had consent
- to the best of my belief: in my genuine opinion; as far as I know: to the best of my belief Francis never made a will
The definitions are significant because they show that belief is not the same as knowledge. Belief is the acceptance that something is true without proof or evidence. Someone can have an idea; others accept it because they want it to be true, not because it is true.
The examples of common usage are significant because they seem to contradict the definitions. Can belief really mean the same as think? If we look at the way people use the word in everyday language, belief can indeed be interchangeable with think.
‘How do I get to the Community Centre?’
‘I think you take the first road on the left and the Community Centre is half way down that road.’
This brief conversation can also take the form:
‘How do I get to the Community Centre?’
‘I believe you take the first road on the left and the Community Centre is half way down that road.’
In both examples, believe is being used as if the phrase ‘But don’t quote me on it’ is an additional given assumption. Believe is being used as a short version of ‘It is my belief that …’.
The Community Centre conversation could have happened. It could also be part of a story, and even fictional stories can have the appearance of being true. If it seems that it could be true we say that it is a believable representation of reality. A fictional story can also be believed because people like to think it could be true. So a story doesn’t have to be true to be believed.
Adding to or subtracting from a story can make it seem more believable. Sometimes a story can evolve by repeating it, as in the game Chinese Whispers. The end result could be believable or wildly unbelievable – that’s what makes the game fun, we can’t predict the outcome. On the other hand, stories can continue unchanged for years. How? In Chinese Whispers the fun is in telling the story without other people hearing but stories can be read aloud. Indeed before the advent of television stories were often read aloud. And if stories are read aloud to an audience the storyteller can receive audience feedback. I remember reading a story to one of my granddaughters. After just one telling, she remembered the story word for word and if I tried to deviate from the original in future retelling she would correct me. She liked the story as she had originally heard it.
When stories are changed or evolve one of the ways people try to deal with the changes is to say that previous versions are no longer to be believed because the previous story was a myth. It’s the same with more firmly held beliefs/convictions. Some people say that beliefs other than their own are myths.
So what is the Oxford definition of a myth.
- a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events: ancient Celtic myths; the heroes of Greek myth
- widely held but false belief or idea: the belief that evening primrose oil helps to cure eczema is a myth, according to dermatologists
- a fictitious or imaginary person or thing: nobody had ever heard of Simon’s mysterious friend—Anna said he was a myth
- an exaggerated or idealized conception of a person or thing: the book is a scholarly study of the Churchill myth
A myth is therefore a belief that was once accepted as true but is no longer. It has reverted from a belief back into a story.
What is the difference between belief and knowledge? To be classed as knowledge a belief needs to be verifiable by scientific evidence or reason. People used to believe that apples fell to earth because it was God’s will. Isaac Newton showed that apples fall to earth because of gravity and he presented verifiable evidence that suggested his evidence was true. With Newton’s evidence, beliefs in why apples fell cease to be beliefs because there is evidence that supports proof of his idea, and with proof there is no need for belief. Reason takes a belief, breaks it down into its component parts and applies logic to determine if it could be true.
The study of knowledge is called Epistemology. For more information on epistemology try reading:
Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy