To Believe is Human

My neighbor casually tells me, “Dan, some people are believers and some people aren’t.” Neurologist Robert Burton, likewise, says “some people are naturally doubters, and nothing feels as though it’s certain.” Burton, unlike my neighbor, sees the gap between believers and skeptics as more as a spectrum; a continuum.

I’ve been listening to a fascinating interview with Robert Burton on KQED’s Forum. Give it a listen. Burton appears to be suggesting that faith is a physiological impulse. This may sound reductionistic, and perhaps it is. Less reductionistically, you might say that faith is a “feeling”. I find it interesting because I have such a hard time—how should I put it—believing that believers really believe. This doubt is so strong that I often wonder whether believers are just lying about their belief. It sounds rather like a paranoid fantasy, doesn’t it? Well, so be it. On Being Certain

You see, I used to be a believer. That is, I was raised as a believer. When I was young, I suppose it might have been that I accepted my indoctrination as a factual education. It’s hard to tell, but I do remember having a sense of faith being a willful effort to conform to my upbringing. I considered myself a believer, in a doubtful sort of way. Maybe in an envious sort of way.

Thanks to the testimony of Dostoevsky and others, science has come up with the notion that many mystical experiences are related to epileptic seizures. Can I try one of those? I feel quite deprived. Honest! I wonder what it feels like.

What’s peculiar in my case is that my mother is an epileptic, and she had some bad seizures back around the time she became a Baha’i and married the man who spoke at the first Baha’i meeting that she attended. I wonder how different the world feels to her. Does she really have a sense of certainty about the faith that she seems so overly confident about?

I must admit that this gives me a new sense of tolerance for believers, as obnoxiously overbearing as they can be. Maybe believers aren’t a load of liars. Maybe they really do believe. Maybe belief is just part of being human; or rather, maybe belief is just part of being mammalian?

12 comments on “To Believe is Human

  1. Dan Jensen says:

    Please see Burton’s article “The Certainty Epidemic” at for more info:

  2. Priscilla says:

    Hey Dan,

    You know, I have actually come to think of faith as something innate in me, if not exactly faith then a longing for and lived sense of the divine. In fact, in a light-hearted way, I liken accepting this about myself to coming out of the closet. It is something I grew up thinking was bad and ridiculous, but now I realize I am a much happier person if I make peace with it. And that frees me, at least somewhat, from my fear of being seen as absurd or stupid. If faith is innate, to some extent in some people, then those atheists who want to rid the world of religion are asking believers to do something profoundly against their nature. And the same is true of believers who expect everyone to sign up.

    The one thing I would disagree with is the idea that faith is certainty. If you are certain, then it isn’t faith. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Madeleine L’Engle was asked once, I think by a student, if she really believed with no doubt at all. She replied that she really believed—with lots and lots of doubt. To me, that is faith. I reserve the right to remain wary of people who claim certainty in such matters. But then, maybe they are just at a different point on the continuum than me and Madeleine.

    I would just add that an innate inclination toward faith does not to me mean that what is believed is then necessarily not true any more than the innateness of a mathematical gift would mean that the math the person did had no real world relevance. It’s just harder to tell with belief than math, that’s all. Ditto for the mystical seizures.

    Well, I’ve been meaning to write about this subject for a while, and now, thanks to you, I have taken a first whack at it. Hmm . . . maybe I should blame you for the pain in my hands from typing. 😉 Much more ought to be said about the problems with the idea of innate-ness, but I’ll skip that for now.


    p.s. I haven’t read Burton’s stuff or heard him speak but these ideas are bouncing around.

  3. Larry Gilman says:

    Fascinating discussion. A couple of thoughts:

    It is useful, I think, to distinguish “belief” from “faith.” Belief is assent to propositions. It comes in degrees, ranging from certainty — the kind of total, involuntary agreement we accord to the obvious or undeniable (e.g., 2+2=4) — to probabilistic, conditional, shaded affirmation of the most tenuous sort.

    Faith always includes an element of belief but is not synonymous with it. In particular, faith can exist without certainty; in fact, non-certain faith may be less brittle, more survivable, especially in pluralistic settings. (Here I think of L’Engle’s “Yes, I truly believe, with many doubts,” which Priscilla quotes above.) Faith is not something that one does in one’s head but something that one enters into with one’s whole self, including one’s head; an orientation of the whole person, an act or experience that grasps and shapes the self and that may challenge it to radical, dreadful change. Faith is encounter with what philosopher of religion Ninian Smart called “limiting questions” — first and last things, existential desire or despair, the Holy, that which touches one with awe or “fear.” Belief one grasps, contains, does: faith grasps one, contains one, does one. Belief is a relationship to an idea inside one’s head: faith is a relationship to an all-encompassing order of which one is a part.

    Of course, faith can’t exist without some measure of belief, however implicit or non-certain, and one’s beliefs might be delusory. And belief is much more emphasized in some forms of faith than in others, and can occur in sham, forced, or otherwise inauthentic forms (especially, maybe, where certainty is demanded). Nor do I mean to say that real-life faith is a matter of nonstop total encounter. It is commonly fragile, partial, intermittent, requiring constant repair. Nevertheless, equating faith with “belief” is too simple and partial — like equating being English with voting for Prime Minister.

    Saying that faith is a “feeling” is hardly better. It’s not even particularly true. Feelings, like beliefs, occur in faith, but faith is no more “a feeling” than love is “a feeling” in the sense of being an emotional state that is maintained incessantly. You can love someone while _feeling_ anger at them, or while thinking about something else entirely. Love is an orientation of the whole self toward the beloved that manifests occasionally in feelings but exists even when love-feelings are absent. Likewise, a person of faith can (in fact, almost always does) go through long periods when they “feel” nothing at all, when their religion seems implausible, God absent, the world desert. All good religious writers I know agree that one mustn’t put too much stock in emotions, which come and go.

    Regarding the possible innateness of religiosity, no very strong claim about the genetic nature of religion can, I think, survive comparison with human behavior. Consider Europe: during the Middle Ages it was defined from top to bottom by religion. Art, music, poetry, daily life — all were saturated by religion to a degree almost incredible in retrospect. Yet in the space of a mere century or two, far outpacing any possible genetic change, it has become the most secular zone on Earth. If there is any such thing as a genetic tendency to be a “believer” or a “doubter,” it must have at least this much stretch — because this much stretch is observed. Anyway, it’s obvious that some non-religious individuals get religion every day while some religious people lose their faith — all without undergoing genetic change. So if there really is any genetic programming involved in religious behavior, it must be of a pretty weak sort.

    Also, being avidly non-religious is not the same as being a Doubter. Negative certainties about others’ beliefs are not doubts: doubt is a state of unsettled or contingent belief. Adults don’t have doubts about Santa Claus; they are completely certain on the subject; a 10-year-old, however, might be experiencing real doubt about Santa. Most atheists — the famous book-writing ones, at least — are not in any kind of doubt. They are enjoying a triumphant security of conviction that many religious fundamentalists would envy. If there were indeed a genetic drive in some people toward discomfort with mixed, unresolved, or incomplete belief-states, then I think it would not in general push those people toward religion as such or atheism as such: depending on context, it would push them toward certainty, of whatever kind. Or at least toward the suppression and avoidance of doubts.

    My own faltering experience of the religious life, such as it is, convinces me that doubt — unsettled or contingent belief — is actually _good_ for faith, can even _arise_, quite properly, from faith. For if one really is in the grip of a fecund, dangerous, holy Other about whom, by the nature of things, one can only form almost perfectly inadequate notions, then one’s “beliefs” can never be certain, sufficient, or final. No definition can be definitive. No creed can be complete. No truth can be exhaustively true. Doctrinal certainty — absolute belief in any proposition about that unruly Other — is out of court from the get-go because at any moment that Other might kick one’s house of cards to pieces. But an inadequate concept is not necessarily a false or bad concept. Nor does the inadequacy of religious beliefs mean that religion would be better off without beliefs. In fact, we couldn’t do away with them even if we tried: as long as religious experience exists, religious beliefs will exist. For if a human being has an experience, they will have some belief about that experience, implicit or explicit, a mental model of that experience to which they attach some degree of credence. To live is to acquire a doctrine. But life is more than doctrine. So faith is not reducible to belief, belief is an inescapable part of faith, and absolutely static belief is impossible.



  4. Duane L Herrmann says:

    It doesn’t matter what your mother, or her husband, think or feel. They are separate from you. If you don’t buy it, then don’t go along with it, but you can respect their sincerity.
    When my daughter was in her teens, and trying out her own identiy, I shocked her by telling her that I didn’t want her to be a Baha’i like me. That got her attention. I explained that if she was a Baha’i like me, she would be lying. If she would going to be a Baha’i, she would have to do it her own way – NOT by imitating me. Imitation is a lie.
    I may not appear peaceful at all times, but inside I have confidence (is that certitude?) that the human race will get its act together, not self-destruct, and begin to build a healthy, nurturing civilization where everyone is valued and can participate. It may take some time (centuries?), but I “believe” it will happen. Even if it doesn’t happen (I won’t be here) my efforts in that direction will not be wasted because they are actions that respect people.
    Don’t worry about what your mother says about her faith, do you see any better long-range alternatives?
    We’re all on this human path together, some people help each other, some don’t. I try to help – what else matters?

  5. Dan Jensen says:

    Thanks, Priscilla, Larry, and Duane for taking the time to reply on this topic.

    “Immitation is a lie.” I like that, BTW.

    Larry, I understand and appreciate the distinctions that you draw. I’ll admit that the language of my post is a bit casual. Still, the question remains: how do people seem to come to these absolute convictions about complex doctrines?

    I suppose that one distinguishing point between certainty and faith is that I can at least understand what “certainty” means. Faith seems much more slippery.

    I have certainty; but faith? I don’t know what it is. I think I would have to experience it to know what it is, and then somehow I would recognize that the word “faith” is a perfect match for that exalted state of being.

    I said that I have certainty, and I’m certain of it: I’m certain that beauty matters; suffering matters. I, like Eve, possess a certain knowledge of good and evil. But faith? What is that? Is it a kind of commitment to optimism in the face of despair? Does it mean that in spite of being overcome by doubt that one is nevertheless … er … unwaveringly hopeful?

    Is faith like love; an enduring state that transcends circumstance? Well I can see the transcendence of love, but it seems as circumstantial as anything else. I have never seen love that cannot escape one’s grasp on a moment’s notice.

    I love my kids like I never knew that I could love; but it is a love that is full of terror. It is a love of intense wonder and frustration. It is a love that breeds hope and despair.

    I can say that I believe in love, but I do not have faith in love. I mean, if I have any idea what faith might be.

    I’m sorry, but I am left with this inability to appreciate faith, compelled to either deem it a facet of mammalian physiology or a lie.


  6. Dan Jensen says:

    The following link is to the article “Functional Neuroimaging of Belief, Disbelief, and Uncertainty”, published in “Annals of Neurology”, Feb 2008. I haven’t read it yet. Just collecting materials.

    In the interest of full disclosure, Sam Harris is one of the authors. Just a warning for those who might want avoid the works of uppity atheists.

  7. Larry Gilman says:

    Thanks for replies, Dan.

    Some amount of mutual misreading is common in these Internet exchanges, isn’t it? I know that my own tendency is to get too prickly too fast. Perhaps I muddied the waters by expending so much wind trying to distinguish faith from belief and belief from certainty. To recap my would-be thesis in 25 words: >>Belief is only one aspect of faith, and certainty is only one shade of belief: some believers experience chronic uncertainty, and some non-believers manifest certainty.

  8. Larry Gilman says:

    Dan —

    Some computer glitch: I meant to leave a much longer reply, but only the first paragraph showed up on the Comments, above. I hereby append the rest of what I tried to post before:


    Important side-point: “believer” is not, as I read or use it, a synonym for “fundamentalist.” I take it to mean “any person practicing, or attempting to practice, any form of religion, theistic or other.”

    I don’t pretend to be saying anything original when I observe that religious believers have no monopoly on certainty and non-religious persons no monopoly on uncertainty. It does follow, however, that if there is some genetic tendency in all or some humans toward states of doubt or certainty (which is not proved), those genes must be at work among both believers and nonbelievers, since both groups do actually manifest the whole range of psychologies. _Some_ highly certain atheists do exist — they are not hard to find, in fact, especially on the bestseller lists — though I do not mean to characterize the whole group carelessly or indiscriminately.

    So basically I’m offering the thought that if one wishes to feel “tolerance for believers,” than one must probably find some other way of doing it than shifting the blame to their DNA. Another possibility: to practice compassion based on the likelihood that many people cling to certainty out of fear, and that there are pitifully ample grounds for fear in a world where life is short, pain and death certain. “Human life is basically tragic” — formidable, gallant atheist Bertrand Russell (worth a half-dozen Dawkinses any day, in my opinion).

    By the way, I have read the Harris et al. functional MRI article that you link to, having no fear at all of uppity atheists and rather liking many of them, in fact. Where would I be, as a reader or as a would-be educated person, without my unbelievers — George Orwell, George Eliot, Stephen Jay Gould (self-identified agnostic who said he would be “very surprised” if there was a God), and a score of others I could easily mention?

    The fMRI article is interesting, though I note the authors made no systematic comparison of religious believers to non-believers and no attempt to tease out genetic influences. As with other fMRI studies I have read, the main news seems to be that distinguishable mental states correspond to distinguishable neural states — which isn’t surprising. As Harris et al. summarize their results, “The states of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty differentially activated distinct regions of the prefrontal and parietal cortices, as well as the basal ganglia.” But the details are of technical interest. By the way, although I do not put any weight on this point at all, the following statement by Harris et al. might be read as tending to support my view that “certainty” and “doubt” arise from similar underlying processes whether or not one’s particular beliefs happen to be religious:

    “the fact that ethical belief showed a similar pattern of activation to mathematical belief suggests that the physiological difference between belief and disbelief can be independent of a proposition’s content and affective associations” (p. 145).

    (Though only “ethical” is compared to “mathematical” in this statement, I tentatively extend to “religious” on the ground that “Most category-specific contrasts failed to achieve statistical significance in our study,” p. 143, caption Fig. 1.) On the other hand, so what? We’ll never distinguish true from false beliefs by examining neural states. If I believe everything I read in the Times, I will end up believing some true statements and some false ones, all using the same neural gearbox in the same way.

    Good conversation, and thanks for the article, too.



  9. Dan Jensen says:

    Hi Larry,

    Thanks for your follow-up. Yes, if we didn’t misunderstand each other and our correspondence didn’t burst into a flaming match, well, it just wouldn’t be the Internet, would it?

    You’re absolutely right that fear is a motive deserving of tolerance, and even compassion. Yet it can also be turned and misused in a derogatory way: “all believers are just too cowardly to face uncertainty,” or “all believers are just lying to themselves out of cowardice.” It just occurs to me that turning to physiology might get the believer off the hook, just as recognizing the physiological, disease-like characteristics of addiction helps us to have compassion for the addict.

    The crux of the idea I’m considering is not so much whether the prophets were all epileptics, bipolars, and drug users, or whether believers are genetically or otherwise predisposed. The main question I have is more existential: do some people experience, whether chronically or acutely, a stimulus associated with dwelling upon a proposition that strengthens their inclination to believe that proposition to be factual. The proposition need not be explicitly religious. What I would covet is any pleasure believers of all stripes might feel in their convictions. Maybe some prophets had it; maybe Einstein did as well.

    Now, less phenomenologically, I am very much interested in discovering what mechanisms might lead to such a stimulus. It appears that epilepsy might be a clue, but it is probably related to less extreme, more everyday mechanisms.

    I finally got around to reading over the Harris et al article, and I see it much the same way you appear to: no big surprises; belief = unbelief. Well, not quite: unbelief tastes and smells bad, therefore Atheists and Infidels smell bad.and have bad taste 😉 We might be able to stretch this notion and suggest that focusing on what we believe may be more satisfying than focusing on what we don’t believe. Maybe.

    The paper does appear to support the idea that we believe every proposition upon recognizing it. That might just mean recognition is an abstract kind of belief, or even knowledge.

    BTW, have you seen Harris take on his Atheist brethren regarding the label Atheist? Interesting discussion there. He is an anti-religious firebrand, yet he doesn’t appear to be comfortable with the anti-religious label. He appears to think labels like “atheist” distract from the most important issues by implicitly declaring all theists equal. Yet I believe that a person ought to be able to accept such a label without being prejudged as a materialistic rascal.

    Regarding Gould: I see that you, like the uppity Atheist mob, don’t quite agree with Steve on the orthogonality of science and religion. I wonder if the “non-overlapping magisteria” idea might be reformulated to avoid testable propositions. Hmmm … might not be worth too much then.

    Thanks again,

  10. Roy McKenzie says:

    I’m sure you’ve already thought about this, but maybe belief is the misunderstanding of natural events. In your mom’s case, biological events. Your mom had a seizure, which can cause hallucinations. She might have drawn a connection from one of her hallucinations and these ideals, making the thought of faith in that belief more compelling.

  11. Dan Jensen says:

    Thanks for your comment, Roy.

    I think that’s a legitimate suggestion. I have known several people who appear to anchor their faith on a vision (a holy hallucination). At a more subtle level, I think that it may be that if a dream is accompanied by some sense of vividness, it might be more convincing. In the case of epilepsy, though, it has been suggested that a profound sense of universal connectedness (for lack of a better word) can be gained from a minor seizure, without any hallucination whatsoever. That sense of connectedness may be enough to establish a sense of religious faith, depending on a person’s contemporaneous experiences.

  12. Larry Gilman says:

    Dear Dan,

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. Here’s some more in the same lines:

    You write, “The main question I have is more existential: do some people experience, whether chronically or acutely, a stimulus associated with dwelling upon a proposition that strengthens their inclination to believe that proposition to be factual. The proposition need not be explicitly religious.”

    I would say yes. In fact, I would say that most people at most times “experience a stimulus associated with dwelling upon a proposition that strengthens their inclination to believe that propostion to be factual,” and I would identify that stimulus as pleasure (as a less clinical way of saying “reinforcing stimulus”). That is, most people are at least a little more likely to believe whatever it pleasures them to believe. There are many factors in belief-formation, but this is clearly one of them. And not only in religion! Most non-believers that I have known take pleasure in their non-religious or, in some cases, anti-religious beliefs. My grandfather _loved_ being an atheist; Dawkins _loves_ being Dawkins the Kingfish Maverick Iconoclast. For of course there can be pleasure in believing almost anything: there is a God (hurrah, what a relief!); there is no God (hurrah, what a relief!). So . . ?

    So at a commonsense level, I’m just saying that emotional self-bribery lurks everywhere. Religion is not special in this regard. It is healthy to remember this, always and everywhere, regardless of one’s belief-system.

    As for epilepsy, it seems to me that surely only a very tiny fraction of religious believers can be, or can ever have been, epileptics or in other ways neurologically abnormal; there are just way too many believers. Most of us must therefore be in the “normal” range, whatever that is. So the relevance of the fact that quasi-religious emotions are experienced by some epileptics (and some stroke victims, etc.) is low at best. Besides, I know of no serious evidence that most or even many saints, contemplatives, etc. have been epipleptics (there is no clinical evidence for historical figures): and even if they were, what would it tell us about the nature of religion? Nothing, I would contend (and maybe you wouldn’t either, I’m not assuming that you do). For who’s to say that an experience of, say, cosmic oneness undergone by someone with neurological equipment type A is more or less valid than a similar experience undergone by someone with neurological equipment type B? If there is a God, does it take a normal brain to get zapped by a sense of His presence? Why not an epileptic one? Who knows? In sum, I doubt that many intense or formative religious experiences are due to abnormal neurology of whatever kind; and even if they were, it wouldn’t strike me as being particularly important, because I don’t see why valid religious experiences should occur only in neurologically normal heads.

    Re. Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria: perhaps one might improve his scheme (one can’t help feeling there’s _something_ to it) by going in some direction like the following:

    If God can only be experienced (or seem to be experienced) by those who commit to a lived faith, then faith-claims about God are not testable in any scientific sense; yet neither are they entirely indifferent to or quarantined from experience. What I might call religion’s core concerns have to do with actual experiences, but experiences of a type that cannot be handled objectively or quantitatively. One cannot fall in love in order to observe what happens when one falls in love, because in that case one is not really falling in love; one cannot worship in order to observe what happens when one worships, because in that case one is not really worshiping. Which is why “prayer experiments” are theologically grotesque.

    Just a series of thoughts — I’m not offering them as a rigid schema. I do think that Gould’s NOMA is too sweeping, too easy, but it wouldn’t be so appealing to so many people if it didn’t feel like it was getting in _something_ important. Maybe we just need a more realistic, less sharp-edged version of the thing . . .



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