Belief




Popular  dictionaries  define  the  term  belief in  the  following general terms:  (1) a feeling of certainty that  something exists or is good; (2)  an  opinion  about  which  one  feels sure. While the concept of belief is not, therefore, immediately associated with a religious context, it does not exclude it. When the ‘‘certainty that something  exists’’ refers  to  a  transcendent entity, then it is close to the idea of faith under stood as a religious belief in a particular God. The  semantic  dichotomy  between  faith  and belief originates and is developed especially in the historical context of western Christianity, when, beginning with the ‘‘confession of faith’’ established by the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE), the concept of faith assumes an undoubtedly confessional character.




From  the time of the Protestant Reformation,  the  conflict  between  Luther   and  the church in Rome derived, among other things, from the claim that each possessed the ‘‘true faith.’’ The  traditions of the  Roman Church were, for Luther,  traditiones humanae, beliefs that were not legitimated by the revealed writings. For the founder of the Reformation, what did not come from God, through the Revelation, came from the Devil. As a consequence the reformers abrogated traditions which, for the Roman Church, were an integral part of the Catholic faith: some of the sacraments, purgatory,  the  cult  of both  the  Madonna and the saints, religious holidays, fasting, and monastic vows.

The  faith–belief duality is  very important within the churches, as it is the basis for their theological and institutional identity. From the standpoint of sociological research, however, a clear distinction between faith and belief does not exist except in the sense that the former has an essentially religious content. In fact, while there  may be  a  difference in  extension and depth  between the  two terms,  from a sociological point of view the common substantial nucleus of both is constituted by the adhesion of a subject or group to realities that, by their nature, are not verifiable from an empirical or scientific standpoint.

The definitions proposed above do not cover the whole spectrum of human beliefs. There are  some behaviors which,  although  making no  reference to  unverifiable reality,  confirm Durkheim’s thesis that opinion is an eminently social fact and, as such, is a source of authority (Durkheim   1965  [1912]).  Religious  belief, according to Durkheim,  is the fruit  of social pressure that produces a constellation of symbolic figures in which society represents its own values by identifying them with divine figures. Durkheim’s scheme is also useful for interpreting the type of manipulation practiced by an authoritarian political power over the masses in order to reach determined objectives. This  is the  case of  the  cult  of  personality, a  belief shared by a group in the charismatic qualities of a leader who is recognized as having the ability not only to interpret the present world, together with its history, but also to elaborate revolutionary projects.

Belief is,  therefore,  a  cognitive  approach to  reality  that   ignores,  without  necessarily excluding, the experimental method that western  culture,  from Galileo on,  has set as an essential  condition  of  scientific  knowledge. Both  Enlightenment  thinking  and  positivism have traced a structure of human thought that refers to a world of reason, logic, and positive science, in which the demands of the mythical conscience (which is founded to a large extent on belief) find no place. In  reality, in  belief one can see the persistence of that  primitive structure of the human mind that Levy Bruhl described  as  ‘‘participation.’’ For   him,  the advent  of  conceptual  representation  and  of scientific explanation did not necessarily lead to the cancellation of that mystical and mythical residue that  is at the  root of belief. Even if it  had  succeeded in  eliminating the  mystical and mythical residue, which was the great conceptual  effort  undertaken  by  positivism and Marxism (in turn  creating new mythologies), the fact remains that the concept does not constitute the only form of thought even where the scientific method presides over the great trans formations  of  the  modern  world.  Belief  is located in that sphere of human thought where the emotional, extra logical, and non critically filtered aspects persist. Beliefs do not constitute simple extraneous fragments, erratic masses, or past residues but are a functional part of that complex relationship with reality that does not exhaust the structure,  historically achieved in modern western society, of scientific laws and conceptual abstraction.

The  Weberian definition of charisma, considered an extraordinary quality endowed with strengths   and   supernatural   or   superhuman characteristics (Weber 1968 [1922]), has  the structure  of belief. In fact, Weber writes that decisions are made through  the  spontaneous recognition of charisma by those who are dominated, and this is granted through proof that begins to  grow from faith in  the  revelation, from veneration of the hero, and from trust in the leader. Charisma, therefore, relies on a collective belief that reduces, or annuls, any distance between the subject (the community that lives the charismatic experience) and the object (the  charismatic  leader).  The   subject  does not follow the route that is offered to him or her by modern rationality, but lives the situation and directly participates in it without critical mediation.

Charismatic leadership, of which the  great ideologies of the nineteenth century have provided abundant examples, is realized, therefore, by activating collective representations (beliefs) that testify to both an intensely lived participation (often multidirected) and the persistence of extra logical elements in the cultural, political, and religious life of a society. In the symbolic elements  of  belief,  rational  and  ‘‘irrational’’ (better: extra rational) blend together and constitute, as Levy Bruhl writes, a ‘‘participating’’ form  of  thought.  It  is  a  question,  to  some degree, of a constant of human culture, including that which is a protagonist of modern scientific technical   development.   The    frontiers between the two different formalities of human thought are not canceled even in a regime of advanced modernity, but they maintain a relative mobility.

Among the complex forms of belief, there is also the  collective perception of ‘‘difference’’ and the reactions that it provokes. The  social construction of this process is evident: individuals have a tendency to follow the models of behavior suggested by the culture to which they belong. This  is due to the fact that a culture strengthens cohesion and facilitates communication among its members, while the adherence of  these  individuals  to  the  socially shared cultural  scheme  allows them  to  collectively identify themselves as ‘‘us,’’ in opposition to ‘‘others.’’ The product of the process by which identity  is constructed  is that  particular and inevitable belief we call ‘‘ethnocentrism.’’ This, in specific sociohistorical conditions, is defined as the  negative perception of human  groups that are socially, culturally, and religiously different from our own. Ethnocentrism and prejudice are tightly connected sources of belief, and can manifest themselves in different fields: racial, social, religious, generational, and ethnic.

At the origin of more or less dogmatic certainties  or  dogmatically approved beliefs are motivations that  can be traced to support  or defend both personal and group affairs. The serenity that  originates from the  certainty of acting correctly whenever we behave in accordance with the culture to which we belong may be  considered  as  the  social construction  of beliefs that  appear to  be convenient. In  this case the picture of beliefs approaches that  of ideology; worldviews tend to be reduced to a dualistic scheme in which what is ‘‘usual’’ for a determined social group appears normal, correct, and valid, in opposition to what is ‘‘different,’’   which   appears   anxiety provoking, risky, unfair, negative, and thus  an object of beliefs that  are only partially controllable. A typical  case  is  represented  by  the  ‘‘blood charge,’’ the expression used for around a millennium to designate the legend that Jews used the blood of Christians as an ingredient in food and drinks prescribed for Easter holidays. An ancestral fear of the unknown, sometimes connected to a specific desire for power, can lead to feelings of deep threat from ‘‘others,’’ against which defensive positions are assumed that are legitimated by beliefs made up of a collective elaboration of fear, and the desire to marginalize, if not eliminate completely, that which is ‘‘different.’’ These mechanisms of construction of socially shared beliefs are manifested in the following instances: (1) when the social structure is heterogeneous, or when it is losing its original homogeneity: the individuals that com pose it differ in skin color, language, ways of living and dress, and in religious faith; (2) when rapid social and cultural change is in progress in  a society: feelings of rivalry and  hostility develop  among  heterogeneous  groups,  with the  consequent  construction  of  uncontrolled beliefs; (3) when  a  minority  group  tends  to increase in size and is perceived as a threat to the majority; (4) when exploitation of a minority group favors the community: in the United States, blacks were long thought to be intellectually and morally inferior, and Genesis 9:20–7 was  often  cited  to  justify  beliefs regarding blacks’ racial inferiority;  (5)  when  a  society exalts ethnocentrism, and  racial and  cultural assimilation is not favored. Among the factors that promote prejudice and the social production  of uncontrolled beliefs are habit,  a tendency  to  conform,  uncritical  attachment  to one’s own original culture,  and  blind  acceptance of current ideas in the in group.

Ernest Renan, historian of both ancient civilizations and  Christianity  and  an  intellectual educated in rational and positive thinking, was convinced that the inferior races of the earth were represented by the blacks of Africa, Australian Aborigines, and Native Americans. He maintained that at the origin of humankind the whole earth was populated by members of these races, which were progressively eliminated by other races. According to Renan, wherever the Aryans and Semites established themselves in a country and found uncivilized races, they proceeded to exterminate them. The inferior races were not merely primitive and uncivilized, in Renan’s view, they  were incapable of  being civilized. He talks of their ‘‘absolute inability to achieve organization and progress,’’ of the ‘‘eternal   infancy   of   these   non perfectible races,’’ of ‘‘people vowed to immobility.’’ Obviously, faith in reason and beliefs without scientific basis can coexist even in those individuals  who  are  considered  to  be  among the protagonists of the rationalist turning point of the contemporary age.

Modernity,  together  with  the   advent  of scientific technical rationality and the ‘‘disenchantment of the world’’ (Weber), has cleared the field of many beliefs whose groundlessness became  evident:  the   scientific  method   has its own internal logic founded upon the inductive method, the repetition of the experiment, and the aid of the mathematical tool. Science, already  conceptualized by  Francis  Bacon as free of various ‘‘idola,’’ i.e.,  beliefs with  no rational base, has  abandoned  the  ground  of uncontrolled individual ingenuity, chance, the arbitrary, and hasty synthesis. Instead, science proceeds  methodically,  according  to  experimentation built not  ex analogia homini (from the variability of human feelings) but ex analogia universi (on the constancy of universal laws) and  is  founded  upon  an  awareness of  the instrumental nature of cognitive faculties.

Modern thought has learned from the scientific  method  to  avoid magic, emotional and religious elements connected with a social symbolism  that   is  not   strictly  functional  and rational. Yet modernity appears as the producer of new beliefs, as well as intent upon preserving ancient and ‘‘pre logical’’ beliefs. To give just one example, astrology has spread through the most technologically advanced societies, while maintaining its ancient traditions, which attributed personal or divine intelligence to the stars and believed in a direct relationship between the action of the stars and natural events, and, above all, human life. It was believed possible to establish, using criteria elaborated by ancient civilizations, a more or less close relationship between the celestial and human orders. Astrology believes in a universe that  is alive, made up  of hidden but  real correspondences (even if  not  scientifically proven),  in  which astral combinations influence and regulate the destiny of every human, from the moment of conception or birth.

The  examination of certain forms of belief which technologically advanced societies have not been able to expel sets up the problem of the operation of the collective mentality. Different   questions  arise.  Has  modernity  totally eliminated  mythological production,  or  is  it the producer of its own myths (and therefore beliefs)? Does  there  exist  between primitive thought  (participant  and  mythical, emotional and symbolic) and modern thought (trained to use   rational   and   scientific   categories)  an unbridgeable separation and a radical heterogeneity, or is there instead a sort of gangway that allows a  continuous  transit  from  one to  the other? Is primitive thought extraneous to the mentality of modern humans or is it,  within certain limits and in specified forms, able to find a place in humanism, which has matured over centuries of reason and science? Modern humans are not without myths, nor devoid of values, archetypes, norms, and models that can be globally termed beliefs.

It is possible that mythical activity is a necessary and spontaneous function of the  intelligence, an activity elicited in the human mind by  the  emotions  that  accompany intelligent deductions. It is congenital and common to all humans, it belongs not only to all peoples, but also to every person, at any age, and it belongs to all cultures and to any level of awareness reached by a society. Cassirer evoked the Mesopotamian myth of Marduk who kills the monster Tiamat, and with the quartered parts of his body gives form and order to the world up to the creation of humanity. According to Cassirer, the world of human culture can be described in the words of the Babylonian legend. It could not have originated until the obscurity of the myth had been fought and defeated. But the mythical monsters  were  not  entirely  destroyed.  They were used in the  creation of a new universe and even today they survive in it. The strengths of the myth were being opposed and subjugated by superior strengths. While these intellectual, ethical, and artistic strengths are in full vigor, the myth is tamed and subdued, but as soon as they  start  to  lose their  vigor, chaos returns. Then mythical thought starts reaffirming itself and  pervades the  entire  human  cultural  and social life (Cassirer 1983 [1946]). The fear and distrust that Cassirer shows toward the mythical monsters are partly justified: the twentieth century  has  given  ample  demonstration  of  the devastation produced in the web of civilization by the myths of the hero, race, state, political party, war, and blood.

Both  technology and  science are powerful bulwarks  against  the  return   of  beliefs  and old fashioned myths, but they leave open the mystery of existence, the problem of the meaning of life, birth, and death. Science and technology have freed  humans  from  the  ancient seduction of mythology and  magic and  have established the  regime of critical conscience; however, the eternal quest for meaning is insis tent and goes beyond positive science, which is research into second causes. The  data of the mythical conscience, the  producer  of beliefs, thus have a radical ambivalence: irrelevant and negative if observed from the  perspective of scientific thought,  they can be positive when they are not  polluted by tendencies that  are rigidly ethnocentric. Modern  humans can be subject to two possible alienations: the alienation of myth, of uncontrolled belief, which is entirely subject to emotion and prejudice, and the alienation of abstract rationality. Both result in two forms of unfaithfulness to the human condition. Gusdorf (1953), with the intention of recovering the existential value of religion, utopia,  feeling, fable, and  legend,  maintains that   scientific  knowledge  interprets   nature according to its own measure, which nevertheless is shown to be insufficient when an existential thematic arises that requires a different type of category. His conviction is that those who claim to  eliminate myth  (and  therefore every form  of  belief) are  covertly forced to reintroduce  it  when  they  want  to  deal with problems of the meaning of existence.

To  recognize the meaning and function of myths  and  legends,  understood  as  socially shared beliefs, is not the same as admitting that critical  conscience loses  its  supremacy  over mythical conscience. The  world composed of emotional  and  imaginative  connections  that Cassirer called ‘‘mythical thought’’ and Levy Bruhl called ‘‘participation’’ seems to be, therefore,  an  anthropological structure  that  logic cannot dethrone. Between the two there is no competition: each answers a different purpose. The two factors are undoubtedly able to react to each other, but it is impossible for them to eliminate each other.  A structural  analysis of the   different  ways  to   interpret   the   world replaces the  evolutionary scheme, so dear to positivists, of two successive ages of the human conscience. Logic  and  myth,  rationality and belief, are two superimposed layers and  not two mutually replaceable types of interpretation placed at the same level, such that  logic and scientific rationality are necessarily destined to replace myth and belief.

If it is true, therefore, that the birth of the sciences of nature and sociology expels myth as conclusive Weltanschauung  and desecrates the universe by  introducing  the  category of  the ‘‘profane,’’ it is also true that the technical and profane dominion of nature leaves behind it an emptiness and nostalgia, a kind of demand for sacredness remaining as a potential state surviving  from  the   Weberian  ‘‘disenchantment.’’ Ancient and new beliefs are where modernity does not resolve, but, on the contrary, reopens, the questions of meaning.

References:

  1. Berger, & Luckmann, T. (1966) The Social Con struction of Reality. Doubleday, New York.
  2. Cassirer, (1946) Language and Myth. Trans. S.Langer.   Harper   &  Brothers,  New  York  and London.
  3. Cassirer, (1983 [1946]) The Myth of the State. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.
  4. Cassirer, (1992 [1944]) An Essay on Man:  An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture. Yale University Press, New Haven.
  5. Durkheim, E´. (1965 [1912]) The Elementary Forms of Religious Free Press, New York.
  6. Gusdorf, (1953) Mythe et me´taphysique (Myth and Metaphysics). Flammarion, Paris.
  7. Le´vy-Bruhl, (1985 [1926]) How Natives Think. Trans. L. Clare. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  8. Renan, (1947 61 [1848]) Histoire ge´ne´rale et syste`me  des  langues se´mitiques  (General History and System of the Semitic Languages). Œuvres comple`tes (Complete Works), Vol. 8. Calmann-Le´vy, Paris.
  9. Todorov, (1989) Nous et les  autres: La re´flexion franc¸aise  sur la diversite´  (We and the Others: The French Reflection on Diversity). E´ ditions du Seuil, Paris.
  10. Weber, (1968 [1922]) Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, 3 vols. Bedminster Press, New York.

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