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 ). 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 ), 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 ). 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.
- Berger, & Luckmann, T. (1966) The Social Con struction of Reality. Doubleday, New York.
- Cassirer, (1946) Language and Myth. Trans. S.Langer. Harper & Brothers, New York and London.
- Cassirer, (1983 ) The Myth of the State. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.
- Cassirer, (1992 ) An Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture. Yale University Press, New Haven.
- Durkheim, E´. (1965 ) The Elementary Forms of Religious Free Press, New York.
- Gusdorf, (1953) Mythe et me´taphysique (Myth and Metaphysics). Flammarion, Paris.
- Le´vy-Bruhl, (1985 ) How Natives Think. Trans. L. Clare. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
- Renan, (1947 61 ) 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.
- 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.
- Weber, (1968 ) Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, 3 vols. Bedminster Press, New York.
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