Religion Without Belief: Is It Possible?
The crucial difference between believing propositions and having faith
Can you be religious without believing? A Christian without affirming the central dogmas?
It is a timely question, especially since there seem to be many people who, faced with a world gone bonkers, are reconsidering their ideas about faith, spiritual questions, and metaphysical stances. And it is a question that has been recently discussed in a very insightful conversation between Rupert Sheldrake, Philip Goff, and Paul Kingsnorth, which I recommend.
It seems to me we desperately need to make a distinction here: between propositional belief and faith in the unseen world.
Propositional belief is all about positive statements such as Jesus existed historically and was born to a virgin; God exists and has this and that attribute; the universe was created by a supernatural being as described in the bible; etc.
Faith in the unseen world, on the other hand, is faith in “that which is much bigger than us and our current perspective.” It is about recognizing that our knowledge and our very existence are pathetically limited, and that there is an infinitely deep sea out there that we do not perceive directly, yet that affects everything because it has been bringing us into existence forever.
Faith in the unseen world is the gamble to align ourselves with Truth and Love, because we are dimly aware that this a choice which is offered to us, and that it might lead to enlightenment, purpose, and growth towards the light, if you will.
It is precisely statements like “we are called to grow towards the light” that are not propositional statements, but statements about a fundamental experience that many of us can relate to. You cannot prove or disprove it. But you can refine your understanding of it and find out for yourself whether it is true.
This is why religious apologists are right when they claim you will find out the truth about God only if you make a commitment and embark on the journey. However, this truth is not about propositional belief: the true journey will not lead you towards affirming a list of dogmas. Such propositional beliefs concern the earthy realm and should be subject to proper study and evidence.
No, the truth that will be revealed by making a commitment and following the path, aligning yourself with the higher while paying strict attention all along the journey, is more like a sort of deep sigh: “There is so much more to all this than meets the eye…” And you will know, feel, the unshakable truth of it.
People confuse what used to be called the heavenly realms—the world of spirit—with the material, “fleshly” realm of bits and pieces. This confusion, or shall we say conflict, plays itself out among believers and non-believers alike. The “fleshly” forces in religion insist upon propositional belief, which is rightfully perceived as a stumbling block by many non-believers. And “fleshly” non-believers insist that propositional belief is all there is anyway, and that everything else is nonsense by definition.
But once we have disentangled these two domains, the discussion becomes easier, and much of the fog clears.
For example, the dispute between atheists and “believers” can be made more intelligible. Atheists have great arguments on their side when it comes to propositional statements: everything in the bible is true? Well, no. There can be no question that Jesus was a real historical character, more or less as the Gospels depict him? Nah. The 10 commandments are the one and only forever-valid rules of morality? Bullocks. The atrocious old-testament passages can and must be argued away? Well, how about just calling them out. God exists and is omnipotent, all-good, and all-powerful? What are you even talking about. The various authors and redactors of the bible never had any nefarious agendas? Give me a break. And so on.
Where atheists don’t have great arguments is when it comes to the spiritual world, that vast sea of unknown terrain that we can only discern indirectly if we have eyes to see (not that all atheists or agnostics make such arguments). For example, when they dismiss ancient wisdom as nonsense because it comes in religious language, they betray their incapability of connecting with that language, which would enlarge their vision. The higher world can be talked about in all kinds of ways: using metaphors and stories, religious words like God, Spirit, Heaven, etc. that we intuitively understand if we don’t get hung up on dogma, art and poetry, and even treatises about alchemy or metaphysics.1 Modern people (and modern philosophy, especially of the analytic kind) tend to dismiss such as mere idle confusion. But that just shows their ignorance and lack of intuitive imagination, which would make it possible for them to connect such expressions to the “unknown sea” in which our existence seems to be embedded.
If both sides of the debate constantly confuse these two forms of belief—propositional belief and growth-attempting “feeling around” for something higher that is worth aligning with, how can we ever hope to get somewhere?
A Forest Full of Squirrels
Here’s a little analogy, although, like all analogies, it is of course imperfect:
Imagine a squirrel in a forest. By way of observation, it has figured out that there seems to be a pattern when it comes to the felling of trees: every so often, certain trees disappear, and the disappearance follows a certain system. Now our squirrel constructs a whole general theory from this observation: how this pattern rules everything in existence and is at the very root of it. After all, it seems to explain and predict so much!
But the truth is that not only has the squirrel never left the forest and has no idea that there is a whole world out there, but it doesn’t understand that its precious pattern is generated by the management of the forestry. What’s more, these decisions by the management are made based on the global timber market, which in turn depends on decisions by investors, on current fashions in furniture design, on the demand for firewood based on a political crisis somewhere, on current biological theories…
This gives you an idea of the true scale of our possible ignorance. It might take a while for us squirrels to figure out the global timber market (and perhaps it’s impossible in our current state of development), but if we are truth-seeking squirrels, at the very least we can get closer to an understanding of what might be going on by feeling our way around, using everything we got, including our intuitive concepts about the “bigger world” out there on which our “smaller world” depends and which makes it tick.
But of course, you will always have these squirrel-neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Nuts-Jones, who insist that nothing exists except your forest, that life will always be like it has always been, and that you should stick to nuts. Until one day that harvester shows up to destroy the forest because some guy in the management has decided that due to climate change, they should plant different trees…
Which brings us back to our distinction between propositional belief and belief in the sense of faith. You see, faith has a lot to do with facing resistance from the world.
The Issue of “Belief” in The Bible: Lost in Translation?
In his paper Markan Faith, Daniel Howard-Snyder investigates the Gospel of Mark and its use of the Greek word pistis, which is sometimes translated as faith, sometimes as belief. 2
There are two issues here: first, pistis can be used as a verb, whereas the English faith cannot. This is one reason why the translators have used “to believe” when the Greek used something like “to faith.” The other reason is that the English word belief had a somewhat different connotation back in the day—it was not (only) about believing in propositions, as we moderns understand it.
Based on an analysis of how the word pistis is used in Mark, Howard-Snyder comes to the conclusion that it has a specific meaning which is quite different from “belief.” A few examples from the Gospel as it is usually translated:
repent and believe in the good news
And he was amazed at their unbelief
All things can be done for the one who believes
Given the context of these sentences, Howard-Snyder thinks that what is translated as “believe” actually means something like this:
“Resilience in the face of challenges to living in light of one’s overall positive stance towards the object of faith.”
He gives many excellent reasons, one of which is Mark’s story about Bartimaeus, the blind man:
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
So here’s a blind man who cannot even see Jesus, and presumably can’t hear what’s going on because of the large crowd and his distance. Then he gets chastised by the crowd for speaking up, but he keeps going. What's more, the guy had nerves of steel since in those days, purity laws forbade the blind to mix with the regulars, which means that not only had he to fight against his own internalization of these rules, but he would potentially face punishment from the crowd. Alas, he preserves and receives his reward—because he showed resilience in the face of challenges to living in light of his overall positive stance towards the object of faith.3
In other words, if we translate the Markan use of pistis right, it is not about “believing” something, but about choosing the right object of faith, and then overcoming all the challenges that the world keeps throwing at you, with your inner vision sternly focused on that object of faith.
As Christopher Marshall puts it: “Without doubt, the leading characteristic of Markan faith is sheer dogged perseverance.”4
In Mark’s story, the object of this unshakable and courageous faith is not a “belief in Jesus,” or even Jesus the man, but what Jesus represents: a fully realized life not according to the earthy laws, but the higher spiritual order. The gaining of sight is, of course, a symbol for opening one’s “spiritual sight” as a consequence of faith.
No, it is not at all about believing in a set of propositions; rather it’s about aligning oneself tightly with a path that leads “up,” the light towards which we are called to grow, and sticking to that life-altering decision even while we face resistance. Mark’s gospel is brilliant in that regard because it is all about the struggle between a “fleshly” and a “spiritual” understanding of things—and how easy it is to miss the point, to close oneself to that subtle vision, and, instead of developing “sheer dogged perseverance,” giving in to the pressure all around us.
Dogma and propositional belief? Mark, and Mark’s Jesus, would have none of it.
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This also means that there can be value in traditional theology, church doctrine, and so on. It becomes a problem, however, when we isolate certain statements or dogmas, treat them as propositions, and demand belief in them, instead of seeing them for what they are: attempts to express the inexpressible in their own ways, a feeling around to get closer to spiritual truth, an author’s attempt to learn.
Daniel Howard-Snyder, Markan Faith, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 81 (1-2):31-60 (2017)
This paper was mentioned by Philip Goff in the conversion I linked to above and provided the inspiration for this post. Thanks, guys.
By the way, how anybody could possibly mistake this obvious parable for historical truth is beyond me. Heck, Jesus literally tells us that he teaches in parables! So why have so few people made the straight-forward inference that the whole thing is, in fact, something like a parable? I mean, Mark reads like a well-crafted story that seeks to make various points, just like when you ask some wise guy a spiritual question, and instead of getting a straight answer, he offers a deep sigh, only to proceed with “Let me tell you about a wise teacher who once lived. One day, one of his students asked him, …”
As quoted in Markan Faith