I’m a non-believer. That means I don’t believe in anything. I hold no truth that I can not prove or make sense of.
As a practice, I try to avoid using the word “believe,” because I don’t want to empower it. As I’ve discussed on this blog plenty of times, beliefs hold undeserved privilege in our society and it is my goal to dismantle that privilege.
Many have tried to convince me that I do, in fact, believe things. This is the result of the fact that “believe” can mean different things. I wish to clarify what it means to me and what it doesn’t.
Here is a case in which I would use it:
believe: to trust or have confidence in another person
Example: “I believe what you told me about what happened.”
Example: “I don’t believe you; you’re lying.”
Example: “I can’t believe you would do this to me!”
If someone told me something, I’m relying on that person’s word for truth. Whether or not I believe them is not a measure of faith, but a measure of trust. It is a determination about whether I value that person’s version of truth.
Here’s a version I could use, but I try not to:
believe: to suppose or assume, to have conviction about
Example: “I believe he went to the store.”
Example: “Officials believe the fire was not arson.”
Example: “I believe I want some ice cream.”
This is really just slang. I try to avoid it. In the above examples, I would replace “believe” with “think,” “am pretty sure,” “suppose,” or “guess.”
Here is a version that I tolerate, but I try to avoid it:
believe: committing to and giving credence to a value or assertion
Example: “I believe in the power of education to shape the world.”
Example: “I believe in this student’s potential.”
Example: “I believe in you and me.”
For me, this one is more about optimism and understanding. I might be heard using it, but I’m not crazy about it. I understand it can be very sentimental and pretty meaningful to folks. Still, it gets into that territory of “knowing”, without actually knowing. I prefer to use the word “hope.” When I have hope for something, I am indicating that I don’t know, but I’m optimistic. It is strong without the overbearing sense of conviction that “believe” can have.
believe: to have confidence in the truth of something without proof
Example: “I believe in God.”
Example: “I believe we’re all here for a purpose.”
Example: “I believe homosexuality is wrong.”
You will never hear me use the word in this sense. I actually don’t understand why society values this version so much. How or why does a person come to believe? I can’t think of an example where convincing isn’t required. Religious beliefs don’t occur naturally, they are passed on by parents and community. And what is the value of holding an absolute truth without proof? It strikes me as terribly anti-intellectual.
I can only speak for myself, but I think many atheists and those of us who identify as non-believers get tripped up by the word “believe.” While we’d like to think otherwise, words do have power and meaning, and we have to be careful how we use them. I hope my perspective on this tricky word is helpful to others.