Belief in Belief
Ursula K. Le Guin
You can buy rocks in which are carved words intended to be inspiring—LOVE, HOPE, DREAM, etc. Some have the word BELIEVE. They puzzle me. Is belief a virtue? Is it desirable in itself? Does it matter what you believe so long as you believe something? If I believed that horses turned into artichokes on Tuesdays, would that be better than doubting it?
Charles Blow had a fine editorial in the New York Times on January 3, 2014, “Indoctrinating Religious Warriors,” indicting the radical Republicans’ use of religion to confuse opinion on matters of fact and their success in doing so. He used a Pew report from December 30, 2013, to provide this disheartening statistic:
Last year . . . the percentage of Democrats who believed in evolution inched up to 67 percent, the percentage of Republicans believing so plummeted to 43 percent. Now, more Republicans believe that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time” than believe in evolution.
Now, greatly as I respect Charles Blow’s keen intelligence and reliable compassion, his choice of words here worries me. Four times in this paragraph he uses the word believe in a way that implies that the credibility of a scientific theory and the credibility of a religious scripture are comparable.
I don’t think they are. And I want to write about it because I agree with him that issues of factual plausibility and spiritual belief or faith are being—cynically or innocently confused and need to be disentangled.
I wasn’t able to find the exact wording of the questions asked in the Pew survey.
Their report uses the word think more often than believe—people “think” that human and other beings have evolved over time, or “reject the idea.”
This language reassures me somewhat. For if a poll-taker asked me, “Do you believe in evolution?” my answer would have to be “No.”
I ought to refuse to answer at all, of course, because a meaningless question has only meaningless answers. Asking me if I believe evolution, in change, makes about as much sense as asking if believe in Tuesdays, or artichokes. The word evolution means change, something turning into something else. It happens all the time.
The problem here is our use of the word evolution to signify the theory of evolution. This shorthand causes a mental short-circuit: it sets up a false parallel between a hypothesis (concerning observed fact) and a revelation (from God, as recorded in the Hebrew Bible)—which is then reinforced by our loose use of the word believe.
I don’t believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution. I accept it. It isn’t a matter of faith, but of evidence.
The whole undertaking of science is to deal, as well as it can, with reality. The reality of actual things and events in time is subject to doubt, to hypothesis, to proof and disproof, to acceptance and rejection—not to belief or disbelief.
Belief has its proper and powerful existence in the domains of magic, religion, fear, and hope.
I see no opposition between accepting the theory of evolution and believing in God. The intellectual acceptance of a scientific theory and the belief in a transcendental deity have little or no overlap: neither can support or contradict the other. They rise from profoundly different ways of looking at the same world—different ways of coming at reality: the material and the spiritual. They can and often do exist in perfect harmony.
Extreme literalism in reading religious texts makes any kind of thinking hard. Still, even if one believes that God created the universe in six days a few thousand years ago, one can take that as spiritual truth unaffected by the material evidence that the universe is billions of years old. And vice versa: as Galileo knew, though the Inquisitors didn’t, whether the earth goes round the sun or the sun goes round the earth doesn’t affect one way or the other the belief that God is the spiritual center of it all.
The idea that only belief sees the world as wonderful, and the “cold hard facts” of science take all the color and wonder out of it, the idea that scientific understanding automatically threatens and weakens religious or spiritual insight, is just hokum.
Some of the hokum arises from professional jealousy, rivalry, and fear—priest and scientist competing for power and control of human minds. Atheist rant and fundamentalist rant ring alike: passionate, partial, false. My impression is that most working scientists, whether they practice a religion or not, accept the coexistence of religion, its primacy in its own sphere, and go on with what they’re doing. But some scientists hate religion, fear it, and rail against it. And some priests and preachers, wanting their sphere of influence to include everything and everyone, claim the absolute primacy of biblical revelation over material fact.
Thus they both set a fatal trap for the believer: if you believe in God you can’t believe in evolution, and vice versa.
But this rather like saying if you believe in Tuesday you can’t believe in artichokes.
Maybe the problem is that believers can’t believe that science doesn’t involve belief. And so, confusing knowledge with hypothesis, they fatally misunderstand what scientific knowledge is and isn’t.
A scientific hypothesis is a tentative assertion of knowledge based on the observation of reality and the collection of factual evidence supporting it. Assertions without factual content (beliefs) are simply irrelevant to it. But it’s always subject to refutation. The only way to refute it is to come up with observed facts that disprove it.
So far, evidence fully supports the hypothesis that Creation has been changing since its origin, that on Earth living creatures, adapting to change, have evolved from single-cell organisms through a vast profusion of species, and that they’re still adapting and evolving right now (as can be seen in the evolution of finch species in the Galapagos, or moth coloration, or barred/spotted owl interbreeding, or a hundred other examples).
Yet, to the strict scientific mind, the theory of evolution is not absolute knowledge. Exhaustively tested and supported by evidence as it is, it’s a theory: further observation can always alter, improve, refine, or enlarge it. It’s not dogma, it’s not an article of faith, but a tool. Scientists use it, act on it, even defend it as if they believed in it, but they’re not doing so because they take it on faith. They accept it and use it and defend it against irrelevant attack because it has so far withstood massive attempts at disproof, and because it works. It does a necessary job. It explains things that needed explaining. It leads the mind on into new realms of factual discovery and theoretical imagination.
Darwin’s theory vastly enlarges our perception of reality — our always tentative knowledge. As far as we have tested it and can test it, and always subject to modification as we learn more, we can accept it as true knowledge — a great, rich, beautiful insight. Not a revealed truth, but an earned one.
In the realm of the spirit, it appears that we can’t earn knowledge. We can only accept it as a gift: the gift of belief. Belief is a great word, and a believed truth too can be great and beautiful. It matters very greatly what one believes in.
I wish we could stop using the word belief in matters of fact, leaving it where it belongs, in matters of religious faith and secular hope. I believe we’d avoid a lot of unnecessary pain if we did so.