Faith versus Belief

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Wittgenstein: “There are no things, only facts.”

Popper: “For this indeed, is the main source of our ignorance – the fact that our knowledge can be only finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.”

During a 2009 interview, Justin DeHart asked a series of provocative questions, which made me reflect on some fundamental philosophical concepts. One of Justin’s questions was: “Can you give an example of a musical experience during your career that greatly illuminated your understanding of daily life, or the universe at large?” At the time, my response included: “To understand anything about the universe at large, I would have to know, with certainty, something about it. Belief is not interesting to me. You either know something, or you don’t, and I don’t know anything with certainty. Nevertheless, to function in the world, I have to accept – on faith – two principles: cause and effect (i.e., this reliably results in that); and continuity (e.g., if I wake up again tomorrow, I will still recognize myself as being me). And I’m not sure I really buy them either.”

It’s unusual to be asked questions regarding ontology or epistemology in a percussion interview, but Justin was probing some deeply important concerns that all human beings, not only musicians, grapple with throughout their lives. During the years following our interview, I continued to think about these issues, which became somewhat magnified by political and social events in the United States during the 2010s. I became increasingly dismayed with the reliance on belief – not only in the political domain, but in all manner of thinking and discourse. In 2015 I wrote down some of my thoughts, trying to clarify (if only for myself) the difference between the ideas of belief and faith.

Just as “morality” and “ethics” often are given as synonyms, which they are not, the words “faith” and “belief” typically are used to define each other; however, belief is hardly the same phenomenon as faith. In fact, the two are opposites. Belief is common throughout modern society, and is becoming increasingly pervasive in education and politics, to everyone’s detriment. There is little distinction today between belief and opinion. A belief is a conviction based on cultural or personal values. It may or may not be a conclusion drawn from factual evidence. Since beliefs are inarguable, they cannot serve as the basis of a formal argument. They cannot be disproved or even contested in a rational or logical manner. Hence the redneck bumper sticker: God said it, I believe it, and that settles it!

The concept of faith is increasingly misunderstood, and is less practiced either philosophically or practically. Faith is necessary for progress in any discipline (such as music, for example), but it cannot exist without a clear assessment of real circumstances, and certainly is not necessarily synonymous with religious conviction. Etymologically, faith is most associated with “trust” and “confidence”. Whether choosing a teacher, or investing substantial time and effort in a particular discipline, those two factors must support the endeavour, and be grounded in demonstrable evidence of knowledge and ability. 

Faith vs. Belief

Faith is active, belief is passive.

Faith has a goal, belief makes a wish.

Faith underlies effort, belief underlies habit.

Faith fosters hope, belief fosters submission.

– Bob Becker, 2015



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