Isn’t it fair to say that beliefs—all beliefs—are thoughts? Emotion-laden thoughts at times and for some, yes. But thoughts at the core.
Here are a few other thoughts: an impulsive decision to play a Come-Ons CD; remembering that your cat needs fresh water in her drinking bowl; the recognition of sunrise or sunset; the reflexive stream of words that accompany the sudden anxiety that the idiot in front of you on the highway might pose a hazard.
None of these thoughts are or imply beliefs. I can surely generate many more examples of non-belief thinking, and so can you. I submit that we use the word belief as a near synonym for ‘thought.’ It’s sloppy cognition, and seemingly harmless.
(But is it really harmless?)
Here’s one writer’s definitional understanding of a family of near synonyms. From weakest to strongest:
Conjecture: “To infer from inconclusive evidence, to guess.” (American Heritage Dictionary, 1980)
I often interchange ‘speculation’ for conjecture, but that’s a bit of intellectual sloppiness on my part, since conjecture seems to mean the same thing but a bit more accurately. Additionally, I think of both words together as meaning: ‘the whimsical ponderings that, if convincing enough, can become opinions’. Speculations and conjectures are the rawest ‘material’ of the ‘belief’ family of words. Speculations are related to superstition, yet superstition is something of an untamed and untamable maverick in this family of approximate synonyms.
Opinion: “A belief or conclusion held with confidence, but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof.” (A.H.D.)
By this definition’s ‘burden of proof’ clause, most if not all religious convictions are opinions.
However: “Opinion is applicable to any conclusion to which one adheres without ruling out the possibility of debate.” (A.H.D.)
So, people holding religious beliefs would naturally find objectionable the proposition that their beliefs are mere ‘opinions’ – most especially because such beliefs are not commonly considered appropriate for debate.
In any event, I consider ‘opinion’ the intermediate step between mere conjecture and firm ‘belief’. Opinions are easy to revise or abandon in the face of contradictory evidence.
1. “The mental act, condition, or habit of placing trust or confidence in a person or thing; faith.”
2. “Mental acceptance or conviction in the truth or actuality of something.”
3. “Something believed or accepted as true; especially a particular tenet of body of tenets, accepted by a group of persons.”
It seems to me that the trouble all starts in definition no.3. Group belief is systematically reinforcing, even against factual rebuttals.
Despite this, beliefs are often characterized as ‘firm’, yet are still prone to failure under the erosive powers of critical rebuttal.
Beliefs can (or not) include stronger emotional attachments than opinions do; yet not as strong as…
Faith, which, by my understanding, is notably stronger than belief. Faith is an ‘unshakable’ belief or matrix of interdependent beliefs that the thinker is unwilling to expose to examination, for fear that the beliefs might be exposed as mere opinions, or worse, conjectures, or worst, unfounded superstitions.
American Heritage defines ‘faith’ as:
1. “A confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.
2. “Belief that does not does not rest on logical proof or material evidence: faith in miracles.”
3. “Loyalty to a person or thing; allegiance.”
4. “Belief and trust in God and in the doctrines expressed in the Scriptures or other sacred works…”
5. “A system of religious belief…”
Faith resists inspection, and often does so with belligerence. This manifests as…
Zealotry: faith in physical manifestation. This can be as benign as prayer, or worse: proselytizing, crusading and jihadism.
Lastly: Superstition, the feral beast of the belief-family:
1. “A belief that some action or circumstance not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome.”
2. “Any belief, practice, or rite unreasoningly upheld by faith in magic, chance, or dogma.”
3. “Fearful or abject dependence upon such beliefs.”
Do conjectures, speculations, opinions, and faiths all qualify as ‘beliefs’?
What about personal values, or political preferences?
Are ALL thoughts ‘beliefs’?
Or does only a certain threshold of strength-of-conviction — with or without supporting evidence — qualify as a ‘belief’?
Do all beliefs deserve equal weight? Or is this simply an embarrassed, false equivalency we award to the beliefs of others, out of our polite unwillingness to offend?