“Believing” in evolution

Faye Flam is coming into her own as the evolution-centered science columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer.  Her column, which deals largely but not wholly with human evolution, is called Planet of the Apes. And her latest piece, “Belief in evolution? It may be the wrong word” takes off from some of the answers given by Miss USA contestants when asked whether evolution should be taught in schools, especially the many responses that mentioned (either pro or con) a “belief” in evolution.

Flam interviews scientists and skeptics like Lawrence Krauss, Ted Daeschler, Michael Shermer, and Glenn Branch (deputy director of the National Center for Science Education).  All of them pretty much agree that the term “belief”, while having a useful function in science, shouldn’t be applied to a concept as well established as evolution:

[Krauss]: “Science is not like religion, in that it doesn’t merely tell a story … one that one can choose to believe or not.”

Michael Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine, also disapproves of the word belief as applied to science. “You might say, ‘I believe in democracy’ or ‘I believe in gay marriage,’” said Shermer, author of the book The Believing Brain. “But it is not reasonable to say ‘I believe in evolution,’ because this would be like saying ‘I believe in gravity.’” . . .

. . . scientists tend to use the word belief to be synonymous with a suspicion, or hunch, when more definitive evidence is lacking.

A recent issue of the journal Science includes a story about a scientist who believes a virus causes mad cow disease (the orthodox view blames an infectious protein called a prion). She believes it now because she hasn’t found such a virus. If she does, its existence will no longer be a mere matter of belief.

Others use the word belief in areas where different types of measurements arrive at disparate answers, which has happened in the quest to date the split between the chimp and human lineages. A type of DNA analysis called a “molecular clock” indicates a somewhat more recent split than is shown by the fossil record. So for now, some believe the DNA and some believe the bones.

Physicist Krauss agrees that scientists tend to use belief when they lack definitive evidence – as in “do you believe black holes exist and have a singularity?”

It’s fair enough to apply the word to ideas that are still being debated within the scientific community, said Gregory Petsko, a biologist at Brandeis University. But as ideas become established, the word belief no longer applies.

“How we talk about things has a lot to do with how we think about them,” he said, “and believe is the wrong word to use in reference to evolution.”

This is one case where I think we do need to be careful of our language, for using the word “belief”, in front of those on the fence, might imply that evolution has an epistemological status similar to that of religion.  And while I do use the words “belief in evolution” as shorthand with my colleagues, who know what I mean, I bite my tongue when I’m about to say that in public. My preferred phrase is that “I accept evolution.”

Anyway, kudos for Flam for using a popular newspaper column to make a serious point.


  1. Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Belief is suspicion despite lack of knowledge.

    In one sense, belief still remains when knowledge is present, but only in the sense that Baihu has three legs. You see, having four legs, it follows of necessity that he has three; however, our language is structured as such that stating that Baihu has three legs indicates he lacks a fourth.

    Baihu has four legs, not three and I know, not believe, that individuals reproduce inexactly.



    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      Blast…forgot to subscribe….


      • Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

        Myself as well…
        I am taking this opportunity of a gossamer response in order to avail myself of a subscription to this thread.

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      Beliefs are a subclass of knowledge though, so belief cannot imply lack of knowledge. If I know that P, then I also believe that P. That’s to be distinguished from belief statements. There are reasons of pragmatics that we usually don’t say “I believe that P” unless we are hesitant, but it’s not universal. There are circumstances under which it pragmatically normal to say “I believe that P” despite having certain knowledge of P.

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      Just as every month has 28 days!


  2. jeff
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    As I get into Bayesian statistics more and more I get increasingly comfortable with using “belief” in science. In textbooks, one frequently reads “prior belief” associated with a hypothesis. But here I equate belief with some level of confidence or probability, which I don’t think has the same meaning with the religious aspect – but it might. I think it’s healthy to use belief and quantify it with “strongly”, “weakly” or even “absolutely” since these terms imply the strength of evidence. And I absolutely believe in evolution and I strongly believe that ESC > BSC.

  3. FloM
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    I must say that a Miss America contestant’s use of words should determine whether a bunch of educated people need to be careful how to use natural language sounds outrageous to me….

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

      I’m pretty sure this was determined before the Miss America contest, but while everyone’s thinking about it anyway, might as well make a useful point.

  4. Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    “Belief” is too often conflated with “Trust”.
    We “trust” that gravity will operate tomorrow as it did today; we do not “believe” this.
    “Trust” is based upon repeatable evidence.
    The unevidenced dross is “belief”.

    • Egbert
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      Religious followers confuse the word ‘belief’ with trust, when everyone else means opinion.

      People have their opinions and they’re mostly open to be shown that their opinions are wrong. But religious followers are never wrong! No matter how clearly you point out they are.

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      I had an argument with Labi Siffre on Twitter on just this point. He was surprise that I wouldn’t say that I believed in gravity, and cautioned me not to take small children onto the roofs of tall buildings.

      He’s no theist, and wasn’t using belief in the “unevidenced” sense, but he was genuinely surprised by my resistance to that usage. (Essentially because so many fundies on Twitter twisted “belief” to always have “their” meaning.)

      There was a great blog post several months back deprecating “believe”/“belief” … SkepChick?


    • Explicit Atheist
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

      I very much, very strongly, disagree with Michael Kingsford Gray, who I think is mutilating and misapplying definitions. Trust has to do with dependency on other people, we trust someone else or we don’t trust someone else, because there is an actor making an decision and we are relying on the decision to go one way and not other ways. Belief has to do with that which is evidenced, we believe in whatever conclusions we have determined are favored by the evidence. Faith is that subset of belief which is adopted regardless of the evidence, it is unjustified belief. I also agree with Jerry Coyne that belief is suboptimal for scientific conclusions. For the subset of knowledge which is considered a scientific conclusion by the experts it becomes misleading/inaccurate to utilize the word belief because belief implies an evidenced conclusion that has not been rigorously and repeatedly demonstrated to be true by the subject experts and thus remains open to reasonable debate and disagreement.

  5. Jim Thomerson
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Believe is so contaminated by association with immutable faith that it should never be used in discussing the thinking of scientists.

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      Tell that to Francis Collins.

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      In psychology, behavioral economics, and the cognitive sciences generally, beliefs are one of the topics of study. So, it’s not really possible to stop talking about beliefs. I know that the faithheads have tried to co-opt the word belief, but there is no reason that we should let them.

      • AT
        Posted June 29, 2011 at 5:37 am | Permalink

        psychology, behavioral economics and cognitive sciences are not “pure” or “hard” sciences because they are heavily polluted by _opinions_ that are not scientific

        this is the result of language being used as communication tool and a vehicle for cogitation at the same time

        science is manifestation of purely physical ‘deliberative capability’ and works _exclusively_ thruough continuos refinement of definitions to keep its integrity and non–ambiguity thoughout the _whole body of knowledge_

        popular opinion or pronouncements by “careless scientists” do not reflect science – they are part of the “goo of institutionalized ignorance”

        we all born in the “goo of institutionalized ignorance”

        some of us distinguish phenomenology (science) from the goo and some learn to be disciplined about the way they use language to communicate and think

        There is a bottom line to ‘the matter of forensic integrity’, and it is that if all the various principals of a discussion cannot wrap their hands entirely about ‘solely unambiguous material of discussion’ -even to the inclusion of statistical qualification if so necessary, it may be that there is absolutely no substance whatsoever in whatever conclusions they come to.
        quoted from http://www.condition.org/forensic.htm

        • Steersman
          Posted June 30, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink

          we all born in the “goo of institutionalized ignorance”

          Same sort of process, I think, by which wisdom becomes dogma – scientism in the cases you’ve described, but also manifesting itself in a spectrum from religion to politics and, probably, to sex. Reminds me of a passage in an old sci-fi novel:

          “Quant Suff!” The Scientific People roared. “Quant Suff!”

          But “interesting” site at your link …

    • Neil
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

      I believe you are right.

    • Kharamatha
      Posted June 29, 2011 at 1:10 am | Permalink

      This contamination you mention really hasn’t significantly reached me (yet?).

      I have no problem with saying that I believe that there is gravity, or that I believe that the theory of it is pretty good.

      The only weirdness that springs to mind is the naive fiction usage. “I believe in you, Gravity! You can do it!”

      • Kharamatha
        Posted June 29, 2011 at 1:15 am | Permalink

        It would seem absurd for me to say that I don’t believe in gravity.

        Is it at all possible that “believe” is simply a broad term that doesn’t usually concern itself with finer details of epistemology and as such sees varied application?

        Just like “milk”, though to some seeming “contaminated” with cow-ness, is actually just a common type of bodily fluid produced by rats and cows alike.

  6. Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Here’s a topical video I saw over at the Friendly Atheist.

  7. Matti K.
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    It seems that the accommodationists are happy as long as religious people add evolution to the list of things they believe in.

    But if a person believes in evolution in the same way he/she believes in God, is it really a win for science and scientific thinking?

    I dont’ think so.

  8. Brice Gilbert
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Isn’t belief just a subset of knowledge? It’s whether that belief is justified that makes it knowledge. It’s too bad that the word has been hijacked.

  9. Cents
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I was troubled by the word belief (may imply taken on faith) so I started looking into its meaning as when I say I believe I want it to mean based on evidence, when I found this from Belief in Wikipedia.


    To “believe in” someone or something is a distinct concept from “believe-that”. There are two types of belief-in:[12]

    Commendatory – an expression of confidence in a person or entity, as in, “I believe in his abililty to do the job”.
    Existential claim – to claim belief in the existence of an entity or phenomenon with the implied need to justify its claim to existence. It is often used when the entity is not real, or its existence is in doubt. “He believes in witches and ghosts” or “many children believe in fairies” are typical examples.[13]”

    From my point of view I think we should use “believe-that” as it naturally lends itself to an expression providing the reason/evidence for that belief.

    Something like “I believe that Evolution by natural selection is true due the 150 years of scientific evidence and peer review that has confirmed this as the only acceptable model consistent with what has observed by the biological sciences.”

    It works for me but I admit that it is not as short as “I believe in”.

  10. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Leaving aside the capital-B Belief of religionists, I’m not sure I see anything wrong with the use of “belief” in the following sense. While the facts of gravity (for instance) may be incontrovertible and therefore not subject to belief or disbelief, it’s still reasonable to say that I believe Einstein’s explanation of those facts to be essentially correct (without having tested it empirically myself).

    Similary, the facts of evolution are undisputed by reasonable people, and I believe modern evolutionary theory to be the best available explanation of those facts.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      Another way to say it is that I believe that evolutionary biologists are doing real science and discovering true facts about the world, and that they are not engaged in a vast conspiracy of lies whose sole purpose is to lead people away from Jesus. When beauty pageant contestants profess a belief in evolution, something like this is probably what they’re driving at.

  11. Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    The problem is that the word “belief” means different things, and one of the most basic meanings is something like “consider to be the case”. I think this would be considered a reasonable working definition by most epistemologists – and if anyone knows about knowledge and belief, it’s them.

    Now, crucially, it doesn’t seem unreasonable – given this meaning – for a physicist to say, “I believe in gravity”. What’s meant is, “I believe, based on evidence, that the force we call gravity exists”.

    The creationists muddy it through equivocation: they simultaneously use belief in that basic sense above, but also in the sense of “have unquestioning faith in”, so use a reasonable statement of belief to imply something unreasonable.

    We should point this out at every opportunity, and stress that we believe in evolution only in the sense that we consider it to have occurred, based on evidence. Just as we stress that, yes, evolution is a theory, but theory doesn’t mean speculative hypothesis.

    To try to discourage the use of the word belief in the basic sense given above is, I think, as futile and unhelpful as trying to discourage people from referring to evolutionary theory.

  12. Bernard J. Ortcutt
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    We need to distinguish beliefs from belief statements. Belief is a mental state. Belief statements are utterances of the form “I believe that P”. It is true that belief statements are commonly used when there is some uncertainly. So, I would generally never say “I believe that 2+2=4″. I would just say “2+2=4″. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that 2+2=4. I do believe it.

    But there are some circumstances where I would actually say “I believe that 2+2=4″. If someone asked me the question “Do you believe that 2+2=4″, I would answer “I believe that 2+2=4″, and nothing about that answer would indicate uncertainty about the answer.

    I would generally never say “I believe that evolutionary theory is true”. I would just say “Evolutionary theory is true.” But if someone asked me whether I believed that evolutionary theory is true, I would say “I believe that evolutionary theory is true”. None of this has anything to do with faith at all. The faithheads have tried to steal the word “belief” from the rest of us, but I’m not going to put up with it.

  13. George Atkinson
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    I am an electrical engineer, and a believer in the Revelation of Ohm.

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

      But so many resist that idea!


      • Steersman
        Posted June 28, 2011 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

        Currently anyway, although the field is experiencing a lot of flux …

        • Posted June 29, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

          Well, everyone will be brought down to earth very soon.


  14. Hempenstein
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Good for Faye for getting this out into the mainstream press!

  15. Greg Esres
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Much ado about nothing. For an evolutionist to quibble about this is similar to having your maiden aunt correct your usage of who/whom while trying to hold a discussion. It’s a communication inhibitor, because it conveys a holier-than-thou attitude right from the very beginning of the conversation. Just tell them “yes”, and then you may have a chance to tell them why later in the conversation.

  16. Egbert
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    It is probably good practice to stop using the word ‘belief’ in reference to ourselves and start using the word ‘opinion’ instead.

    For religious people, we need to apply the word ‘trust’ rather than belief. Because they don’t consider their belief an opinion.

  17. Greg Esres
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    “scientists tend to use the word belief to be synonymous with a suspicion, or hunch, when more definitive evidence is lacking.”

    BTW, this really isn’t true….in conversation, the word “believe” will have different meanings depending how you emphasize the word. Saying the word like “belieeeeeeeve” suggests doubt. If these scientists were taking a multiple choice test and encountered the statement “I believe in evolution”, they would mark it “true”.

  18. Evogene
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    I think there is a philosophical confusion here about the word belief. If I said I believe that Paris is in France, this is not like saying I believe in ghosts – I don’t of course -. Belief means accepting something to be the case, for a reason that depend on arguments and/or knowledge. For example: Having studied the evidence for evolution I KNOW that evolution is true. Given that knowledge, then I proceed into taking the position that I accept the proposition “Evolution is true”; I believe in Evolution. Furthermore, I believe in positive empiricism – I don’t know if it the perfect epistemology but I accept it – believe in it- because it has been shown to work better than anything else. Belief can depend on knowledge and/or arguments. Belief in god, is actually faith, which is a special kind of belief that doesn’t require or depend on knowledge nor argument. Citation: Philosopher Colin Mcginn

  19. Myron
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    “What I know, I believe.”

    (Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, §177)

  20. stvs
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob.
    I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well.
    And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri.
    If you believe, the Lord will reveal it.
    And you’ll know it’s all true. You’ll just feel it.
    You’ll be a Mormon
    And, by gosh!
    A Mormon just believes!

    • Steersman
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

      A very scary philosophical perspective and motivation, a very intentional will to believe in spite of the dearth of evidence, to be blind to reason and logic, not to mention humanity:

      Now I must be completely devout
      I can’t have even one shred of doubt…

      I sort of thought that attitude had died with Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, who asserted in his “Rules for Thinking with the Church” that “if she shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black”. No wonder that the religious seem categorically if not congenitally unwilling or unable to accept that there is no evidence for their theses, their dogmata.

      Along which line an American moralist, Philip Wylie argued that:

      There are in America [circa 1942] from fifteen to twenty million religious fundamentalists who are dedicated to doctrines incompatible with democracy in that they insist upon their prerogatives as first principles. An even larger group feebly follows the trail of fire breathed by these fundamentalists. They are the most dangerous minority we have because they categorically eschew the reasoned judgments of the majority. Democracy properly allows them the right to worship as they choose. It should never have conceded them the right to establish schools. Education is not a function of any church – or even a city – or a state; it is a function of all mankind. [Generation of Vipers; Philip Wylie; pg 325]

      • sailor1031
        Posted June 29, 2011 at 5:43 am | Permalink

        perhaps not good traits in a potential POTUS?

        • Steersman
          Posted June 30, 2011 at 10:39 am | Permalink

          I assume by that term you mean the President of the US and with which I would agree – unless one is thinking of a Manchurian Candidate.

          But, out of curiosity, being Canadian and not following all of the byzantine convolutions of American politics I wonder which candidate you are referring to. I seem to recollect seeing one strongly religious contender (aren’t they all?) bowing-out, but I could be mistaken.

      • stvs
        Posted June 29, 2011 at 7:30 am | Permalink

        “We sacrifice the intellect to God.” (Dei sacrificium intellectus.)
        —Ignatius of Loyola

        • Steersman
          Posted June 30, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink

          Thanks for the link. But unfortunately my German is a little rusty [virtually non-existent], though I found a related Wikipedia article which has this:

          According to Paul Pruyser, “Sacrifice of the intellect, demanded by a good many religious movements and blithely if not joyously made by a good many religious persons, is surely one of the ominous features of neurotic religion.

  21. Myron
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    The epistemologist Robert Audi distinguishes between propositional, objectual, and attitudinal beliefs, the latter of which include a fiducial aspect (trust, hope):

    “From a structural and ontological point of view, there are several basic cases of belief. One is /propositional/: this is believing that p, where p is a proposition. Another is /objectual/: this is either (1) believing a thing to have a property, say the sky to be threatening, or (2) believing, /of/ a thing, such as the sky that it has a property. Neither (1) nor (2) entails believing any particular proposition. An important locution explicable in terms of these two is ‘believing a person’. This is roughly a matter of believing certain propositions the person affirms, on the basis of the person’s affirming the proposition(s) in question (perhaps the notion also includes—less commonly, to be sure—having an objectual belief the person conveys). An important locution not explicable simply in terms of the first two is /believing in/. Believing in God—which might be called /attitudinal belief/—is not in general explicable in terms of propositional and objectual believing. Attitudinal belief is a central concept in the philosophy of religion and should not be assimilated to either of the first two kinds.”

    (Audi, Robert. “Belief, Faith, and Acceptance.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 63 (2008): 87-102. p. 88)

  22. Myron
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Basically, belief as propositional belief consists in one’s accepting a proposition as true—whatever the reasons or causes of one’s believing it.

  23. Myron
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    For those interested:



  24. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Evolution is a fact… and I accept the Theory of Evolution as the best current explanation of that fact.

  25. 386sx
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Belief is a perfectly acceptable term because evolution denialists are just flat out disbelieving the truth. But sadly, creationists get their “jollies” whenever they see an opportunity to equivocate on a word, and they jump on it like flies on poopy-poop. So yes it is best to be careful to avoid such opportunities even though every word uttered is a new opportunity for creationists to equivocate. This is just what they do. Every time a word is eqiuvocatable, a creationist gets their jollies. (As opposed to every time someone rings a bell an angel gets their wings.)

  26. Dominic
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Believe – I believe that religion is daft…
    consider – I consider the ceremonies pointless…
    opine – I opine that those who attend are deluded…
    reckon – I reckon that there is no meaning in existence…
    think – I think I have weighed the evidence…
    know – but I know I am ignorant about more than I will ever be able to comprehend.

    Yes, word meanings are so variable!

  27. 386sx
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    They should have asked them the famous “Why are there still monkeys?” question. That way they would already have to accept the premise of evolution and then go on from there and expose the ignorance in all its full glory.

    • Dominic
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      …and if there are dentists why do Englishmen have bad teeth?!

      • Posted June 28, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        Because the free ones are too few and the others too expensive. Even firms with private healthcare rarely offer a dental plan. I’ve been on the waiting list for a local dentist since I moved 13 years ago, and so still have a 3h round trip to see my old one.


        • Posted June 28, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

          I know it was only a rhetorical question, but…


          • Dominic
            Posted June 29, 2011 at 1:47 am | Permalink

            You should see mine!

  28. Dominic
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Whatever I say is true, for when I say I say something, when I say something I say that which is, and when I say that which is I say the truth.

  29. sailor1031
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Once, while on leave, I fell off a bar stool in Naples. I don’t know about Michael Schermer but since that day I’ve sure been a believer in gravity!!!

    • Dominic
      Posted June 29, 2011 at 1:48 am | Permalink

      …and the power of the Campanian vintages?

      • sailor1031
        Posted June 29, 2011 at 5:38 am | Permalink

        too much Grappa!

  30. Neil
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    Thinking more about this, I’ve decided “believe” is the general and appropriate word, and atheists should not surrender it to the faithists.

    Belief without evidence is faith. Belief based on evidence is knowledge. Yes, I believe in evolution, because of the evidence. No, I do not believe in god because of the lack of evidence.

    • Steersman
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

      Belief without evidence is faith. Belief based on evidence is knowledge.

      Maybe partly the case, as it seems that one basis for differentiating between the two is the quality and quantity of the evidence provided. For instance, in a legal context “there is some support for making beyond the shadow of a doubt the standard required for the imposition of the death penalty in a capital case” because of what is at stake, while beyond a reasonable doubt would remain the standard for common law cases. I think that was the principle in play in the civil and criminal cases against O.J. Simpson.

    • Gordon Davisson
      Posted June 30, 2011 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

      I’d agree with this. Certainly, “belief” is sometimes used this way, as in the philosophical view that “knowledge” is properly defined as “justified true belief” — that is, to “know” something, you must believe that it is true, it must actually true, and your belief must derive from its truth. This is exactly the situation some people are suggesting “belief” does not apply to.

      I suspect that the problem is that knowledge is a proper subset of belief, and hence a more specific term. If you believe something and also know it (as a certainty), you’ll use the more specific term and say you know it. That doesn’t mean you don’t also believe it, it’s just that “know” is more specific. But since people don’t use “believe” in this situation, it creates the impression that it doesn’t apply.

      There’s a lovely quote on the subject that I haven’t been able to find the source of. It goes something like this: “Many people believe in God, and many people believe in Australia. But not many people believe in God in quite the same way they believe in Australia.”

  31. Patrick Fish
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    Reasonable people should always avoid using the word “believe”.

    You can suspect, hope for, support, be inclined to think, hypothesize. But don’t “believe”.

    Leave the word “belief” for the superstitious.

    • Steersman
      Posted June 29, 2011 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

      Reasonable people should always avoid using the word “believe”. … Leave the word “belief” for the superstitious.

      Just because the religious happen to use the word with highly questionable justification is no reason for the rest of us to deny ourselves the use of a perfectly reasonable and utilitarian word. For instance one definition is this:

      3. To have confidence in the truth or value of something

      As in “I believe the sun will rise tomorrow”. As opposed to “I believe Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” No proof in either case of course, but bit of a difference in the quality and quantity of the evidence provided.

  32. Steersman
    Posted June 29, 2011 at 12:51 am | Permalink

    These problems are why many of us see those who call themselves “agnostics” … as intellectual cowards.

    Right. And “namby-pamby, mushy pap, weak-tea, weedy, pallid fence-sitters” as well. And, no doubt, “preverts” to boot. Seems a little over-the-top and a little uncharacteristic. In response it seems that agnostics – and I don’t entirely consider myself as one – might reasonably offer the rejoinder that atheists – at least those asserting with “absolute certainty” the non-existence of any and all gods – are intellectually foolhardy: neither characterization really seems helpful in addressing the underlying logic and reason and evidence.

    This is one case where I think we do need to be careful of our language, for using the word “belief”, in front of those on the fence, might imply that evolution has an epistemological status similar to that of religion.

    Quite agree with that though; probably applies to many words in general and in particular those such as “faith” and “believe” and “evidence” and “proof” with their different definitions relative to both religion and science – very easy to go off the rails when the parties to a conversation have different points of reference.

    But while I will quite readily agree that the “epistemological status” of evolution, in terms of the quantity and quality of the available evidence, is light-years ahead of – not at all similar to – that of religion, I would suggest that they – religion and science in any case – share some common elements in that status, notably the reliance on assumptions of one sort or another, and held to be true – “believed in” – with varying degrees of faith and buttressed by varying degrees of evidence.

  33. Humxm
    Posted June 29, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Perhaps the word “belief” can be neutralized by changing the word “theory” to “law.”

    We refer to gravity as a law. Perhaps it is also time to refer to evolution as a law. Isn’t the science of evolution established well enough now to upgrade it from yesterday’s term “theory”? If science would refer to the law of evolution, “believing” in it would sound as silly as believing in gravity. (Every “believes” in gravity!)

    We obey gravity–it’s the law. We also obey evolution–it’s also the law. Don’t “believe” in either one if you don’t want to.

    • Myron
      Posted June 29, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      Gravity is not a law but a force.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted June 30, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

        … or, if you are nitpicky, gravity acts like a force but is actually the curvature of spacetime.

        “In GR, gravitation is not viewed as a force, but rather, objects moving freely in gravitational fields travel under their own inertia in straight lines through curved space-time – defined as the shortest space-time path between two space-time events. From the perspective of the object, all motion occurs as if there were no gravitation whatsoever. It is only when observing the motion in a global sense that the curvature of space-time can be observed and the force is inferred from the object’s curved path.” [Wikipedia]

        Relativity (here, of gravity) – it grabs you where you feel it every time.

  34. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted June 30, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    My preferred phrase is that “I accept evolution.”


  35. Posted July 1, 2011 at 4:50 am | Permalink

    What intrigues me is why do people care to invest their time, treasure and talents in discussing the existence of a creator God? We don’t invest the same energies in discussing unicorns or umpa loompas, do we?

    Unless of course the truth claim submitted by Christians that God broke into human history as the man Jesus Christ proves not to be myth, folklore and fable. Now if the evidence offered for His Life, death, burial and resurrection which forms the foundation of their belief, proves to be true, then that changes everything, doesn’t it. Seems to me that they have nothing to lose if they are wrong and the atheist has everything to lose if their theories ultimately prove wrong. I thought the story told in http://www.juststopandthink.com video particularly thought provoking. Thanks for the enjoyable discussion.

    • Posted July 1, 2011 at 5:21 am | Permalink

      Oh, come on.

      The “evidence” for Jesus is a collection of faery tales that includes a magic garden with talking animals and an angry giant, a talking plant that gives magic wand lessons to the reluctant hero, and copious quantities of zombie snuff porn.

      And stacked against that anthology of childish nonsense are the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Pliny the Elder, the Roman Satirists, and a whole hell of a lot of others who were there at the time and didn’t notice any of it. Hell, even the earliest Christians (such as Justin Martyr) admitted the whole thing was (as it so transparently is) cribbed wholesale from the Pagans.

      If you’re gonna play Pascal’s Wager, the Bible is the last book to play it against. At the very least, you’d be much better off playing it against Osiris and / or Dionysus, who were the principal archetypes the Christian mythmakers modeled their wacky new cult after.

      Well, okay. I suppose one of the further derivatives, like the Book of Moron, would be even sillier to ante up in a game of Pascal’s Wager, but that should be self-evident.



  36. JBlilie
    Posted July 12, 2011 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    I am very careful about this. When I am basing my conclusions on evidence I say “I think.” When it’s a matter of preference or conjecture, I say, “I like/prefer” and “I believe” or: “I don’t know for sure; but I think X because of Y, Z, and AA”

    When rerferring to evolution by natural selection, I always say: “I accept EBNS as the best explanation for life as we see it, based on the evidence I’ve seen.”

  37. PSF
    Posted April 10, 2012 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    No self-respecting scientist should EVER use the word “believe”. Ever. Nor should any science communicator. Shermer is right.

    Unless they’re discussing the thought process of supernatural believers.

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