In the Abrahamic Monotheisms belief is binary.
“Do you believe in this?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Do you believe in that?”
“Of course I don’t. That’s nonsense.”
Recently I’ve been dabbling in Buddhist philosophy. I was delighted to encounter their approach to belief.
“Do you believe in this?”
“Circumstances. You’re a modern person, with the best education and that unwavering contempt of silly superstition that is so common these days right…”
“I’m not stuck up or conceited or anything like that. You’re making me sound like such an arrogant jerk. I believe in what I can see, that’s all.”
“So it’s safe to say that you don’t believe in ghosts?”
“Silly stories, made to frighten children.”
“Now imagine this. It is a dark, rainy night, with the clock approaching midnight. Just as the moon starts to peek through the clouds, you realise you are walking through an abandoned grave yard. The trees are creaking in the wind and there is an unearthly silence clinging to every tomb. As you’re walking you see shadows moving in the trees ahead of you. In the minute when you see those flickers, are you sure there are no such things as ghosts?”
“I…I might have my doubts in that moment. I mean in that moment it’s natural to…you’d be scared and the imagination would be inventing all sorts of ghouls and goblins…”
“In the right circumstances, your beliefs would change?”
“I suppose so. But only temporarily, it would be just while you were in that terrifying place. But once I got home, I’d know it was just the fear that had done that, and it’d go away after a while.”
“That’s very true. I’d like to treat the principle as established though, that where we are in life, and what we are doing directly impacts what we believe. Sometimes only for a short time, and sometimes longer”.
“I guess I’d accept that.”
“Would you accept that it also applies to our everyday beliefs? Isn’t the fickleness of our own beliefs something that we’ve all experienced? On some days you believe with the strongest faith in the world. On some days you wonder whether there’s a God at all. On some days you’re sure that not only does God exist, but he has the character of a charlatan. On some days you wonder whether she loves you at all. Some days you believe that all of the above are true with so much force that you say ‘I know’ when you’re talking about them. They become so true that they stop being beliefs in your eyes.”
“Lord knows I’ve done that see-saw myself so many times. One day God is great, the next he’s a bastard, and the day after, he’s a non-existent bastard. And then it all changes and he’s existent amazing and great again. It all turns on what’s happening that makes me think those things.”
“That understanding is the foundation of the Buddhist philosophy of belief. You can’t pin a person down on their beliefs, because they change moment to moment, and across a person’s journey through life. To demand that beliefs are to be adhered to consistently and equally through a person’s life doesn’t match up with reality, and so Buddhism doesn’t demand such unnatural states of mind either.”
I admire the Buddhist approach.