The Belief Continuum

Often, we employ a single word for many uses; even for similar uses. We employ belief (and its cognate verb) to mean at least four things, each of which can also be usefully distinguished from the others, on a continuum: prejudice, opinion, belief, and conviction. Each can be a kind of belief, but each differs from the others. When we are asked what we believe about x, the question (and answer) ordinarily overlooks the distinction between four entirely different kinds of belief. It can be useful, however, to distinguish the four kinds.

Prejudice—We use this term to describe our biases; sometimes we believe something in the sense that we are inclined to regard it as plausible or true, even before we have consciously thought about it. Largely due to social or cultural reasons, certain behaviors, attitudes, or ideas seem more plausible than others, even when we are unaware that this is the case (cf. the discussion in Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels).

Opinion—Differs from prejudice because we are at least aware or conscious of our opinions, though often unaware of our prejudices.

Belief—We reserve this in its more technical sense to refer to an opinion we are aware of, and also aware that there is oughtness in it; that we or others regard the matter as something we ought to believe. The various clauses in the Apostles’ Creed, for instance, are more than opinions; when we confess this creed publicly in church, we join the church in regarding these matters as important, or even necessary (even if there are some clauses that we do not yet understand, e.g., the “descended into hell” clause).

Conviction—Properly, we reserve this term for that small handful of beliefs that we have had opportunity to consider fairly thoroughly, considering alternatives, and the arguments pro and con on the various sides of an issue. We have a conviction when, having conducted such an investigation, we are persuaded that one view is superior to the others (albeit not necessarily airtight). Conviction creates a degree of immobility (James Henley Thornwell used the term “Consistency,” in his 1854 Discourses on Truth); once we are persuaded of a matter, it will take nothing less than better reasoning or evidence to move us. Graphically, we could represent the four kinds of belief as moving on a continuum, from less-well-grounded to more-well-grounded:

Prejudice→Opinion→Belief→Conviction

Within my understanding of the intellectual enterprise, I would suggest that learning consists largely of knowing how we know rather than what we know. A learned person, by my reckoning, can distinguish these four forms of belief, and knows, on any particular matter, which of the four is germane in his own case. When his belief is no more than cultural prejudice, he seems to be aware of this. When his belief is a mere opinion, uninformed by any substantial investigation, he knows this also. He probably knows also that only a small number of his beliefs could honestly be called “convictions.” An uneducated person, by contrast, may have no convictions at all, and no “beliefs” (as defined above); all he has is prejudice and opinion, since he has neither the inclination, occasion, or ability to acquire conviction on a matter.

Indeed, few (if any) of us have as many convictions as we have opinions, because the time and effort it takes to develop conviction eludes us in an imperfect and busy world. On occasion when someone refers to me as a “learned” person, I attempt (courteously, I hope) to suggest instead that I am a “learning” person, not a “learned person,” since such a small amount of what I know could be truly designated as a conviction. Life is large, and its questions are many, so we ordinarily do not have occasion to investigate many of its questions thoroughly, patiently considering the known views with their reasoning and evidence. It is not wrong, therefore, to have nothing more than opinion on some matters, as long as we are candidly aware of the difference between a mere opinion and a conviction, though I find myself having fewer and fewer opinions as I age; why have an opinion at all, if it is neither a belief or a conviction?1 Saying “I feel really strongly about this” is no substitute for having some good reason for feeling strongly about it; indeed, one might wonder why anyone would feel strongly about a matter that is anything less than a considered conviction. The English Puritans believed there should be a correspondence between light and heat, as it were; where we have less light (reasoning or evidence), we should have less zeal or passion for the matter.

In a cultural moment where people are encouraged to express their opinions on many matters, we may over-regard mere opinion (which is one of the many reasons I pay no attention to opinion polls). Similarly, in a culture characterized by frequent disruption or distraction, we may under-regard developing firm conviction, at least on the more important matters. Paul, however, appears to have recognized the importance of some foundational convictions, and it may be worth pursuing what he prayed believers would pursue—namely, firm, well-grounded convictions:

“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent (lit. what is different or better), and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.” (Phil 1:9–10)

“And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” (Col 1:9–10)

“And you, . . . he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard.”  (Col 1:21–23)

Such stable, steadfast, unshifting conviction will be acquired neither easily nor frequently. Such convictions only result from persevering intellectual effort; and, ordinarily, they result only from the instruction of others (whether teachers, preachers, or authors).

Two Caveats Regarding Convictions

First, some convictions are literally unsettling, even though we think of convictions as firm, unshakeable commitments. This is because some of our mere opinions or beliefs do not withstand serious intellectual scrutiny, and we abandon them upon encountering convincing reason to adopt another view. I myself began college with the intention to attend seminary afterwards and be ordained in the Southern Baptist Convention. While at that liberal Lutheran college, fellowshipping with charismatic friends on campus and worshiping with Southern Baptists on Sundays, I became convinced of Reformed theology and of paedobaptism, both of which were, at the time, profoundly unsettling convictions. Each item was for me what Mr. Gore would later call an “inconvenient truth.” On the other hand, each became less inconvenient over the years, because I found Christian communion in circles that encouraged such convictions. Some convictions, however, overturn and unsettle what were previously settled opinions.

Second, not all convictions are equally convincing. Even for an energetic mind that pursues truth doggedly, some of our convictions are less convincing than others. My conviction about the bodily resurrection of Christ, for instance, is nearly unshakeable. On a scale of 1 to 5, I rank it as a 4.999—only lacking a 5 because I know I am a fallible human. My conviction about paedobaptism, by contrast, is probably a 1 or 2 on a 5-point scale. I find less in the Bible pertinent to the question of paedobaptism than I do that pertains to the bodily resurrection. Why, then, did I embrace the unsettling conviction of paedobaptism? Because the evidence and reasoning for the alternative conviction (anti-paedobaptism) were even less convincing. The duty of a good mind is to embrace the better alternative whenever the evidence or reasoning is better than the evidence or reasoning for the alternative. It might be very wise, therefore, for us to develop the practice of ranking each of our convictions (if we have any; some of us have only opinions or beliefs) on a 5-point scale. What makes a belief a conviction is when we have examined the evidence and reasoning for the alternatives, and find such evidence or reasoning to be more convincing than the evidence or reasoning for the alternatives. Even our convictions, therefore, are not equally convincing.

©T. David Gordon. All Rights Reserved.

Notes

  1. Emperor Marcus Aurelius had a similar view: “You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you cannot control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.” Marcus Aurelius, The Emperor’s Handbook: A New Translation of the Meditations, eds. C. Scot Hicks and David Hicks (New York: Sribner, 2002), 75. Similarly, Thomas Jefferson observed: “He is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.”  Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Philadelphia: Prichard & Hall, 1787 ), 31.

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One comment

  1. Outstanding! A friend and I used to engage in conversational debate about topics we were in general disagreement about in order to learn and to sharpen our apologetic skills. It became a game of sorts to stop at a critical junction in the debate and ask, “How sure are you about that?” We would rank our surety on a scale of 1-5. Viewing it as a continum adds a better perspective. Thank you Dr. Gordon.

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