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Why Should Anyone Believe Anything At All?

By James W. Sire

Behind all the questions one may ask about the meaning of life or any other major issue, this one reigns supreme: Why should anyone believe anything at all? In short, what makes any belief worthy to be believed? Let's put the question in a different form. What characteristic should every belief have? Here are two possible answers.

1. CERTAINTY: All things considered, we'd like our beliefs to feel certain.

To be sure, we do feel certain about a lot of our beliefs. We are, for example, certain that we live in a physical world external to our mind. We are certain that we have or have had parents. We are certain that we will die someday. It would be hard seriously to doubt any one of these beliefs. (Descartes managed to do so for a short time, of course. But that's another story.)

Other beliefs seem certain until we think about them. For example, that we have enough money in our bank to pay this month's bills, that Prague is in Czechoslovakia, that salt is sodium chloride. But each one might be wrong. In fact one of them is (there is no longer any Czechoslovakia). And we know how to find out if these particular beliefs are correct.

Finally, some of our beliefs are more easily doubted and less easily checked for accuracy. Take, for example, that God exists (or does not exist), or that human beings were created by God (or were merely the chance product of the universe doing its thing), or that all human beings will exist after death, either with God and his people, or without God and with others who have rejected him.

Still, many of us are indeed certain about our beliefs and are willing to die clinging to them. But notice something about certainty. It does not guarantee accuracy. If it's the feeling of certainty we are after in our beliefs, we may not have much of a problem maintaining it. We can just believe, never question our beliefs, play our Walkman or watch television when we begin to wonder about our beliefs, and generally avoid asking if our beliefs are really the right ones.

The problem is that some of our beliefs may be false. What if there were a God who required us to acknowledge him as Lord and Savior, that if we did not we would spend eternity in a rather unpleasant place? Certainty is not the primary quality we should seek in our beliefs. Our beliefs should not just be certain, but true.

2. TRUTH: If our beliefs are true, then they accurately reflect the way things really are. We no longer live in a world of fantasy or wishfulness, but in the world that is really there. True beliefs allow us to act responsibly. If, for example, it is true that there is a God who requires something of us, then we can act accordingly. The issue, then, is not am I certain that there is a God but is there a God? And if so, what does he require of me in particular?

This difference between "certainty" and "truth" is not a quibble. On it hangs the difference between eternal joy and eternal suffering. The fact is, we may be certain that there is no life after death but discover after death that we do indeed continue to exist and, because we have not even believed in God, let alone in Jesus, that life after death is agony. Still, though we have distinguished "certainty" from "truth," we have not yet considered how we can make a good judgment about what specifically is true. "Why should we believe anything at all?" That question we answer by saying, "Because it's true." But, then, how can we tell whether something is true or not? This must be a question for another time.

Further Reading:

If you'd like to study this issue further, take a look at one or more of the following books. They each help answer the question of how we can know whether or not something is true.

James W. Sire, Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All? (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1994).

Basil Mitchell, The Justification of Religious Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1963).

J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987).

James W. Sire, who contributed this article, was for many years a senior editor at InterVarsity Press and a campus lecturer for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. Hosted by InterVarsity Press ©2002 James W. Sire and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. Permission kindly granted to Faith and Reason Forum by InterVarsity Press.