The Difference Between Faith and Belief

I can pretty much trace my initial religious awakening to the fact that my (Catholic) dad married my (Lutheran) mom in defiance of Catholic precepts at the time that forthrightly declared only Catholics could enter heaven. (This view was actually restated by the recent Pope Benedict as late as 2007, though his successor has been sounding a far softer tone.)

When I was in third or fourth grade listening to the priest’s lecture on this matter in a religious education class, I thought of my kindly mom at home, denied entrance to heaven with us because she was reared in a different faith tradition.

This was such self-evident poppycock that I remember being not so much offended or outraged as I was dismissive.

The thought did not escape me that if the padre and his faith could be so blindingly wrong on such a simple and obvious matter…

Believing in a heaven where my mother was denied entrance required suspension of every shred of rationality and native reason my mere 8-year-old brain was already manifesting. I would have had to take it “on faith,” but that was so absurd and impossible given the reality of my actual mom and her actual great big heart that faith didn’t stand a chance.

Notably, anything that has required similar “faith” on my part hasn’t fared too well since.


In John Updike’s 1996 novel In the Beauty of the Lilies, Clarence Wilmot is a Presbyterian pastor in 1910 who loses his faith in seemingly sudden and catastrophic fashion. His voice literally takes leave of him in the pulpit one Sunday very shortly after he has come to the conclusion that the whole edifice of his faith, all his received notions of God, can’t possibly be true.

In a subsequent meeting, his liberal-minded superior tells him not to belabor the specific faith and belief issues. Doubt need not be debilitating, he suggests—just mouth the words, tend the ill, wear the collar, and get back in the pulpit. “Doctrine is the living expression of a living God, and is properly the subject of ongoing, at times radical, reconsideration,” he implores Clarence.

But the bereft Pastor Wilmot is having none of it. He feels incapable of leading his flock by what he considers deception. How can he face his congregation on Easter with a triumphant “Christ Is Risen!” when, as he tells his wife, “I not only no longer believe with an ideal fervor, I consciously disbelieve.”



At one time, Clarence had believed in and structured his life around the veracity of his faith’s stories. Now he cannot—and the truth and implications of it for his life and ministry are appalling.

Clarence soon leaves the ministry, loses the income his large family depends on, and is reduced to selling encyclopedias door to door. He tries to escape from “the bleak facts of life, his life, gutted by God’s withdrawal,” to the solace of the movies, which become a kind of substitute religion for him. (Updike, who was a practicing Christian himself, explores this idea of film as a new religion through the entirety of the novel that spans another three generations of Clarence’s progeny.)

The sales career doesn’t last long, however, and Clarence endures a few downward spiraling years until he “slipped away one night…just died without a sound.” He does so as a broken and disheveled man in every way—physically, emotionally, spiritually—truly one of the more abject figures in all of American literature.


Faith asks us to orient our lives toward love, freedom and communion, not constrict them with dogmas that separate us into camps of the elect and the damned, believers and heretics.

Don Cupitt is a real-world philosopher of religion and (former) Anglican minister who, over a period of years, also lost his belief in the received doctrines and historicity of his faith. Taking a progressively less literal view of all Christianity’s central stories, Cupitt is regarded as something of a heretic by various traditional guardians of the “faith.”

And though he too gave up the ministry, Cupitt, unlike Clarence Wilmot, developed a completely new orientation to his faith, one that continues to draw sustenance from its stories and principles.

He does so, however, without believing even one word as literally true and unchanging for all time.

As he says in perhaps his seminal work, After God (1997): …Religious beliefs ought not to be understood as stating supernatural facts, because their true function is simply to produce a way of life…When you have really worked through it, when your belief has become deep enough—then you no longer believe!

Brick by brick, in a regular sequence of books that reflect the deep thinking required to make complex material sound stripped, crisp and true, Cupitt has reinterpreted Christian dogmas to reflect an approach that he variously calls “non-realist Christianity,” “solar living” and “kingdom religion.” His is a world that calls on us to thrive, to serve, and to treat it with the preciousness that it deserves as the short-timers that we are.

In other words, to live as Jesus did.


Why did Clarence Wilmot take one road and Don Cupitt such a very different one?

I think part of it it has to do with an essential confusion between faith and belief.

Faith is the overarching orientation that can sustain and save us when all seems lost, while belief is adherence to specific doctrines that can ruin us when they are found to be unsupportable by fact, logic or critical thinking.

Faith is about the unseen and undogmatic—love, generosity, a heart and mind open to the new day and new ways. Belief is about the concrete, historic and dogmatic (even if it lacks any evidence to support it).

Mere “belief” often asks us to believe in the unbelievable, to prove how strong our “faith” is by swallowing whole what are essentially fanciful tales meant to stimulate our imagination and identification with characters and situations that reflect eternal verities.

Faith asks us to orient our lives toward love, freedom and communion, not constrict them with dogmas that separate us into camps of the elect and the damned, believers and heretics.


I would like to flip the traditional faith model on its head and suggest that needing to believe in dogmas that separate people into different exclusivist camps and which require belief in supernatural entities or events in order to maintain one’s faith in humanity and life has little or nothing to do with what faith actually is.

Clarence Wilmot’s problem was that once his belief crumbled—no God in the sky, no resurrection from the dead, none of the stories “true” as objective fact—his faith and hope and even care for his own soul and humanity at large crumbled right along with it.

Once he rejected his previous beliefs, he tried his best to replace them with the movies, but this was escapism writ large rather than a return to the world with a new perspective and tenderness.

Clarence experiences his religious awakening initially as a rebirth, a coming to terms with how things actually are, telling his wife:

 It’s been a fearful struggle, I’ve twisted my mind in loops to hold on to some sense in which these things are true enough to preach, but I’ve got to let go or go crazy.  I love you for feeling otherwise, and would never argue a man or child out of whatever they believe, but to me it’s all become relics, things left over from our childish nightmares, when there’s daylight now all around us—this is the twentieth century!

Soon, however, the rebirth that might have turned him to the world anew turns instead to regression and withdrawal. Clarence retreats to an inner world stripped of meaning and removed from people, including his own family, whose members need him no less than before, no matter how his theology has evolved. But throwing off the shackles of his old belief drains him of life and hope rather than reinvigorating it.

Not for him is Walt Whitman’s approach as described by Robert Ingersoll’s eulogy of him in last week’s post:

He never lost his hope. When the mists filled the valleys, he looked upon the mountain tops, and when the mountains in darkness disappeared, he fixed his gaze upon the stars.

And then tellingly, Ingersoll said of Whitman,

Knowing, as he did, what others can know and what they cannot, he accepted and absorbed all theories, all creeds, all religions, and believed in none.

In contrast, Clarence’s utter dependence on ”belief” in the historicity of religious myth to provide meaning, purpose and ballast for his life reveals a profound lack of faith in the gift of life we have been given, and in the tenacity, hope and courage that beckon us to do something purposeful with it.

Indeed, pegging faith to literal belief makes it more difficult to fashion the courage not only to hope but also to work for change in the face of everything that regularly undercuts hope. That includes all the unfairness and misfortune that life sends our way, all the wars and violence that never stop sweeping up the innocent in their maw, all the children who die from horrible diseases no matter how many well-intentioned prayer chains are formed on their behalf.

Let’s have Cupitt bring this to a conclusion:

There’s nothing out there or in here, and we should be truly beliefless. It is spiritually liberating to be free-floating, and to regard all religious ideas as being human and therefore open to criticism and revision. To hold on is to risk falling into superstition and fanaticism. The peculiar sort of poise, strength and sanity that religion can give is only to be had if the full price is paid; one must embrace the Void.


Some vintage Billy Joel in a light-hearted iteration of what Don Cupitt would surely acknowledge as “solar living” and a healthy transcendence of the old ways:
Say goodbye to the/Oldies but goodies/’Cause the good ole days weren’t/Always good/And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems”


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10 comments to The Difference Between Faith and Belief

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Another mind bending, insight laden post Mr. Hidas! Love the contrast of the provocative quote from Cupitt followed by the delightfully corny/fun/old school video of BJ… I am visiting India for 3.5 weeks and have been immersed in a culture that is simply dripping with religion (a dynamic mosh up of them) – I have been struck with how tolerant and open minded most Indian people are regarding the various major world religions – one might even infer that at some level they get the distinction you so clearly elucidate between belief and faith… hence tolerance is a natural result if you have faith that the “void” of Cupitt or Hindu’s Supreme Oneness etc are the same ineffable “thing” – the various beliefs are simply different roads…none/all are correct. I went to the Sikh temple last night w/my hosts here in Chandigarh (north of Delhi) near Punjab – 3 dudes playing tabala and some horizontal accordion thing while singing verses from their holy book – the energy was calming, focused, open – in talking w/my hosts Sikhism certainly has it’s dogma/beliefs/holy book but the focus is not on the beliefs it is on the “importance of doing good actions” – a “love/serve/remember” notion (plus the guys wear very cool turbans) – I’ve actually seen editorials in the various Indian newspapers opining about karma (an Indian version of the “Golden Rule”) and how it is by living/acting/being aware & grateful that a full life is realized… not by believing the “correct” dogma – most interesting – of course all of this is in the midst of a have/have not culture (like ours but extremes X a factor of 10!) that defies description… I am rambling, sorry – loved the post… perfectly timed as I awaken to a new day in strange and exotic, albeit troubled land.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Kevin, your comments on the generosity and tolerance exhibited within so much of Indian religious culture (though they have their murderous zealots too) sent me scurrying to find a relevant (religious scholar) Karen Armstrong quote, which is eluding me, though the search turned this up, which works about as well:

      “Compassion is not a popular virtue. Very often when I talk to religious people, and mention how important it is that compassion is the key, that it’s the sine-qua-non of religion, people look kind of balked, and stubborn sometimes, as much as to say, ‘What’s the point of having religion if you can’t disapprove of people?'”

      And a quote from a Jewish scholar whom she was quizzing on his beliefs when he responded: “Well, it’s easy to see you were brought up Christian. We Jews—it really doesn’t matter what you believe, religion is about doing things. It’s about living, as Rabbi Hillel says, in a compassionate way that changes you.’”

      Happy travels to you, keep the observations coming!

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Indeed India does have their zealots (in fact, name it and among 1.2 billion, India has it!!) – in fact just a few min. ago over lunch Reeva (one of my Indian hosts) was commenting on some Hindu fundamentalist group that are self appointed moral police around Mumbai – when they find girls dressed in what they consider to be non-Hindu ways they drag them into the streets, embarrass & sometimes even assault them in the name of purity… seems fundamentalism is the root cause of religious zeal/evil – all in the name of whatever you believe (that problematic word again!)

  • […] Andrew Hidas, skepticism began in […]

  • irrevspeckay  says:

    It makes me think about the difference between myth and history — while history might be accurate, myths are more likely to be true. And might I suggest this Billy Bragg song?

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yes Irrev, the variation on that line I really enjoy is: “Just because something didn’t happen doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” That neatly slices the peach between the literalists on the religious right and the uber-rationalists on the scientific left, putting imagination into its rightful place atop the human quest for meaning.

      Thanks for the song tip—singer & song new to me, so a fine treat!

      • irrevspeckay  says:

        I think I also remember seeing, years ago when I was still very much a poet, seeing an interview with Maya Angelou, talking about poetry ~ hers and others ~ that while what is written might not be factual, it can still, nevertheless, be true. Same peach.

  • Is This the Place? | spirituwellness  says:

    […] friend and fellow UU blogger, Andrew Hidas, this week posted about “The Difference Between Faith and Belief” which has me thinking about this question as well.  Not everyone who comes to UU churches from […]

  • Francis Bede  says:

    Belief is finding something searched for. Faith is keeping it there.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I really like the sheer sound of that, Francis—it has the makings of a nice aphorism. I’m just not sure about the belief piece, though. You’re suggesting that finding a searched-for object or truth or state of being or whatever results in a specific belief about it once it’s found, or that it’s synonymous with, the very same thing as, that belief? Want to ask you to do just a wee bit of theologizing here to elaborate the nice aphorism! Thanks.

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