The Leap of Belief
In the modern West, belief has effectively become a synonym for opinion or judgment – a space of autonomy rather than a prescription for its exercise. And, because opinion or judgment is so essential to modern societies, to ask ‘What do you mean by believe?’ would abdicate the right of people to decide for themselves what belief is. Beliefs locate us in the world – they identify us as consumers, voters, and voluntary participants in civil society, identifying us in a vast, multidimensional matrix of free choice.
To demand criteria for belief, to challenge the notion that all kinds of judgment and opinion are basically commensurate, would threaten an important mechanism by which modern people engage in the world. Modern belief is the sense that belief is synonymous with private judgment, and therefore modern people believe or disbelieve according to their own conception of whether a given proposition is credible.
Belief in Practice
As a matter of practice, some version of rationalism is at the heart of how many people claim to make their judgments, about religion as well as other things – they consider the evidence for or against a claim. And yet, while ‘reason’ may be a conventional component of modern belief, people are sovereign over the criteria of judgment as well as judgment itself, and their reasons are answerable to no one.
People who believe whatever a charismatic leader tells them, for instance, or who refuse to listen to new evidence that might change their minds, are not acting in accordance with most understandings of rationalism – but they would still claim to be using their judgment as independent finders of fact.