be·lief – biˈlēf/ – noun
1. an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists; something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction.
There’s a popular meme among promoters of evolution that gets on my nerves, both as a matter of strategy and as a matter of fact. It’s a kind of snarky retort to creationists: “I don’t ‘believe‘ evolution, I understand it!”–as though there were something fundamentally different between what creationists have (mere “beliefs”) and what we have (“understanding”).
This is wrong, for a variety of reasons. First, if you don’t believe the theory of evolution, you don’t think it’s true–you disbelieve it. If you do think it is true, you believe it–you don’t ascend to a higher plane of cognition or a more exalted state of consciousness. A “belief” is simply a claim you affirm to be true.
It is certainly true that understanding evolution is strongly correlated with believing it–accepting that it is true–but it is by no means an immutable relationship. I’ve met creationists who perfectly understand how evolution works, but for religious reasons still reject it. I’ve met many people who accept that evolution is true without really understanding it at all.
So why the resistance to the word “belief”? Because people are confusing it with its second meaning:
You don’t believe IN evolution, but you do believe it. The mistake I see people keep making is to conflate these two definitions. Evolution isn’t a belief system or a worldview. To believe evolution is true, you don’t need to have faith in it or ask it what’s good and bad. You just need to weigh the scientific evidence for the fact and theory of evolution, and be persuaded by it.
Creationists make this same mistake when they accuse evolution of being a religion or a replacement for their God or their holy book. The reason why fundamentalists care so much about shoving religious mythology into biology class is because, for them, their belief about how life came to be is directly tied to their belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible to tell them how to live. That literalist dogma is irreconcilable with evolution, but not because they are substitutes for each other.
Evolution by natural selection just doesn’t have that kind of emotional pull, doesn’t offer those kinds of answers, and isn’t competing with religion to provide them. This is why secularists can’t understand why people get so riled up about this one scientific theory. It doesn’t give you all the answers for how to live. It’s simply the best explanation of the fact that species change over time and how that occurs.
It’s a mistake for us to ratify creationists’ misunderstanding of the word “belief” and what it means in the context of evolution. Yes, I do believe evolution, and you should too. Why? Because it’s true. If what you believe in can’t survive alongside this fact, then that tells you something about your worldview. We’re not doing anyone any favors by pretending otherwise.