Let me explain how I look at the word “believe.” I don’t use it in speaking, nor do I use it in writing.
I have been fascinated by words for as long as I can remember. Often, when idle, my mind goes to pondering words and expressions. I’ll roll a word or phrase around, listen to the sound, link it to other similar words, wonder about its origins. I sort of play with the word in my head. It’s not something I do consciously. It’s just what happens.
I am also an outsider. As far back as I have memories I can recall feeling mildly anxious around people. At school I was not great socially, although as an excellent athlete I had my fair share of attention, and I was never lonely. I had my friends. It’s just that a lot of people’s behaviours didn’t square with me.
Taken in combination, my social detachment and my powerful fascination with words made me a naturally good writer. I feel comfortable as a third party observer in many situations, I like to work in solitude, yet I am creative, expressive and much better than average with language. Since I am not altogether comfortable expressing myself face to face, I have to find another channel. In my case, writing.
And so, being fascinated with words, I have spent far too much time, by normal standards, thinking about the word “believe” and its use in modern language. I have to say that I hold it in contempt.
It is contemptible because people use it to guild un-reasoned thought. It has a pretentious aura of sanctity about it. But when people use the word, they almost always mean something else.
Essentially, I take the word believe to mean that one accepts as fact that for which there is not necessarily any evidence. It places that appearance of fact beyond reproach. It requires the listener or reader to suspend their critical facilities, to turn off their intellect, and simply accept the proposition at hand.
When used to convey confidence in future events, as it so often is these days, the word “believe” is inexact and subtly misleading. The business executive who announces that they believe business conditions will change in the future, demands that you put your trust in their word. Yet you get very little information from such a statement of “belief.”
I might prefer a statement to the effect of “based on our analysis of current conditions, we have a seventy per cent confidence level that profitability will rise by ten percent next year.” This is a reasoned forecast and a statement of expectations that can be quantified. Even something such as “the mood within our management group feels more upbeat this year than last,” gives me context for evaluating the quality of conclusions. At least there is reasoning.
Think. Guess. Know. Estimate. Presume. Suppose. Imagine. These words and scores of others like them give me precise detail and context.
The word “believe,” on the other hand, is a bludgeon. It lets folks off the hook, and puts the discussion beyond reason, while it subtly imbues the statement with an authority unsupported by any apparent reason. We are simply being asked to take what the user states as wisdom revealed. Because at the end of the argument, according to popular wisdom, we are all entitled to our beliefs—no matter how ridiculous they may be.
Which is why I have kicked the word out of my vocabulary.