What Does It Mean to “Believe” in “God?”

I recently came across a video clip of Jordan Peterson addressing a question he’s often asked: Do you believe in God? He said he doesn’t like that question because he doesn’t know what the questioner means by “believe” or “God.”

We live in a funny world. One would think that such a simple question could be answered with a simple answer: yes or no. But words like “believe” and “God” are not understood by everyone in the same way. I’ve found that questions like the one asked of Peterson (and countless others) still require clarification. The best way to get clarity, in my opinion, is to use the Columbo Tactic and ask, “What do you mean by that?” Whether I believe in God or not depends entirely on what they mean by “believe” and what they mean by “God.”

By “believe,” they could mean:

  • Blind faith
  • Wishful thinking
  • Accepting something that’s contrary to logic or reason
  • Hope
  • Mustering up sheer will

If one of those definitions is what they mean, then, no, I don't believe in God. If, however, “believe” is taken to mean an act of the will where you accept a claim based on good reason (which is similar to the biblical definition), then I do believe.

But their definition of God is also critical. Their understanding of God could be:

  • An old man in the sky
  • A mythological being similar to Zeus or Thor
  • An angry being that throws lightning bolts at bad people
  • An anti-gay, anti-science, misogynistic bully in Heaven
  • Richard Dawkins’s definition of God

If their definition of God is any one of those definitions (and quite possibly many more), then I don’t believe in that God, either. If they’re talking about the biblical God (of course, no one has a perfect understanding of God, but I’m talking in general about the God referenced in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures), then that’s the God I do believe in.

Remember, asking a clarifying Columbo question is good for many reasons. As I’ve mentioned, it will clarify definitions, which is critical. You both need to be sure you’re talking about the same thing. You don’t want to inadvertently concede you blindly believe in a bolt-throwing, angry being in the sky. Second, it’s interactive and engaging. People prefer to go back and forth in a discussion and don’t necessarily want to hear a monologue. They’ll be more engaged when they can participate in a constructive discussion. Third, it builds relationships. Sharing your view, receiving and offering feedback, and engaging people in ultimate questions demonstrates vulnerability and opens your soul up to another person. That’s part of the stuff that friendships are made of, and building them is a beautiful thing.

Words and their meanings are important. Clarifying definitions brings clarity to confusion and brings harmony to the conversation.

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Alan Shlemon

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