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Believe In or Believe That?

Of Belief-Ins and Belief-Thats

The word belief comes with a lot of baggage. The word is used passionately to defend opposing positions within arguments. Conflict is natural as each opposing side assumes that their adversary is using belief in the same context. Various sources list many definitions. Most do not recognize the subtle (or blatantly) different ways in which it is used.

Most sources agree that the word belief is a noun used to describe something that one holds as being true in some respect. It is the object of the verb believe. So far, so good. Now let’s break down the verb believe.

H.H. Price distinguished between two different uses of the verb: “believe-in” and “believe-that”. These usages correspond to the nouns: “belief-in” and “belief-that”. He states, “Surely belief-in is an attitude to a person, whether human or divine, while belief-that is just an attitude to a proposition?” Price uses these distinctions to point out the fundamental misunderstandings between those that hold certain beliefs and those that do not.

We can extend his distinction further to empirical (belief-that) and nonempirical (belief-in) matters.


Thus, a belief-in can be thought of as the holding of an idea that cannot be proven or falsified. People can believe-in their children, meaning that they always consider them to be truly good people (even if their children have not demonstrated such qualities outwardly). People can believe-in an idea (such as democracy) without empirical evidence. One can believe-in a god or other supernatural forces even while acknowledging that such things may never, or could never, be proven. Most of us believe-in human rights and freedoms, such as freedom of speech. Many believe-in freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.

are not empirical. Belief-ins are convictions and tend to come from within. Belief-ins are felt with our emotions. Once felt, they are recognized by the rational mind which, in turn, rationalizes them as if they were empirical. When two people argue over conflicting beliefs-in, no resolution will ever likely be found, for logical arguments depend on premises that have empirical truth.

Philosophers can argue over whether Deontology is better than Consequentialism, but the premises of such arguments are based on belief-ins. One may point out that we could test these ethical systems empirically, however no such test has been done (or could be done?) to everyone’s satisfaction. To believe-in something is to hold a proposition as true while realizing that there is no scientific/ empirical evidence for or against it. In fact, perhaps there cannot be any scientific evidence that is directly for or against belief-ins.

Belief-ins form the basis for belief systems. Belief-ins come from our involuntary convictions, instincts, or are instilled in us before we develop adequate critical thinking skills. They are felt as being real, rather than being realized empirically. People can feel part of a larger group, unified by a particular belief-in, thus confirming and reinforcing the belief-in. Ultimately, rationale for particular belief systems are a bit circular. If one wants to be part of a belief system, then one must ‘believe-in’ the belief. Otherwise, one would not be part of the belief system. People within such a group will naturally be emotionally attached to the particular belief-in. Challenges to the belief-in will also be dealt with emotionally.

It is important for people within such groups to realize that, although their belief system may be emotionally fulfilling for them, others may be part of belief systems based on other belief-ins that completely contradict their own. Such has been the basis for epic conflicts.


Belief-thats are empirical. Let’s think of them as propositions we hold true because of empirical evidence. We are generally not as emotionally attached to our belief-thats, perhaps because they did not stem from emotions, but rather from observations.

We believe-that vaccines prevent disease because of the plethora of properly obtained, scientific data. One may believe-that the germ theory of disease is true, because it allows for better predictions when treating patients as opposed to older ideas such as ‘The Four Humors”.

Believe-thats can have measurable degrees of uncertainty. A meteorologist can believe that there will be a 70% chance of rain on Tuesday, based on observable facts today and applying scientific theory to come up with a prediction. When scientists use the words “believe” and “belief”, they are likely referring to believe-that and belief-that.

are used to make claims. We learned in previous sections how scientists and skeptics evaluate claims. If a claim meets the definitions of ‘fact’, ‘law’, or ‘theory’, then the claim becomes knowledge. Such claims are tough to dispute within rules of logic and argumentation. In fact, arguments over belief-thats are settled when the evidence is clear. Those who cling to belief-thats which have been falsified by scientific evidence are practicing pseudoscience. Those who believe-that a scientifically accepted proposition is false are called denialists.

The differences can seem subtle, but are actually distinct. It can get sticky when deciding when a belief is actually a belief-in or a belief-that. For instance, one could say, “Sam believes in auras”. This is actually a believe-that statement, because (assuming that Sam is honest and has stated so) Sam actually does believe in auras. Sam’s conviction about auras is a believe-in statement, because no amount of empirical evidence could support or refute it. Similarly, the statement, “Joe believes in Socialism” is likely a true statement about Joe and is useful information for predicting Joe’s behavior. This is a belief-that. When Joe states, “I believe in socialism”, he is expressing his belief-in.

It may take some getting used to, but classifying belief statements can be eye-opening and put things in perspective. Try it.

'In' and 'That', Is and Ought, Faith and Claims

In the Philosophy and Science section, the distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ was made. Science is our best tool to tell us what is (and what isn’t) so. We use philosophy to decide what we ought to do. The Philosophy of Science defines what is in a scientific sense, and states that we ought to use this knowledge to inform our decisions (of what we ought to do). Philosophical systems themselves are not scientific. As above, we cannot argue over moral systems such as Deontology and Consequentialism on empirical grounds. However, both of these philosophical systems need information to work; and the best information is produced by science.

Belief-thats are empirical claims. They are statements about what is. Assuming that such a claim is supported by evidence, a belief-that can inform our decisions about what we ought to do.

Trouble comes when one confuses a belief-in for a belief-that. Belief-ins are fine in-and-of-themselves, but they must be used with extreme caution to inform our decisions, especially when dealing with people who do not share the particular belief-in. Decisions based on belief-ins should spark skepticism. To ask, “Why should we do that?” is to ask for evidence and reason.

Some people believe in mysterious energies or life-forces that connect us with greater realities. Fine. These claims cannot be empirical. There is no evidence for such claims. Belief-in holders can maintain this belief-in without evidence. However, the moment that a so-called healer claims that diseases are caused by disruptions in these energies, AND that we can cure disease with procedures that influence their flow, the belief-in becomes a belief-that. By making an empirically testable statement, it becomes a claim. Claims that may influence one’s decisions about health and disease management are potentially dangerous. Belief-thats are scientific statements and, like all scientific claims, mandate skepticism. That is how science works.

That is not to say that belief-ins can never influence policy. Among competent, like-minded adults within a common belief system, belief-ins may influence policy. We, in the “free world”, value democracy. In the United States, we have a constitution that spells out the ground rules of how belief-in democracy should be used to establish our society. Of course, it is open to interpretation, but the concept holds true. The majority of people in the “free world” want to live under a democracy, and therefore work hard to maintain it. The argument for such a system is a bit circular, but we support democracy nonetheless. Democracy is an important belief-in.

Catholics believe in the sacredness of the communion host after it is blessed. This is a belief-in. Those within the belief system have decided that blessed hosts should be treated respectfully and according to doctrinal rules. To do otherwise would be to reject the belief-in, which most Catholics would not want to do (here again, we see hints of circular reasoning). This particular belief-in should not be mistaken for a belief-that. No scientific claims are being made.

An outspoken biologist pointed to this belief-in and demanded that we challenge Catholics in the name of reason by saying, “Are you seriously telling me you believe that? Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood?" Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!” However, such a statement reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of beliefs. Most Catholics would feel their intelligence insulted by such a statement, and rightly so. With introspection, most reasonable Catholics would likely respond that they do not believe that the host turns into flesh and wine turns into blood. But they believe in the notion. This may seem like a subtle difference, but it is not. Misunderstanding the difference leads to conflict. By making the fundamental error of confusing this belief-in with a belief-that, the biologist will get nothing but scorn and contempt by the belief-in holders (and even from those non-Catholic humanists who are sensitive to human emotions).

It gets tricky though. The statement, “Catholics believe in the sacredness of the host” is an empirically true statement. It can be used to predict (accurately) what would happen if someone were to disrespect the host. Therefore, one can use this fact to inform their decision as to whether they ought to “mock them” or to disrespect the object of the belief-in.

As we have learned, belief-ins are not reasoned. They are convictions that come from within, and disrespecting such a belief-in will not change the minds of the belief-in holders. Doing so can only cause negative emotions and often leads belief-in holders to actually strengthen their positions. Thus, we have empiric knowledge that should inform our decision to be respectful to this belief system.

However, we should challenge belief-thats

If a believer advises a parent to forego antibiotics for their child’s pneumonia in favor of a blessed host (or some other object of belief), then a line is crossed. The belief-in becomes a belief-that. In this case, it is entirely appropriate to pose the challenge, “Do you seriously believe that?” It may be life-saving. This is what critical thinking is all about. (Of course, we should pose such challenges with respect and in such a way that would likely predict positive responses. Psychology is a science after all. There is documented evidence to support productive approaches to such challenges.)

Faith is a belief-in. Faith-healing is a belief-that. Respect one, challenge the other.

Some --notably politicians, clergy and conservative talk show hosts-- claim to “believe that” contraception is sinful. They get enraged at the notion of contraception being covered by health insurance They state vehemently that we ought not to let this happen.  However, the belief is not supported by empirical evidence. The ‘evidence’ comes from their involuntary intuitions and emotions within. Therefore, this belief is not a belief-that, but rather a belief-in. It is not shared by people outside of their group. Once we realize this distinction, their arguments fall apart because the premises have no basis in fact.

Science is a Belief-in and a Belief-that

We learned in the Philosophy and Science section about Hume’s ‘Problem of Induction’.

Inductive reasoning cannot be justified logically, for any attempts to do so would necessarily have to appeal to inductive reasoning. Science inherently depends on induction, so science itself cannot be justified logically. Yet, we believe in it. Such a basic belief is really a belief-in and not a belief-that. Supporters of non-scientific medicine, pseudoscientists and denialists may point to the problem of induction to discredit science. Doing so, however, prevents them from backing up any claims of their own through induction (see You Can’t Have It Both Ways). Thus it is inescapable that we have to believe-in science. We also believe-that science is the best way to obtain reliable knowledge to inform our decisions.


The word belief leads to many heated debates because it is poorly defined. We need to clarify what we really mean when we use this word. Perhaps we would be better off separating the word into two distinct entities: belief-in and belief-that, as proposed by H.H.Price.

** Some ideas are not empirical and are not meant to be empirical. They are felt emotionally or instinctively.  Such ideas are not meant to be testable, such as philosophical ideas about ‘the meaning of life’ or ‘why we are here’. These are not scientific ideas and people can hold them if they like. Arguments for their merits tend to be circular, and therefore unproductive. If no claims are being made, there is no point in challenging them. We may refer to such beliefs as belief-ins.

** Ideas that are taken as factual or mechanistic, such that they can be used to make real world predictions, represent a different kind of belief. We may refer to them as belief-thats, or claims. Claims require evidence. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. They are fair game for criticism by way of experimentation, logic, reason. Those not familiar with the tools of skepticism and science may be easily fooled into believing-that a bogus claim is true. Arming one’s self with skepticism to differentiate legitimate from erroneous claims is what this site is all about.

However, before embarking in a heated and potentially damaging argument, we should recognize the difference between belief-ins and belief-thats. Arguing the first is futile and damaging. Arguing the second could be life-saving.

John Byrne, M.D.

References and Links

Price, HH. "10 HH PRICE - JStor." 1965.

"Why The Scientifically Literate Can Believe Silly Things | The ..." 2011. 

"Belief in belief - RationalWiki." 2010.

"The Ethics of Belief (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)." 2010. 

"Eliminative Materialism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)." 2003. 

"next Rational Thinking vs. A Priori Beliefs - NathanielZhu - HubPages." 2011. 

Appendix - Definitions of Belief
1. something believed; an opinion or conviction: a belief that the earth is flat.
2. confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof: a statement unworthy of belief.
3. confidence; faith; trust: a child's belief in his parents.
4. a religious tenet or tenets; religious creed or faith: the Christian belief.

1. An acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.
2. Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction.

1. acceptance of truth of something: acceptance by the mind that something is true or real, often underpinned by an emotional or spiritual sense of certainty
"belief in an afterlife"
2. trust: confidence that somebody or something is good or will be effective
"belief in democracy"
3. something that somebody believes in: a statement, principle, or doctrine that a person or group accepts as true
4. opinion: an opinion, especially a firm and considered one
5. religious faith: faith in God or in a religion's gods

Food for Thought on Definitions of Belief

Equivocating definitions (similar to “just a theory”)
A priori belief vs. a posteriori belief

A priori belief - emotional, comes from within, external evidence only used if confirms (faith position).
OK for math and logic, but few empiric claims should come from a priori belief.

A posteriori belief - provisionally accept a position based on objective review of observed evidence (scientific position).
Empiric claims naturally follow from a posteriori belief (scientific method).