2021 – On Belief

Belief is a curious phenomenon in our postmodern, posthuman age. A truism, per Jean-François Lyotard, holds that our present era is best characterized by its loss of belief, especially in grand narratives. Religion, a principal site of grand narrative formation and a de facto locus of belief, has seen its influence gradually wane, especially in the West. And while the deterioration of conventional faith traditions gives way to a virtually endless array of totemic icons (presenters at the most recent conference of the American Academy of Religion appealed to the mystical properties of sci-fi, comic books, and The Hunger Games), the cultural objects in play seem to devolve less on durable psychic commitments than on something like user friendliness and circulation. Indeed, for this new, postmodern mysticism, belief almost seems an indication of bad faith: one does not believe in cultural objects as much as like them, work out one’s identities and find one’s communities (of the “like”-minded) through them. In this way, cultural icons do not serve as the oracles of other worlds that may actually exist as much as function as projective mirrors that better reveal us to ourselves. They make our brave new world, the world as we know it, a little more manageable, a little more “friend”-ly.

mountain sun imageIn light of this new mysticism – hipster religion, if you will – belief comes to share the diminished epistemic space of the “alternative fact”: each enables representations of contiguous realities for the purpose of gathering adherents while absolving them from the individual demands of conversion, those uncomfortable changes of life and behavior that attend traditional belief. (The Hunger Games may require one’s time and money, but nothing so fraught as the existential vulnerability that was formerly implied by a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith.”) By whom or what, today, would we be called? If conversion makes less sense today this is because, at core, we have weakened faith in anything (whether God or climate science) that would truly compel us to change. We “believe” – that is, we “like,” we “use,” we “identify” and “connect” – because we no longer believe.

Then again, perhaps this overstates things. For, at the most elemental level, bacteria believe. Algae believe. All life forms believe, and necessarily so, argues N. Katherine Hayles, inasmuch as belief is a feature of evolving existence. She draws here from the work of the biologist Ladislav Kovaç, who defines the beliefs of organisms as a kind of embodied knowledge predicated on suppositions about the environment and the adaptations most likely to ensure survival. “If we take a mutation in a bacterium as a new belief about the environment, we can say that the mutant would sacrifice its life to prove its fidelity to that belief.” Hayles’s larger point is that the line separating humans from other organisms, including technological systems, is very thin. “[T]echnical systems are self-evidently not informationally closed but accept information outputs of various kinds and generate information outputs as well.” Machines, too, act on beliefs. As do poets: “If you don’t believe in poetry, you can’t write it,” Wallace Stevens observed.

Given this equivocal the status and standing of belief in contemporary modes of spiritual and social discourse, and the surprising resilience of the concept of belief in such unexpected domains as the life sciences and machine learning, the question of whether belief has truly waned in our postmodern era, or whether it has simply evolved, or whether all such apparent differences are illusory, seems especially timely. More fundamentally, it raises the question of what belief is, and of what it means, today. What forms does it take and inspire? What are its objects and sources, its benefices and dangers? Our symposium, jointly sponsored by the BYU Humanities Center and Belief: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the Humanities, will serve as the occasion for rigorous discussion of these and related questions. The papers from the symposium will then be collected in a special issue of the journal, serving as a manifesto for a venue that we hope – we believe – will become an important site of reflection on this pressing subject.