Belief is trust or confidence in something being true. God has various meanings including as an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good being or as a more impersonal force. We believe in God for a variety of reasons. Humans are hardwired to create meaning and justice in our lives. God helps fulfill various human needs. And, for many, belief in God is just normal.
What does it mean to believe in God?
Before we can properly focus on the primary concern of this discussion, it is important to try to understand the basic nature of the question posed. What exactly is “belief in God?”
Now, many people will find the answer quite obvious. In the United States, statements that assume a belief in God are used regularly. This is done in religious contexts as well as those that do not seem at all religious. We swear “so help us God.” “In God We Trust” is on walls in courtrooms, sometimes over a judge’s bench. The motto is even on our money.
And, many drop “God” in everyday conversation. Without much thought on what they mean.
A belief is having trust and confidence that something is true. You might believe what a parent or friend says without immediate proof that it is true.
Why? People gain trust and confidence in a variety of ways. Belief can be a matter of faith, a result of reasoned scientific observation, or (as is often the case) some combination of the two.
Belief, especially religious belief, often has a special emotional quality. Beliefs often are held with a special degree of passion. It results in a certain mental transformation in many people. This aspect of belief is an important part of things and should be kept in mind throughout.
Faith v. Reason?
There is a story in the Gospel of John of “doubting Thomas.”
Thomas was criticized for not believing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ until he actually saw Jesus in person, able to put his fingers into Jesus’ actual wounds.
But, if Thomas did have faith without seeing Jesus, it would not have been purely a matter of faith. Faith and reason are not always in separate boxes, including in matters of God.
Thomas was an apostle of Jesus. The gospels portray Jesus as doing many wondrous things that showed observers that he was the son of god. Jesus also taught the apostles specifically many things, again according to the gospels his destiny to die and rise from the dead.
And, the other apostles observed something when Thomas wasn’t there. Now, perhaps, it was some sort of illusion. Nonetheless, Thomas had a range of reasons to believe the other apostles as compared to let’s say some stranger who might just be totally confused.
The First Amendment of the Constitution protects religious freedom. What exactly is “religious” freedom? Today, that is a complex question with a range of possible beliefs.
Originally, what was generally at issue was Christianity. Religious freedom basically meant the right to choose how to practice Christianity, usually including belief in an afterlife with some sort of final judgment of good and evil.
When Maryland required those holding public office, down to notary publics, to swear a belief in God, that is basically what it had in mind.
But, even in the beginning, there were some other views, including those (deists) who thought God basically put things into motion and mostly stayed out of the way.
What Sort of God?
A complete understanding of the human belief in “god” requires us to go beyond the belief of a Christian god or closely related Jewish and Muslim beliefs.
The complexity arises, for instance, when considering Hinduism.
Ancients believed in gods and goddesses who were quite human, if with superhuman powers in various respects. The “God” covered here is not really that sort of God.
One poll helped to break down what people mean when they say they “believe in God.”
Many basically believe in the “God of the Bible” (or the Torah or Koran). This is a God that “knows everything” and can “direct or change everything.” The basic idea is of an all-knowing, all-powerful being, one who is also usually considered a form of pure goodness.
This is obviously not the only possibility. Traditionally, people believed in gods and goddesses who were in various ways flawed, not able to do everything, and even able to be tricked. Some people still believe in supernatural beings of this sort.
The poll also found that many understand “God” as less like the more personal god found in many religious books and more a type of impersonal force.
When the U.S. Supreme Court had to determine the meaning of belief in a “Supreme Being,” a matter of some importance when deciding if someone could avoid military service, it discussed this as well. For instance, some spoke of “the Ultimate Cause for the fact of the Being of the Universe.” This overlaps with some Eastern philosophical beliefs.
“God” therefore can mean a variety of things, different types of beings as well as types of forces or (to quote one summary) even “existence itself.”
As with Hinduism, there is not necessarily an “either/or” about this. The range of complexity does make for hard going at times when trying to read and understand the question. No wonder a traditional name of the Jewish God basically translates as “I am, who I am.” Purposely vague.
So Why Do We Believe in God?
Humans have evolved into rational beings (“homo sapiens” means “thinking man”), who have a basic desire for things to have steady logic to them. If we do something, such as setting a clock to wake us up in the morning, we do not want the alarm going off to be a matter of chance.
When something happens by mere chance, we often feel quite upset. People tend to try to make what happens logical, even if they have to create a reason.
Over time, people created “just so” type stories to explain a range of things. For instance, Adam and Eve provided an explanation of a range of things, including why people farm, women suffer during childbirth, and evil itself.
A range of religious myths can be cited, including those that people used to explain weather events. And, ultimately, our very existence, purpose in life, and other “big” questions were explained this way. Life and existence, like everything else, had to have a reason.
Various things could be explained in basic ways, such as how crops only grow if certain things were present. But, some questions were beyond simple observation. Something beyond nature, something supernatural, was involved. A god or a set of gods were somehow involved.
Many people separate religion and science into two separate boxes. But, traditionally, this was not a common approach. Scientists were not atheists, who did not believe in a god.
And, this still remains the case for many today. Science can be an expression of God’s power.
A person might also seem to have the power of god within them because of some special ability that seems not to be able to be explainable in any other way. Many religious figures throughout time were believed to be yet another example of the existence of the supernatural.
People have certain emotional or psychological experiences which seem to be religious in nature. Certain events occur that seem supernatural. God seemed and still seems to many in effect part of nature’s existence, if only as a means to explain how things work.
Science might have over time helped to explain things that once upon a time were explained by myths, but there always remained a place for some form of god.
Various “proofs” of god were crafted which used some form of scientific logic. For instance, everything has a cause. God was a type of “first cause.” Everything seems to follow some rational system of scientific rules. Again, God in some form was behind it all.
Over time, the old-fashioned pantheon of many gods seemed outdated to many, too primitive. God was more logically some sort of mystical force or being. God still existed all the same.
 Good and Evil
Humanity is a social species. We form communities and work together. Our ancestors first worked together in small groups. Then, we branched out, and formed larger and larger societies.
And, in each case, we could not just be for ourselves. The good of the group was essential. Humans developed the concept of “good” behavior and found ways to enforce those who broke the rules. Again, humans are rational beings, who do not merely act by instinct.
If life is not just random, if life is rational, this should in theory apply to being good as well. People determined that being good, being just, was natural, like having two legs or having babies. Like everything else, ultimately, it was not merely a creation of our society.
I believe that a personal God exists for more reasons than I can name: the goodness of saints; the hook in my own heart that has never let me go; the interface of faith with my own experience, the courage of religious martyrs throughout history.Father Ron Rolheiser
Many believe goodness comes from god and/or is an expression of god. Again, there are many forms of belief in God. Some might say “God is love,” and they are being pretty literal. Others are being more metaphorical, believing God is a being or force and love honors God in some form.
 God Sets Basic Standards
“So help me God.”Court Oath
Many believe that after death God punishes those who were not good. If not, wouldn’t that be unfair? Plus, why be good? Yes, being good helps society and your own well-being. Still, people still “got away” with being bad. God provided an important check.
This is an important reason in many people’s minds (I have repeatedly seen it myself) why they believe in God. If there was no God, what ultimately is the reason to be good?
The oaths we take in court symbolize this, as did old rules that you had to swear or affirm that you believed in God to serve in public office. Religion itself is believed to be important because it serves as a personal check. Religion is often seen as requiring belief in God.
Throughout history, many societies saw those with power as on the side of God. From the “mandate of heaven” in China to Christianity winning out in the Rome Empire to Muslims and Genghis Khan, winners were believed to have god on their side.
God is believed to be fundamental because God sets in place certain standards “from above.” God might enforce them directly; there are also others, both religious and secular, who will also do so in God’s name. This is in a basic sense believed to be reassuring and just.
 We Are Not Alone
A basic reason why people believe in God is that the alternative is downright scary.
People argue that without God, life will have no meaning. We would be alone in the universe, even when we are sick and desperate for help. When we die, our existence will be no more. What about if a child dies? Is that it? As the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes.
God here provides an important part of human survival and happiness. We might say that God did not exist, humans would try to invent God all the same.
But, humans find many ways to show proof of God existing, including emotional and psychological experiences which do not seem to them to be explainable in any other way. God to them is proven by faith and fact.
Atheists do fight in wars. Humanists, those like Greg Epstein (Good Without God), who serves as Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University, will tell you that life does have meaning with or without God. That is, unless “god” here is being used metaphorically as a sort of “force of goodness” present in all of us or something.
Nonetheless, belief in God is often a result of not wanting to be alone. To find ultimate meaning beyond our existence. To believe in something or someone, including at our more desperate moments. And, the presence of goodness and good people to many proves God exists.
Belief in God is often a matter of everyone else believing.
People tend not to be deep thinkers or gadflies. They follow the herd. Many things just are and you are taught to accept them from childhood. This includes basic religious beliefs.
And, people who do not go along find it is a disfavored path. Why rock the boat? Belief in God is simply familiar. The specifics might be more open to debate, but the core aspects are acceptable enough. It just seems “natural” to believe in God.
People will tend to join various religions because of familiarity. People then will (honestly enough) argue that they believe since familiar biblical texts “prove” their beliefs.
Respectfully, the average person has not done cross-religious analysis and only then determined The Vedas of the Hindus or whatever is less “proven” by events than the Catholic Bible.
There are a variety of ways to explain and give meaning to our lives. Secular humanists, for instance, support living the good life, supporting a life with meaning and value.
But, people are comfortable and familiar with using God and religious communities based on God for this purpose. It works for them. They see no good reason to change.
Religious belief in my view is often a form of poetry, which translates complex concepts into a way approachable for the average person.
Ancient myths told of great gods and goddesses, who were supernatural beings, but still understandable in human terms. In time, these stories became more philosophical, gods who once interacted with humans becoming more remote. All the same, many found a way to bring the supernatural back, evangelicals particularly having a personal connection to their God.
Eastern and Western societies might have different ways of expressing this, but some basic concepts can be seen. The Brahman of Hinduism and the “God is everywhere” including within us, of Christianity, is not so different. And, each finds ways for us to approach the unapproachable, fulfilling basic human needs in the process.
Many readers will accept this while also believing this “poetry” is also a way for humans to express the complexity of existing beings and forces. The bottom line holds.