Belief As Habit

In “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” Charles Peirce argues that belief just is whatever it does.

Peirce’s pragmatic position is that:

The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit, and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise. If beliefs do not differ in this respect, if they appease the same doubt by producing the same rule of action, then no mere differences in the manner of consciousness of them can make them different beliefs, any more than playing a tune in different keys is playing different tunes. (33)

Beliefs are rules of action. A belief is a habit.

If Peirce is right, do we waste a lot of time in religion fretting over “differences in the manner of consciousness” that make no actionable difference? If we do waste a lot of time this way, why?

A fictional case study: Betty is convinced that the probability of God’s existence is vanishingly small. But Betty fulfills her callings, does her visiting teaching, attends the temple, goes to all her Sunday meetings, prays morning and night, is gripped by her persistent study of the scriptures, pays her tithing, and gives a generous fast offering.

So, what?

Does Betty, despite her best assessment of the facts, actually believe in God or not?


Charles Peirce, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” in Pragmatism: A Reader, ed. Louis Menand (New York: Vintage, 1997).

23 comments for “Belief As Habit

  1. Jason U
    February 6, 2013 at 10:54 am

    I think it was James Faulconer who said that religion is more a set of practices and attitudes than a set of propositional beliefs. I like that. My propositional beliefs are always shifting and lack certainty. However, viewing religion primarily as a practice (informed by some convictions) is helpful as it allows for spiritual expression and community while also allowing me to retain a non-dogmatic approach to theology. Such a view fits well in Mormanism. Think about a Temple recommend interview…it is much less about what you believe, it is more about what you do.

  2. February 6, 2013 at 10:58 am

    While I like the idea of relating beliefs to actions in some respects (e.g., if you claim to believe x, but your actions are not consistent with what they would be if x were the case, then in what way can you be said to believe in x?), I think that there are certain (often private) “actions” that have to be taken into consideration.

    For example, in your fictional case study, you mention the things that Betty does. But do you also include the fact that Betty deals with frustration over lack of answers to prayer? That Betty tries to work through a sense of “inadequacy” over the certainty that her fellow religionists announce over God’s existence that she does not feel she can share (and that, to her world of experience, seems incorrect)?

    In addition, the actions that you have listed…are those necessarily things that demonstrate belief in God’s existence? Like, if you “fulfill your callings,” is that a habit of action that would be linked with believing in God? Or, even if it is…is it a habit that would *best* be linked with believing in God? Could it not be linked with beliefs *other* than one’s pertaining to God’s existence?

    (I guess the thing I’m suspecting is that “God” is nebulous enough that it’s going to be difficult to describe “habits of actions that would be consistent with believing in God’s existence”)

  3. Brian
    February 6, 2013 at 11:12 am

    Andrew S. is entirely correct. Cherry-picking a small subset of actions and tying them to one narrowly defined belief is completely unreasonable. I study beliefs, and I’ve taken the same position as Peirce, but people are complicated creatures with a multitude of beliefs, belief clusters, and a very complex belief hierarchy. Consider Moroni 7: 6-9; how could such a thing be true? Because there are many actions, some only internal, that follow from a belief that are also very important.

  4. February 6, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    I think there is a little bit of Kant in all of us that wants to judge people’s action based on their motivations, not simply the consequences of those acts. We suspect their motives are suspect and accuse each other of being hypocrites when most of us are just struggling along, doing the best we can with what we have.

  5. Eric
    February 6, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    To oversimplify my response, I think Pierce is wrong on his claim that “the essence of belief is the establishment of a habit”. While belief and action are inter-related, they are not one and the same thing. People, through weakness, ignorance, and other causal elements, often act in a manner inconsistent with their beliefs. While this premise, I suppose, is debateable; I think it is essentially true. Belief is a mental condition/assertion that is separate from (though in some ways related to) actions.

  6. February 6, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    Nice post, Adam. I like this take on belief-as-habit. I think Betty can reasonably claim to have at least some sort of belief in at least some sort of God, and that seems more than enough to enjoy communion with the Saints, blessings of service and Church membership, etc., etc.

  7. Steve Smith
    February 6, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    It may be that Betty does not have a well formulated idea about God or the implications of believing in God or not, but enjoys the structure of the religious life. As a matter of fact, I get the sense that a large number of LDS church-goers don’t actually have a well-established belief system based on their own reasoning or experience, but that are greatly informed by whatever is said by leaders of the church (and probably mostly local leaders instead of general leaders at that). Many of the rank and file simply develop behavioral habits that they follow, not because of some deeply rooted belief about the nature of God, but because it is just that, a habit.

    Great post

  8. Adam Greenwood
    February 6, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    I don’t think I’d want to reduce Mormonism to a set of outward observances.

    People tend to think that beliefs matter because empirically they often do and because we think, with good reason, that the motives and therefore the mental state of a person performing an action matters in most evaluations of the moral quality of the action.

    6 For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing.

    7 For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness.
    . . .
    9 And likewise also is it counted evil unto a man, if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such.

    If we discount mental states, we run up into a limit case where a skillfully-artificed automaton that goes to church and doesn’t drink would be a believing Mormon. But that contradicts too many notions that matter to Mormonism, including a very important but non-obvious one of communion that is implied in much scripture and ritual.

  9. February 6, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    I was checking out the Peirce quote and the essay from which it was found, and I think I just totally disagree with the entire thing that Adam quoted…

    The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit, and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise. If beliefs do not differ in this respect, if they appease the same doubt by producing the same rule of action, then no mere differences in the manner of consciousness of them can make them different beliefs, any more than playing a tune in different keys is playing different tunes.

    Maybe, I need clarification on something Peirce says elsewhere in his essay:

    Most frequently doubts arise from some indecision, however momentary, in our action.

    (Even though Peirce says that this isn’t always the case, it seems to me that he is talking about doubt as a matter of indecision on action. So, it’s not so much “Doubt that God exists” but “Doubt of what one should do…”)

    So, basically, if two beliefs produce the same action regarding the same doubt, then they aren’t really two different beliefs at all…but for an essay on clarity, I’m not sure if Peirce is clear that the doubt doesn’t refer to indecision to action (e.g., “I am undecided on what I should do”)

    So, let’s take Betty and Nancy.

    Betty doubts the existence of God, and doubts what she should do. E.g., Should she fulfill her callings? Should she do her visiting teaching? etc., etc.,

    In the end, she does all of these things, because after all, she feels connected to the community and she has built social standing and rapport in the community.

    Nancy is doubting whether she should fulfill her callings, do her visiting teaching, etc., because she doubts the institutional value of these activities, or the interpersonal value of these activities.

    In the end, she does all of these things, because she believes in God and believes that God wants her to do these things, even if she doesn’t have a testimony of these activities.

    I am not saying whether Betty or Nancy is “better,” “worse,” “more faithful,” “less faithful,” “hypocritical,” or whatever else. But it seems to me that to collapse the difference between Betty and Nancy, because

    a) their actions are the same (e.g., both betty and nancy visit teach, etc.,),
    b) they appease the same doubt (e.g., Betty and Nancy are both no longer undecided about what they should do regarding visiting teaching etc.,)
    c)…and, according to Peirce, the “mere differences in the manner of consciousness” don’t really suffice to make them different beliefs,

    that doesn’t seem all that valuable to me.

    If Peirce is *not* talking about indecision in action, then Adam’s scenario really makes no sense to me. so, say that the doubt isn’t regarding indecision over whether Betty should do her visiting teaching, etc., but is over whether God exists…how does her doing visiting teaching appease the doubt of whether God exists???

  10. Brian
    February 6, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    Andrew, Betty and Nancy are *not* doing the same things when actions are considered in totality. Many actions are internal, and many of these are going to be different in Betty than they are in Nancy. It’s only by overly simplifying the situation does anything like this paradoxical situation or self-conflicting definition exist.

  11. February 6, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    re 10,


    I agree. But it seems to me that Peirce (and Adam?) is discounting internal actions (if I’m reading his “no mere differences in the manner of consciousness” part right)

  12. chris
    February 6, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    I’d be willing to substitute faith for belief in this concept, with the exception that for it to qualify as faith you have to believe and live according to it.

    So in my tweaked version, Betty would not be demonstrating faith, because she doesn’t believe it, but just does it.

    No where in this definition does it evaluate intent or whats in the heart. When what’s in our heart is lined up with gospel principles that we act out, there is real faith.

    I think this is a valid thought exercise though to demonstrate that by in large we “believe in” (or have faith) in those things we profess don’t really matter eternally, and also have little faith or belief in those things we profess are of eternal significance. That is to say, even if we added up all the hours spent at church, etc. we probably wouldn’t have as much time as we spend in front of FB or movies/tv, etc.

  13. chris
    February 6, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    Just to continue the thought… it’s a well taken point to observe that what we do with our time is a pretty good reflection of where our heart is. But we are often irrational and the things we do with our time don’t necessary mean what we might think they mean. A person could spend 100s of hours serving the poor every day, only to find out some way they could ultimately exploit them. Silly example, but you can easily see how the “doing” in this case wasn’t serving the poor, but rather a means to an end that had nothing to do with serving them.

  14. Adam G.
    February 6, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    The gospel promotes integrity. It aims to bring an infinite harmony between our beliefs and actions. But this is an *aim,* not a reality.

  15. Cameron N
    February 6, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    I don’t think your example is possible. Or, if it is possible, it is probably pretty rare, unless Betty is being a hypocrite(actor).

  16. Steve Smith
    February 6, 2013 at 6:47 pm

    There certainly are belief-driven members, but a large number are really more habit-driven; their attachment to the church is based more on a solidarity with the culture than a well-articulated belief system built on independent reasoning (most members have neither the time nor the resources to do such a thing). For instance I highly doubt that 8-year-olds who are born to member parents get baptized because they developed a strong belief about church doctrine; they’re just keeping in line with traditions and expectations. Now as for 18-year-old men to go on missions; sure, many go because of a deep belief in church doctrine. But lots go without even knowing much about doctrinal and historical claims/controversies. They go because a mission is a rite of passage or because their friends are going and it seems fun. Also how much of the discourse of fast & testimony meeting is based on independently established beliefs. People like to get up to share stories, introduce themselves, project an image, and then rattle off a few repeated belief-based lines.

    All the time I pose questions to members about doctrine or history that they tell me that they have never thought about before, or that they don’t worry about. After all, what is the point of questioning when you are ensconced in a comfortable environment? I really maintain that belief isn’t as important in religious experience as people claim it to be. It is mainly the high-ranking leadership that concerns itself with belief/doctrinal boundaries, which it tries to inculcate in its members. For the membership, behavioral expectations are far more important than how well you can articulate your beliefs about the divine. “Tell me what I’m supposed to believe to fit in” seems to be a question that is more relevant for the rank and file than the questions, “what is the evidence for the beliefs and what makes the method of inquiry valid.”

  17. wreddyornot
    February 6, 2013 at 7:04 pm

    Steve Smith,

    How do you then account for in- and out-migration? Isn’t it a significant number? Doesn’t it suggest more than tacit analyses of belief?

  18. DavidH
    February 6, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    Adam and I have discussed this before privately. I believe she does believe, whether she fully recognizes it herself. James writes: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” When I have conducted recommend interviews, and the interviewee has expressed questions whether his/her hope, belief or testimony is strong enough to qualify, I have told him/her that it is for s/he to answer the question, but in my opinion, anyone who has enough hope, or belief, or faith, to keep the behavioral requirements for a recommend (including paying 10% of his/her income to the Church/God) has quite a bit of hope, belief, or faith, and enough (in my opinion) to enter the temple.

  19. Steve Smith
    February 7, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    wreddyornot, when I say that attachment to the LDS church is mainly habit-based, I speak mainly for those who were born in the church or joined at an early age. As for converts (in-migration), indeed belief plays a role. But I think that by and large the structure, environment, culture, and individual personality (such as that of the missionary who finds them) is often a greater motivating factor behind their conversion than the sheer doctrine itself. This is especially the case in countries and regions where the bulk of the converts are uneducated and lower class; they don’t often have the critical thinking skills to make a great amount sense of the beliefs.

    As for out-migration (those who stop regularly participating in church), there are many who do leave because of belief-related matters. But I think that a much stronger force that prompts them to leave is the feeling of not fitting in; not being able to find their place in the community.

    It should be noted that religion for most people in this world is more of a cultural identity than a marker of one’s philosophies about God. That’s certainly true of Catholicism, Islam, and Hinduism. But Mormonism, in spite of the fact that many of its members and leaders want it to be a belief-driven religion, is no exception, especially in the Mormon belt.

  20. Doug G.
    February 8, 2013 at 10:25 am

    I love the penetrating discussion in ‘Times and Seasons’. A habit-based culture of participation is certainly (to me) the marketing goal of the church. The majority of resources is aimed at converting children to the norm of the LDS lifestyle, while at the same time presenting doctrine as truth that can never be questioned. An honest evaluation of the historical facts surrounding Joseph Smith and the early church fathers would cause nervous twitching in many a Senior Doctrine class. Context is ignored as basis for deeper understanding of how things came about. Polygamy is presented as a social necessity of the time, instead of examining it as a possible aberrant institutional justification for adultery. The Word of Wisdom evolution from suggestive practice to law cannot be evalutated unless one looks at the Prohibition Movement at the turn of the century. Given enough time and enough message, anyone can be made to believe anything.

  21. Adam Greenwood
    February 8, 2013 at 10:50 am

    Given enough time and enough message, anyone can be made to believe anything.

    As demonstrated.

  22. February 9, 2013 at 4:32 pm

    There is a huge difference between going through the motions and performing an action with one’s entire heart, might, mind and strength. There is a huge difference between going to the temple because it is the right thing to do but being so bored it does not mean anything and reveling in revelation given through the temple ordinances. I am not saying that going just to go is bad; it just is not as fulfilling, meaningful and satisfying. Betty is going through the actions; her heart and her head are not in it.

  23. Adam Miller
    February 9, 2013 at 7:56 pm

    I agree that there’s a big difference, Blake. But why assume that Betty’s heart and head are not “in it”? Her reluctant assessment that the probability of God’s existence is vanishingly small doesn’t say anything one way or the other about whether her heart and head are squarely invested in her manifest devotion. Don’t we often turn to God with the greatest urgency when his absence is most keenly felt?

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