It seems that at both Badastronomy and Pharyngula over the last few days, the word “belief” has been tossed around a bit, much to the chagrin of some. This usually comes about as a result of someone saying that they do or do not believe in evolution; the truth is, this is not a valid question, depending upon how you define the word “believe.”
Looking at dictionary dot com, I examined a few of the definitions of the word and found that there is one striking similarity: the word “evidence” is not to be found in them. This is really the crux of the argument I think; believe seems to imply that there is no evidence.
So if we take the word “believe” to mean that we take something as true based on something other than evidence, then the phrase “believe in evolution” is clearly incorrect as it would imply that one accepted evolution to be true based on a reason other than evidence. Evolution has mounds of evidence with nothing empirical to refute or even cast doubt on it.
The problem is, however, that this is nothing more than mincing words, “a rose by any other name” if you will. The denotation of the word may imply a lack of evidence, but the connotative usage may simply not recognize this difference; I’m told many times that I believe in science, and it is no different that belief in a god. The difference is, of course, that science produces evidence for its claims whereas religion produces only assertions from figures in authority. People will believe what the church says simply because it is the church. Scientists will believe what other scientists say, provided they have excellent evidence and can demonstrate their ideas (and they can be replicated and otherwise validated).
So how do we rectify the word “believe” so as to differentiate whether or not we are referring to something based on evidence or authority? The suggestion given at Pharyngula was to skirt the issue until your position had been stated; this has been my argument for quite a while. The person asking about evolution doesn’t want a lesson about the dictionary.
When I am asked if I believe in evolution, I respond that I believe that evolutionary theory, supported by over 150 years of evidence and accepted by tens of thousands of scientists all over the world is the best explanation we have for the diversity of life on this planet. However, I wouldn’t say that I believe in evolution because the word “believe” implies that there is no evidence for evolution, that it is simply a guess, a wild idea put forward by people who just don’t really know. On the contrary, evolution is supported by overwhelming amounts of evidence with not a single piece offering even a shadow of a doubt as to its legitimacy. So I would more properly say that I accept evolutionary theory rather than I believe in it.
In other words, we answer the question, then we split hairs.