When I ask what it means to believe in God, I am really being superfluous, because it is impossible to say what it means to believe in God without first answering what it means to believe. Stating it means to believe something is notoriously difficult. One hypothesis is that beliefs are thoughts about facts that occur to us in the form of sentences. For Descartes, thoughts that weren’t expressed in language were not thoughts at all, though they may be passions or feelings.
The first objection, though, may be that not all thoughts or beliefs are actually expressed in sentences but that they could be. For example, most everyone believes that a regular-sized automobile is larger than a normal basketball, but few people ever express that belief in the form of a sentence. It is averred that someone holds the belief if they would answer “yes” when asked whether a car is larger than a basketball. We might complicate things by asking whether a dog would believe a car is larger than a basketball, and it seems many dogs act as if they believe cars are bigger than basketballs, but they can’t express it in a sentence, even when queried.
So, is it enough to “act as if” something is true to substantiate belief in that something? Back to the original question, can we say someone believes in God if that person acts as if God exists? So, we might say someone believes in God if we see them praying, avoiding sin, or something else. On the other hand, we might run into serious conflict. Most people claim to believe in God and that God will provide a blissful afterlife. In other words, they express these beliefs in sentences. Their behavior, on the other hand, tends to reflect a general dread or terror of death or the afterlife. The behavior of many but not all self-proclaimed believers would indicate that they think death is the finality of life or the beginning of an awful punishment rather than a reward for a life well led.
Or, perhaps, these same people sincerely proclaim their belief in God, but their actions reveal a hidden belief that their lives have not been properly spent.
Many people are committed to the idea of theism. When a person claims to be a theist, though, we learn nothing regarding the person’s position to any particular conception of God, so all we know about this person is that she prefers to not be described as an atheist. Some people are intentionally vague claiming only that there is “something bigger than myself” or that there are universal mysteries that the human mind cannot comprehend. Others claim that they cannot conceive of ethical principles being true without the existence of some God, so God must exist in order to be good. It is not possible to prove these claims right or wrong because they are incoherent.
When one refers to the mystery of the universe, for example, what claim can such a person possibly make by this statement? The universe is, indeed, quite large and complicated. The human mind has many limitations that prevent any accurate perception of the universe. We can imagine that there is a mind that can perceive the universe, but we cannot imagine constructing any argument or test that would give evidence of this infinite, or at least quite large and complicated, mind. The only thing as large and complicated at the universe is the universe, unless we conceive of God to be larger and more complicated than the universe, then the mystery would be how something smaller than something else could come to be called the universe, for “universe” seems to be an all-encompassing term. If God is larger and more complicated that what we know is the universe, then the universe is not universal, and God is the universe, whatever that may be.
Now, we can claim that God does encompass all and also claim that with out limited minds we can observe and understand at least parts of God (the part that commands or desires us to be kind to one another, for example), but when we observe things in this way, we must always be aware that God’s observations may not look at all like our observations of even small and simple matters. Unfortunately, humans cannot see any perspective other than the human perspective. We could even challenge this view further and say that one cannot perceive any perspective other than one’s own.
The fact that we have perceptions, though, is evidence for some that God is necessary. All perceptions must come from somewhere, so there is a source for all of experience. Some call that source of perception God, but reasons for calling it “God” are not readily apparent. This appears to be motivated only by desire for something that can be called “God.” That our perceptions exist cannot be denied, for we cannot deny what we are experiencing. It seems natural to assume that all perceptions (and everything else in the world) has a cause, but this is a notoriously problematic claim.