Belief Is Seriously Overrated — You Don’t Have to Be a Believer to Believe

Peter Newhall reads Isaiah at his grandmothers memorial service, st. vincent church, pentwater, MI. Photo by BF Newhall

Peter Newhall read Isaiah at his grandmother’s memorial mass. Photo by BF Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

As I made plans for my mother’s memorial mass at the tiny St. Vincent Catholic Church in Pentwater, Michigan, last summer, I asked my brothers and my mother’s grandchildren — with some trepidation — if they’d like to participate in the service.

St. Vincent's Catholic Church, Pentwater, MI

St. Vincent’s Church, Pentwater

There were the Prayers of the Faithful to be read, as well as two passages from scripture, and the bread and the wine to be carried to the altar.

My trepidation was not unfounded.

My nephew, an evangelical, jumped at the chance to read from Romans. My son and daughter, who grew up in St. John’s Episcopal Church in Oakland and are now an agnostic (an apatheist to be more precise) and a beginner Buddhist respectively, agreed to take on Isaiah and the Prayers of the Faithful.

But my brothers and some of the grandchildren were uneasy at the thought of standing up in front of a bunch of people to read from a document they didn’t believe in. One granddaughter thought she might be able to read a passage, but only if it didn’t mention God.

Exasperated, I blasted out an email. “It’s not necessary to ‘believe’ the scriptures!” I declared. “‘Belief’ is seriously overrated!”

Between my nephew and my own children, I had enough readers to fill all the reading slots, so I offered the two “non-believer” granddaughters the wordless roles of carrying the bread and wine to the altar. They accepted happily.

What I didn’t tell my nieces was that to my mind, while the offering of the bread and wine doesn’t involve words of assent to – belief in – any kind of doctrine, the act does reflect another kind of belief, the faith and trust kind. It is the bringing of a hopeful heart to that which is. (Or as Christians would put it, to God.)

Tinka Falconer at Pentwater, MI, 1982. Photo by BF Newhall

My mother at Pentwater in 1982. Photo by BF Newhall

I want to argue that my “unbelieving” nieces are not unbelieving at all. They are full of trust and love and light. They showed up for their grandmother. They generously carried the bread and the wine to the altar of a tradition they neither understood nor subscribed to.

As I see it, they did all this with a great deal of hope — and belief.

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For more on this topic, read about Harvey Cox, who asserts that you don’t have to believe to be a Christian.  Are you a Somethingist? Find out at “They Don’t Believe in God, but They Do Believe in Something”



  1. Regarding “belief,” Diana Butler Bass has pointed out (in Christianity After Religion) how the usage of the word “belief” has changed over the years. In early English, to believe meant “to set one’s heart upon” or “to give loyalty to.” To believe was not an intellectual opinion, the way the word is used today. So over time the understanding of what it meant to believe, in a religious sense, has shifted from a matter of loyalty or trust, to a matter of defending an intellectual choice that has been challenged by “nonbelievers.” This was never what religion was really supposed to be about.

    Given this, you are so right that you don’t have to be a believer to believe.

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      You have expressed this so well. It’s what I am constantly trying to explain to my “non-believer” friends and family.

  2. I love this post, especially the title! Belief has become a word that seemingly carries an impossible weight. I often say that my Christian experience is nourished not so much by what I believe, but by what I experience. If I have to say what I believe regarding God the list becomes quite short. However, my experiences of God are many and rich. I think you came up with a solution full of Grace for your mother’s memorial. You created the experience of God through the action of carrying the bread and wine. Thank you for sharing this for all of us!

  3. Tony Newhall says:

    Barbara, This was a very, very interesting story, one of the best you have ever written.


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