On the face of it, religious beliefs look very much like assertions of fact. Take, for example, the belief that the universe was created in six days.
However, when we assert something as fact we must offer relevant data and good reasons if others are to trust what we say. And I can’t do either for this particular assertion.
Nor can I do this for other cherished religious beliefs, such as:
Our ancestors in heaven hear our prayers;
The Holy Land is God’s gift to the Jews;
Enlightenment breaks the chain of rebirth;
Jesus was raised from the dead by God;
Those who do not submit to Allah will suffer eternal fire.
It’s not that these beliefs are untrue or unworthy of affirmation. It’s that they can’t be true or worthy in a factual sense of these words.
None of them describes events that in principle were and are open to direct observation. All of them offer, instead, an inspiring combination of wishing, hoping, and interpreting life experiences in the light of both.
It is a fact that people wish and hope for things, and that religious beliefs give especially powerful expression to our deepest wishes and highest hopes. But while we can observe the wishing and hoping, in ourselves and others, we can’t observe the “for What” of both.
We might have observed, for example, the Buddha at the moment of his Enlightenment experience. But we could not have observed his transcending the cycle of death and rebirth. We might have observed Jesus alive and revisiting his followers after his crucifixion. But we could not have observed God’s bringing him back from death.
Religious traditions foster a great deal of confusion about all this. Typically, they demand the kind of assent to their basic teachings that is appropriate only to beliefs that are demonstrably true on the basis of universal experience and reasoning.
With their demands usually come escalating threats of punishments, in this life and beyond, for not believing what they believe believers ought to believe as established fact. The threats leave no room for people who simply don’t “see” what they are supposed to “see.”
But what they are supposed to see isn’t something to be “seen” at all. In every religion, the challenge of faith is to believe without seeing, and not to feel the worse for doing so.