"Beliefs" have no place at all in Buddhism--which I prefer, like the Buddha himself, to call "Dharma Practice." ("Buddhism"--the "ism" signifying an ideology or belief system--is a western coinage.)
One can engage, that is, in Dharma Practice without having to "believe" anything at all. When various disciples asked the Buddha what he believed, or what they should believe, about such imponderables as the nature or existence of God, the origins or purpose of life, or any other such matter, the Buddha simply remained silent.
Most westerners (and these friends were westerners like me) get confused on this issue because we were raised within either a Judaic, Christian, or occasionally Islamic culture, where "faith" is considered to be synonymous with "belief." However, when the Buddha and his followers spoke of "faith" (or whatever Sanskrit or Pali word is translated as "faith"), they refer not to a mandatory belief system, but rather, and simply, to trust, or confidence, in the efficacy of the practice. When the Buddha counseled his disciples, right before his death, to "be a light unto yourselves," he meant simply that they should not take his or anyone else's word--not "believe" anyone or anything--about the Dharma unless or until they had validated it with their own lived experience.
There is, moreover, some evidence that Christianity itself was not always so hung up on mandatory beliefs either. In fact, the verb "believe," translated from the Latin world "credo/ credere" (which means the same thing) was in turn translated from the Greek verb "Pisteuo" (the noun form is "pistis") which has a different set of connotations altogether--it means "to trust" not "to believe."
There is a huge difference, however, between belief and trust. To believe is to give one's intellectual assent to a proposition about something, either because the evidence has convinced you that it is true, or because somebody told you to do so, and you fear the consequences of disobeying. If the assent is due to evidence, I have no problem--provided you realize that this belief is contingent, and subject to alteration if further evidence arises refuting it. But I have a big problem with authority-based claims that one "believes" not because of any evidence, but because one is afraid of the consequences of not believing it, or one wishes to identify oneself with that belief system, or both.
When some fanatical Christians warn me of hellfire, or other dire consequences of not believing what they do, my usual response--if I bother to respond at all--is to ask them, "If God didn't want me to think, why did he give me a brain?"
All the major cross-cultural religious traditions of the world, whether Dharmic (i.e. Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, etc.) or Abrahamic/Monotheistic (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.) consist (broadly) of two elements: Dharma and Identity Politics. By "Dharma," here, I refer to the core insights that all these faith traditions share at their best--the unity of wisdom and compassion, or as Jesus put it, "Love God and love your neighbor as yourself"--and that you can't do one without the other.
Most religions, however, are an admixture of the two. But religious ideologies--that is, "beliefs" or self-serving mental constructs about the nature of God, sacred history, revelation, eschatology, creation myths, etc.--are nothing but identity politics--that is, a label to put on the end of the sentence "I am a..."
Everyone's beliefs differ slightly, but Jesus offers us one very useful litmus test for evaluating anyone else's belief system: "Wherefore by their fruits shall ye know them."
In other words, to the extent that any faith tradition, or anyone's personal belief system, reflects the universal Dharma (i.e. wisdom, selflessness, and compassion) and encourages it in practice, it is authentic and healthy; it nurtures what the Dalai Lama calls "a good heart." But many sects put their greatest emphasis on identity politics at the expense of Dharma, and some of the most toxic religions are all identity politics and no Dharma--"We are God's people and you are God's enemies, and therefore God has licensed us to kill you in His name." This ideology is, of course, what the most extreme Muslim terrorists, the most fanatical Zionists, and the most fanatical right-wing "Christian Identity" movements all have in common. The only difference is, they all see themselves as God's Chosen people, and the others (and everyone else as well) as God's enemies. Problems arise, of course, when the scriptures of any religion--and particularly the Torah, the New Testament, and the Quran--provide sanction and encouragement for this kind of toxic, self-serving ideology.
I have therefore developed the following dichotomies to help people differentiate between faith and ideology:
- Faith is intuitive; ideology consists of the culture-bound mental constructs we use to rationalize our faith.
- Faith is simply saying "yes" to being alive; it is what we have in common with sunflowers, butterflies, mockingbirds, whales, and fireflies. Ideology is our attempt to explain this utterly irrational, but entirely trustworthy faith in words.
- Faith unites us; ideologies divide us.
- Faith is what everyone who consents to being alive has in common; ideologies (or beliefs) are as individual as fingerprints.
- Faith is trust in what we cannot possibly know; Ideology is thinking we know something, and identifying ourselves with that belief, even to the point of defending it with violence.
As a consequence, when a religious person asks me "are you of the Faith?" I say, "of course." But if they ask me "Are you a believer?" I'll ask "A believer in what?" ...and then keep asking, "What do you mean by that?" But the Buddha, I think, had a better response to all such questions: Silence, and a smile.