Conflated and Misunderstood Terms terms atheist science morality belief

Too often do conversations devolve into people splitting hairs over synonymous terminology. Obviously, a synonym doesn’t mean the word holds the exact same meaning, just that holds (at least) nearly the same meaning.

Some words are shorthand for phrases. Some words or phrases can be used in various ways and their meanings can cross over and be different depending on context.

As Dave has said a number of times Words are funny things! That is one of the reasons I have written so many articles in the ‘Conflated and Misunderstood Terms‘ series. The hope is to make people aware of the different uses and hopefully prevent some of the endless semantic battles that happen on social media, preventing us from ever moving forward.

The words or phrases I often hear being used in ways that seem a bit silly are acceptance, belief, and belief in.

For example, we hear these sorts of phrases:

  • I don’t believe evolution is true, I accept the evidence that supports it
  • I don’t believe in evolution, I accept it as a fact

I do have some empathy for the atheists that utter these sorts of phrases, hell, I am sure I have said something similar in the past before I took some time to understand a little epistemology. A big part of the reason we might like to steer away from the word belief is that we get so stuck in conversations, often with the most irrational of theists, and the word “belief” becomes tainted. We, erroneously, start to think that all beliefs are these irrational things, or we fear that the theists we are talking to will equate all beliefs as the same thing.

This is far from the case, of course, because what makes a belief good or not is the justification. The justification for a belief is what makes it rational (or not).

So, What is A Belief?


There are a few definitions that all mean essentially the same thing. They speak of a mental state where we:

  • Accept something is true
  • Hold a positive attitude towards a proposition
  • Think something most likely
  • Conclude something is the case
  • Certain* something exists or is true

*Please note, whether 10% 40% or 100% certain this is still a certainty something is true, just in various strengths.

What is Acceptance/To Accept?

To accept something is essentially to hold a positive attitude towards it. Not only do you not reject it, but you are also not indifferent. You will be thinking this thing is, at least most likely, correct or true.

What is a Fact?

In simplistic terms, a fact is something we know to be true. If a fact is later proved untrue, we would say it was never actually a fact, just perceived to be so.

Now, we can go down the rabbit hole and discuss theories of truth till the cows come home, but let’s focus on the topic at hand.

Examination one: Accepting the Facts

So if you are accepting the facts it will be you thinking these facts are true. If a belief is “accepting something as true” or any of the other definitions, you can see that accepting the facts is the same as believing the facts.

Believe in vs Believe

Whilst these two terms can be used in the same way there is actually a nuance that can be pointed out.

Consider these two statements

  • I believe my friend
  • I believe in my friend

These two statements intuitively hold some differences.

‘I believe my friend’ sounds like we are talking about trust. We accept and therefore trust what they are saying.

‘I believe in my friend’ sounds like we have confidence in them. We believe they will succeed in whatever endeavour, perhaps a job interview or an expedition. Maybe it is trust in their ability to look after your kids. Any of these sorts of statements will work.

Whilst I used two different words there, trust and confidence, they are actually synonymous and trust even forms part of the definition of confidence

Your belief in someone as an honest actor is why you believe what they say.

So what about these statements when we discuss the theory of evolution?

Examination two: Believe in the Theory of Evolution

Like the above example, we have two statements.

  • I believe the theory of evolution
  • I believe in the theory of evolution

‘I believe the theory of evolution’ means ‘I accept the theory of evolution’. A fuller statement might be that you believe/accept the theory of evolution as the best explanation of biodiversity on the planet.

‘I believe in the theory of evolution’ would mean ‘I have confidence in the theory of evolution’ or that ‘I am certain about the theory of evolution’.

So, what would having confidence in the theory of evolution even mean? If you have confidence in something, you’re speaking of certainty about the quality of that thing. The theory of evolution is something that explains the biodiversity on the planet. Therefore the quality you have certainty over is this explanation of biodiversity.

So, when we are discussing something like evolution, believe, believe in, and accept all mean the same thing.

Examination three: The Original Statements

If you remember I mentioned a couple of phrases I often hear, along with a number of similar statements:

  • I don’t believe evolution is true, I accept the evidence that supports it
  • I don’t believe in evolution, I accept it as a fact

I don’t believe evolution is true, I accept the evidence that supports it

If you accept (believe) the evidence that supports evolution [being true] why do you not believe (accept) it? What do you believe is the case instead? Did God zap us all into existence?

“Believing is for the religious” is a really bad take on psychology and epistemology.

I don’t believe in evolution, I accept it as a fact

Why would you accept something as a fact you had no confidence in?

Why would you accept something as a fact you had no confidence in?

Choosing Words Carefully

I see no issue with anyone choosing their words carefully. If you feel using the word belief can come with baggage and choose to use accept instead, that is fine. The problem comes when you say, “I don’t believe x, I accept x as true” because what you’re actually saying there is, “I don’t believe x, I believe x” or “I don’t accept x as true, I accept x as true” and are therefore contradicting yourself, which is irrational behaviour.

Frankly, it’s kind of embarrassing to see it in action and often when you try and help someone understand this they go on some sort of rampage being the proverbial pigeon playing chess and I just think to myself, “aren’t we atheists supposed to be better than that?”

Well, Aren’t We Atheists Supposed to Be Better Than That?

I asked this question in a thread the other day, and this is how Dave responded.

Oddly a couple of days after writing this article and scheduling it to publish for it that day we can see a number of variations of said catchphrases in this thread. I figured I would share so you could see what I mean.

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