Language can be confusing. Words mean particular things and then because they have similar meanings to other words they take on those meanings and then words become so interchangeable it can be hard to know what people mean when they use these words/phrases.
One of the common words that gets stretched so thin is belief.
What is a Belief?
A belief is a positive attitude towards a proposition, something accepted as true, something perceived as most likely etc. I discuss this more in ‘beliefs and rationality‘
Disbelief is the inverse. A negative attitude towards a proposition, something accepted as false, something perceived as not likely.
In both instances, we are describing an agent’s/subject’s mental attitude in response to whatever is being discussed/proposed.
Muddy Belief Phrases
When it comes to phrases like ‘I don’t believe’ and ‘I lack belief’ things get awfully muddy.
‘I don’t believe’ would usually describe a proposition you’ve considered but do not believe in. In most instances, if you do not believe it to be true, you would believe it to be false. That’s sort of how the brain works and what your language is saying here. I understand that you might be ‘suspending judgement’ essentially where you don’t believe this proposition to be true OR false but have been unclear with your language.
This lack of clarity extends to when people say ‘I lack belief’ because usually they are referring to something they don’t believe in, and that is how I use it in many of my articles, but also lack can be more absolute and mean something totally absent of belief.
Absent of Belief.
To be truly absent of belief, it would mean a total absence of a psychological state in regards to a proposition.
Let’s consider this absence of belief and how possible it is for a human to be absent of belief in a proposition.
First, consider these statements.
- I am human.
- You are reading my blog.
- I can do a kickflip.
- I can do a double backflip.
- I can fly.
- I can teleport.
Having considered these statements, you will have a particular attitude towards them, right? Even without evidence, there are some you’re more inclined to believe than others, some you outright disbelieve, and others you perhaps are unsure and are suspending judgment in regards to.
So Where is the Absence of Belief?
Only before I provided you with the statements above were you in a total absence of belief in them. In fact, you probably already believed I was human and you were reading my blog, but with the others, they may have never crossed your mind.
As soon as I provided those propositions though, your mind started processing them. You probably went through thoughts like:
- Yes, you’re human.
- Yes, I am reading your blog.
- hmm, yeah you can probably do a kickflip.
- hmm, unsure about the backflip.
- No, you can’t fly, unless you provide context like having a pilots licence.
- No, you can’t teleport, at least I don’t believe you until you can prove it.
As such, when a fellow atheist says they ‘only lack belief in god(s)’ I tend to choose to believe they mean they ‘don’t believe’ rather than they are ‘absent of belief’ because it is impossible to be absent of belief in anything you’re aware of.
In confirming this with folks I talk to, this is how many use the term. This is also why in a number of articles I have written I use the ‘lack of belief’ definition as ‘I don’t believe’ and tend to specify the differences between the two.
That said, some claim they are absent of belief in gods existing. This is psychologically impossible. It’s hard enough for someone to be genuinely psychologically agnostic (suspend judgement), but to be completely absent of belief in a proposition you have heard of, e.g. ‘God Exists’, is impossible.
Any atheist who claims this is generally one who is so scared to justify their position they are trying to hide behind a lie, or at the very least, a false statement they may genuinely believe.
As you should be aware by now, I’m an atheist in the normative philosophical sense, I hold the belief gods do not exist. I also understand the burden on a belief position is to justify it as rational (rather than prove true). Even if your position is that you don’t believe either to be true or false, you still have to justify it.
The lack of belief used as don’t believe still has to justify one’s rationality. The lack of belief used as the absence of belief is absolved of this burden, but only if you can truly be absent of belief. Only those completely ignorant of the proposition can actually be absent of belief in it. Thus, it is actually incredibly unlikely any atheist that claims to be absent of belief in God(s) genuinely is.
When someone makes an unlikely claim, is the onus not on them to prove it true? Whilst belief, disbelief and suspense of judgement all carry a burden of rationality, a claim such as this absence of belief is actually impossible without some serious cognitive defects to anyone aware of the proposition.
This also means that if atheism is the absence of belief in gods, then no one who’s ever heard of gods is an atheist. Not believing in gods is different from having an absence of belief in gods.
So with the absence of belief being virtually impossible for anyone aware of a proposition, we will revert back to the ‘I don’t believe’ version of ‘lack of belief’.
Is There a Middle Ground?
Folks will often say ‘there is no agnostic middle ground!’ and then go on to say, ‘Just because I don’t believe in gods doesn’t mean I believe gods do not exist’ essentially describing the middle ground psychological state known as being agnostic.
If you understand basic logic you understand you’ll either accept something as true, accept something as false or suspend judgment accepting something as neither true nor false.
If there is ‘no middle ground’ then that only leaves accepting something as true or accepting something as false. Belief or disbelief. It means you either believe God exists, or you believe God does not exist.
You can see here that we’ve found a contradiction. Call it what you like, but either there IS a middle ground where judgement is suspended, normatively referred to as the psychological state of being agnostic, or when you say you don’t believe God(s) exists, you ARE saying you believe gods do not exist.
In fact, it is so very common to also hear these same atheist say things like ‘God(s) are imaginary’ and what is something imaginary? Something not real. What is something not real? Something without an objective reality. What does that mean? It does not exist. So if they believe gods are imaginary, they believe gods do not exist. So not only are they making the claim that there is no middle ground and then arguing that they sit in that middle ground, they are also then making statements that show they are not present in that middle ground.
Now here’s where I probably annoy many of my agnostic readers too (although read on for clarification). It’s almost impossible to be truly agnostic as a psychological state. Our brains are not really wired that way. We tend to lean towards a true or false position even against logic. This is where I think a form of TH Huxley’s Epistemic Principle of agnosticism, even though much watered down, is being applied. Whilst the agnostic, if truly honest, might be leaning (no matter how slightly) one way, they genuinely feel the justification is not enough to hold that or the opposite position, and as such try to remain agnostic.
That’s not saying you can’t be agnostic at all, just that it is hard to be, especially when you’ve spent some time looking into a topic. It’s a sensible starting point with any new proposition, and perhaps when you’re so ignorant of a topic easy to maintain, but by the time you have looked into a topic at length it’s really hard to maintain that balance.
This, however, is an overly narrow view of what psychological agnosticism is. Leaning one way doesn’t mean you’re decided. As we discussed on a stream with Ozy, the ‘I don’t know’ isn’t speaking of knowledge. It is speaking of indecision. If you had to make an either-or choice between your two favourite foods, you might lean slightly towards your preference but still not be sure which you want tonight. So even if an agnostic might be leaning towards theism or atheism, they still haven’t been convinced either way that one or the other is true.
So on the one hand, we have atheists who claim there is no middle ground, and then describe the place they sit as a middle ground that seems like the psychological state of being agnostic, whilst making claims like ‘gods are imaginary’ which would mean they believe gods do not exist, and then we have the issue with our brains and the fact it is near on impossible to actually be truly agnostic (in the narrow sense of the word) towards a topic you’re not ignorant on.
It really is a jumbled mess out there.
A Lot of Effort for a Simple ‘Lack of Belief’
What I do find odd as well, is so many of the contemporary atheists arguing against religion and theism in general online, sometimes in a very passionate and aggressive way for something they ‘only lack belief’ in’
If they are using ‘lack belief’ as ‘absence of belief’ it is even crazier. Why are you arguing against something you’re totally absent of belief in?
Yes, if we are charitable and assume they are using the term as ‘I don’t believe’ and mean ‘suspense of judgement’ we are still left wondering why they spend so much time online in these conversations.
You’re not sure if gods exist but you’re going to argue against them?
Think of a bet. Let’s say you have spent a lot of time researching a particular sporting event. You have looked at all the statistics of those competing. If you’re convinced a particular team/person will win, you might make a bet, perhaps even encourage others to join you. If there is someone you a sure will not win, you might make sure none of your friends are betting for that person and explain why you believe that to be the case. If you’re left unsure, do you go round telling everyone not to bet? Surely the sensible thing would be to refrain from making a bet until such time you find some convincing information to inspire you?
Perhaps part of this to do with the psychology of rejection, it helps to affirm ones position in the tribe all the more, however, I will come back to this in another article.
As I said, it is a jumbled mess out there. I think too many internet atheists have learned their arguments from memes and YouTubers who too have learned their arguments from memes and YouTubers, and have not actually spent as much time thinking about this.
A Quick Note on Agnosticism
You may have noticed I mentioned two different types of agnosticism above. In fact, it is commonly understood in 4 ways.
The Epistemic PrincipleWhat is Agnosticism? How does it relate to knowledge and beliefs?
Coined by the late TH Huxley to be a cornerstone of the scientific method. This is sometimes now referred to as evidential agnosticism.
The Psychological State
Agnostic as a psychological state is where you don’t believe a proposition to be true or false. You are suspending judgement.
This is sometimes referred to as weak agnosticism.
Knowledge of God
The theory that gods or the supernatural are unknowable.
This is sometimes referred to as hard agnosticism.
Based purely on etymology, it is often claimed that agnosticism only means ‘Without Knowledge’.
This is sometimes referred to as an etymological fallacy.
Further Reading on Beliefs
- SEP: Belief
- Beliefs and Rationality – CMT Vol: 10
- Is it rational to form beliefs based on testimony?
- Beliefs, Language, and Logic
- More on Beliefs and Justifications
- Definitional Problems with Lacking Belief
- Bad Atheist Arguments – Vol: 02 – Beliefs and Logic
- The Burden of Proof – Belief vs Claim – Court Room Analogy
- Is nonbelief a belief? (hint: you might be surprised) – Conflated and Misunderstood Terms: Vol 8
- Unbelief and Disbelief – Conflated and Misunderstood Terms – Volume 6
- Fresh AiR – S01:E05 – Belief, Truth, and Knowledge
- Ontology and the things we lack… (lacktheism or rocktheism?)
- Dirty Words – Conflated and Misunderstood Terms Volume 4: Belief, Faith and Evidence
- I Don’t Believe – Conflated and Misunderstood Terms – Volume 5