I so often see my fellow atheists saying things like ‘I don’t believe x I accept the evidence for x’ and I can’t help but facedesk. I tried to address the problem in articles like I Don’t Believe, Dirty Words: Belief, Faith and Evidence, Beliefs and Logic but so far have not got anywhere.
Perhaps the approach I took was providing too much information in one go, and instead I should have kept it simple and to the point, allowing people to then reach out and research more on these topics if they were interested?
What is a Belief?
A belief is; something you accept as true, a positive attitude towards a proposition, something you think most likely/probable etc.
Contemporary Anglophone philosophers of mind generally use the term “belief” to refer to the attitude we have, roughly, whenever we take something to be the case or regard it as true.https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/belief/
Conversely, disbelief is the opposite. Whilst sometimes mistakenly ‘lack of belief‘ is used as a synonym for disbelief, it is actually different. If we describe a belief as to the above, disbelief is; something you accept as false, a negative attitude towards a proposition, something you think is not likely or probable.
So by that notion, if you disbelieve something that is the same as saying you believe something is not. So if we consider existence, disbelief in the existence of x is the same as the belief x does not exist.
What then for lack of belief? Well, this is unclear. Firstly are you saying ‘lack belief in x’ to mean ‘I don’t believe in x’ or ‘I am absent of belief in x? The two statements are quite different. For someone to be absent of belief in x, they have to have never heard of x. The second you are aware of a proposition, you form beliefs in regards to it. With the except of a few folks, I think most people mean ‘I don’t believe’, so will assume this use for now.
When you believe X, it is clear you also lack belief in not X. When you disbelieve X it is clear you also lack belief in X. When you say you lack belief in X, it is unclear if you disbelieve or suspend judgement.
The suspense of judgement is the 3rd epistemic state where you lack belief both ways. So you would lack belief in both X and not X. This position is what is normatively described as being agnostic.
That is it, it is as simple as that. The problem is many folks think a belief is ‘always irrational’ or ‘something accepted without evidence’. Some even conflate holding a belief with ‘making a claim’. So let us first address the difference between a claim and a belief.
Claim vs Belief
There is a clear difference between the two. A claim is something you are asserting IS the case. You are making an external claim about reality.
A belief is just your attitude. The claim you make is one that’s internal. I think this best represents reality. Even if that internal claim is one that you are suspending judgement. I believe I don’t believe this claim (or proposition) is either true or false. This is known as a 2nd order belief.
A belief does not mean you are absolutely certain, it does not make a knowledge or truth claim.
When you claim something IS the case, it’s quite likely you have not only full psychological certainty, but also believe you have epistemic certainty. Whilst this is not necessarily the case, you can already see the difference between the two right?
So this gives a different Burden of Proof. With a claim, the burden is to prove it is the case. With a belief, inclusive of ‘lack of belief’, the burden is to prove that the position is rational.
Of course, this is why many hide behind an ‘absence of belief’ because this absolved one of the burden, but as discussed, it is impossible to be absent of belief unless you’re completely ignorant of the proposition. Therefore you have a burden to prove you are totally absent in belief which you cannot do, and as such your position is irrational.
What is Rationality?
Rationality is, at least in part; reasoning using the rules of logic and probability theory, whilst holding coherent and consistent beliefs, with no strong credible evidence that is contrary to our beliefs.
Beliefs come in 3 states. Rational. Irrational. Arational. (so no, they are not all irrational as some assert).
Has used logical reasoning, holding coherent and consistent beliefs, with no strong contradictory evidence. Supporting evidence is a bonus but not necessary.
Examples of Rational Beliefs
- Dave tells me he is ill and can’t make the podcast recording.
I know Dave is generally truthful.
I know Dave enjoys the podcast.
Dave has been there every week without fail, unless he has had a late tutorial.
Dave gains nothing from telling me he is ill.
- I believe the theory of evolution best explains the process of evolution.
I understand the scientific method.
Papers are heavily peer reviewed.
There are examples of evolution happening, even in recent years.
Folks who have studied evolution have spent years in the field, both training and researching.
The theory has been altered over the years as new evidence has been discovered and we are honing in on an ever more precise theory.
Both of these examples are perfectly rational, but note I didn’t need any evidence to hold a rational belief about Dave being ill.
An irrational belief is the inverse of the rational belief. Poor/weak reasoning, fallacious thoughts, evidence against the position etc.
Examples of Irrational Beliefs
- I believe the earth is 6000 years old
If you add up the ages in the bible, that’s roughly what you get
That’s what my pastor told me
That’s what my church believes
However; None of the above are strong reasons to believe. In fact, the second is an argument from authority and the third is an ad Populum.
Not to mention there are mounds of scientific evidence against this notion.
- I believe x because my dad said.
I raise this example because it is slightly different.
An adult, with a fully developed brain, is not rational in believing something just because their dad said so.
A child, however, might be. Children are not typically rational creatures. They have undeveloped brains and little worldly experience. It is quite natural to believe our guardians without question at a young age. The point here, is to review when we are older and check all our beliefs are indeed rational.
An arational belief, is something you believe without any real reasoning going in to it. They are sensory or emotional beliefs. Consider tasting something for the first time and think ‘mmm, I like that’ or smelling something and thinking ‘that smells awful’ or that feeling you are being watched. They essentially skip that reasoning all together and form the belief.
That said, you can then create rational or irrational beliefs from arational ones. If you try a number of different chocolate bars and like them all, it could be quite rational to believe that you are going to like the next chocolate bar you try, as long as you are also open to the fact that there may be a chocolate bar you don’t like.
To review those silly statements
Before I post this, I figured I would review a few of the silly things I hear/see round the web.
I don’t believe things, I know things.
This one tickles me, because knowledge is essentially a subset of belief. When you believe something, you don’t necessarily know it, but when you know something you also believe it.
Consider saying ‘I don’t believe I am human, I know I am human’ – well, why don’t you believe you are a human? What do you believe you are? A turnip?
I don’t believe in facts, I accept facts.
When you understand that a belief is something you accept, you can see this statement is really silly… ‘I don’t accept facts, I accept facts’
I don’t believe in evolution, I accept evolution as true.
As above, when you accept something as true, you believe it. That doesn’t make it a belief system. I believe the bridge will hold my weight when I cross it. That isn’t a ‘belief system’ its just a belief with a number of rational considerations that have gone into it.
A belief is something accepted without evidence.
A belief can be accepted without evidence, and still be rational, but a belief can also have evidence. In fact, there can be evidence to support the belief and it still be irrational to hold. But no, a belief isn’t only something accepted without evidence.
A belief is a claim!
No, at least not as you are using a claim.
When someone makes a claim, they are asserting something about reality.
When someone holds a belief, they are asserting something about their internal mental state.
Lacking belief carries no burden of proof!
As discussed, used as an absence of belief you (sort of) are correct, however, you cannot be absent of belief in anything you are aware of. Therefore, presupposing you’re not irrational, lacking belief must be understood as ‘I don’t believe’.
With the 3 epistemic attitudes in response to a proposition, all require justification to be rational positions to hold. You have heard of gods, therefore you don’t have an absence of belief in gods, you either believe, disbelieve or suspend judgement. If you lack belief in gods, that puts you in one of the 2 last categories. Both of these require justification to be rational. If you do not care about being rational, you do not need to justify your position.
We often believe what we are told by our parents, friends, doctors, and news reporters. We often believe what we see, taste, and smell. We hold beliefs about the past, the present, and the future. Do we have a right to hold any of these beliefs? Are any supported by evidence? Should we continue to hold them, or should we discard some? These questions are evaluative. They ask whether our beliefs meet a standard that renders them fitting, right, or reasonable for us to hold. One prominent standard is epistemic justification.https://iep.utm.edu/epi-just/
In Summary of Beliefs and Rationality
Don’t worry if you suddenly feel silly about having made some of the above statements. It is perfectly natural to make mistakes, go with the ‘group think’ and get carried away with the various memes. There are times where I too feel regret over my own misunderstandings. I too used to have a bad taste in my mouth for the word belief, due to how I saw it used by folks like YEC and I ended up with biases against the term too.
Feel free to avoid its useage, but please make sure you don’t continue to make the same mistakes.
- A belief and a truth/knowledge claim are different
- All belief positions, even lack of beliefs, carry a BoP
- The BoP for a belief is different to that of a claim
- A belief doesn’t entail absolute certainty
- A belief is just something you think is true