Having discussed the definitions of belief and common misconceptions previously I felt it would be good to cover belief in a little more detail, namely how belief and non-belief inform actions.
If you remember our short on belief, it was defined like this:
- Something accepted as true.
- Something thought most likely.
- A positive attitude towards a proposition.
- Something concluded is the case.
We summarised they all essentially say the same thing. If you conclude something is true, you accept it is true, you think it is most likely and so on. It is all a positive attitude to whatever proposition is being discussed.
We’ve also discussed in the past that the propositional attitude of disbelief is believing something is false. Whilst some people do use the term in a different way, and it is fine to do so, this describes a very specific attitude within belief.
Now, there are other attitudes you could have towards a proposition.
- You could imagine it being true or false, for example, entertaining either possibility and seeing when it leads.
- You could think the proposition is incoherent and therefore meaningless to consider.
- You can not care about the proposition, and therefore are not bothered about considering it.
- You can suspend judgement in the proposition, not believing it to be true or false.
- You can have no attitude at all, because you are completely unaware of the proposition.
For the rest of the article, I will leave the total lack of attitude out as we can safely say that if we are not aware of something then we have nothing to influence our thought processes and actions.
What I will be describing are the most likely actions that match the various attitudes.
Proposition 1 – The Bridge
Now, our attitude towards any proposition influences our attitude.
Consider this “The Bridge Will Hold Your Weight as You Cross”.
Imagination: We can imagine this is true and false, and conclude if it is false it could lead to a terrible death.
Incoherence: We probably couldn’t find this proposition incoherent, unless there is some issue with our brain.
Apathy: We could not care about it, which would indicate we probably don’t care about our own life. If this is the case then we probably would cross. However, we could be apathetic because we don’t need to cross the bridge so it doesn’t matter right now.
Suspense of Judgment: We could suspend judgement, being unsure if it will or won’t hold our weight.
Belief: We could think it will hold our weight
Disbelief: We could think it will not hold our weight
So how would we act?
Proposition 1 – Actions
Imagination: if we are just imagining possibilities, it is very unlikely we would act without some external force
Apathy: If we don’t care if the bridge collapses or not, we may well cross
Suspense of Judgment: If we truly cannot decide if the bridge will hold our weight or not, it becomes a risk calculation, and I think the most likely cause of action is inaction, as in, not crossing the bridge.
Belief: We will cross the bridge
Disbelief: We will not cross the bridge.
Summary of Actions in Proposition 1
We can see that most attitudes do not result in us crossing the bridge. This is because beliefs inform actions. The most definitive actions will come from belief and disbelief, the other attitudes will usually result in some form of inaction.
Let’s Consider a few more.
Proposition 2 – The Theme Park & Actions
Consider – “We will have fun if we go to the theme park today”
Assuming there is a group of you, you have the money to go, but it is expensive:
Imagination: We can think about having fun (or not) at the theme park. It won’t really inform any actions.
Incoherence: Again, this doesn’t really apply to this sort of proposition, unless you’re unsure what a theme park is, perhaps.
Apathy: If you don’t care, then likely you won’t go.
Suspense of Judgement: you’re unsure either way, but it costs to go to the theme park. It’s unlikely you’ll want to spend out for something you’re not sure will be worth it unless you suffer peer pressure.
Belief: You’ll go, you may even try to convince the others around you to go.
Disbelief: You won’t go, you may even try to convince the others not to go.
Summary of Actions in Proposition 2
In this instance, we can see again that with the exception of outside forces, belief is the only thing that is going to inform action.
Proposition 3 – God Exists & Actions
Consider, “God Exists.”
Specifically, here we speak of the Abrahamic Deity, and for ease, we shall assume the Christian version.
Imagination: We can imagine God exists and what that would mean for our lives.
Incoherence: You could find the concept of this God character incoherent and therefore meaningless to consider. You might be interested in finding a coherent description, you might discuss with a believer of God why you find it incoherent, but in general, you won’t take any real actions in your life.
Apathy: If you don’t care if God exists or not, you likely won’t even bother discussing it with anyone.
Suspense of judgement: If you’ve considered the proposition and don’t believe God exists but also do not believe God does not exist, your main actions will likely be continuing to investigate theistic and atheistic claims and arguments and seeing if any convince you one way or another. Unless you become apathetic towards the situation of course. You won’t attend church but you won’t be getting in peoples face with your lack of belief.
Belief: You will accept Jesus, the Bible, (probably) go to church, try and spread the word and save the souls of others. (this isn’t a definitive or exhaustive list, but common behaviours you might see.)
Disbelief: You will reject the Bible and whilst you may not actively speak out against it, when questioned by a Christian will give reasons for why you don’t accept the bible. Quite often we see those that disbelieve being active in places such as online communities or local communities where they feel Christianity has too much influence or does too much harm. This is then tied into a secondary proposition “Christianity is harmful”.
Summary of Actions Proposition 3
Again, we can see here that belief/disbelief are the main drivers of action. It would be illogical if you were unsure if God existed or not to speak out against God, right?
You might have some issues with the bible, and want those addressed, but it would be odd to be an activist if you were uncertain if it was true or not… Consider if you were unsure about political parties, policies, bigotry etc… you wouldn’t take time to argue against these things, though you might spend time exploring them more.
Proposition 4 – A least one Deity Exists
This is much the same as above, except a much broader view.
Imagination: We can imagine one or more god exists and what that would mean for our lives. Perhaps think about various different religions or some deistic or pantheistic representation for god and how each iteration might affect our behaviour.
Incoherence: You could find the concept of all gods incoherent and therefore meaningless to consider. You might be interested in finding a coherent description, you might discuss with believers why you find it incoherent, but in general, you won’t take any real actions in your life.
Apathy: If you don’t care if gods exist or not, you likely won’t even bother discussing it with anyone or investigating.
Suspense of judgement: You don’t believe gods exist but you also don’t believe gods do not exist. Whilst you might not attend services it is unlikely you’ll get up in people’s faces about their beliefs when you’re uncertain if they are true or not. If interested, you may spend more time investigating this.
Belief: You believe at least one deity exists. This may be tied to a religion or secular in nature. Depending on the specifics, it could change how you lead your life.
Disbelief: You believe no gods exist and whilst you may not actively speak out against theism, when questioned, will give reasons for your disbelief. You may be more vocal and active with challenges to theism as well. You might become an activist that speaks out against religion and tries to remove its influence from the world/your community. This is then tied into a secondary proposition “religion/theism is harmful.” Which is usually what is called antitheism.
Summary of Actions in Proposition 4
Again, we can see here that belief/disbelief are the main drivers of action. It would be illogical if you were unsure if deities existed to speak out against them. You may enjoy the discussion and want to learn more but it would be odd to be an activist if you were uncertain if it was true or not.
The Actions Don’t Match the Claims
In regards to both proposition 3 and 4, it seems there are a lot of people that claim to not have a positive belief God or gods do not exist, saying they “only lack belief in gods” and therefore would fit that “suspense of judgement” position, yet acting like there believe God or gods do not exist. Not only politely discussing their position but making statements like religious people are stupid, deluded, religion being a mental illness, religion is always harmful, that atheism is the default position till people start filling us with lies and so on.
This seems to contradict the position that they “only lack belief”. They might say “well I lack belief in the general idea of a deity” to excuse this, but if they are discussing the Christian God with a Christian, they are talking about their God and if you actively believe that God doesn’t exist but are saying “I only lack belief” you’re being dishonest with your position, and are potentially talking past each other.
This is something to remember when speaking with a theist. When they ask why you don’t believe in God, they are speaking of their god, not the general concept.
Another thing to mention about actions not matching the claims, consider someone that tells you they love you, but they abuse you and cheat on you. Are they acting like they love you? What about someone that says they are honest yet you keep catching them out in lies? Someone that claims to be a hard worker yet is always sitting around with their feet up? What about the person that says they are sorry all the time but keeps doing the same thing to you?
Actions speak louder than words and our beliefs inform our actions. If someone was truly sorry they would do their best to change their behaviour, no? If someone truly loved you, they wouldn’t abuse you and cheat on you regularly, would they?
The same can be said for folks that claim they “only lack a belief in gods” why would you say “gods are imaginary” or “theism is a delusion” or some of the other popular negative catchphrases?
I’ve even heard some, when pushed, say they believe all religions and gods of the world are false but they say they lack belief because there could be some unheard-of thing out there. This seems a bit silly in conversations with people who are discussing gods of the world.
Others say they only lack belief because they feel like it absolves them of their epistemic responsibility to justify their position. This is wrong, because all belief positions, even lack of, need to be justified to be rational. Not only that, it is wholly dishonest.
As often the conversation about beliefs, it turns to rationality.
The first part of a rational belief, or any belief position, is your ability to justify it. This doesn’t necessarily mean testable evidence and can include logical arguments, experiences, and all sorts. If your justification is purely “heard this random bloke in the pub say…” then your position isn’t rational, even if it happens to be correct.
It is also irrational to behave in a way that is not in accordance with your beliefs.
Consider thinking someone was going to stab you. It would be irrational to not run away or try and defend yourself, right? If we believe we have enough food in the fridge it would be irrational to order a whole fridge load for delivery that afternoon. If we believe we do not like the taste of a certain food, it would be irrational to eat it for the taste.
We can quite often see people not acting in accordance with what they say they believe, be they theist, atheist, or something else.
I think many of my fellow atheists need to consider the things they are saying in relation to each other. Thinking gods are imaginary is believing they don’t have an objective reality (exist) so you don’t simply “lack a belief in gods”.
Spending the amount of time a lot of you do arguing against gods and religions you claim to “only lack belief” in seems like an enormous waste of time, especially when you’re not sure they are false.
Could you imagine going to a political rally supporting it when you think “black lives may or may not matter” or “I might be pro-woman and I’m unsure if I am pro-choice”? No, you wouldn’t, you would support “black lives matter” because you believe black lives matter… so why do you say “I lack belief in gods” when you also say “gods are imaginary”?
Of course, these behaviours are not limited to atheists, and I don’t mean to be wholly picking on my own tribe here. We can see the same thing coming from those that say the body is the temple, adultery is a sin, and all sorts; drinking, taking drugs, cheating etc. In this instance, we too could say that they seem to not be acting the way they claim to believe.
And this is the crux of it. We can’t really know what anyone does or does not believe. All we have is
- Their testemony of what they do or don’t believe
- Their justification for why the do or don’t believe
- Their actions/inactions in relation to 1 & 2
Actions tend to speak louder than words, so if your actions are not in accordance with what you claim to believe, people will doubt those are your actual beliefs.
Why does that matter? It matters if you want people to think you are honest, genuine, rational and good to have a conversation with. It also matters if you want to convince others that your position is correct, or at the very least, they have to examine theirs more closely.
There are, of course, times where we have conflicting beliefs or duties that override our beliefs and we may not always be able to act in accordance with them, but what I speak of isn’t the odd one-off.
Articles Related to Belief & Rationality
- Belief: Don’t Believe, Lack of Belief, Absent of Belief – CMT Vol: 11
- Propositional Logic and Beliefs – Fresh AiR – S03:E02:C01 (VIDEO)
- Propositional Logic and Beliefs – Fresh AiR – S03:E02:C01 (AUDIO)
- Beliefs and Rationality – CMT Vol: 10
- Beliefs, Language, and Logic
- More on Beliefs and Justifications
- Definitional Problems with Lacking Belief
- Bad Atheist Arguments – Vol: 02 – Beliefs and Logic
- What is Agnosticism? How does it relate to knowledge and beliefs?
- The Burden of Proof – Belief vs Claim – Court Room Analogy
- Coherent and Consistent Beliefs
- Unbelief and Disbelief – Conflated and Misunderstood Terms – Volume 6
- Is nonbelief a belief? (hint: you might be surprised) – Conflated and Misunderstood Terms: Vol 8
- Fresh AiR – S01:E05 – Belief, Truth, and Knowledge
- Dirty Words – Conflated and Misunderstood Terms Volume 4: Belief, Faith and Evidence
- SEP: Belief
- You won’t believe this… CMT – Vol: 12
- Is it rational to form beliefs based on testimony?