An argument that I often hear is that ‘lack of belief in God’ and ‘do not believe God exists’ are the same thing. Or the argument that ‘Just because I do not believe Y does not mean that I believe X’. I will say outright now that I tend to agree with this, with some caveats. You see, it is not always the case that these statements are true. It all depends on the conversation being had, and the questions being asked and answered. Depending upon the question being asked, and how one sees theism, the ‘lack of belief’ definition can cause ambiguity. What do I mean by this?
The ambiguity of ‘Do you believe God exists?’
Let us begin with when the answers mean the same thing. If I was to ask the question ‘Do you believe God exists?’, then I am asking a kind of ambiguous question. Context is important with this question. Is the question about the report of mental/belief states? Or is the question about the truth of the proposition that God exists?
In the context of a mental state
There are those that may argue here that these are the same, or similar, questions. However, as will be seen, closer inspection shows us that they are not the same question. Let us begin with the question about the report of a belief state or mental state. If I ask you whether or not you believe God exists as a report of a mental state, then it can only be a true or false answer. You either believe God exists or you do not. This question could be rephrased with more specificity as ‘Do you hold the belief state/mental state that God exists?’.
Reporting a mental state
So, to this question the answer ‘I do not believe God exists’ is an unambiguous answer. It reports that you do not hold the belief state that God exists. Answering ‘I lack belief in gods’ could also be considered an unambiguous answer here too. You are reporting that you lack the belief state that God exists. In this instance, lack of belief and do not believe report a similar answer. Both could be rephrased with more specificity as ‘I do not hold the belief state/mental state that God exists’. As we can see, ‘does not believe God exists’ and ‘lack of belief’ mean the same thing when discussing someone’s mental states. What about the previously mentioned ambiguity though?
In the context of a claim
Well, if we look at the same question in a different way then we can see the ambiguity. Consider the question ‘Do you believe God exists?’ again. From the previous part of this discussion we are now primed to interpret that question as ‘Do you hold the belief state that God exists?’. However, we could be talking about something very different. If we consider the ‘God exists’ part of the phrase. Think of this part of the phrase in terms of the claim that God exists. In this case we can interpret the ‘God exists’ part as ‘it is true that God exists’. That is the claim being made after all. The question then becomes ‘Do you believe it is true that God exists?’.
Lack of belief responds to a different question
This question, then, is not asking for your belief state/mental state. It is asking for your answer to the claim ‘it is true that God exists’. The question can be refined with more specificity as ‘Is it true that God exists?’. In this case, the answer ‘I do not believe God exists’ could be considered in terms of ‘I do not think it is true that God exists’. However, the answer ‘I lack belief in God’ does not answer the question ‘Is it true that God exists?’. It answers the question about belief states/mental states. The ‘lack of belief in God’ response simply reports that you do not hold a belief in God, not whether you think it is true or false that God exists.
Of course, through logic and negation we can work out that you would not answer ‘It is true that God exists’ to that question. A belief is something that we think is true, or is the case. So, if one ‘lacks a belief in God’ then they do not think it is true that God exists, or that it is the case that God exists. It does not answer the question of whether or not they think it is false though. As many atheists like to say, ‘just because I do not believe God exists that does not mean I believe he does not exist’. Meaning, just because they ‘lack belief in God’ does not mean that they would answer the question ‘is it true that God exists?’ as false.
So it cannot be an answer…
Meaning that ‘I lack belief in God or gods’ cannot be an answer to the question ‘is it true that God exists?’, because it does not answer the question. It answers a question in a different category, and is akin to something like a category error. Consider something like the question ‘Is this river fresh water or salt water?’ and someone responds with ‘Water is H2O’. What is said is true, but it is not a response to what is asked.
So, in the case of the ‘I lack belief in God’ response, think of it as follows. The question is ‘Is it true or false that God exists?’, and the response is ‘I lack belief in God’. We can see from this expansion that it is an answer to a different question. However, if we replace the response with ‘I do not believe God exists’, we have something closer to a reasonable response. How so?
How about ‘I do not believe God exists’?
As stated previously, a belief is something that we think is true or is the case. Saying ‘I believe God exists’ is akin to saying ‘I think it is true that God exists’. So, to say ‘I do not believe God exists’ is to say something akin to ‘I do not think it is true that God exists’ or ‘I do not think it is the case that God exists’. At least in response to the question ‘Is it true or false that God exists?’ anyway. This means that the one who answered the question must think it is false that God exists. What about the claim that saying ‘I do not believe God exists’ is not the same as saying ‘I believe God does not exist’ though?
Sort of, but in an indirect way…
Well, in response to the question ‘Do you hold a belief state that God exists?’ that is the case. In response to the question ‘Is it true or false that God exists?’ it is not the case. In the case of the latter question there are only two answers in the set of possibilities. It is either the case that it is true that God exists, or it is the case that it is false that God exists. There is no middle ground in this scenario.
So, when a person declares that they do not think it is true that God exists then the only other option is that it is false that God exists. To declare that it is false that God exists is to declare that God does not exist. Remember, the only options are that either God exists, or God does not exist. It is a dichotomous situation. It is either A or Not-A. Does this mean that I am saying that a person must take the position that either God exists, or God does not exist?
Of course not. There is still a third response that can be given to the question ‘Is it true or false that God exists?’. The third possible response a person can give is that they are unsure whether it is true or false. Consider the response as such. The questioner asks, ‘Is it true or false that God exists?’. If the respondent replies with ‘I am unsure’ then this seems a perfectly reasonable response. Responding with ‘I do not know’ also seems like a perfectly reasonable response also. Both responses speak to the fact that the individual does not have a stance on either position. They do not think it is true that God exists, nor do they think it is false that God exists.
Three possible answers to the question
As we can see, the three possible and reasonable answers to the question ‘Is it true that God exists? are ‘Yes’, ‘No’, and ‘Unsure’. Responding with a report of our mental state does not answer this question. Stating ‘I lack belief in God’ only tells us that you would answer not answer that question with ‘Yes’. It does not tell us whether you would answer that question ‘No’ or ‘Unsure’. As stated earlier, responding with ‘I do not believe God exists’ can lead to ambiguity if you are simply reporting a belief state/mental state rather than answering the question. Responding with ‘I do not believe God exists’, logically speaking, sounds as if you are answering the question with ‘False’, as shown earlier (‘True or False’, ‘not True’, therefore ‘False’).
Isn’t theism and atheism about belief states?
There will be many atheists arguing now that atheism and theism are about beliefs, and therefore about reports of mental states. The question is not ‘Is it true that God exists?’, the question is ‘Do you believe God exists?’. The theist answers ‘Yes’ to that question, and the atheist answers ‘No’ to that question. So, theism and atheism are about mental states. This means that it is the question ‘Is it true that God exists?’ is the question that commits something akin to a category error, and the ‘lack of belief’ response is therefore the valid one. If it is the case that theism and atheism are only about mental states, then this could be considered true of course. Are they only about mental states though?
Theism is a claim, not a belief state
Let us begin with Theism here, as it is from here that we can begin to see why it is not simply about mental states. Theism is the claim that at least one god exists. Basic theism argues that something like the God of Classical Theism exists. This God of Classical Theism has particular attributes, usually something like the omni properties, it is timeless, it is spaceless, and those kinds of things. Theism, then, is a collection of arguments that propose that it is true that something like God exists. The arguments may be used to convince the theist to believe that Theism is true, but the arguments themselves are not the belief. Theism is not the belief state. Instead, Theism is the claim that something like a God exists, and Theism is the body of arguments that argue for why it is true that something like a God exists.
Claims are not belief states
Arguments and claims do not hold beliefs. The claim that something like a God exists is not the belief. It is a claim. The arguments for the claim, and the evidence for the claim, are not beliefs. They are arguments and evidence. No, it is people that hold beliefs. It is people that hold beliefs about claims, and arguments, and evidence. They hold beliefs that the claims and the arguments are true or false, or that the evidence is convincing or unconvincing.
As stated earlier, it is also people that are unsure of the claims, the arguments, and the evidence. If theism is the claim that something like a God exists, and theism is also the body of arguments and evidence for this claim, then theism cannot be a belief. A belief is a mental state held by a person. The content of that belief is Theism, the content is about the claim that something like a God exists. The content of the belief is about the body of arguments and the evidence.
Theists hold a belief about theism
So, it is not theism that is the belief, it is the theist that holds the belief about theism. Theism is the claim that something like a God exists, and the theist is the one that believes this claim is true. It does not necessarily follow from this that atheism is not a mental state of course. Atheism could still be ‘a lack of belief in God’ of course. However, regardless of how the atheist chooses to define atheism, the atheist still holds a belief about theism. Though rather than holding a belief that theism is true, as the theist does, the atheist holds the belief that theism is not true or at the very least has not successfully defended its central claim. At the very least, the atheist is not convinced by the claim of theism, the claim that something like a God exists.
If theism is the claim that something like a God exists, then theism is either true or false. If theism can either be true or false, then it means we can ask a question like ‘Is theism true?’. To give it slightly more specificity, asking ‘Is theism true?’ is the same as asking ‘Is it true that something like a God exists?’. Those who answer that question ‘Yes’ are theists. What of the atheist though?
What about atheism though?
Well, if atheism is defined solely in terms of ‘a lack of belief in gods’, then atheism cannot be a response to theism. Consider the argument made previously about responses to the question ‘Is it true that God exists?’. Responding with ‘I lack belief in gods’ does not answer the question. So, if theism is the claim that something like a God exists, then the question posed by theism is ‘Is it true that something like a God exists?’. If this is the question posed by theism, then responding with ‘I lack belief in gods’ does not answer this question. As stated earlier, it can tell us that the atheist does not think it is true, but not whether they think it is false. It avoids the question rather than answering it. What of the response ‘I do not believe God exists’ though?
Is atheism a belief state or a claim?
This again brings us back to the argument made earlier. If the atheist is responding in terms of their belief state/mental state, then it is akin to answering the question with ‘I lack belief in gods’. Meaning that ‘I do not believe God exists’ does not answer the question posed by theism. This answer tells us that you do not believe it is true, but not necessarily that you believe it is false. As argued previously, it could be the case that you do not think it is false. You could be unsure if it is true or false. So, answering ‘I do not believe God exists’ in the sense of a mental state is not answering the question. At best it is answering the question indirectly, and committing something akin to equivocation.
Atheism as a response to theism
However, as stated previously, as a response to the question theism presents, then it can be considered to be answering the question. If we rephrase it with slightly more specificity as ‘I do not believe it is true that God exists’, we can see why it can give us an answer. Once again returning to the argument made previously, it can be considered in terms of (‘True or False’, ‘not True’, therefore ‘False’). It is not as direct of an answer as something like ‘I believe the claim that God exists is false’ or ‘I believe God does not exist’, but it can get us there in an indirect and logical manner.
It is only when the atheist commits a kind of equivocation with their answer that it cannot. In other words, using ‘I do not believe God exists’ in a vague way can make it sound like we are responding to theism, but are not actually responding to theism. They are responding to theism in terms of belief states, not theism in terms of the claim that God exists.
But theism is just a belief state!
There will be those atheists that argue here that theism the belief that God exists. Therefore it simply is a belief state, and not a claim that something like a God exists. This may be true in a colloquial sense, and may be true in the sense that they discuss theism. There may even be those theists that look at theism in the same sense. However, it is something akin to a strawman version of theism. One only needs to look at theism through an honest lens to see that it is more than just a description of a belief state.
Theism is about the belief, not the belief-state
Theism may be about the belief the something like a God exists, but it is not the belief state itself. The easiest way to look at theism when considered as ‘the belief God exists’ is to think of it as a discussion about the belief. It is a look at the belief that is held, and the contents of the belief. It is not the belief state, but the belief itself. An honest examination of theism will show that it is about the proposition ‘God exists’, and the body of arguments about that proposition. Theism described solely in terms of a mental state ignores all of this, and misrepresents theism, as well as ignores the intellectual side of theism.
As argued earlier, it also makes little sense to consider it solely in terms of a mental state. It makes more sense to consider it in terms of a claim, or in terms of a proposition, and to consider the theist to be the one that believes the proposition. We can discuss the truth of a proposition, and we can discuss the truth of the content of a belief. However, there is little to discuss when it comes to the truth of a belief state. It is either true the person has the belief state, or it is false the person has the belief state. As argued above, the same can be considered about atheism. It is best seen as a response to the claim, or proposition, that God exists.
It is unlikely that this argument will convince a certain section of those atheists that hold to the ‘lack of belief’ definition. However, I would contend that there are few arguments that would convince that certain section. This argument is, instead, aimed at those who do not hold their beliefs about atheism as a ‘lack of belief in gods’ with the same ‘fervour’ as that section. It is those atheists that are more likely to assess the argument in an honest manner, and with some consideration. The argument may not even be convincing to those atheists either.
However, it may help them to understand why some atheists consider atheism in ways different to them. It may help them to understand more why some atheists hold to the ‘belief God does not exist’ position, or why they consider theism in terms of the claim that God exists, or why they do not see theism and atheism simply as belief states. The argument may help them to see why some atheists and theists speak past each other, or why some theists ask questions like ‘if atheism is true’. At the very least, it may simply help some portion of the atheists that hold to the ‘lack of belief’ definition to learn a little more, which is all that can be asked for.
Some further reading
Beliefs, Language, and Logic
Descartes, Scepticism, and You
Definitional Problems With Lacking Belief
Propositional Logic and Beliefs
Atheism and Agnosticism
Dr. Graham Oppy joins us to discuss “Atheism and Agnosticism” (Steve McRae)
Hi, I’m Dave. As you can already tell, I’m one of the authors at AiR, as well as a member of the podcast. I’m also the Dave you see on our live streams on Twitch and YouTube. I am an atheist. I don’t use the ‘lack of belief’ definition though, and use the ‘belief God does not exist’ definition for me. I have always been an atheist, and have never been part of a religion.
While I do enjoy discussions around the existence of God, I try to post a wider range of content here. My focus is mainly on philosophy, as that is the topic I enjoy. I have a BA in Philosophy and Psychology, and am waiting on the results for my MA in Philosophy. Will find out in December whether I have been awarded the degree!
This is why my posts tend to focus more on the philosophy side of things. I try to post a wider range of topics than just those surrounding theism and atheism. You will also find articles discussing arguments from atheists that I find to be lacking, or poorly argued. This is mostly because I want to see the atheist community improve its arguments, and to see atheists give stronger and better arguments.
Hopefully you will enjoy some of my content, and I hope even more that it makes you look at certain arguments and ideas in a different way. Plus, hopefully some atheists that dismiss philosophy out of hand might actually see it’s more interesting than they first though. Philosophy is an awesome subject!