Following on from volume 1: Bible and Evidence, I felt it prudent to follow this up with errors many fellow atheists make around beliefs.
I too have made some of these statements in the past, and as I looked into things more I realised that some of these statements just don’t make sense or if they do, are wrong.
What is a belief?
Before we continue, we should consider what a belief really is, as many think it is simply something accepted without evidence. This is not the case.
A belief is something we accept as true, a positive attitude towards a proposition, something we think most probable, something we have been convinced to be the case.
But don’t just take my word for it, here’s a selection of definitions from a philosophical paper and a variety of dictionaries, all definitions of this word are similar but I have put a mark near the key parts for you to read.
I don’t Believe things, I know them!
When you are speaking of beliefs and knowledge you’re doing a branch of philosophy called epistemology.
A belief is simply something we accept as true/think most probable/thing most likely.
Knowledge is a form of belief that is both justified and true.
Consider this statement “I don’t believe I am human but I know I am human” – what? Why don’t you believe you are human?
Also consider a statement like, “I don’t believe evolution, I accept evolution is true.”
Again.. what? That is essentially saying “I don’t accept evolution is true, I accept evolution is true” – How ridiculous do you sound?!?
Now I understand part of the reason you might phrase things like this is to escape from the theist equating having a belief with a belief system. But this is easily rebutted. Believing a bridge will hold my weight is not a belief system, believing I will wake up tomorrow is not a belief system. They are both just beliefs, which is the same as your acceptance of the evidence of evolution.
Believing something is making a truth claim!
No, it is saying you think it is true, not that it IS true. There is a difference.
You say “My hair is red” that is a truth claim.
If I accept that, that means “I believe you”. I might believe you without evidence because why would you lie about your hair colour? I could, of course, ask you to support that with taking pictures and the like so I could verify the truth of your claim. Then with that evidence, I would be justified in saying “I know your hair is red.” at least for the moment. This is obviously assuming I know you are the person in the pictures and the like.
The difference between the two is, for you to support your claim to be true you ought to provide evidence.
However, people can believe claims without evidence. The burden on a belief is making it RATIONAL. For a belief to be rational, it has to have no strong contradicting evidence, and you need to use the rules of logic and probability theory.
So, for example, believing someone’s claim that their hair red is irrational if taken at pure face value, however, if you reason that it would be an odd thing to lie about – and in fact is not something people tend to lie about, they don’t gain anything from lying about it, this person might be trustworthy, at least as far as you know etc… you suddenly hold a rational position.
The same can be said about lacking belief in their position. If you simply lack belief without performing similar steps above, your position is irrational.
Many atheists claim to be rational and hold a rational position. It would do us well to fully understand what that means.
Only the claimant has a burden of proof! / I have no burden of proof!
This is a very common one. Yes, anyone asserting something IS TRUE does have a burden, but belief positions, all of them inclusive of a “lack belief”, carry a burden to make them rational. Part of your burden is easily filled by simply saying you believe the theist has not met their burden of proof of course, but to hold a truly rational position you need to show that you have fully considered in the most rational way you can.
For more info please check: Do we atheists have a burden of proof?
Non-belief in God isn’t a belief!
There are 3 primary belief (B) positions when discussing a proposition (p).
Belief in the Proposition (Bp) = Accepting the proposition is true
e.g. Belief That God Exists
Disbelief in the Proposition (B¬p) = Accepting the proposition is false = Belief in Not The Proposition
e.g Belief That God Does not Exist
Unbelief/non-belief in the Proposition (¬Bp & ¬B¬p) = Not Accepting either the Proposition to be true or false.
e.g. Lacking belief in both God existing and God not Existing
Essentially that 3d position is that you believe there is nothing to convince you that the proposition is true or false. You hold a belief about the belief. This is sometimes called a second-order belief.
In fact, you might have this non-belief because you believe that the theist hasn’t met their burden but equally, there isn’t anything convincing enough to make you believe a god does not exist.
For more info please read: Is non-belief a belief?
Atheism Only means Lack Belief
Atheism is polysemous, the lack belief definition is actually quite new.
Language evolves and is defined through its common use and context, so places like twitter, Facebook, America, and various atheist lead groups around the web, the “lack belief” definition is the most commonly used, so is contextually correct even if not the most logical. As such it is silly to reject that definition, but equally ridiculous to claim it is the ONLY definition.
If you’re rational, you might be interested in the rules of logic.
Disbelief = Lack Belief
There are many atheists that do not seem to get the difference between lacking belief and disbelief – this is largely due to a descriptive use of the word rather than taking to a normative approach to how it is used in epistemology.
They think disbelief is the same as lacking belief (or sometimes even nonbelief).
This is often due to not understanding propositional logic and only being able to conceive of answers for a pure psychological state rather than providing an epistemological answer.
The frustrating thing about this, for me at least, is folks that claim to be rational ignore the rules of logic, and they are discussing beliefs yet ignoring epistemology. It feels like speaking to a creationist about evolution and them insisting on using “kinds” and “change in kind” when there are clear definitions and terminology for the subject in question.
I covered the logic in brief above but I am going to expand on the lack belief portion here.
In short – You have a Proposition (p) (we will use ‘God exists’).
The answer will either be p or Not p (¬p) (Because existence is dichotomous, something either exists or it does not).
Folks hold Beliefs (B) and/or lack Beliefs (¬B) in regards to this.
I described earlier the 3 main belief positions in regards to a proposition
- Belief = Bp
- Disbelief = B¬p
- Unbelief = ¬B¬p & ¬Bp
Someone who believes something is true technically lacks belief in it being false too. For example, Bp entails ¬B¬p which could be written as Bp -> ¬B¬p. We can also join these with an & or ^ symbol to state the full position someone holds.
- Belief: Bp & ¬B¬p
- Disbelief: B¬p & ¬Bp
- Unbelief = ¬B¬p & ¬Bp
So as you can see, “lack belief” is different from disbelief. It is also UNCLEAR because lacking belief in god existing is not giving a full answer, it could fit both disbelief, where you believe God does not exist and therefore lack belief in God’s existence (this is the classic atheist stance), or lack belief in both God existing and God not existing (the classic agnostic stance which has now been rebranded as “agnostic atheism” by many on the internet).
The Opposite of Believing something is Not Believing/Lacking belief in something.
Rather than the above distinction between belief (Bp) and disbelief (B¬p), many fellow atheists will say that the opposite of believing something (Bp) is not believing it (¬Bp).
To an extent, I agree, but what they don’t realise is they are only describing a psychological state rather than providing an epistemological answer.
Saying you don’t believe something is UNCLEAR because it doesn’t actually say what you DO believe.
If you remember above ¬Bp can be applied to both unbelief and disbelief depending on your belief position in regards to ¬p.
This is why an epistemological answer both answers a proposition AND provides your psychological state whilst simply saying you don’t believe something is unclear.
False = Not True
If belief is accepting something is true
Disbelief is accepting something is false aka accepting something as not true
If you don’t have a conclusion, you’re in a state of unbelief where you don’t accept something as true or false.
We are all born atheists!
Unless you are willing to reduce the position of atheists to that of a rock, we are not born atheists. Some people do like to make a distinction between explicit and implicit atheism, but let me explain why this still doesn’t really work.
We, as babies, do not have the cognitive functions to consider propositions and have any attitude towards them, therefore we are innocents completely absent of belief and the ability to form them.
For more info please check: Are we born atheist?
What’s more this argument doesn’t really do anything to further conversation or convince anyone of anything. We a prone to assigning agency to the unknown. It was an evolutionary survival trait that helped us survive the rustles in the bushes.
Agnostics are Atheists!
As mentioned above, words do change their meaning, and some words like atheism are polysemous. In fact, some would regard all forms of non-theist as an atheist, and use titles like “Agnostic Atheist”.
Whilst language is defined through use, it is not exactly the most logical use of the word, and if you understand how the term came about you realise this is nonsensical.
Whilst by your use of the word you could argue agnostics are atheist, by most folks who identify as an agnostic this is actually a gross misrepresentation of agnosticism.
Belief/Disbelief in god is insanity!
This is one both theists and atheists need to stop accusing each other of.
It is not helpful to the conversation, you are already putting the other person against you.
Neither does it fit the DSM definition for a mental illness
You’re creating a stigma against those who are mentally ill.
Summary of Belief
A belief is simply something we accept as true, a positive attitude towards a proposition, think most probable, think most likely etc. They can be rational or irrational. They can even be arational in the realms of the senses.
The term “belief” can be like a dirty word to an atheist, who assumes anything believed is instantly irrational and doesn’t understand that knowledge is a subset of a belief that is both justified and true.
Hopefully, this article and the links within have helped to clear up how beliefs work, and how the logic works surrounding propositions and our attitude towards them.
Until next episode!