“Nonbelief is a belief? Who knew…” – an often said sarcastic comment by many fellow atheists as a retort to theists calling atheism a religion or belief system.
Whilst I agree atheism is not a religion, and that it is a polysemous word which has moved from the classical disbelief in the existence of gods to include a nonbelief/unbelief (aka lack belief) in gods existence, and many atheists use this definition, I do wonder how many know what this nonbelief position means?
As with any article, debate, or discussion it is best to define our terms to ensure we are all on the same page. 😜
As I am sure you know, a belief is simply something accepted as true, something we think most probable, or a positive attitude towards a proposition, what does that say for disbelief and nonbelief?
Disbelief is the inverse of belief. If belief is thinking something is true, disbelief is thinking something is false. If you understand logic then you will understand that this is still an active belief position.
False = Not True.
A belief is something accepted as true, a disbelief is something accepted as false (or not true).
Therefore ‘disbelief’ in something is the same as ‘belief not’ something.
To put this in terms of God’s existence:
Disbelief in Gods existence = Belief God does not exist.
What does this then say for nonbelief/unbelief?
Simply put, it is a fence-sitting position where you are not accepting something as true or not true. So in terms of God Existing, nonbelief in God’s Existence means you lack belief in both god existing, and god not existing. Or to put it another way, you believe in neither the belief god exists nor the belief god does not exist.
This is what is known as a 2nd order belief. A belief about a belief.
Now it is true that this position is what is held by those who identify as agnostics, and in academia; through logic and epistemology, it usually still is defined as such, however on the internet and among those who frequent it, it is known as “agnostic atheism”. As Dave rightly said the other day, ‘Words are funny things!‘.
Regardless of what you call it, it is still a belief position. Now people conflate beliefs with claims all the time and think that the burden of proof means you have to PROVE your belief. This is not true, the BoP is perhaps poorly named, but is simply a justification for the belief to make it rational. This is also known as epistemic justification. All belief positions, even a lack belief position, carry a burden of proof, and therefore whichever form of atheist you are you do carry a burden of proof (but again, it is not to prove your position true, just justify as rational).
Of course, if you are happy being irrational then you are free to not fulfil the BoP, but if you are more interested in how you can fulfil it, I have covered it off in this article:
In fact, you could say the atheist nonbelief starts with a first-order belief that leads to a second-order belief. Atheists generally believe theists have not met their burden of proof (that’s the first order) and therefore don’t believe in the theistic claim. Of course “I don’t believe” isn’t as clear of an answer as it should be, as many are not providing an epistemological answer and are simply describing a psychological state. But I digress. Whichever way you slice this, the atheist position is a form of belief.
Can I be Absent of Belief?
This is something interesting. Is it possible to have no position on a topic what so ever?
As soon as you are aware of a proposition, you start to form thoughts. Those thoughts are usually the 3 mentioned above, the positive attitude towards the P, the positive attitude towards the not P, the positive attitude towards neither P nor not P.
Sometimes you might have an accompanying emotional state to any of the above, like complete apathy or lack of care to which is actually correct, but you will still have one of the 3 attitudes.
The only way to be completely absent of belief is to be completely ignorant of the proposition.
Right now you probably are completely absent of belief about “It would take 2 tonnes of helium to make an elephant float” but now you have read that line you will have one of the 3 attitudes, belief, disbelief, nonbelief.
Summary of nonbelief
Whilst nonbelief, or unbelief, is not directly a belief, it is a belief position and a 2nd order belief. It is the belief in neither the proposition is true nor the proposition is not true. It is often linked to a first-order belief (e.g. the belief the theist has not fulfilled their burden of proof, combined with the belief that there isn’t anything to convince you the claim is not true either).
It is different from being completely absent of a belief, which can only really be achieved by having ignorance of a proposition.
Whilst nonbelief is not necessarily a belief as some might mean it, I think we can safely conclude that if you understand the logic behind the position it is a form of belief.
So, said earnestly rather than sarcastically, “Nonbelief is a belief, who new?”