Conflated and Misunderstood Terms – Volume 6: Unbelief and Disbelief

Unbelief (or non-belief) and disbelief are two words that seem to be conflated by many folks on the internet. I’m not sure if this is down to a misunderstanding of their definitions, or just due to how they are quite similar words.

I’ve recently written a few articles that are worth reading before this article, but are not a requirement.

These articles speak about the descriptive uses of “I don’t believe” and “disbelief” and what they mean when using normative logic.

Descriptively folks use the terms “I don’t believe” and “disbelief” to be more in that psychological state of withholding judgement and/or suspending belief.

I think this is actually partly due to a conflation between the terms “unbelief” and “disbelief”.

Let’s examine how these terms ought to be used. (aka their normative use)

Disbelief

When you say you don’t believe P, that is the same as disbelieving in P.

Disbelief in P is the same as a positive belief in not P.

Unbelief

If you are withholding/suspending your belief in P, that is the same as lacking belief. Essentially what you are saying here is you have no belief either way.

Rather than not believing P and therefore believing not P, you have no belief either way.

Disbelief vs Unbelief

Now that we have explained the difference in how these words ought to be used, it’s time to apply this to what we have learned in our previous articles.

A reminder on how logic is used in a dichotomous situation

Propositions
P1 – the light switch is on
Not P1 – the light switch is not on which forms P2
P2 – the light switch is off
(P2 is the same as not P1)

Answers
a) P1 is true – The light switch is on
b) P2 is true – the light switch is off
c) Withholding Judgement – Neither P1 or P2 are true or false

Beliefs
a) I believe answer a is true – I believe P1 is true
b) I believe answer b is true – I believe P2 is True
c) I believe answer c is true – I don’t know if either, nor believe neither P1 or P2 to be true or false (this could be due to lack of information or something else causing uncertainty)

Why should we use the rules of logic?
Davidian 

And we look at the beliefs portion of the above quote, a is a belief in P1, b is a disbelief in P1 therefore forming a belief in P2, and c is a state of unbelief in both P1 and P2.

Unbelief is not Disbelief

Whilst these words are similar, they do not mean the same thing. When it comes to propositions about the existence of god, disbelief in God’s existence is the same as a belief God does not exist. This is the classical atheist position.

When you say you don’t believe god exists, but don’t hold a belief god does not exist either, you’ve skipped over the logic and are using disbelief erroneously. In fact you mean “unbelief” because you are not making a judgement either way. This is the classical agnostic position. If you have got to this point and are about to argue that “agnostic only deals with knowledge” then I suggest you read some of the previous articles, and look into Huxley’s original position.

Summary

Whilst language does evolve, we atheists and sceptics claim to be the logical and rational people. If we are to be rational we should reason through the rules of logic. We should use the correct words, use the right definitions, and where a word might be polysemous, use the definition that ties it with the rules of logic.

References and Related Articles

  1. Why should we use the rules of logic?
  2. CMT5 – I Don’t Believe
  3. CMT2 – Atheism, Theism, Agnosticism
  4. Fresh AiR – Atheists and Atheism
  5. SEP – Atheism and Agnosticism
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