When people say “I don’t believe” it is unclear what they are saying. When many folks say this, they are discussing a psychological state rather than disbelief in a normative logical sense.
But what does that mean?
Logic and Belief Propositions
By belief proposition I am essentially saying believing a proposition to be true, or an attitude towards a particular proposition. A belief is something you accept to be true.
In logic you essentially have:
P1 – a proposition you believe to be true
Not P1 – a proposition you believe to be false
Edit: I’ve included the image above to provide a more complete overview of the logical process from my article “Why should we use the rules of logic” – I had purposefully kept this article to the belief in the propositions portion which I felt I had explained, however this was a critique I got from a few whom did not fully understand the logical process, and as such have updated this article to include it.
The not P1 becomes its own proposition, P2, e.g. “I don’t believe x is true” becomes “I believe x is not true.”
So classical Theism is defined as; Belief God(s) exist.
(Or we could say the belief the proposition “god exists” is true)
And classical Atheism is defined as; Belief God(s) does not exist. 1
(Or we could say the belief the proposition “god does not exist” is true)
This is because, in normative logic, I don’t believe theism is true, or I don’t believe God(s) exist becomes a belief God(s) do not exist.
Yes there are many different definitions of Atheism today. Let’s not get caught up on those right now. If you are interested I have covered this from the original Atheos2 to the modern “lack belief” here: CMT Vol 2: Atheism, Theism, Agnosticism.
So that’s the basic logic covered, now what?
If you have followed the logic above, you understand there is a binary nature of belief, however what I haven’t covered is a 3rd option. The “I don’t know what to believe” which is a oversimplification of the classical agnostic position.
Many folks think Agnosticism deals only with knowledge, but that wasn’t how it was originally coined1 . Essentially you don’t have enough knowledge to know if either Atheism or Theism is true, and therefore believe NEITHER to be TRUE or FALSE.
Now here is the bit where it gets confusing. You could say an agnostic also doesn’t believe in God’s existence. Whilst their position is a complete fence sitter, not willing to believe one way or another aka withholding or suspending belief, their psychological state could be said that they do not believe in a deity.
This is where you will get folks saying things like “I don’t believe God exists is different to I believe God does not exist”
Logic vs Psychology
The truth is, logically speaking, they are the same. Psychologically speaking they are not. When many say they “don’t believe” what they mean is they are “withholding” or “suspending” belief. Whilst they are both psychological states, one is using the rules of logic to answer a proposition, the other is just providing a psychological state.
If you are saying you don’t believe god exists, but also don’t hold the belief that Gods do not exist, you’re (essentially) an agnostic.
I think this is where the confusion first arose and the term “Agnostic Atheist” first came about.
Deconstructing Agnostic Atheism
The first mistake is thinking agnostic only relates to knowledge – “I don’t know if a god exists” and then using a purely psychological description rather than logical answer on the belief portion “I don’t believe in gods”.
Of course, if you understand the classical positions for what they are, you’ll understand that what is referred to as ‘Agnostic Atheism’ is no different from agnosticism. (At least, not really when analysed logically, although there are arguably psychological differences)
We can also laugh at if we take a more literal view of the term ‘agnostic atheism’, it essentially means; “I don’t know if I believe gods do not exist” but obviously that isn’t what people mean by it.
Lacking belief in Gods as a Definition of Atheism
The above is also why the modern “lack belief” definition of atheism has issues too. It essentially another version of suspending belief. Lacking belief tells us nothing of what you DO believe. Lack is also ambiguous. If I lack the butter to cover my toast, that doesn’t mean I have no butter, perhaps I have enough for half a slice?
I think the “lack belief” came about in the last 10-15 years or so ago on the internet, but may have first been inspired by Flew in 723 where he tried to change the ‘A’ in atheism to mean WITHOUT instead of NOT.
I do accept that language evolves and has become that, but I do find these modern definitions used by so many on the internet muddy the water.
When explaining the difference between normative logic and the descriptive use of “I don’t believe” many folks do not accept there is a distinction. I am not sure why they will only accept the psychological state, but perhaps there is an opinion that if I am saying they are not using the phrase using the rules of normative logic, they think I am saying they are illogical?
Something thrown around is the gum-ball analogy, so I figured I would update this post to include it.
Here is a Gum-ball machine. You tell me there are an odd number of gum-balls in there. I say I don’t believe you. That doesn’t mean I think there are an even number of gum-balls in there.
What is being described here is the (purely) psychological state of disbelief. It is actually more withholding belief in either proposition till you have more information. This is a classical agnostic position towards the number of gum-balls in the machine.
Think of this – if there are gum-balls in the machine there can only be an even or odd number – it is dichotomy:
P1 – There are an odd number of gum-balls
Not P1 – There are NOT an odd number of gum-balls (this then becomes P2)
P2 – There are an even number of gum-balls
So in logic, if you say ” I don’t believe P1 is true” it would mean it would follow suit that you believe P2 is true.
If you are saying just because I don’t believe in P1 doesn’t mean I believe P2 either, essentially you are committing a logical error. You did not say you don’t know or you were unsure, you said you don’t believe P1. The number of gum-balls is dichotomous. It cannot be both. It cannot be none (unless we empty the machine but then you would be able to see that).
This is essentially a framing error, using ‘I don’t believe’ to describe your cognitive state; it means you are not accepting either P1 or P2 to be true or false. You are withholding, or suspending belief in either proposition until you have more information. You are remaining agnostic on the number of gum-balls in the machine.
You can see here the difference between following the rules of logic, and how someone might be describing their cognitive state without fully answering the question.
So when an atheist says, “Just because I don’t believe P1: Gods exist, doesn’t mean I believe P2: God’s do not exist” they are again speaking descriptively of a psychological/cognitive state in which they are withholding belief rather than having a positive belief either way. And here we have the problem, because that is essentially the classical agnostic position, as described.
A this is why “I don’t believe” is unclear. Many people do not use it in to speak as an attitude to a proposition. They say they “don’t believe” but they mean they are “unsure”, “undecided”, “don’t have enough information to believe either way” which is different. Not being in a state of belief is not the same as not believing in something, but it is how folks use it to describe their cognitive/psychological state.
I don’t believe, I accept what is most probable.
We frequently see in the sceptic/atheist community folks saying things like “I hold no beliefs”, or “I don’t believe, I know” or “I don’t believe anything is true, I accept what the most probable outcome will be”
These are all statements that actually do not make sense.
Whilst there are many definitions on a belief, especially modern ones you might find on an internet dictionary, the core definition of a belief is:
Something you accept as/believe to be true. 4
It is that simple. Beliefs are split up into 3 main categories; rational, irrational, and arational.
- Rational: logical reasoning, no evidence against the belief.
“I believe the bridge will not collapse as I go over it.”
- Irrational: an illogical belief e.g. holding a belief even after given evidence against said belief, or not using any logical reasoning.
“my friend said”, “The earth is 6000 years old even though all the evidence points to it being much older.”
- Arational: no reasoning required. Not holding an attitude towards a proposition. A sensory state.
“I believe I like the taste of chocolate”
We explain this in more detail in our Podcast, so I won’t bore you by expanding further.
I only believe things that are proven to be true!
Another thing you often hear is “I only believe things that are proven to be true” but there are many things we don’t know will be true until after they have happened. For example you don’t know each time you get on the tube that the tunnels won’t collapse. It is rational to believe you should be safe, the construction etc. however we don’t know that the structural integrity hasn’t weakened to the point where it will collapse on the next train that goes through. To say you know it is true that you will be safe based on past experience is the black swan fallacy. As discussed in our podcasts we are induction machines. It is perfectly natural. You either believe you will be safe or you don’t, but it is something that will not be the same every time for all eternity.
So why do folks have this aversion to belief?
There are a few reasons
- Religious connotations
- Misunderstanding the burden of proof
- Erroneous definitions
Religious connotations of Belief
As atheists/sceptics we might find ourselves in regular debate with theists. Many statements and arguments presented are fallacious. Claims are asserted without evidence, or even asserted as evidence for something they are not. Whilst I do think it is possible for someone to have a rational belief in a deity, it is rare to find a rational theist on the internet.
As such, a Cognitive Bias forms against belief. You start thinking all beliefs are irrational, and because you see yourself as rational, you don’t want to be linked to belief.
You start to say things like “I don’t believe x, I accept the evidence that supports it”
I’ve said it myself, and it is quite funny. You don’t realise how silly you sound till you finally have that “click” moment. You realise a belief is something you hold to be true. Accepting the evidence is believing it is true. DOH.
Unfortunately pride can prevent people from admitting they are wrong. Even if people realise they were wrong they might still keep touting the same nonsense because they feel they cannot back down. This is known as a “sunk cost” fallacy.
Misunderstanding the Burden of Proof on a Belief
The burden on proof on a belief is just to make it rational. That is all. You are not making a knowledge claim, you are just saying you believe something.
My burden, for my belief god(s) do not exist is – There is an overwhelming lack of evidence to support any deities existence. There are a number of errors in all holy books, historical and scientific inaccuracies, the fact apologetics is needed to “excuse” these issues and models that show how a creator is not needed etc.
Unfortunately many folks in the debate, on either side, think that you have to supply firm evidence to support your belief.
No, only reasoning that supports it to be rational. Now if you hold a positive belief in the literal 6 day creation myth, that goes against reality, against the evidence, it is irrational to hold that belief as true.
But, if you are trying to convince someone of your belief, then having strong, credible, convincing evidence is the way to do it. Unless it is a child, they tend to believe any fantasy taught to them. Jesus, Santa, Tooth Fairy etc.
Knowledge is where the burden of proof becomes a real burden. This is where you need to supply credible evidence. Otherwise, have you really justified it as true?
Erroneous definitions of Belief
Many folks use erroneous definitions of belief and faith like:
“accepting something as true without evidence”
“believing something without proof”
“believing something against the evidence”
As discussed, the definition of a belief is something you accept as true. A belief is then qualified with a rational state. What folks are arguing against is an irrational belief.
Simply put, there is a certain arrogance that is held among many sceptics/atheists.
Because a sceptic/atheist tends to be more rational, and holds the more rational position, many assume that anything they say or do is rational. Which ironically is an irrational assumption (or belief).
This arrogance leads to accepting any or all of the 3 above options without question, and say things like “I don’t believe, I know”. It is assuming you are better than those who hold beliefs, and assuming you know better that someone who has the correct definition of a belief.
When people say “I don’t believe” they usually mean they are suspending belief. It is best to ask them what they mean.
Many who identify as atheist, actually fit the classical agnostic position but it isn’t a discussion worth having. Let them call themselves what they want. Languages change, and most atheists on the internet are very rigid in their internet “lack belief” or “lacktheist” definition.
When people say they “don’t hold any beliefs” or similar, they often don’t understand what they are saying. They are using an erroneous definition and often won’t accept the correct one. From the number of discussions I have had on this – it is best to move on.
Related Articles / Podcasts
- CMT Vol 2: Atheism, Theism, Agnosticism
- Fresh AiR – Atheists and Atheism
- Fresh AiR – Belief, Truth and Knowledge
- Draper, P. (2017) ‘Atheism and Agnosticism’ in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Online]. Available at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheism-agnosticism/ (Accessed 7 June 2019.)
- ἄθεος (Atheos) https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E1%BC%84%CE%B8%CE%B5%CE%BF%CF%82?fbclid=IwAR1N0sLeE3cyN7SHZSe91o2wjK3vS2pJkXEvfdP-9OC1wKWMLclqBQmt-fc
- Antony Flew (1972) ‘The Presupposition of Atheism’
Available at: http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~ekremer/resources/Flew%20The%20Presumption%20of%20Atheism.pdf
- Belief in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosphy [Online]. Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/belief/