Dirty Words – Conflated and Misunderstood Terms Volume 4: Belief, Faith and Evidence

My fellow atheists and I often have extreme reactions to certain words*. I think due to the debate and some of the people we attribute them to, we have a knee jerk response. Whilst I understand why in some instances, it’s because we have a single minded view on the definition, in others it is due to a faulty definition or fallacy being used.

*in fact it is all humans, we are prone to these knee jerk reactions much in the way if someone accidentally steps on your toe you push them off.

We’ve covered other terms like Objective Morality, Evolution, Atheism, but this article is set to describe a number of words atheists and phrases tend to really dislike being used in conjunction with things they accept.

Belief

Belief has become a dirty word to some atheists. We think of it as something irrational, but really you can have a rational belief. We, as well as theists, conflate having a belief with being part of a belief system like religion. As such, anyone suggesting we believe something can put a dirty taste in our mouth.

blind-belief

If you remember in Conflated and Misunderstood terms 2 – I explained the burden of a belief is simply to explain the reason you believe a thing is true. Not to be confused with knowing something is true.

How do we use belief incorrectly?

I don’t believe in evolution, I accept the evidence.

Whilst evolution is not a belief system, the evidence convinces us it is true. We believe it to be true. The belief is supported by really strong evidence.

Do you believe the evidence supports the theory of evolution to be true?

Belief Definition

belief/bɪˈliːf noun

  1. a proposition we believe to be true.
  2. an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof.
  3. trust, faith, or confidence in (someone or something).

I understand the caveat “especially one without proof” which is why us atheists don’t like it. But the fact is, we have trust/confidence in the evidence for evolution. We accept it as true. We believe in evolution. It is not a dirty word.

OK, I’ll admit maybe “believe in evolution” might be poor phrasing if you’re going to be pedantic. You believe the evidence demonstrates the process of evolution. Or even; you believe evolution to be true. Come on though, arguing that minor semantic point seems quite pathetic.

I understand the want to separate evolution from a belief system like a religion, but we make ourselves sound foolish when we say “I don’t believe, I accept…”

Its the same with “believe in science” – basically what we are saying is we believe and can demonstrate that the scientific method is the best method of investigation we have. Again, science is not a belief system, but we can believe in the scientific method.

Faith

faith

Faith is another dirty word to atheists. The problem here again is because faith is tied to religion. Both theists and atheists alike don’t separate the difference between spiritual faith and the standard definition of faith.

How do we use faith incorrectly?

Faith is just trust minus evidence
Faith is just trust minus evidence with a hell of a lot of hope and wishful thinking thrown in
Faith is just trust minus evidence with the fear of death thrown in

I understand these definitions. I have said them myself. When speaking of religious faith I generally still think they are correct. But that is not the only definition of faith.

Faith Definition

faith/feɪθ noun

  1. complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
  2. strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.

Definition 2 is why we hate the word faith. It is not the only definition!

Consider this, “I have faith the bridge will not collapse as I drive over it”

Absolutely nothing to do with religion right? We don’t KNOW this bridge is going to collapse but we trust in the construction etc. By definition 1 of faith above, we have faith the bridge will not collapse.

We could even say we are believe the bridge will not collapse. That doesn’t mean we suddenly have a belief system around bridges collapsing, does it?

The point is, we don’t KNOW for definite this bridge won’t collapse. Our faith or belief, can be rationally explained and is JUSTIFIED thusly.

And that is the key difference between theistic faith and belief and other definitions. We just need to remember that there are different definitions for words, and instead of denying the use of certain words, clarify the definitions being used.

Evidence / That’s Not Evidence

This one is a bit of a trigger for me, as I frequently see it being used incorrectly by theists. Equally I, and other atheist’s frequently say “That’s not evidence” which isn’t always strictly true.

How do we use “That’s not evidence” incorrectly?

“…and then I felt a presence and knew it was God”
“that’s not evidence, it needs to be credible and verifiable”

What we are forgetting here is there are a number of different definitions for evidence. The above is “anecdotal” evidence.

Simply saying it is not evidence, is not strictly correct. It is incredibly weak subjective evidence. It is not credible or convincing at all.

How does Evidence get used incorrectly?

Your existence is evidence for God’s existence
Creation is evidence for God

Claim vs Evidence

See this is an example of what is being claimed to be evidence, not being evidence at all. The issue with it is, it is working from a conclusion and claiming these things support the conclusion. The conclusion here being God exists and that God created you/the world/the universe.

Evidence Definition

/ˈɛvɪd(ə)ns/ noun

  1. The available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.
  2. information drawn from personal testimony, a document, or a material object, used to establish facts in a legal investigation or admissible as testimony in a law court.
  3. signs or indications of something.

Types of Evidence

So to further the use of evidence it might be worth breaking down all the different types of evidence, and why it may or may not be credible.

1. Analogical Evidence

This kind of evidence can be useful for increasing credibility by drawing parallels when there isn’t enough information to prove something. Analogical evidence uses a comparison of things that are similar to draw an analogy.

This type of evidence is not strong but can help explain certain aspects of debate if someone is struggling to understand.

2. Anecdotal Evidence

Anecdotal evidence isn’t used in court, but can sometimes help to get a better picture of an issue. The biggest problem with this kind of evidence is that it is often “cherry picked” to present only anecdotes that support a particular conclusion. Consider it with skepticism, and in combination with other, more reliable, kinds of evidence.

Anecdotal evidence is incredibly weak, and often contradictary. Consider how many different people have felt their different gods and therefore know their god exists.

This is why Anecdotal evidence is not satisfactory in a theological debate.

3. Character Evidence

This is a testimony or document that is used to help prove that someone acted in a particular way based on the person’s character. 

This type of evidence doesn’t really apply to theological debate, except when you see folks claim “my god is completely moral” and you say “then why does your bible say he committed genocide? What about him torturing Job? Do you see genocide and torture as moral?”

4. Circumstantial Evidence

Also known as indirect evidence, this type of evidence is used to infer something based on a series of facts separate from the fact the argument is trying to prove. It requires a deduction of facts from other facts that can be proven and is not considered to be strong evidence.

Again with a big claim like the existence of God this is incredibly weak and should be avoided.

5. Demonstrative Evidence

An object or document is considered to be demonstrative evidence when it directly demonstrates a fact. It’s a common and reliable kind of evidence. Examples of this kind of evidence are photographs, video and audio recordings, charts, etc.

This would be incredibly strong evidence. Imagine if God just popped up on video and said hello and performed miracles? Whilst it might not necessarily prove that this was a god, it would at least add some strength to a God character existing. If only the Bible wasn’t filled with errors and taught people things that there was no way of them knowing with their level of technology at the time.

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