Saturday, July 23, 2011

Is atheism a belief?

By Mathew Goldstein

John Loftus argues that "atheism therefore is not a belief ..." in a 7/22 post titled "Once Again, Atheism is Not a Belief Nor a Religion" on his blog Debunking Christianity. This is wrong. Atheism certainly can be, and often is, a belief. Also, implicit in this argument that atheism is not a belief, which is usually made by atheists on behalf of atheism, is a mistaken notion that having beliefs is bad. Belief is an essential means to an end and as such a belief can be wrong or right, justified or unjustified. However, belief as a phenomena has no intrinsic property of being bad or good.

Beliefs are the basis for our making our decisions. We plan for tomorrow because we believe that tomorrow will follow after today. Beliefs are a property of being human. Every educated adult has thousands of beliefs. We are arguably born with certain basic beliefs, a result of evolution giving us the means to navigate our world and survive to eventually become experienced, educated adults. We can't eliminate the phenomena of beliefs anymore than we can eliminate the phenomena of chemistry and physics.

Mr. Loftus appears to incorrectly equate beliefs with religion. I think it should be obvious that while religion is rooted in beliefs, many beliefs have nothing to do with religion. Mr. Loftus is correct when he says that atheism is not a religion. Indeed, modern atheism tends to have an anti-religion orientation. Serious followers of ancient philosophical Eastern religions that were initially atheistic have tended to add theistic beliefs to those traditions whereas today's atheists are probably going to be less likely to take such religious traditions seriously as having any special merit over more modern and competing philosophies that are better rooted in modern knowledge. But it doesn't follow that atheism is not a belief.

Atheists can, and do, believe that there are no gods. I don't think an insistence that everyone say we don't believe in gods and stop there is either realistic or proper, nor is doing that what atheism is all about. When the overall direction of evidence weighs in favor of a conclusion we shouldn't shy away from that conclusion just because by asserting a conclusion we are taking sides. There is nothing wrong with taking sides. Having a belief, as long as the belief is properly justified by the available evidence, is not a mistake, its not a problem. The mistake, in the context of holding beliefs, is not following the evidence, which is synonymous with having unjustified beliefs.

Having no belief where a belief is justified is thus also a mistake. The evidence always comes first, the belief is compelled from the evidence. We don't choose our properly justified beliefs. The evidence chooses our beliefs, all we can do is follow. If we find that the evidence is positively against X then it follows accordingly that we positively believe that X is false and we should say so. Refusing to take a position in the name of having no beliefs is not a way of upholding an ethical value. On the contrary, its the mirror image of the mistake of having a belief where no belief is warranted and is equally wrong.

People who don't take the disciplined approach of basing their beliefs in the overall evidence, people for whom adopting belief is a method of self-defining oneself, are going to be promiscuous in adopting beliefs. Anyone who embraces the notion that it is one of the highest virtues to rely on faith, and thus important to avoid being constrained by the evidence, is clearly taking a promiscuous approach to adopting beliefs. Taking such a promiscuous approach to adopting beliefs is a mistake simply because we have excellent reason to think beliefs not anchored in the evidence are most likely false. While it is true that we do define ourselves in part by our beliefs, it doesn't follow that we should adopt beliefs for the purpose of defining ourselves. On the contrary, it is a common, and big, mistake to adopt our true/false beliefs about how the world beyond ourselves functions for the self-centered, inward focused, purpose of self-definition.

We should be trying to hold our beliefs in proportion to the evidence, without bias, so that our belief is weaker where the evidence is ambiguous and our belief is stronger where the evidence is unequivocal. If we see no direction to the evidence with respect to answering a question then we should have no belief. Sometimes we need to make decisions, but the need to make decisions doesn't always correspond well with the availability of relevant evidence. So in those situations we may need to rely on intuition, on faith, and the like. Due to the misfortune of such necessity, we rely on intuition, as an inferior fall-back, to make decisions. As a practical matter, we are often operating with incomplete and/or ambiguous evidence. Also, the available evidence can be misleading. So some humility regarding what we know is called for. A common mis-perception is that atheism requires unwarranted certainty, when in fact atheism only requires that the overall weight and direction of the available evidence favor the conclusion that there are no gods.

It is common to refer to non-believing atheists as weak atheists and believing atheists as strong atheists. The terms weak and strong suggest a strength of conviction continuem, but this is more of an either one or also the other choice (believing atheists also don't believe there is a god, we just don't stop with that). I prefer the terms implicit atheist and explicit atheist. The non-believing atheist is an atheist implicitly while the believing atheist is an atheist explicitly. In practice, as demonstrated by Mr. Loftus's blog article, implicit and explicit atheists don't necessarily have any real disagreement about the overall direction of the evidence. Mr. Loftus actually states in his article that "the evidence is against that belief", he just isn't willing to acknowledge that when the evidence is actively against an assertion then we rationally believe the assertion is false, we don't normally or properly stop at merely refusing to believe the assertion, nor should we stop there.


Don Wharton said...

There are literally millions of people who could be called apathists because they are not inspired by religion and have put equally little energy into debunking religion. There are a great many self-identified atheists who assert that the term simply means a lack of theism. If such an atheist were to ask an apathist if he or she were an atheist it is quite likely that the apathist would agree that the term atheist applied because the apathist was able to understand what theism is and that he or she did not have it.

However, the apathist being apathetic has put so little energy into this area that it could not be said that there is a belief implied about god.

It is simply not true that a lack of belief in god implies with certainty that there is a belief that there is no god. The two often go together but not in all cases.

What we have here is a bettle over linguistics. None of us own the English language. If we knew with certainty what the words meant we would know what they mean. However, different people for whatever reason wish to find different meanings in words. That is empicically the nature of the society in which we live.

Explicit Atheist said...

I have no problem when people define atheism broadly as lack of belief in gods. When people then say that atheism is not a belief they are overgeneralizing and going too far. I say atheism surely can be a belief, and for some people atheism surely is a belief. Again, if the overall weight of the evidence is positively against X then we should positively believe that X is false. I cannot separate my belief that there are no gods from my lack of belief in gods, they are inseparable, with the latter being nothing more than a corollary of the former, and I don't think I am alone in this regard.

Don Wharton said...

I fully agree that atheism can consist of a belief that there is no God in a given person. However, I disagree that those who chose the less strict definition are over generalizing. They would just say that those who also assert that there is no God are just a proper subset of all atheists with a consistent belief added to their atheism. Such people are not crazy.

I fully agree that the overall weight of the evidence is positively against X then we should positively believe that X is false. Obviosly I agree that this applies to any traditional interpretation of the Christian God.

I also fully agree with your assertion that, "I cannot separate my belief that there are no gods from my lack of belief in gods, they are inseparable, with the latter being nothing more than a corollary of the former, and I don't think I am alone in this regard."

The problem that I have with your position is that I know of people who make the distinction that you cannot make. Do you want to make the claim that such people do not exist or that their use of language is outside of the acceptable bounds of the English language?

rwahrens said...

I have no doubt that you may be describing some atheists. It is such a large group that covers so many different beliefs and ideals that it is truly hard to nail down just what one is.

I know that to me, being an atheist is not a belief, any more than I can be a a-leprican or an a-fairy. I don't think either one of those are real, not because I have proof they don't exist, but because I've never seen evidence that they do.

I've never seen evidence of alien life either, so, am I an a-alien? That isn't a belief, but an acknowledgement that no evidence exists that they do. So I don't think they exist.

Which is why I don't think god exists. That isn't a belief, but a lack of one. It isn't an "I believe god doesn't exist", but an "I don't think he does.", which is not a belief, but how I think about that subject.

To use the word "believe", is to express faith, which is the way that word is most often used in the US. I don't "have faith" that god doesn't exist. I don't think he does, in the same way that I don't think the sky is candy apple red - because I've never seen a candy apple red sky, nor have I seen a god.

If I ever do see a candy apple red sky, even then, I won't use the word believe, but then I will KNOW that the sky is red. Just like if I ever do see god, I'll KNOW he exists.

But I won't hold my breath for either one.

Explicit Atheist said...

rwharens, of course we don't have "proof", but proof is an entirely unreasonable standard when we are talking about beliefs. I don't talk about proof here because that is irrelevant in this context. Proof is found in mathematics, and logic, and measurements, and beyond that the concept of proof has little utility. Talking about not having proof in the context of theism and atheism is misdirected.

The issue here is evidence, not proof, and we do have evidence. We are collecting evidence every day simply by being awake and experiencing our lives. Furthermore, we are building on the evidence generation after generation, and that evidence has implications about the way the world works.

We have evidence about beliefs generally, about the origins of beliefs, about religious belief in particular, including about god beliefs, and also about how the work works, about origins of life, about the nature of mind, etc.. that allows to pose and respond to questions like this: Does the evidence favor the conclusion that mind is immaterial? That life was created by an intelligent actor? That god beliefs are non-fictional? The weight of the available evidence favors the no answer to such questions. You may be failing to acknowledge the fact that this weight of the evidence evaluation of such questions is why we are atheists, but I say this is why atheists are atheists. We look around, we collect and evaluate the evidence, and on that basis we reach conclusions. These conclusions are our beliefs. We do this all the time. We reach our conclusions on the basis of our evaluation of the evidence this way with regard to Leprechauns, with regard to fairies, with regard to gods, with regard to alien life, with regard to the color of the sky, and much more.

Now with regard to alien life, we do have evidence about the conditions required for life to form, about whether those conditions exist elsewhere in the universe, and the like. On that basis, I disagree with your belief that alien life does not exist. In my view the weight of the evidence is that multi-cellular life may be somewhat difficult to get started but single celled life is not so difficult to get started and probably exists elsewhere in the universe, particularly given how immense in size the universe is.

I really don't understand your distinction between "how I think about the subject" and your having a "belief". As far as I can see there is absolutely no difference whatsoever between the two. Your insistence that you lack the latter when you express the former makes no sense to me at all.

It is just plain wrong to say that the word "believe" is synonymous with faith. Belief can be justified on the evidence or be unjustified faith. If it is often utilized in the latter sense that is because many people are not properly justifying their beliefs in the evidence, which is indeed a problem. But artificially eliminating the word belief from our vocabulary doesn't help remedy this popularity of faith based beliefs problem.

We have evidence that the sky is not candy apple red - we can measure the wavelength spectrum of the light from the sky and determine that the intensity is highest in the 500-550 nanometer range, and that evidence is the basis for our conclusion about the color of the sky. In this case we can assert knowledge and proof because color is measurable.

Explicit Atheist said...

Don Wharton:

"The problem that I have with your position is that I know of people who make the distinction that you cannot make. Do you want to make the claim that such people do not exist or that their use of language is outside of the acceptable bounds of the English language?"

Of course such people exist. I just think some of the people drawing that distinction are making a mistake much like I think that science and religion take conflicting approaches to establish what is true even though there are many religious scientists. To put this another way, the popularity of an assertion, the existence of people who make an assertion, doesn't establish the assertion is good or strong on the merits. Merit is what is important, I insist on merit as the standard. I dislike and disagree with post-modern relativism where its all about accepting everything that someone assert because nothing can have more merit than anything else and we don't want to risk upsetting anyone by disagreeing with them - or something like that.

Don Wharton said...

Mathew, thanks for getting a good discussion going. I think we are in agreement that the merit of the logic and evidence is what we wish to consider when we determine the facts of our universe. However, I am not sure that is the basis of of this discussion.

It seems that the various terms we are using have more than a little wiggle room to encode different meanings and usages. Perhaps any differences we have are purely ones of language. In that case what is reasonable given the evidence might be irrelevant. It is not as if I wish to agree with people who legitimately agree that they are atheists but have no beliefs concerning God. The question is then in our language is this really "atheism."

Explicit Atheist said...

Don, I appreciate your comments, you are a thoughtful person. I just want to point out that my commentary is responding to commentary written by Mr. Loftus and I don't think Mr. Loftus is an "apatheist". A problem here is that when people like Mr Loftus, whatever label we attached to his viewpoint, keep saying that atheism is not a belief that sort of leaves those of us who say we believe there is no god in a sort of no-mans-land limbo. Furthermore, I think the problem here with "no beliefs" goes beyond that. I think there is a conceptual confusion inherent in the argument that when the evidence is against X then the conclusion that follows is that X is not true which is thus not a belief because its not the same as conclusion that X is false and therefore we don't need to make any effort to justify this "non-belief" because it is just a default position.

Vincent said...

I don't know who you are but I am guessing you have a background in math or science. The words you claim to have specific meanings don't have those meanings in all instances. The meanings you assign are the defined meanings for mathematics and the standard usage in sciences but outside those fields could have very different meanings.
My background is in the law. Words are my tool of the trade. I can give you at least a half-dozen different meanings for "prove" depending on the situation.

This is why it is important to get past the labels and explain your meaning. Define your terms before getting into the merits of your arguments.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

I like the distinctions that Mathew makes on this issue and prefer to talk about the element of belief in atheism and other positions. I offer some distinctions and points of view.

The first is to frame belief (with a small b) in terms of a Cognitive model. “Think” and “belief” are very related and it is possible to talk about each of them as part of a cognitive system that has been developed through evolution. We, as products of evolution, are refined to have adaptive advantage. Our cognitive system allows us to causally model events in space and time and anticipate actions and situations. Often we have had to do this on incomplete information and knowledge. Under dynamic circumstances hypotheses and beliefs can be very useful. And we are flexible enough to get rid of the ones that don’t work. Or humans that didn’t died off as a result.

But what evolution has yielded in us does not need to be realistically correct or true in the sense that there are not other interpretations. It has a tentativeness and arbitrariness at times that we have to live with. It seems to be the case that sense data is interpreted by the cognitive system. So there is no red category of colors that exist in the real world. Evolution gave us a system that sees in this “red” region of the spectrum. And some objects of importance (food, prey, predators, sexual partner lips etc.) reflect in this region. A good representation of the real world gives us adaptive advantage because it allows us to hunt for prey and avoid predators. Long after this adaptation we invented culture find it useful to attach a label we have constructed to a specific range of wavelength.

Belief is one of the cognitive artifacts we use in our thought process along with plans, goals, intentions etc. Psychologists have studied the development of each in children and others in animals. We have the makings of a general model. What we are talking about here is individual belief about things that would have mattered as part of an evolutionary process. This is before culture developed explicit philosophers who would argue about the relationship between Knowledge and Belief. Later Socrates, Descartes, Plato, Popper etc. built on each other to make their own beautifully philosophical constructions. But most of the time we aren’t dipping into this philosophical body of knowledge too deeply. Sometimes we get asymmetrical debates because people are using different philosophical source frames to discuss what we mean by a term like belief. As the discussion showed we can find many different beliefs about belief as we do this and we can get lost and miss an opportunity to reach a stable base of understanding. Often we quickly get away from the everyday experience of belief. We get very abstract and beyond most people’s operating and informal epistemology and ontology. Over a 100 years ago Clifford in 'the Ethics of Belief' did a good job talk about justified or honestly earned, true beliefs, epistemology, the limits of inference and the responsibility of the person to work at knowing and not just accepting any old claim. Mathew did a good job of providing a concise view of some of that.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

A 2nd point is this:

Another thing to consider is that we are often talking about Belief with a capital B. That’ a macro type of belief held by a community. It could be a religious community or a secular one. This is more about the Sociology of Belief than the Psychology of belief. In some ways communities operate similarly and beliefs can be talked about and passed along. But the basis of belief in the 2 communities can be very different and Mathew has done a good job in talking about the basis of justified beliefs. There probably is a way to understand how micro-beliefs and macro-Beliefs play together, but it seems pretty complicated just like in the micro-Macro interactions in economics.
Just as in Religious communities the secular and atheist community can have many sub-communities denominations of particular belief and principles. Don's apathists would be one, but they are pretty informal communities in comparison to the organized religious ones. They exist more on the ideational realm than the physically organized realm. This gives them/us more room to differ.

Explicit Atheist said...

Vincent, we are not discussing this in a legal context.

Some people try to defend a refusal to take a position on this or that question, in non-legal contexts, on the spurious grounds that we don't have "proof". I keep trying to communicate the notion that all we need is overall weight of the evidence for our beliefs to be properly justified. We don't need certain, complete, indisputable, and therefore completely impractical and unachievable "proof" to properly justify reaching a particular (non-legal) conclusion. Lacking "proof" is not a good or sufficient reason for refusing to reach a particular conclusion in a non-legal context. To me, this insistence on "proof" is like holding on to the handlebars too tightly when learning to ride a bicycle. Loosen up people, stop insisting on this completely unrealistic and impossible "proof" standard as a bad excuse for claiming that no conclusion is warranted or possible on a particular question. We reach conclusions on a weight of the evidence basis all the time, we reach conclusions for lots of questions without "proof". These weight of the evidence conclusions are our beliefs. There is nothing wrong or incorrect or mistaken with our doing this.

lucette said...

I have a legal question for Vincent.

Could the prominent posting in government offices of the isolated word "BELIEVE" be constitutional, in terms of the Separation of Church and State?

I have seen more than 10 of these "BELIEVE" displayed on government office windows in such a way that they could and would be read from the street.

My interpretation is that the action was similar to the replacement of creationism with intelligent design in the school textbooks.

Please be brief, if you answer at all. LOL

Explicit Atheist said...

lucette, it depends on the details. I am not a lawyer, but my understanding is that, generally speaking, displays in an employees own work space which are visible from street level windows are not going to be considered to be governmental displays that are therefore subject to legal restrictions. Instead, they will be considered to be the individual, personal display of the employee. Restrictions on displaying some types of messages apply to those areas inside government buildings that are open to the public and also common areas for employees. In that case a complaint could get it removed.

lucette said...

My question really has two parts. It is a legal question but also a question concerning the meaning of the message in these displays. What is the message in "BELIEVE"? To me it is a religious, but is there a possibility to deny that religious interpretation? For instance by suggesting that it means believe in the pink unicorn, the teapot in the sky, witches, and whatever you please. Or believe in intelligent design?

Explicit Atheist said...

Well, from my point of view, which I consider to be a broadly secular (not an atheist) point of view in this context, belief can be unjustified or justified, and having beliefs for the sake of believing is a mistake, it is wrong, it contradicts basic common sense secular values. I do consider that to be a religiously motivated message and it appears to be intended as such. It is not a work related message. Like the monotheism in the Pledge, and Motto, it may be inclusive of many different, competing, and clashing religious beliefs, but it is religious in nature and it does exclude minority viewpoints. Accordingly, I think that non-establishment restrictions are applicable for that message. obviously, my point of view on non-establishment isn't the law as it is actually practiced here in the U.S. in all respects (because our laws as practiced in this area fall short of what the legal principle articulates).

lucette said...

We agree on that. Thanks.

Vincent said...

Your instincts are right that the government employees from the pulpit (windows) of their office cannot endorse religion.

Do you live in Baltimore? The Believe signs all over Baltimore the first time I went there confused me no end. Believe what? I did not automatically connect it to religion, though the thought did cross my mind.

Truth is it means "believe in a better Baltomore - one without all the drug street crime".
It was started by Mayor O'Malley in 2002 and was funded by the city. It began after a family of 7 who had spoken up against the local drug dealer were found burned alive in their home.

There is nothing inherently religious about believing. We all believe or we couldn't function. It's whether or not we have reason to believe that matters.

rwahrens said...


Sorry for taking longer to get back, but:

" Lacking "proof" is not a good or sufficient reason for refusing to reach a particular conclusion in a non-legal context. To me, this insistence on "proof" is like..."

Why not? If I cannot see sufficient evidence (or "proof"), I am not going to be persuaded to a particular viewpoint. In this case, in the existence of a god. It isn't insisting on proof, but failing to be persuaded by NO proof!

That is NOT "believing" that a god does not exist, but it IS failing to believe it does. It is, in short, continuing to think, as I noted in my earlier post, that there is no god.

There is a distinction.

Don Wharton said...

There are two categories of proof. The logical proofs of mathematics and scientific proofs where the balance of the evidence is what matters. If we define our terms more clearly we will know what is being communicated.

Don Wharton said...

@Gary thanks for your thoughtful addition to this discussion. The limits of people’s operating and informal epistemology and ontology might be a good topic for a discussion group or chapter meeting.

Vincent said...

Perhaps you missed my post. I can point to many other kinds of proof in a legal setting specifically, but it's not as if the law invented uses of the word - they are all common uses. I actually think science and math use proof in much closer ways than to general conversation.
Perhaps math is unique though, in its use of "proof" to mean an absolute must be kind of way.
I looked into this word after having a confusing discussion with someone about proof before realizing he was trained in mathematics and I in law and the word had a very definite meaning in math and a very situational meaning in law.
Science tends toward the mathematical definition lately, though I suppose it used to have the original meaning of testing - the proof of the pudding is in the tasting or the exception that proves (puts to the test) the rule.

lucette said...

Don, Concerning your declaration: "There are two categories of proof. The logical proofs of mathematics and scientific proofs where the balance of the evidence is what matters," I would be interested in your proof or evidence, or sources. I am an incorrigible skeptic. LOL.

lucette said...

Vincent, Your comment: "Perhaps math is unique though, in its use of "proof" to mean an absolute must be kind of way.", you might be interested in a book by Hofstadter: "Goedel, Escher, Bach: The golden braid". It discusses the limitations of proofs in mathematics. The book is very hard to read but it explains that things are not as simple as we think. And concerning your comment: "Science tends toward the mathematical definition lately, though I suppose it used to have the original meaning of testing - the proof of the pudding is in the tasting or the exception that proves (puts to the test) the rule.", I think that the new book by Hawking and Mlodinow, "The Grand Design" shows an example of science by mathematical model. However, the validity of the model has not be proven. It is the best they can do right now, it is based on a lot of assumptions, and we are not able to design experiments to test the models at this time. I hope this clarifies a little the nature of scientific and mathematical proofs.