TOP Q: What Does It Most Decisively Mean To Believe, Disbelieve, or Lack Belief?

Believing and not believing are not simple things. There are ways to cognitively believe, disbelieve, and refrain from believing. But functionally there are ways to effectively act as though one believed, disbelieved, or refrained from believing.

There are at least two broad kinds of avowed atheists who take two distinct kinds of stances on the status of their belief. One is the atheist in the widest possible sense—one who claims to passively lack any belief in any gods by simply refraining from believing in them rather than outright making a metaphysical claim that “gods do not exist”. The other broad kind of avowed atheist also lacks belief in all gods but is willing to say she either disbelieves in gods or believes (or even knows) based on the preponderance of evidence that there are no gods.

These distinctions matter a lot to many atheists. Interestingly, the atheists who these distinctions matter to in particular seem to place a special priority on the primacy of conscious assent to belief or deliberate abstention from belief. I, for example, am one of those who is willing to make a metaphysical claim. I know there is no Yahweh or Allah or any other personal god who intervenes in history. It is a matter of principle to me to apportion belief to my most scrupulously formed perception of the evidence. The evidence to me is overwhelming that there are no such gods and therefore I think it only appropriate to explicitly deny the proposition “Some personal god who intervenes in the natural and/or social worlds of humans exists.” Other atheists who refrain from belief either hold a different epistemic standard for affirmation of beliefs or they assess the weight of evidence differently than I do. They tend to be more agnostic in their atheism. They tend to think they should not affirm in lieu of some sort of absolute certainty. (I think that standard is epistemologically and pragmatically untenable.)

Interestingly, the differences in the ways we are atheists (whether as deniers or as those who agnostically refrain from affirmations and denial) has some limited set of contexts in which there are functional differences to the ways our non-belief work. In other ways we are functionally the same, though. Many self-professed agnostic atheists who are at pains to stress that they only “lack belief” and make no stronger claims than that, nonetheless behave just as assuredly as any gnostic atheist might when it comes to denouncing, ridiculing, or combating religious ideas, for example. So, what does the pretense of restraint in matters of assent really effectively amount to in such cases? If you will functionally think and act as though nearly certain that there are no gods, what is it really worth that explicitly you say you “merely lack belief”. Should we take your assertions at face value in such cases? What would be the real world, brass tacks, differences by which someone’s lines of argument or her behaviors could demonstrate that she merely lacked beliefs but did not outright disbelieve? Should we just classify people by what their words say in matters of belief or can their functional behaviors undermine their self-identifications?

Sometimes theists and atheists alike will recognize cognitive dissonance in others such that functionally some believers do not seem to really believe. Their behaviors are not those of people who were utterly and completely convinced of their religious beliefs. If religious believers, for example, really believed in the deepest and most unshakable ways that they were being watched by God at all times, could they ever commit certain sins? For example, if they believed God disapproved of certain sex acts they engaged in, would they perform them with a physically manifest God sitting there in the room with them? That sort of brazenness from the intellectually and emotionally devout would be nearly impossible to fathom. Yet despite both truly cognitively believing that God is always watching and that He deeply disapproves of their behavior, sometimes they do what they think is wrong anyway. Functionally they are doing things that if they could see God in the room they would never do with Him there. Yet, even truly believing God is in the room, not seeing Him, they act as though He’s not there. Is this evidence that not-seeing leads to functional disbelief under certain circumstances, regardless of their express beliefs? And do such functional disbeliefs betray that to some extent, some part of them does not believe, no matter how cognitively gripped they are in a certain affirmation of belief?

Examples could multiply of cognitive dissonances in believers’ minds. To what extent do their normal fears of death and deep mourning of lost ones they ostensibly believe in heaven betray functional disbelief in heaven? To what extent do modern believers’ myriad selective readings of religious texts betray functional disbelief in either the book or in their modern values? Where there is a cognitive dissonance does that betray two cases of functional disbelieving, one for each of the beliefs which is being contradicted by one’s practice or other thoughts?

To turn the tables on us atheists, can we ever tip our hands as functionally believing against our intentions? If in a moment of panic, a voice pops up in the atheist’s head and says, “Maybe we should pray!” or “Oh no, what if God is punishing me?!” does this mean that some part of that atheist effectively still believes? If the atheist reminds himself immediately of all the decisive reasons for disbelief and squelches such habitual remnant thoughts as false and to be ignored, does this mean that he is completely an atheist but not functionally, subconsciously, and against his own will even conflicted?

The ultimate question here is to what extent are “atheist” or “theist” labels most truthfully applied from a third person perspective, as an assessment of functional believing thoughts and behaviors, and to what extent is whatever someone professes to believe, disbelieve, or refrain from believing about truthfully definitive. Should we say that some people are avowed theists but functional atheists or vice versa? Is it only polite deference to others’ rights to speak for their own conscience that makes us identify others as they want to identify or is there something false about reading functional behaviors as capable of undermining cognitive assents and indicating “true” unadmitted beliefs? What makes you truly an atheist or truly a theist? Are these terms really affirmations of desired identity respectable on such grounds, independent of any need for evidence of functional consistency?

In a nutshell, Thursday’s Open Question this week is “What Does It Most Decisively Mean To Believe, Disbelieve, or Lack Belief?”

Your Thoughts?

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For more fodder for addressing this question see my post Will The Real Atheists Please Stop Kneeling about Christians who may be de facto atheists. Also highly relevant is my post on Implicit Faith. Also consider Eric Steinhart’s posts More on Religious Diversity among Atheists, The Logic of Defining Atheism and Atheist, Question about Atheists and Self-Consistency. (And for readers who were puzzled by those posts when he initially put them up, reconsider them in light of the distinctions and questions I have raised in the foregoing.)

 

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • jonmoles

    I have a feeling that this could quickly turn into a debate about free will. Putting that aside, it is an interesting question though. A lack of belief seems to me to be tied to knowledge claims; can you believe or disbelieve something of which you have no knowledge? I think no to both positions. Once you gain some knowledge, is it possible to continue along the line of lack of belief due to incomplete data or does any passing familiarity move one into the disbelief camp by default until a preponderance of evidence suggests otherwise? Are we justified in accepting disbelief as the default position? I think so, for pragmatic reasons at the very least. This line of thought would seem to suggest that belief can only be arrived at by some form of convincing, through evidence and reason ideally. The question of functional belief seems to be the core of the issue. How can anyone every truly know what they believe without some sort of test capable of ascertaining it? If I am reading you correctly, the adage that deeds speak louder than words seems apropos here. I have no idea if I have made any type of meaningful contribution here, but that’s all I have for now.

  • Cuttlefish
    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Cuttlefish your dismissal of atheism as ever a form of disbelief just ignores metaphysics. Atheism is not just the none of the above to theistic religions. It is a rejection of various propositions of philosophical theists. The metaphysical concepts of God, i.e., the “god of the philosophers” in its various iterations is not identical with the superstitious deities of religions. It is a metaphysical proposition that can either be believed or disbelieved based on the relative strength or lack thereof of the evidence.

      In fact, even rejecting Zeus, Jesus, et al. is also a matter of disbelieving. You are presented with propositions of the existence of these beings and you disbelieve them. You reject them. You don’t just lack a belief the way you would something you had never considered. You have considered them, you have even considered the whole class of propositions that involve beliefs in gods and you reject the whole class of them. That’s an active disbelieving, in accord with evidence. The fact that this is not something you take to be definitional of your identity is irrelevant. It’s still a position you hold, even if it is not the center of your identity. It’s not like just because being a Christian correlates to a (theoretically) central belief to a person that atheism cannot be a specific belief because it is not a parallel central belief to the atheist the way the Christian ones are to the Christians.

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

      Daniel Fincke:

      Atheism is not just the none of the above to theistic religions. It is a rejection of various propositions of philosophical theists.

      I would cut it a bit more finely. Atheism is a rejection of the arguments and rationales of religious believers, both those that rise to level of philosophy, and those that don’t. True, after thinking on those and rejecting them, an atheist is not just someone who has never pondered the notion of a god.

      But rejecting a thousand bad rationales for something implies no metaphysical stance — or even bias — against that thing. I could hear a thousand bad explanations of and arguments for entropy. Indeed, that may underestimate the actual number! That doesn’t mean I reject thermodynamics or disbelieve in Gibbs free energy.

      In my view, the content of atheism is not the conclusion that there is no god, but that the religious arguments and rationales so far offered are nonsense. Which is a definite opinion about a large swathe of human belief and practice. But not one that necessarily carries its own metaphysical assertions.

    • http://flipc.blogspot.com/ FlipC

      But why define ourselves in terms used by religions?

      If a child grows up sheltered completely from religion and doesn’t even conceive of the existence of a god or gods; would they be called an atheist?

      Is there a difference in a person knowing/thinking/believing there is no god and a person never having even thought about it?

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

      What is the “us” we’re trying to define, that we should be so eager to enlist such a child on our rolls? Claiming such a child on “one’s side” is not quite as offensive as Mormons baptizing the non-Mormon dead. But it’s not something I’m eager to do.

      A definition can be shaped any way useful or convenient. Of course. And I think it is fine to say of such a child, “she was a theistic virgin, never having heard or thought on a notion of a god, atheist in the most pure sense.” It’s not the wording to which I object. I just don’t think such a child serves as telling example of any of the arguments between more ordinary atheists and believers.

    • http://flipc.blogspot.com/ FlipC

      You’re getting caught in the details; you stated

      Atheism is a rejection of the arguments and rationales of religious believers, both those that rise to level of philosophy, and those that don’t.”

      Which means that that the person I describe child or adult wouldn’t be an atheist.

      If there was such a society to create such a person there may be rational discussion about potential creators but those who disagreed wouldn’t be placed in the category ‘atheist’ they’d be in the category ‘normal’.

      I just find it amusing that atheism is (in some quarters) defined as the lack of belief in deities. What do we call people who lack belief in unicorns or molemen?

    • http://xenosidian.blogspot.com Xenolith

      I don’t know. Maybee you are just caught up in some limitations of english language? In swedish we have a term “nykterist” which means somebody who never drinks alcohol (google and my dictornary translate to “teetotaler”). I have never heard anybody objecting to a “nykterist” that he is defining himself in terms of peolpe who drink alcohol. Nor is it any problem to be an atheist in a society not dominated by religious believes (such as Sweden) in the same way as it isn’t problematic to be (and call oneself) a teetotaler in a society where few drink.

    • http://flipc.blogspot.com/ FlipC

      My point is the framework in which the term is held. It makes sense to define a group if they’re different from the majority; in the case of teetotallers I assume the majority drink, but the majority wouldn’t define themselves as ‘totallers’

      Even assuming atheism is the minority the question is – do we need to define it beyond the transliteration of “not theism”? Why is a requirement needed to justify or hierarchically arrange degrees of atheism?

      Atheists shouldn’t be asked “Why don’t you believe in god (or gods)?” the question should be reversed and posed to theists. When they provide a response an atheist may simply state “Yeah well I don’t believe the same things you do” and leave it there. It’s then up to the theist to provide evidence or reasoning that support their proposition and not the other way around.

      Essentially society is orientated the wrong way around with regards to this :-)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      In my view, the content of atheism is not the conclusion that there is no god, but that the religious arguments and rationales so far offered are nonsense. Which is a definite opinion about a large swathe of human belief and practice. But not one that necessarily carries its own metaphysical assertions.

      That may indeed be true. But saying there is mere “lack of belief” does not seem right either. There are lots of positive conclusions and some kind of broader inference to something specific that also leads vocal atheists to strongly suspect future theistic arguments and rationales will fail and that leads to all sorts of judgments about wrongness of religious beliefs and practices more broadly, etc.

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

      Absolutely.

      It just seems to me that most of those positive conclusions are about religious belief, not about possible gods. It would make an interesting philosophy course to build a taxonomy of possible gods, rationally done, from Bostrom’s great^N-grandkids who are replaying him (an us) in a simulation, to Liebniz’s, and everything in between. It likely would not much interest most of the religious, because its subject matter would be so far removed from the god of Donohue, Buchanan, and Santorum. Indeed, I suspect it would get described as an exercise in atheism.

    • Cuttlefish

      As I said, “rejection” happens one god at a time, as does belief. “Disbelief”, however, is the privative, and does not require consideration. To require an atheist to consider each god and reject them is ludicrous, as is requiring a baptist to consider each of the sects in each of the religions across the planet before deciding upon this particular splinter. You don’t have to consider that maybe atheist X or baptist Y is actually a secret believer in god Z, of whom neither of them has ever heard; without having considered and rejected god Z, how can we say they don’t believe in it? But of course they don’t. If you ask them about it, they may have very different responses, though–baptist Y knows that it is impossible for this new god to be the real god, since god Y is the real god. The atheist? The atheist may have generalized from having rejected a number of previous offers, or may have a positively defined non-supernatural world view, or any number of other possibilities, but does not have the same reaction to this newly-proposed god Z as baptist Y does.

      Active disbelieving, or rejecting, is positively framed; it comes about through naturalism, or through supernaturalism that features a different god. Active disbelieving is practiced by both atheists and believers, and does not exclusively describe either of them. On a god-by-god basis, part of the population will actively disbelieve, part of the population will have never considered–this goes for both believers and atheists. Active disbelief is not the defining characteristic.

      Atheists are not decided on a god-by-god basis, despite Stephen Roberts’s catchy aphorism. Atheists are the ones who check “none of the above”. It matters not whether the list is exhaustive; does a non-drinker have to not drink all the drinks in the world, or just the ones she has been exposed to? Privative categories behave a bit differently, and treating them like positively defined categories just muddies things.

    • http://xenosidian.blogspot.com Xenolith

      FlipC “I assume the majority drink, but the majority wouldn’t define themselves as ‘totallers’”
      -there you go -caugth up in the english language -I think you need to think i through in another language. For example the swedish word “nykterist” just means somebody who always is sober.
      Think about sick and healthy -it is meaningful to define yourself as healthy although you live in a society where most of the people are healthy most of the time (say for example 93%).
      For me it would be meningful to say I’m an atheist even if I lived on a planet where everybody was atheist (say Mars after terraforming, 370 years from now) -similar it meaningful to say that I’m resident (as opposed to nomad) even if only less than a percent of of Swedens population is somewhat nomadic (native Sami in the north but most of them lives in houses most of the time anyway…).
      The “thesit” part of “atheist” is to me just a historic artefact of the language in a similar way that “new” is in “New York”. :-)

    • http://flipc.blogspot.com/ FlipC

      Recall that this was in response to rturpin’s narrower definition of “atheist” so sure it’s about language.

      If I state that disbelief is the conscious rejection of the notion of god or gods and call such people atheists; what do I call those who simply lack belief? One could call them agnostics, but even then that implies some decision making even if it’s the decision not to make a decision.

      Likewise in another comment on another topic I presented some definitions that suggested that the word “belief” implied lack of evidence and that as such atheists shouldn’t claim they don’t believe in god. At the same time I suggested “know” implies evidence, of which there is none, so atheists shouldn’t state they know there are no gods.

      As such asking what it means to decisively believe, disbelieve or lack belief is meaningless path; you either do or you don’t.

  • http://outofthegdwaye.wordpress.com/ George W.

    I honestly hope that a lingering intuition of supernatural agency doesn’t necessarily exclude someone from “true” intellectual atheism.
    This conversation has come up between Dan and I before, and I freely admit that I have and still do at times struggle with intuitive supernaturalism.

    I read somewhere that even if children are never exposed to the concept of God, they will intuitively create one on their own. If this is true (and I’m not claiming that it is), I think it speaks to the pervasiveness of supernatural heuristics. Humans, I think, innately arrive at supernatural explanations as a way of quickly assigning agency because that particular instinct has had an evolutionary advantage for us in the past. I actually believe it is quite human to intuit the supernatural.

    What makes me an atheist is not my inability to postulate supernatural explanations, but my ability to understand the weakness of them and to ultimately dismiss them. Just as someone might have taught a course in Critical Thinking and still find themselves occasionally at the mercy of poor logic, I think that people cannot entirely escape those viruses that infect the human computer. We can become cognizant of our shortcomings, and train ourselves to compensate for them- but I imagine that we are all slaves to an imperfect brain.

    That said, I was persuaded by the absurdity of the specific- and this has over time and much meditation led me to dismiss the general as well. When I catch myself attributing events to providence or karma, I certainly no longer imagine Yahweh rewarding my piety or punishing transgressions. I also don’t accept that intuition as anything beyond question. The resulting introspection and investment in my own role in causality is, to me, the greatest gift of atheism- and I feel I’m a better person for it.

    Atheism is an epistemology- the best of which don’t necessitate dogmatic acceptance of the impossibility of the contrary. Like philosophy, it can be honed as a tool to make for a more fulfilling existence.

  • TaiChi

    A good question. I think one important thing to notice here is that although we talk of believing, this is not a mental action, but is being in a certain sort of mental state. Like other sorts of state (e.g. being in Kansas, being straightjacketed) this is not something we can voluntarily do, although we can attempt to get ourselves in that sort of state. I say this is important because I think very often people confuse the act of assertion, or what they would assert if asked, with having or lacking a belief.

    That’s not to say that one’s assertions, or preparedness to assert has nothing to do with belief – it does. But I think the role it plays in determining whether one has or lacks a belief is simply as one of many kinds of behavior which an external observer would use to characterize their mental states. Whether one goes to church, uses contraception, takes the Lord’s name in vain, etc. are of at least equal importance to determining the religious beliefs of a subject. And where we find that theistic assertion is in abundance, but that a subject fails to exhibit the other behaviors which are predicted by belief in a God, then I think we should say, as Dennett so perceptively pointed out, that such a person merely believes in belief in a God.

    If in a moment of panic, a voice pops up in the atheist’s head and says, “Maybe we should pray!” or “Oh no, what if God is punishing me?!” does this mean that some part of that atheist effectively still believes?

    No, I don’t think so. I think we should allow that we do not always act in consistency with our beliefs, and that we can temporarily lose confidence in our understanding of reality. In such cases it is still correct to say that we do not believe in God, for although belief in God’s nonexistence is a mental state which increases the liklihood of certain behaviors, it does not guarantee such behaviors, because it does not operate in isolation from other beliefs or transient mental disturbances.

    If the atheist reminds himself immediately of all the decisive reasons for disbelief and squelches such habitual remnant thoughts as false and to be ignored, does this mean that he is completely an atheist but not functionally, subconsciously, and against his own will even conflicted?

    If he has to continually do this, then this behavior counts against his believing in the nonexistence of God. But it is not decisive – perhaps he simply fears ‘falling for’ theism, even irrationally so, without in any way being disposed to act as though God existed. There may be many ways to explain it, but how it is to be explained depends upon a fuller picture of his behavior.

    What makes you truly an atheist or truly a theist? Are these terms really affirmations of desired identity respectable on such grounds, independent of any need for evidence of functional consistency?

    It’s true, one might identify as an atheist or theist merely due to the supposed desirability of being one of those. But one might also be a poor observer of their own nature, and incorrectly identify oneself – we do not have infallible access to our mental states as Descartes thought. In any case, I think a volutaristic conception of belief is false.

    Lastly, concerning a lack of belief in God as opposed to a belief in the non-existence of God. I think there is such a thing as the former, that it does characterize certain persons, but that it is not behaviorally equivalent to the latter: someone who lacks a belief in God is someone whose behavior cannot be approximately characterized by either the belief that God exists, nor the belief that God does not exist.

  • John Morales

    Surely it all depends on how one defines ‘belief’.

    (Does it refer to cognitive content held as true, or to something else?)

    • John Morales

      I guess I should note the bleeding obvious: if it does, then ‘disbelief’ is itself a type of ‘belief’ (specifically, belief in the falsehood vs. belief in the truthfulness of some proposition).

  • http://qpr.ca/blogs Alan Cooper

    Maybe this would be the place to ask what I suggested that “Robin” should have asked in one of your recent dialogues. But you have given a partial answer and now I have a follow-up question.

    The question was “what impossible characteristic do you believe ALL gods must have (with disjunction allowed, so its ok to say any god must have A or B or…)?” and your partial answer seems to be that you are restricting your nonexistence belief to examples of a “personal god who intervenes in history”. I am unsure of what you mean by the word “personal” here (eg that the god itself has a human-like personality, or that it has some kind of relationship to individual human persons, or something else), but I also don’t know if that matters too much.

    If by “intervenes” you mean that it causes physical phenomena which would be detectably different from the predictions of any possible godless physical theory, then, since I do not think that there is any convincing evidence of such intervention in the past, I guess I should believe that it is as unlikely as the lack of a sunrise tomorrow – which probably qualifies me as an atheist by your definition.

    I suspect though that a large number of religious people feel similarly about the intervening god and have a concept of god which does not require any physical manifestation other than the existence of the universe itself. So, since the claim of atheism might be interpreted as including the belief that all such conceptions *must* be incoherent, I am still reluctant to make it without first exploring them all. And since I actually suspect that they *are* all incoherent, I don’t see the project of confirming my atheism in the wider sense as likely to be worth the effort.

  • Marta Layton

    Interesting distinctions, Dan. I wonder if it might be useful to think about this question in light of akrasia. There is the cognitive state of holding a certain proposition to be true/false, and then there is the ability to act on it. From a functional perspective, there’s often no difference in behavior between a person who has a certain cognitive belief and someone who has the opposite belief but lacks the strength of character to actually act on it.

    I think there may be a third class of atheism, too, that you didn’t really make room for. If I’m reading you right, both types of atheism discussed admit the possibility of God – I am having a bit of a hard time parsing your description (it’s the early hour and lack of caffeine more than anything, I’m sure) but it sounds like you have on the one hand people who positively say there is no God; and on the other hand say they have not been convinced there is such a God and choose to abstain from believing until such evidence is provided (perhaps employing Ockham’s Razor or something similar)? But I’d say both of these people have an idea of God in mind, so in a sense God does exist as a concept; they simply don’t think that concept corresponds to anything externally. I guess I am thinking along the lines of something like the distinction in Anselm’s painter analogy here: they understand God so God exists in the mind, but they do not understand God to actually exist as anything more than just the concept. That seems very different from the kind of atheist who thinks there’s something logically incoherent about the characteristics we traditionally ascribe to God. Such an atheist might deny God exists without admitting God even as a coherent concept – along the lines of someone who says round squares do not exist. I’m not sure where that kind of atheist would fit into your scheme.

    As a side point, I don’t really see anything incoherent in someone (a) believing in an afterlife, and (b) mourning at the death of a loved one. I know that when I have done that, the grief felt genuine (not just a weakness of will at work), and I eventually attributed it to sadness over lost potential. If you believe in an afterlife, there’s nothing inconsistent per se with believing corporeal life offers unique opportunities; so a death (especially a young or unexpected death) really does mean a real loss. Heaven (if it exists) would be there whether we died at age eight or eighty, and given the timeless quality it’s supposed to have you wouldn’t gain anything by getting there “earlier.” So a short life would mean a loss of corporeal life, with no real benefit – worth mourning IMO.

    • John Morales

      If I’m reading you right, both types of atheism discussed admit the possibility of God

      Not quite, rather, to the possibility that something that merits the predicate ‘is at least one god’ can not be ruled out (subject of course to what criteria one applies to that claim).

      (‘God’, of course, implies monotheism. Deity-claims are more general than that!)

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001373579092 martalayton

      That’s a fair criticism, John; I apologize for not reading Dan’s language more clearly. I’m happy to accept that clarification, but I think the basic question still stands: would someone who rules out even the possibility of any gods’ existence (whether it’s just the one or multiple gods) fit within either of Dan’s types of atheist?

    • John Morales

      Tell you what: define what a ‘god’ is, and I’ll tell you if I rule out a possible instantiation* of that.

      * Note I’m being generous; it’s a proposed adjudication regarding possibility, rather than actuality.

    • John Morales

      Sorry, I was being a bit facetious, there.

      Yes, if one denies the existence of any possible gods, of course such a one is an atheist.

      (Or more precisely, as someone more erudite than I has informed me, an adevist)

    • John Morales

      I don’t really see anything incoherent in someone (a) believing in an afterlife, and (b) mourning at the death of a loved one.

      Pardon me for being blunt, but I think that’s just silly — ‘death’ specifically refers to the cessation of life.

      (As well claim darkness is ‘afterlight’)

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001373579092 martalayton

      I was trying to address Dan’s point that mourning a death implied that you didn’t really believe in an afterlife – which I read as saying the propositions (a) the deceased exists in an afterlife, and (b) I am sorry he is no longer alive contradicted each other, so if you believed (b) that meant you didn’t really accept (a).

      That’s a very different question than saying (a) is false. For one thing, just saying a belief is false (even if you’re right!) doesn’t mean that I cannot believe (a). I may be wrong to believe Charleston is the capital of South Carolina, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility of someone believing it. Which I think is the point Dan was trying to make, and that I was trying to answer.

    • John Morales

      … which I read as saying the propositions (a) the deceased exists in an afterlife, and (b) I am sorry he is no longer alive contradicted each other, so if you believed (b) that meant you didn’t really accept (a).

      Yes, they do contradict each other, and yes, people can (and do!) believe in contradictions, and yes, believing in a contradiction is incoherent.

      (What’s the difference between ‘afterlife’ and ‘afterdeath’?)

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001373579092 martalayton

      John, I’m really struggling to understand why you think the beliefs contradict each other. I provided what I believed to be a plausible reason why someone could believe they continued to exist after what we typically call death, in a state typically called an “afterlife,” yet still suffer a loss at that death (especially a premature death).

      My reasoning was essentially that — assuming the Christian metaphysics of life-death-heaven/hell was correct — the life portion had a special value (tied to its duration) that wasn’t replicatable in the heaven/hell portion. Also, that there was no benefit in getting to heaven/hell early. In light of that, death meant the end of the life phase, so a loss and without any real gain – certainly something worthy of grief.

      Can you tell me what precisely about this account you find unconvincing? I’m not asking about whether you agree with the Christian account of life-death-heaven/hell, but rather whether there is anything in these two views that makes it impossible they’re both true. And maybe I’m misreading what you’re saying, but I’m not sure why you think these claims are inconsistent. I can see why you think one of the claims is wrong, but as I said, that’s not the same thing.

    • John Morales

      I can see why you think one of the claims is wrong, but as I said, that’s not the same thing.

      Fine, you think mourning the dead whilst simultanously believing they live on in some mysterious form is not incoherent, given one assumes death is not the end of life, but rather a transition into ‘afterlife’.

      I don’t, because I think it’s equivocation plain and simple.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      While I agree with you, John, she at least tried to give an account of how some other pain and disappointment can account for the mourning. I don’t know why you’re being so antagonistic rather than simply addressing her counter-hypothesis straight on.

    • John Morales

      Hm. Thanks for the perspective.

      I was not trying to be antagonistic; perhaps it’s a result of my limited ability to convey my conceptualisations.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I don’t think you’re limited in that regard, it was just you weren’t engaging her position on its own terms at all.

  • http://flipc.blogspot.com/ FlipC

    Of course removing God and religion from the equation produce the standard philosophical questions – Am I good if I do good things even if it’s only for my own self-aggrandisement? and the other side of the coin – Am I bad if only fear of punishment prevents me from performing bad deeds?

    Religion happily provides supposedly concrete definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’; but even without that burden it’s still a knotty issue.

    The short answer is that it can only be answered by the individual using the standards set by society and not by any third-party who doesn’t have access to the motivations for these actions.

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

      FlipC writes:

      Of course removing God and religion from the equation produce the standard philosophical questions – Am I good if I do good things even if it’s only for my own self-aggrandisement?

      One of the more important points atheists should press is that adding a god to the equation provides no solution to such questions. There is a lot of religious rhetoric otherwise. And it is mistaken.

      What happens when a religious believer clears away all that sort of mistaken rhetoric? Do they become a somewhat rational believer? Or, as they sweep away an intellectual refuse heap here, apologetic rotting corpses there, do they eventually lose their religious belief?

  • Ace of Sevens

    What about those of use who find the whole concept incoherent? Sure, Yahweh and Thor don’t exist, but the first cause likely does and the universe definitely does. I can’t very well say these things aren’t gods, because the term isn’t used consistently enough for me to know what it means. Dionysus and the deistic god have almost nothing in common, for instance. I could make up a definition, then issue a ruling on that, but that smacks of question begging.

    • Ace of Sevens

      I am presuming in this argument that the first cause is some sort of physical super-law from which the familiar physical laws are derived, not any sort of being. The totality of life has also been suggested as god.

  • astro

    I think one has to make a distiction here. “belief”, “faith”, is too fuzzy to play with properly with at least temporarily refining the term. A sort of diad I’d suggest is. “conclusive-belief” vs. “faith-belief”

    I conclusive-believe my mom loves me. I have a lifetime of evidence to back that up

    Tony faith-believes That Fido is in heaven with Jesus

    there is clearly something fundamentally different going on each of these cases (brain-wise), however, we simply would use the word “believe” in both cases.

    Someone could tell me that my mom didn’t really love me and that she had been tricking me all my life into thinking she did. I would just think this person was mentally ill and walk off. I would not be compelled to engage them or defend myself

    If you told a believer that the miracles of Jesus were nothing more than cheap parlour tricks and that there was no God or heaven, chances are they would feel compelled to defend their belief.

    Religious faith is married to so much more psycholgy and issues of identity and authority that it’s a bear to unravel

    • astro

      Wow. how’d I wreck that first sentence so bad?

  • http://xenosidian.blogspot.com Xenolith

    In Sweden we are somewhat less insecure in our atheism (its not comparable to rape here, it is rather customary whereas the religious stands out). I think I have a more pragmatic view on the believing-issue: when talking to agnostic atheists (which are about as common as hard atheist) I often get the feeling that they are smart: evolved to minimize effort of meaningless talk. When they risk engagement in discussions of metaphysics they simply state lack of beliefs. Whereas the “professing” atheist are the ones that like an argument, and see thiere chances increasing… (I guess you’re the latter category).
    The other reflection is that the professing sometimes (like myself) comes from a situation where it was more efficient to state your clear thoughts on an early time to avoid other persons wasting their and above all your own time on trying to convince you. Besides that I sometimes feels there is an element of sick-and-tired when it comes to metaphysics, at least among us who took the courses in history of philosophy (and perhaps today among “normal” people who has been surfing the web….)?

  • http://lifetheuniverseandonebrow.blogspot.com/ One Brow

    Interestingly, the differences in the ways we are atheists (whether as deniers or as those who agnostically refrain from affirmations and denial) has some limited set of contexts in which there are functional differences to the ways our non-belief work. In other ways we are functionally the same, though. Many self-professed agnostic atheists who are at pains to stress that they only “lack belief” and make no stronger claims than that, nonetheless behave just as assuredly as any gnostic atheist might when it comes to denouncing, ridiculing, or combating religious ideas, for example. So, what does the pretense of restraint in matters of assent really effectively amount to in such cases?

    I see the difference as a description of the type of reasoning that leads to the atheism, and if nothing else, the type reasoning a believer would need to employ to get an ateist to reconsider their position. Functionally, you would argue differently with a person who proclaims lack of evidence versus a person who claims, for exmaple, an ontological contradiction in the notion of supernatural.

    When I was an adult believer, it was based on what I thought was the best interpretation of the empiical evidence. I moved toward atheism upon continuous investigation and testing of the evidence, finally convinced that there is no evidence presented so far that leads to god-belief. I self-identify as a “weak atheist” or “agnostic atheist” in part to clarify that my lack of belief is based empirically. However, something doesn’t become more or less true just because you have gained evidence. The notion of moving in a different inertial state causing a difference in time passage has only had evidence in its favor for less than 150 years, but it’s always been true.If a believer wanted to convert me, they would need to do it evidentially.

    I see statements on the impossibility of any supernatural deity (as opposed to specific deities, which can themselves propose contradictory properties) as coming from a different place, one more grounded in a deductive manner of reasoning, as opposed to an inductive manner. That doesnn’t make it less valid, but it’s not me. I suspect that if one wanted to convert such an atheist, one would need to begin by weaking the initial axioms of the position.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1468751142 Kevin

    I’m a gnostic atheist. I state definitively “There are no gods”. Not Ken Ham’s, not the pope’s, not Karen Armstrong’s, not the Wiccans’ nor the Jain’s, nor Thomas Jefferson’s or even Albert Einstein’s…none of that is true.

    My belief is justified by looking at the evidence and the potential that there ever would be evidence of such things. The bottom line is that the god concept is born of superstitious imaginings of men. They’re all fiction, and cannot be anything but.

    So, for me, to decisively declare a lack of belief is to engage in a level of certainty and to make what I feel is the intellectually and ethically correct final step. At some point, Zeno’s paradox breaks down and you have to reach your destination. I understand that others (maybe even Richard Dawkins) haven’t made this final step. And I’m OK with that because their lack of certainty doesn’t interfere with our common goals.

    A while back, there were discussion threads on Pharyngula and Why Evolution is True about what evidence might one present that would make people believe in god. A lot of acts of omnipotence were offered, but frankly, that ship has long sailed. If those acts of omnipotence haven’t been offered by this time, they won’t be offered, because they can’t be, because the expected author of those acts does not exist. Get over it and get on with your life.

    As an intellectual exercise, however, I did offer some suggestions, based on the attributes commonly assigned to the Christian god — omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. I think that any ‘real’ god with those attributes would be able to show itself quite convincingly, separating itself from merely powerful aliens. Not by mere acts of omnipotence, however, but by acts that demonstrate all three attributes. (For example, willing that no weapon would function if the result of its use would be to harm a human.) But, of course, if the ‘real’ god does not have one or more of those attributes, then you’re back to square one. The god who doesn’t give a shit probably can’t be proved — but then, who cares anyway?

    But the intellectual exercise suffers from the same failing as all apologetics. If I can devise a demonstration that would be suitable to demonstrate convincingly in the existence of a god, then why can’t god? If it hasn’t been done, it won’t be done because it can’t be done, because the creature in question does not exist.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      the creature in question does not exist

      The god of theism would not be a creature but the creator.

    • josh

      I hope you’re joking! I know theists will sometimes try an argument like this but creature does not exclusively mean “created being” in modern English.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I’m not making an argument, it’s just a definition, that’s all. There are other senses, but the word is too bound up with the creature/creator distinction that I don’t even like using the word “creature” for actually existing animals for fear of implying they have an intelligent “creator”.

    • josh

      It’s not the definition the commenter you replied to was using. It’s fine if you personally want to avoid the word in order to avoid superfluous arguments about it. I just hate when people try to cram a word in common usage into a narrow box to argue against someone else’s position when they use the word in a perfectly legitimate context.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      The creature/creator distinction is significant enough that it is a misleading word in this context. I don’t think it’s perfectly legitimate. “God” is not an animal concept and it’s not just any old “strange non-human one might encounter in a fantastic world” concept. It doesn’t fit.

  • Adrian Allen

    Growing up in 1950′s England, religion was more of a cultural experience. Belief was, to begin with, an assumption lying in the background. There never seemed to be anything put forward to recommend it except cultural acceptance, and I was in the habit of doubting everything that others took for granted, until I had enough rationale or evidence to support it. That never, and to this day, still has not happened. This was in stark contrast to the subject of Evolution which, although culturally accepted, had enough rationale and evidence to recommend it.
    I bring Evolution into this because I have noted recently, Dawkins and others, fed up with the Creationist claim, “Oh, but it’s only a theory,” now assert it to be a fact because of all the evidence in support of the theory, and nothing in evidence to refute it; and I wonder why there is not a similar cry, in the other direction, to refute the, ‘theory of God’.
    If a similar approach be made to the ‘theory of god’, weighing up the evidence for and against, it seems perfectly clear to me that God’s non-existence should be declared a fact, just as Evolution is. Every claim made by religion for God has, one by one, been shown to be wrong as evidence gathers against them. Whilst neither theory can be proven, the evidence for Evolution, and against God, is so overwhelming that any rational person must conclude that Evolution is a fact, and God’s non-existence is also a fact.
    Thrusting this point home to any believer, after it is shouted loud enough and repeated often enough by those ‘New Atheists’ on their platforms, will highlight to any believer, his cognitive dissonance when they act as though they do not believe. The result, I suggest, might be that when they profess their faith, in defiance of their actions, as they must if only to themselves, the dissonance would become even more apparent to them because they would realise that the facts show that their faith can no longer be supported by anything empirical.
    All the facts point to there being no God of any kind, no empirical facts support God and, therefore, shout out loud, “It’s a fact, there is no God.”


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