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?
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?”
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.)