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Posted by on Oct 31, 2012 in Atheism | 16 comments

The States of Belief

Last night, I couldn’t sleep, so I ended up watching a few atheist YouTube videos and was astonished to find people arguing about something other than Elevatorgate. In fact, that’s the wonderful thing about atheists, they (we?) can’t agree on anything — including what they (we!) are.

The argument that I found particularly baffling went something like this: If you don’t know of something, then you don’t believe. Thus babies, for instance, are born atheists, since they don’t even know what a god is. Well, by that analogy, so are rocks. And by the same token, rocks are also theists, since rocks don’t disbelieve in god, either.

In reality, belief is a more complex state. That’s why, personally, I define my atheism as lack of belief. Although if pressed, I would say that I do actively disbelieve in a theist god, or any other god that man has described or conceived of. But if god is anything other than a human construct, then I can’t believe or disbelieve in it, because I’m unaware of it. It is beyond my capacity to understand. Hence, I merely lack belief.

In sum, belief is not a binary state. You can believe or disbelieve. You can believe strongly, or you can doubt. And in the absence of knowledge of what something is, you can lack belief completely, which is the mental state that most accurately describes how I feel about some sort of vague, undefined, unexplained, god-like entity. Hence my ignosticism.

Is this the “complicated” issue that hours of raging YouTube videos are really about?

  • Nick Carefoot

    I think the effects of argueing with religious zealots its questioning someones own mental illness and in modern society we are far more sick than we lend an ear to. Major depression, personality disorders and poor diet contribute to everything from angels to anti-theists going for the soft and delicates like your eye holes.

    In my opinion being right is meaningless its far more important to explain to these people that the same kind of high they get from Jesus could be found in any other placebo.

    God is a metaphor for a lot of stuff and as long as you look at it with a historical context the word itself is harmless. Just there is a lot of meaningless suffering its wheels have caused to humans is shite.

  • Fran Oliver

    Thank you for that post bluharmony. My poor brain is now doubting something I thought I’d laid to rest (in a good way :-)

    Specifically in regard to the argument that baffled you, I think there is a subtle but important distinction between disbelief and lack of belief. Agreed, a baby cannot actively believe or disbelieve in a concept of which it is unaware (e.g deity); nevertheless it still manifests (or, more accurately, doesn’t!) an absence of belief and therefore fits comfortably within my definition of atheist. The discomfiting logical extension of this is that the baby then entertains an infinite number of these belief absences, thus rendering any particular one meaningless; but since atheism does have meaning to those that are aware of the deity concept, we can meaningfully apply it to the baby. I think?

    In other words, I used to maintain that atheism definitely isn’t a belief system as it
    doesn’t require one to take an ontological position of any sort until
    the concept of a deity has entered one’s consciousness. Indeed one couldn’t because It is impossible to take a position on something of which one is unaware. But then I
    realised that once the concept is understood and the evidence sifted, yes this absence of belief holds, but it is also joined by a considered, active
    belief in the deity’s non-existence, which nudges one into belief system territory. I think your third paragraph elucidates this unease with clarity.

    • bluharmony

      Whether you could can call a baby an atheist will, of course, depend on which definition of atheist you use. If by atheist you mean complete absence of belief, I suppose you could, much as you could a rock a rock an atheist. I mean, a rock doesn’t believe in god, right? The problem that then comes up is that a rock doesn’t not believe in god either, so both assertions are equally valid. But pragmatically speaking, my lack of belief in god applies only to some undefined sort of deistic entities; I actively disbelieve in a theist god, though I would not put my certainty of disbelief at 100%. Maybe 99.99% would be more accurate. So that make me an atheist without question, even though I’m not absolutely certain of god’s (or even God’s} nonexistence. In any case, when it comes to beliefs, it’s not a matter of black or white, but shades of gray. An even more interesting question is at what point belief becomes knowledge (and if we ever reach that point), which then raises the atheist vs. agnostic distinction.

      In any case, it seems to me that to hold a belief about something, even if that belief is merely a null state, you at least need to be aware of it. Otherwise, it’s a meaningless proposition.

      • Fran Oliver

        Thanks for an excellent reply. I suppose under my generous “absence” definition (which also encompasses your [and my] 99.9% rejection of theistic belief in later life) I would be obliged to call a rock an atheist, because I have defined the term in such a way that I cannot logically distinguish the rock’s absence of belief from the baby’s. I admit this is faintly ludicrous. But I disagree that a problem arises. To assert that the rock “doesn’t believe in god” or “doesn’t not believe in god” is invalid, even nonsensical, since it is completely incapable of any sort of belief, even when it’s grown up from a mischievous pebble into a great curmudgeonly slab of granite. (Dis)belief requires the wherewithal to believe; absence of it doesn’t.

        From “But pragmatically speaking…” I completely agree with you.

        “In any case, it seems to me that to hold a belief about something, even
        if that belief is merely a null state, you at least need to be aware of
        it. Otherwise, it’s a meaningless proposition.”

        I agree, but absence of belief (which is different) precedes held belief, precisely because one is unaware of the something. I call the baby an atheist because I impose my knowledge of this specific concept onto its absence of belief in any unknown concept. Oh dear, I sound like a postmodernist, so I’ll stop labouring this tedious semantic point!

        “An even more interesting question is at what point belief becomes knowledge”

        It certainly is. One for your next blog post, perhaps?

        Have a congenial evening and please forgive my inept wittering. As ever, clarity evades my keyboard.

  • Graeme Hanigan

    Draw a circle; the inside of the circle represents people
    who are theists, outside the circle represents people who are not theists

    Whatever other philosophical positions atheists may have, they
    are all still atheists.

    • bluharmony

      As I responded elsewhere, sure, that’s one definition of atheism. But I don’t think that under the most common definition, deists would be considered atheists (even though given the word structure, arguably, they should be).

  • Copyleft

    To me, lack of belief is only significant if one is capable of belief in the first place. Thus, dogs are not atheists in the strictest sense. Likewise, if you’ve never heard of a Polynesian deity called Haumia, God of Vegetation, you wouldn’t really be a ‘disbeliever’ in him… you’d simply have no opinion.

  • Thaumas Themelios

    Although I agree that the terminology is pretty much moot, I do think that having these discussions does serve some ancillary functions. For example, by having these discussions openly on the internet (and especially on video, being a quite rich medium compared to text), our global cultures are becoming more and more exposed to the reasonableness of the atheist position (as opposed to the demonization many people hear from the pulpit).

    Also, when atheists debate these ‘finer points’ between themselves, they are actively engaged in atheist-to-atheist education of one another on various problems of philosophical and rational thinking. It often involves coming up with new and/or different and/or more intuitive ways to explain ‘what we mean’ when we talk about various concepts (such as belief, lack thereof, burden of proof, etc.). And when these atheists come away from the discussion and enter a new context where they might be discussing things with a theist, then this background knowledge that we’ve implicitly shared with each other serves to make us better at talking with theists and helping them to deconvert over time.

    tl;dr: The more (discussion of atheist-related topics), the merrier (our planet will be).

  • Eugen

    Moderate theists (like me) are uncomfortable on Skeptic Ink.
    Seems like there is a lot of religion bashing
    and anger present but I don’t understand why. I was very reluctant to comment.

    I noticed two commenters mention they are very certain there
    is no God. They give quite high percentages of their certainty. Why percentages?
    Do you doubt yourselves?

    In a public discussion Thursday (Feb. 24, 2012) with
    Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Dawkins said he would rate his
    non-belief at 6.9 on a scale of 7, The Daily Telegraph reported. Dawkins said
    he prefers to think of himself as an “agnostic.”

    Even Dawkins is not
    sure himself. Maybe he’s getting cold feet as the bucket kicking time is
    approaching. It is then surprising that two commenters here are more certain
    than Dawkins. What gives you such

    • bluharmony

      Are you referring to a theist or a deist god? In any case, the numbers are just random guesses. The reason for my confidence in my belief that there is no theist god has to do with the laws of physics, evolution, and constant contradictions in the Abrahamic religions. Even the very nature of such a god is contradictory, and moreover, malicious. Dawkins has said as much. His uncertainty, just as mine, goes to deism, not theism. When it comes to deism, I am also agnostic, and moreover, ignostic. That said, I am not 100% certain of anything, though that’s a philosophical issue and not a pragmatic one.

      Also, you are absolutely welcome to comment here and to ask questions. I have nothing but respect for people who comment respectfully, as you just did. But here’s the thing — we both have the right to question each other’s beliefs. I think that open communication leads to better understanding for everyone. Anyway, welcome. I hope you stick around.

      • Eugen

        Thanks for your kind welcome. You sound reasonable and logical and also have
        an interesting blog.

        I’m rather technical person so I was not sure about differences
        between deist and theist. I heard of ignostic but had to look it up. There you go,
        I learned something new today.

        Also, thanks Vic for further clarifying terms. I can believe
        Skeptic Ink may not be extreme like some personal blogs. I was getting ready
        for the hornet’s nest attack but looks like it’s nothing like that.

        Now I can say I was brought up theist (Catholic) and as theist
        then I’m obligated to explain to you how prayers work. I just quickly prayed
        for a bag of million dollars but it didn’t appear. Therefore I don’t know how exactly that works.
        Thankfully explaining that is priest’s job.

        I don’t have direct evidence to you that God exists except
        our universe, a well-organized three dimensional home for us and possibly other
        self-aware beings elsewhere. Is universe
        enough evidence for you? It is for me.

        Also, I rely on the wisdom of my ancestors. I ask simple question: were all my ancestors
        silly not to notice religious hoax going on for thousands of years? Were most of
        the philosophers, scientists, engineers, wise men over the past centuries also
        so silly not to notice?

        • Peter White

          What makes you think nobody noticed the religious hoax for thousands of years? Some of them certainly did. The ones who did notice and said something often paid dearly for their candor. You can’t tell me you didn’t learn that in history class. Your teachers never mentioned the burning of heretics and atheists? You never head of the Inquisition?

          Religions have become more sophisticated since they stopped killing people who disagreed with them. Now the threat isn’t torture and death, its torture for eternity after death.

        • bluharmony

          A theist god is a god that watches over & cares about humanity. A deist god is one who created the universe, then left it alone. For all practical purposes, a deist god is no god at all, but merely a creative force of some sort.

          Our ancestors didn’t have the benefit of science as a guiding light. We do. And what science tells us about the universe is incompatible with the idea of a theist God. That’s not to say that science can’t be wrong — it can. But science got us to the moon, so there’s that. And science allows me to write to you, wherever you are, right now.

          • Eugen


            You are correct we have science today but to be honest
            scientific news are providing clues almost daily to something “more”. What does your common sense, logic and intuition tell you for ex. about precision of forces and events on cosmological scales or about fantastic chemical-mechanical processes inside the cell?

            (Understanding little more about deist-theist differences I
            may be in between those two.)

    • Vic

      I’m just a random guy hanging out here, but I think it’s nice to get theists commenting on skeptic ink. I witnessed some lively discussions with a few not-quite-moderate ones, so I think your perspective is missed.

      You speak of religion bashing and anger. Well, I think the members of the skeptic ink network are rather moderate in their choice of words compared to some other networks and stay respectful where necessary. Their punchiness stems from the issues they raise.

      I can’t speak for Dawkins or anybody else here, but I don’t rule the existence of a deity out, at least not with total, absolute 100% certainty. But that is only because I personally think I can’t say anything at all with absolute, total 100% certainty.
      In case of deism, I can’t do anything but guess, so I let that alone and ignore it in my life.

      As an aside, gnosticism deals with knowledge, theism with belief.
      One can be agnostic and atheist, sometimes called “weak atheism”, or gnostic and atheist, sometimes called “strong atheism”, though I personally dislike the terms. Respectively for theists.

  • Kyle Nieman

    Your situation can be defined as “ignosticism”. Differing from “a”gnosticism, “i”gnosticism says that since God can’t be defined, we are left unable to either believe or disbelieve. I’m not stating that very clearly, but it’s something like that.