Questionable Motives

April 17, 2010

Why is non belief NOT a different kind of belief?

Filed under: abuse,Argument,belief,Criticism,Irony,Language,Religion — tildeb @ 5:11 pm

A reasonable person may immediately grasp why this simple question has an obvious answer: if non belief were just another kind of belief, then the semantics of the two terms would make them identical in meaning. But the two terms are not identical in meaning: one means the opposite and negation of the other. That’s why the term ‘non’ is intentionally included.

If belief can be defined as a mental attitude of acceptance or assent toward a proposition without the full intellectual knowledge required to guarantee its truth, and faith a further acceptance without ANY intellectual knowledge required to guarantee its truth, then the opposite meaning defines non belief – a refusal to maintain faith in the absence of evidence, and an unwillingness to accept or give assent towards any proposition that has insufficient knowledge to inform its truth value.

I continue to read criticism after criticism of those who dare claim religious non belief by people of religious faith who make the gross intellectual mistake of equating non belief as just another kind of belief, that non believers are another kind of believer, that the dogma of religious non belief is similar to the dogma of religious belief. The latest shrill and strident rant from the militant religious apologist author Rory Fitzgerald over at HuffPo is a prime example of the colossal stupidity and willful abuse of language necessary to falsely equate the kind of effects of religious belief with the kind of effects of religious non belief.

To address this single question – why is non belief NOT a different kind of belief AT ALL – let us go on a short thought journey: if you are not married, is your marital status that of being married? Is an unmarried person just another kind of married person? Really? Of course not! A non married person has none of the requirements to meet the criteria of being married – most especially that of a spouse! And without that rather central feature of those who are married, the non married is NOT another kind of married person.

Yet religious apologists who mistake non belief as another kind of belief are forever equating non belief to all kinds of the most negative aspects of religious extremism… aspects like fundamentalism and evangelicalism, intolerance and bigotry. The irony seems to remain hidden from  these writers and speakers who (so willingly abuse the language if it suits their purpose)  reveal the inevitable and worst excesses of their own religious belief to represent those who reject religious belief for the very same excesses! If one rejects religious belief for the excess of fundamentalism, for example, then to be labeled as a fundamentalist by religious believers for rejecting fundamentalism is something akin to labeling religious believers as non believers for rejecting non belief. It’s nonsense, of course. And those who rely on supporting their opinion with such nonsensical linguistic mutilation deserve our undisputed disdain for their abuse. If you need to change the language to suit your opinion, then that’s a pretty reasonable indicator that it is your opinion that is lacking merit.



  1. I think atheism is a belief – it is a belief in our own capabilities to use our reason to solve problems and answer questions that were once designated to god.

    One of the common themes in the religious, is a lack of human ambition, and acknowledgement of our achievements as a species -i.e. the lack of belief in the human species.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — April 18, 2010 @ 7:05 am | Reply

    • I think it is much, much simpler than that, MUR. We believe many things that may or may not be true but the reasonable person rejects beliefs that are without justification. And ‘belief’ is a word that has more than one meaning, a slippery term to mean ‘think’ and/or ‘suspect’ in one instance and ‘faith’ in another. It’s important that we understand which meaning we are talking about.

      Regarding religious belief, it is self evident that no belief (in the sense of ‘faith’) is required for justified natural truth claims like the heliocentric theory or the theory of gravity. But when truth claims are made regarding the supernatural, we run into an insurmountable problem of epistemology… of determining some means to examine how the claim is informed and justified. That is why religious truth claims regarding their supernatural aspects are, upon examination, simply incoherent because terms like ‘god’ have no meaningful definition of anything in the natural sense. When we believe in a supernatural explanation, we have left behind any means to justify that claim except through belief in the sense of faith. Those who are unwilling to accept that method as meaningful are refuting this kind of ‘belief’ as any way to know anything about anything.

      The common term for this non belief in the value of any supernatural justification to a truth claim is atheism and we are all atheists all the time for almost every supernatural claim we come across. The religious, however, ARE willing to grant value to a very specific and quite narrow set of supernatural claims that inform the religious belief they have chosen to support. These religious beliefs are held to be true, but all other religious beliefs are not. Jesus as god incarnate is true (for example) but Horus as god incarnate is not. For religious believers who accept faith as a means to justify a truth claim by supernatural methodology to determine which truth claim is true – Jesus or Horus in this case – they are left flapping in the epistemological wind. Atheists do not suffer from such ill winds.

      So when we talk about atheism as a belief set, we are in fact talking about a negation of the method used to inform faith: belief without any natural means to investigate. Atheism is a term used to describe those of us who insist on methodological naturalism to inform truth claims. This is a practical method for acquiring knowledge about the universe and everything it contains. It requires that truth claim hypotheses be explained and tested only by reference to natural causes and events. All else, all other truth claims that go beyond the natural, are simply conjecture and assertion and assumption that not only yields no knowledge but cannot yield knowledge. Faith in the supernatural as a legitimate method to gain knowledge about the natural world is an epistemological black hole.

      In this sense, then, it is easier to understand why you attribute religious belief – the method used that allows for faith claims to be considered as true as any other with a natural methodology – to be a lack of human ambition to know… and why, in comment#3, you hold strong contempt for the idea of holding some kind of faith for your atheism!

      Comment by tildeb — April 18, 2010 @ 11:15 am | Reply

      • “you hold strong contempt for the idea of holding some kind of faith for your atheism!”

        Totally, it is an insult to my intelligence for someone to suggest that my non-belief is faith – it is nothing of the sort. My non-belief, is a product of searching for the truth, via the application of cold logic, reason and the identification of facts – quite simply, life is too short to make mistakes with superstitious nonsense.

        Like most atheists, I would change my non-belief into belief, IF I was presented with evidence that I can not deny – so far nothing has convinced me to be anything other than atheist.

        “So when we talk about atheism as a belief set, we are in fact talking about a negation of the method used to inform faith: belief without any natural means to investigate.”

        I understand what you are saying here – but it is not something I can not contemplate or comprehend – it is so alien to me to think in this way. The only possible way I could think like this would be to leave reality behind which is not something I desire nor need in order to live a useful, fulfilling and happy life.

        Comment by misunderstoodranter — April 18, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

      • I would even go so far as to say that faith actively interferes with living a useful, fulfilling, and happy life… except by living an inauthentic life! But then, if one doesn’t care about what is true, then I can see how living an inauthentic life can be appealing… from the back of the herd.

        Comment by tildeb — April 18, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

  2. Your marriage analogy is a flawed one.

    The term “religion” is probably best defined as a set of beliefs, typically dealing with the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, and thus often (but not always) concerned with the Creator of the universe. Whereas marriage is an entirely optional state, any thinking person has a set of beliefs around those broad themes. Ask any 5-year-old kid – they’ll ask all those questions like “Why are we here?”; “Where did we come from?”; “What’s the meaning of life” (ok, they’d be a pretty introspective 5-year-old for that last one, but you get my point). A materialist atheist has a set of beliefs which address these questions. The may be overwhelmingly phrased in the negative, but they are still strongly-held articles of faith.

    A person who bypasses such questions doesn’t just “not bother getting married” – they’re barely sentient.

    Comment by Sentinel — April 18, 2010 @ 7:56 am | Reply

    • Hey, Sentinel, thanks for dropping by.

      Of course non belief has a very strong negative aspect. It is a refutation of belief… belief in the sense of faith.

      So when you suggest that religion is a set of beliefs (faith) about the nature of the universe and our place in it, you seem to miss the bit about religious believers intellectually jumping out of that universe and beyond what’s in it to provide what you call ‘answers’. I find that an extraordinarily bizarre approach and highly dishonest because there is no way to know if what you believe is true is actually true.

      Your accusation that a person who bypasses that faithist approach that answers come from the supernatural to be the equivalent of someone who bypasses such questions is absolutely false in every sense. It seems to me to be patently obvious and intellectually honest that the answers we can know to questions about the universe and everything in it should be found within its confines and not in some hypothetical imagined other place somewhere beyond the natural.

      So this is the key difference – like a spouse in my marriage analogy – between belief and non belief: belief starts with answers with which we have no way to inform its truth values, while non belief starts with questions and a means to inquire to find answers that are informed by natural mechanisms.

      Comment by tildeb — April 18, 2010 @ 11:40 am | Reply

  3. “The may be overwhelmingly phrased in the negative, but they are still strongly-held articles of faith.”

    No they are not – I have no faith in Atheism, I don’t have faith that there is no god, I believe that there is no god, in the same way I believe that the earth goes around the sun.

    I know the earth goes around the sun, because I have seen evidence for it which substantiates my belief – I don’t have faith that the earth goes around the sun, it is a fact it that it does, and to suggest anything else is absolutely barking mad, because we have the evidence.

    So when an atheist says there is no god, it isn’t a faith statement – it is a fact statement, based on the available facts there is no god.

    In the same way that you would say it is a fact there are no unicorns, or Zeus or Jupiter (god Jupiter not planet). There is absolutely no evidence for god, just as there is no evidence for the god of Zeuz.

    The difference between faith and belief is related to evidence – I believe a accused person of being innocent because they have evidence to support their claims, I don’t just take their word for it on blind ‘faith’ or wishful thinking.

    I have believe in gravity, why? Because it is real, I can experience it and so can everyone else, we can measure it and experiment with it and most importantly observe it with the senses we are born with. It would take a stronger faith not to believe in gravity – because there is no other evidence to refute its existence at this time – so I would be taking a non-belief in gravity on faith. And so it is the same with god – there is no evidence for a god, there never was or has been, it is a fairy story, not based on facts, but based on hearsay, legend and word of mouth – there is no evidence to support a belief in god, only a faith structure in the form of an organised and profiting religion.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — April 18, 2010 @ 9:04 am | Reply

    • “I have believe in gravity, why? Because it is real, I can experience it and so can everyone else, we can measure it and experiment with it and most importantly observe it with the senses we are born with.”

      …and yet pre-Newtonians had no concept of gravity. There was a vague concept of “intrinsic lightness” and “intrinsic heaviness” which made various objects tend to what was understood to be their natural state. But gravity as we understand it was completely unknown. It was experienced, but it was not recognised.

      Both tildeb and MUR seem to be misunderstanding my first post:
      tildeb has missed my definition of religion and substituted his: my point is that the questions recommend themselves to all thinking people, and as such we all have found answers that we are (at least tentatively) satisfied with. We are operating under different assumptions and have experience in many cases of different evidence, so our conclusions may be different. But we have all reached (again, at least tentative) conclusions.

      “So when an atheist says there is no god, it isn’t a faith statement – it is a fact statement, based on the available facts there is no god.” – but this is logically incoherent. “Based on the available facts” means that it is a deduction, and not a fact. When I use the term faith I mean a conclusion based on strong supporting evidence. This is the way that most Christians of my acquaintance use the term, as well as the way in which it is used by Jesus, the writers of the gospels and the apostle Paul.

      What, exactly, are the “facts” upon which you base your claim that there is no God?

      Comment by Sentinel — April 18, 2010 @ 11:10 pm | Reply

      • we all have found answers that we are (at least tentatively) satisfied with.

        But I suggested that religion does provide answers… and will add that I think they offer really poor answers to such terrific questions all of us intuitively have because the ‘answers’ are dependent on a supernatural agency… something that we can know nothing about.

        The answers non believers have is much more honest: to such questions that answer is “I don’t know”. And non believers usually take that honest answer even further: “Neither do you.” What passes for ‘strong supporting evidence’ is at best testimonials and revelation, well known to be the weakest kinds of evidence.

        Comment by tildeb — April 18, 2010 @ 11:36 pm

  4. You are right it is a deduction – but the difference here is that the religious value some dusty old books that were written by primitive people over our modern understanding of physics, biology, chemistry, medicine and technology, which has deducted the answers to everything else that has been a success story of modern man [e.g. small pox]. The same technology that allows us to speak over the Internet, the same scientific understanding that allows man to walk on the moon, that allows us to cure disease.

    The bible says pray for healing and it will happen, but people did pray for millenniums and nothing happened people still got small pox. Man created and invented medicine to cure disease, and now what was thought to be impossible only 200 years ago, is now possible – this is not a miracle of god, this is a miracle of man – and as such I believe in man’s ability to solve problems over anything else.

    The gospels are stories, they are not accounts, they were written after the life of Jesus – many of which were selected by the church hundreds of years after the life of Jesus (if Jesus existed at all). Your definition of fact leaves open the possibility that the egyptian gods are true – as they have ‘facts’ and also they have sons of gods – and evidence written in stone unchanged for millennium that support these ‘facts’. Why have faith in the gospels (which were changed and edited) over something that has not been changed and edited [the egyptian pyramids]? Do you have faith in Robin Hood – or do you rationalise it as folk law (which story of Robin Hood do you believe, and is it important for you to believe in him and base your life’s decisions on his teachings)?

    When I talk about the facts that atheists observe – I mean that the facts that science has produced to support the claims about the age of the earth, the origin of the species, the nature and origin of matter, the speed of light, gravity, chemicals, medicine – testable useful facts that get results and power advancements in our modern world. Facts that were discovered by people of different races, different religions and cultures (i.e. they are not god given they are learnt and explored by mans desire to seek the truth about reality). And the more we look at these facts, the more we see they are at odds with religious teachings, this is why Christians are against evolution – they fear it because it explains the origin of man without earth and ribs – it places doubt in the minds of people and devalues their religion. We put mans observations before superstitious nonsense.

    We can’t test the gospels anymore than we can test a horoscope in a daily news paper, when we do invariably nothing happens, and when it is claimed that it does do something [prayer’s answered] it comes down to chance and a whole load of hype [take Mother Teresa’s supposed miracles]. Religion is nothing more than than a glorified horoscope, or palm reader or snake oil dressed up and organised to collect money from worshipers and to place power into the hands of the few. So the choice for me is men in funny hats, mumbling stuff or a structured approach to research that provides repeatable and demonstrable evidence.

    And whilst this can not prove there is no god – what it does suggest is that things we used to put down to god (earthquakes, thunder storms, the solar eclipses, plagues and disease) are explainable logically and rationally without the need to invoke a supernatural being – that is one hell of a deduction.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — April 19, 2010 @ 5:25 am | Reply

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