What does it mean to believe in something?
One of the most common canards thrown at atheists… I’m sorry, but I’m being overcome with giggles right now, since the word “canard” comes from the French for “duck,” and I’m now picturing a brace of ducks being hurled at the attendees of an atheist convention by angry but confused fundamentalists. I’m a little punchy tonight. I’ll start again.
One of the most common accusations thrown at atheists is that we “don’t believe in anything.” It’s often said as part of the “without religion there’s no reason for morality” refrain, and it’s definitely at the heart of the nitwit “people who believe in nothing will believe in anything” syllogism. Now, the standard atheist response to this is to say, “We do so believe in stuff!” and to then list stuff the atheist in question believes in: music, love, kindness, truth, the abolition of the designated hitter rule, whatever. And I’m happy to go there as well. But today, I want to do something different.
Today, I want to take a closer look at this whole “atheists don’t believe in anything” notion. I want to figure out what it means, where it’s coming from. (Other than the obvious, “we’re just going to keep saying how immoral and pointless atheist lives are and hope something sticks,” of course.) Today, I want to ask, “What does it mean to believe in something?”
A while back (I was still calling myself an agnostic, which gives you an idea of how long ago it was), I wrote a piece pointing out that the question, “Why are we here?” has two very different meanings. It can mean, “What caused us to be here?”, or it can mean, “What is our purpose?” And I pointed out that religious belief tends to conflate these two meanings — the answer to both questions is, “God” — but that, for non-believers, those two questions have completely different answers. What caused us to be here is the process of evolution and the physical laws of cause and effect; our purpose is whatever we decide our purpose is.
I want to make a similar argument about what it means to believe in something.
There are two very different meanings to the phrase, “believing in something.” There’s “believing that the thing exists.” If you believe in fairies, that means you think fairies exist; if you believe in the shock doctrine, that means you believe that corporations and governments deliberately take advantage of the chaos following disasters to impose unpopular policies that would otherwise encounter resistance.
And then there’s “believing that the thing is good and will result in good things.” If you believe in democracy, that means you believe democracy is generally the best form of government and will yield good results; if you believe in President Obama, that means you believe that he’ll be a good President, who will fulfill his campaign promises and make the country better.
Now, for religious believers, these two meanings are often conflated when it comes to God. Believing in God means believing that God exists — and it means believing that God is good, smart and benevolent and successfully carrying out a plan that will be best for everyone.
But if you don’t believe in God, the things you believe exist and the things you believe are good are often going to be completely different.
Examples. Things I “believe in” in the sense of thinking they exist and are real: I believe in germs. Evolution. An expanding universe. The size of the human pelvic girdle as a limiting factor on the size of the human brain. The ultimately physical nature of everything in the universe. The capacity of the human mind to believe what it expects or wants to believe, and to twist the evidence to fit those expectations or beliefs. I don’t necessarily think these things are good — in some cases, they seriously suck — but I believe they exist and are true.
And things I “believe in” in the sense of thinking they’re good: Love. Sex. Democracy. Reason. Compassion. Social responsibility. The pursuit of knowledge. The ability of human beings to solve problems when they put their minds to it. I don’t necessarily think these things are always in existence — all too often, they’re conspicuously absent — but I believe that they are good, and will more often than not result in good things.
Now, I think that for many theists, this concept is very alien. For many theists, the most important thing that they believe in — the thing without which nothing else makes sense to them — is God. And for these theists, believing that God exists and believing that God is good are equally important. In fact, they’re deeply intertwined. The idea that God exists and created everything else that exists is intimately bound up with the idea that God is good and that whatever he says and does must, pretty much by definition, be the best thing. God is not only good — God is goodness. And to deny the existence of God must seem to them like denying the existence of goodness.
But for atheists, the things we believe are true and the things we believe are good don’t have to be the same things. We don’t see God as the one source of all that exists and of all that is good. We don’t see God, period.
So we’re free to believe that big important things exist, but still suck. And we’re free to believe in ideals and goals that are not always present or even ultimately attainable, but are still worth reaching for. We’re free to recognize harsh reality as part of, well, reality, and we don’t have to twist our understanding of that reality to fit the idea of a perfect God and a perfect Creation. And we’re free, within that often harsh reality, to decide for ourselves what we think is good, what we think minimizes suffering and maximizes joy… and we’re free to do so based on the experience we have of that reality, and the evidence we have about that reality, without twisting that experience and evidence to fit a preconceived notion about God’s opinion of it all. We’re free to see goodness as a human construct, an expression of our evolutionary wiring as social animals… and to still see it as real and important and something worth striving for.
In other words: We’re free to see the things we believe are real, and the things we believe are good, as totally different things. And we are therefore free to explore both reality and goodness, to figure out what they are and what they mean to us and to act on that, as thoroughly and honestly and unflinchingly as we possibly can.
Which, IMO, is a pretty good working definition of believing in something.