This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
Is atheism a belief?
I really wish I could just leave it at that. Maybe post a funny story about Einstein here instead, or show you some cute pictures of our cats.
But I suppose I can’t just leave it at that.
Here’s the thing. One of the most common accusations aimed at atheists is that atheism is an article of faith, a belief just as much as religion. Because atheism can’t be proven with absolute 100% certainty, the accusation goes, therefore not believing in God means taking a leap of faith — a leap of faith that’s every bit as irrational and unjustified as religion.
It’s a little odd to have this accusation hurled in such an accusatory manner by people who supposedly respect and value faith. But that’s a puzzle for another time. Today, I want to talk about a different puzzle — the puzzle of what atheism really is, and how it gets so misunderstood.
Let’s start with this right off the bat: No, atheism is not a belief. For me, and for the overwhelming majority of atheists I know, atheism is not the a priori assumption that there is no God. Our atheism is not an article of faith, adhered to regardless of what evidence does or does not support it. Our atheism is not the absolute, 100%, unshakeable certainty that there is no God.
For me, and for the overwhelming majority of atheists I know, our atheism is a provisional conclusion, based on careful reasoning and on the best available evidence we have. Our atheism is the conclusion that the God hypothesis is unsupported by any good evidence, and that unless we see better evidence, we’re going to assume that God does not exist. If we see better evidence, we’ll change our minds.
Look at it this way. Are you 100% certain that the Earth is round? Are you 100% certain that there are no unicorns? I assume the answer is a pretty heartfelt, “No.” I assume you accept that it’s hypothetically possible, however improbable, that unicorns really exist and that all physical traces of them have disappeared by magic. I assume you accept that it’s hypothetically possible, however improbable, that the Earth really is a flat disc carried on the back of a giant turtle, and that all evidence to the contrary has been planted in our brains by hyper-intelligent space aliens as some sort of cosmic prank.
Does that mean your conclusions — the “no unicorns/ round Earth” conclusions — are articles of faith?
No. Of course not.
Your conclusion that there are no unicorns on this round Earth of ours is based on careful reasoning and the best available evidence you have. If you saw better evidence — if there were a discovery of unicorns on a remote island of Madagascar, if you saw an article in the Times about an astonishing but well-substantiated archeological find of unicorn fossils — you’d change your mind.
And that’s the deal with atheism. If atheism is a belief, then any conclusion we can’t be 100% certain of is a belief. And that’s not a very useful definition of the word “belief.” With the exception of certain mathematical and logic conclusions (along the lines of “if A and B are true, then C is true”), we don’t know anything with 100% certainty. But we can still make reasonable conclusions about what is and is not likely to be true. We can still sift through our ideas, and test them, and make reasonable conclusions about how likely or unlikely they are. And those conclusions are not beliefs. If that’s how you’re defining belief, then just about everything we know is a belief.
Religious belief, on the other hand, is a belief. If you ask most religious believers, “What would convince you that your belief was mistaken? What would convince you that God does not exist?”, they typically reply, “Nothing. I have faith in my God. Nothing would persuade me that he was not real. That’s what it means to have faith.” This isn’t true of all believers — some will say that their religious belief is based on evidence and reason and could be falsified — but when you press them hard on what evidence would persuade them out of their belief, they get very slippery indeed. They keep moving the goalposts again and again, or they keep changing their definitions of God to the point where he’s so abstract he essentially can’t be disproven, or they make their standards of evidence so impossible that they’re laughably absurd. (“Come up with an alternate explanation for the existence of every single physical particle in the universe. Everything — down to the minutest sub-atomic particle known or surmised presently, to everything yet to be discovered in the future — must be accounted for up-front each with its own individual explanation.” I’m not kidding. Someone actually said that.) Their belief might be falsifiable in theory… but in practice, it’s anything but. In practice, it’s an a priori assumption, an axiom they start with and are not willing to let go of, no matter how much overwhelming evidence there is contradicting it, or how many logical pretzels their axiom forces them into.
And that’s conspicuously not the case for atheism.
Now, a few atheists will contradict this. A few atheists do say, “Yes, I’m 100% persuaded that atheism is correct.” But when you press them on it, they almost always acknowledge that yes, hypothetically, there might be some God hypothesis that’s correct. Even if it’s not a God hypothesis that anyone actually believes in, or even if it’s only the most detached, deistic, non-interventionist, “for all practical purposes non-existent” God you can think of… when pressed, even the ardent “100-percenters” acknowledge that there’s a minuscule, entirely hypothetical possibility that God exists. When they say they’re 100% convinced of their atheism, they mean that they’re 100% convinced for all practical purposes, given the best information they currently have.
And that’s still a conclusion — not a belief.
So is atheism a belief?
Once again, I dearly wish I could just end it there. Fill out the rest of this piece with some tirades against the religious right, or tell you an inappropriate and irrelevant anecdote about my sex life. (Or show you some more pictures of my cats. They’re very cute. I promise you.)
But I’m afraid I can’t.
Because we have a somewhat knottier question here, a question that muddies this issue and makes conversations about it a giant, slippery mess.
We have the question of what the word “belief” even means.
The word “belief” has multiple meanings. It can mean a basic tenet — in other words, a doctrine or dogma — especially in a religious context. But it can also simply mean an opinion or conviction: something thought to be true or not true. It can mean “trust or confidence” — such as, “I believe in my marriage.” And, of course, it can mean “deeply held core value, something that’s considered to be fundamentally good” — such as, “I believe in democracy.”
That’s true for a lot of words, of course. Plenty of words have multiple meanings; some even have meanings that are almost the opposite of each other. But because this particular word is so central to religion and the debates about it, it come with an inordinate amount of problematic baggage.
When they’re debating atheists or defending their religion, religious people often blur the lines between some or all of these different meanings, slipping back and forth between them. In trying to defend the validity of their own beliefs — or to slur atheists with the appalling (if somewhat baffling) taint of having faith — religious people often conflate these different meanings of the word “belief.”
They mix up the “opinion or conclusion” meaning with the “doctrine or dogma” meaning, to make any reasonably plausible conclusion seem like unsupported dogma… or to make unsupported dogma seem like any other reasonably plausible conclusion. They mix up the “core value” meaning with the “doctrine or dogma” meaning, to make any passionate conviction seem like stubborn close-mindedness… or to make inflexible adherence to dogma seem like a strong moral foundation. They mix up the “trust and confidence” meaning with the “doctrine or dogma” meaning, to make any act of confidence without absolute certainty seem like irrational blindness… or to make belief in that for which there’s no good evidence seem like a loving act of loyalty, and to make atheism seem suspicious and cynical.
If atheists say, “I don’t believe in God,” religious people will reply, “See? Atheism is a belief!” (Overlooking the fact that “Not believing in X” isn’t the same as “Believing in Not X.”) If atheists say, “I believe in evolution” — meaning, “I think evolution is true” — religious people will jump all over it, saying, “See? Atheists believe in evolution, just like I believe in God!” (Overlooking the fact that evolution is a conclusion supported by a massively overwhelming body of hard physical evidence from every relevant branch of science, and that religion is supported primarily by logical errors, cognitive errors, misunderstandings of probability, an excessive tendency to trust authority figures and things we were taught as children, and the demonstrably flawed cognitive process known as intuition.) If atheists say, “I believe in something bigger than myself,” religious people will reply, “See? See? You have beliefs! Therefore, your atheism is a belief!” (Overlooking the fact that atheists having beliefs is not the same as atheism being a belief. Sheesh.)
Even if it’s patently clear from context which definition of “belief” we’re using, it’s way too common for religious followers to twist it around into the definition that best supports their… well, their beliefs.
And because of this, I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that, when atheists are discussing our own ideas and feelings and conclusions, we should stop using the word “belief.” I’m trying to wean myself off of it, and I’m encouraging other atheists to do the same.
If we want to say that we think something is true, I think we should use the word “conclusion.” (Or “opinion,” depending on how certain we are about what we think.) If we want to say that we think something is good, I think we should use the word “value.” If we want to say that we have trust or confidence in something, I think we should use the word… well, “trust” or “confidence.” I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that the word “belief” is irrevocably tainted: there’s no way to use it in discussions with believers without the great likelihood of being misunderstood. Deliberately or otherwise. So whenever it seems likely that our use of the word “belief” will be misunderstood — and it seems that any use of the word “belief” is likely to be misunderstood — we should endeavor to make our language as clear and precise as possible.
It’s impossible to prevent religious believers from twisting our ideas. It’s impossible to prevent religious believers from putting words in our mouth, and pretending that we said things we clearly never said and don’t think.
But we don’t have to help them.