What Does it Mean to Believe in Something?

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.

What Does it Mean to Believe in Something?

18 thoughts on “What Does it Mean to Believe in Something?

  1. 2

    Believe in has always annoyed me… It doesn’t seem to be a useful construction.
    “I believe in turtles” – So, you think that they exist? Or you think they’re good? Or you feel you can trust them? …not a useful collection of words.
    It annoys me that the English language has so many useful words and helpful ways to construct them… But we got and seize on one particular phrase that sounds good and beat it to death.
    I do not believe in God. I do not think that God exists at all. And if God does exist, it certainly isn’t good, nor do I trust it.

  2. 3

    RE: the abolition of the designated hitter rule
    Damn straight! You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. If you don’t do all three, you’re not a ballplayer.
    The Curse of the Bambino used to be the only supernatural thing in which I “believed.” Now I’m set adrift.

  3. 4

    I agree with Ephemerlis. I don’t use the word believe, I use the word think. To me, the term believe means to have faith in something, to think it exists without any basis in fact. So I, actually, do not believe in anything. I think about them and have opinions.

  4. 5

    This reminds me of an old punch line that some atheists used when asked if they “believe in the Bible” — “sure, I believe the Bible exists — I’ve got a copy on my bookshelf.”

  5. 6

    The thing is that I don’t need to believe that things exist because I can see them or otherwise test for their existence myself. Belief doesn’t come into it at all. Belief implies a conscious decision but my perception of reality that I hold to be true does not require conscious effort.
    Even for concepts where I am unable to perform or unwilling the testing myself I don’t have to believe in them, I only need to trust that someone else has made that effort and they are correct. I believe them, not the thing they say.
    The second approach to believing in a concept is really a conclusion that is reached by applying our understanding of the world and our experiences to an idea. We can all hold true or false beliefs based on our understanding of evidence or on the things that we have been told. Beliefs themselves should be open to challenge as evidence supports or undermines them. Claims of unshakable belief are simply saying that new evidence will automatically be rejected and old evidence will never be re-examined. I would rather people put less stock in beliefs and more in evidence based thinking.

  6. 7

    “We believe in nothing, Lebowski. Nothing. And tomorrow we come back and we cut off your johnson.”
    (There is no blog post for which there is not an appropriate quote from The Big Lebowski.)

  7. 8

    Before my comment, one tangent:
    Tommy, the Curse of the Bambino WAS real. If you have any doubt: October 25, 1986.
    Now, the comment. Greta, you’re my favorite philosopher. You said here something I knew, but hadn’t put into words. Thank you!
    (And if they keep it, I propose they change the name to the Designated Unable-to-field Hitter, or DUH.)

  8. 9

    Well said! I always knew this, and have even attempted to express it, but you put it clearly.
    In particular, it’s worth pointing out the ambiguity of the expression and the risk when using it of conflating two very different concepts.
    I believe (sense 1) in the existence of secret CIA prisons. I also believe they’re every bit as evil as the Lubiyanka, Hoa Lo, and Tuol Sleng prisons, and are a affront to the honor of the United States and the constitution that Obama swore (twice!) to defend.
    I believe in (sense 2) treating all people as if created equal, even though I know damn well it’s not true. Some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouths, and others with a crack pipe. But I take a lesson from _Gattaca_ and think that everyone should have equivalent opportunity.

  9. 11

    I like the post, but I agree with hoverFrog that one doesn’t “believe” facts, one simply accepts them. Aside from that quibble, I like your distinction between the real and the good. It seems elementary, from one perspective, but sometimes we lose sight of the simple things.

  10. 12

    chaplain, I’d like to disagree. There are facts in dispute that one may or may not believe. Do you believe Goldbach’s conjecture? is true? Or that there exists a smooth solution to the Navier-Stokes euqations? Or that superstrings exist? How about the Higgs boson? Those aren’t ambiguous statements; they’re either true or false. But nobody knows for sure which, and can legitimately have different opinions.
    Do you believe that Colonel Mustard did it with the lead pipe in the conservatory? Who do you believe was the father of Louis XIV? (Louis XIII, being gay and living apart from his wife, is far from the only candidate.)
    What word do you propose, other than “believe”, to describe such hypotheses?

  11. 13

    I always ask them to EXPLAIN the question. Usually what it boils down to is, “Don’t you believe in anything SUPERNATURAL?” When they say “something greater than yourself” – well sure, there are plenty of things greater than myself. The universe, this planet, the human race. I don’t have to “believe in” them, any more than I have to “believe” in gravity. They ARE. I always say that the natural world is enough for me. It is full of wonder and mystery.

  12. 15

    Back when that guy shot up the Amish school, several reporters said some variant of “The Amish don’t believe in cell phones or helicopters, and now they’re depending on them.”
    This neatly illustrates the problem of the word. Of COURSE the Amish “believe in” cell phones and helicopters: they see them pretty much every day. But there is certainly a sense in which they don’t “believe in” them: they reject their morality, or usefulness, or something (I’m not entirely clear on their problems with using technology).
    To a theist, “I don’t believe in God” parses the way “the Amish don’t believe in helicopters” does. Of course the atheists know God exists; we simply reject him.

  13. 16

    You missed at least some definitions of “believing” – as illustrated by the top graphic in the post immediately following this one on the flip side.
    [ftr: that’s a photo of candidate Barack H. Obama amidst a puddle of “CHANGE we can believe in” signs.]
    Believing is also a) a vehicle for abstract-unto-meaninglessness slogans; b) a vehicle for social exploitation; c) a vehicle for social-group bonding & identity.
    [ftr 2: please read above as an expression of Obamambiguity, not as a threadjacking slur on the regime nouveau.]
    [ftr 3: fine post!]

  14. 17

    I just found a name for this dichotomy: the Is-ought problem, articulated by David Hume.
    From A Treatise on Human Nature book III (1740):

    In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

  15. 18

    I had a similar argument on the definition of “truth”, where the person I was arguing with was unable to distinguish between “truth: fact, evidence, real” and “truth: personal truth, personal experience, personal observation”. Where I was arguing about empirical truth, saying that the “truth” does not require anyone to believe in it to be true, it just is whether we like it or know about it or not, she kept insisting that there are different “truths”, such as her feelings and her perceptions of things.
    Which concepts that we like to wrap up together under a single word in the English language baffle me sometimes.

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