Article

"Everyone Believes in Something"

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Three simple words. "No, they don’t."

A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a former CUT member who I hadn’t spoken to in about 15 years. We talked for about an hour, and as inevitably happens in these conversations, the discussion turned to belief, specifically my beliefs. I calmly explained to her that I tried not to have any beliefs at all, and only paid attention to or respected what was supported by the evidence. She practically snorted, "Well, everyone believes in something."

I tried to explain what I meant: That I systematically discounted and ignored anything that was not empirically supportable. Still she insisted that was a belief.

Usually at this point, I direct people to read my article Atheist Metaphysics and Religious Equivocation. In it, I explain how using the word "belief" in multiple contexts (to describe belief without evidence, belief in spite of evidence, or belief based on evidence) as if they were the same thing is equivocation. It’s like saying "day" actually also means "night" because a day has 24 hours. Technically, it’s true, but you have to qualify it, and make the distinction, explaining that when you say "day" you mean the entire rotation of the earth and not just "day" the time when it’s light. Deliberately confusing the two in conversation would be either woefully imprecise or downright mendacious. But that’s just what gets done every day with concepts involving "belief."

This discussion has been done to death in skeptical circles. Everyone who bothers to follow even the basics of critical thought is already aware of this potential for linguistic legerdemain. But it bears reiteration because as it turns out, this tactic only seems to be gaining strength in the popular press. It’s pretty evident many people find their hold on reality to be tenuous at best. They walk around strongly influenced by the latest thing they’ve heard or read. They mindlessly forward every ridiculous chain email about 9/11 conspiracies, numerology, gas boycotts, electronic "sensitivity" causing migraines (aggravated of course by ubiquitous 802.11 WiFi), without bothering to check snopes.com or even asking themselves if it makes any sense.

They also fail to understand that bad information crowds out good, that erroneous beliefs prevent true understanding and make the world a worse place to live. But that is of small consequence to the believer mentality. They have convinced themselves that not only are beliefs not harmful–they are necessary and beneficial. Such people are so driven by their beliefs, and more specifically fears, they can’t be bothered to run a reality check. They really do inhabit Carl Sagan’s "Demon Haunted World." Their emotional response is so strong, they have a vested interest in being riled up, and riling other people up in turn. For them, reality is just a party pooper.

But it’s part of a larger problem: People who are used to operating on beliefs can’t imagine living without them. They gain an emotional reward and a sense of narcissistic control by imagining that their opinions actually mean something. They feel something, and it is SO. They’ve essentially made themselves non-accountable for responding to anything going on outside themselves. This works OK until physical reality intervenes: "Gee, a concrete block just landed on my foot. I don’t believe it." But they still have to go to the hospital. Amazingly, such a person might still cling to their other "less concrete" beliefs even though their brush with reality has left them severely injured. They rationalize that "maybe their angels were on strike" and left them vulnerable. Anything but take simple responsibility for failing to get out of the way of the physical hazard.

It sounds mean to mock someone who’s been injured. But far worse than a severed foot is severance from knowledge. How many people have lost that tether? How many people live in a vast swirling sea of "I don’t fucking know?" Flailing blindly, they grasp onto any flotsam or jetsam, whether or not it’s carrying them further from shore. Rather than saying "Hey, over here, you’ve got to let go of the driftwood and grab the life preserver!" some people would rather we just let them all be swept out to sea.

For believers, any conveyance of information–no matter how factual or dispassionate–is viewed through a religious lens. They simply can’t imagine a life without beliefs. Every premise is weighed on its emotional value. Specifically, how does it impact the maintenance of their belief system? Is it friendly to how I want the world to be? I believe it. Is it threatening? It’s not true. They see conflicting information in terms of a conversion narrative. Because conversion is how they latched onto their current views, and conversion is the only way they would consider changing them. The possibility of de-conversion and the recognition of the tyranny of belief (previous article) is as unfamiliar as it is frightening.

Consider the following recent headlines:

  • Apostles of Atheism
  • Is Atheism Just a Bundle of Sentiments?
  • Gospel of Godlessness
  • Student Club Aims to Proselytize Atheism
  • Atheism as a Stealth Religion

So here we are back at square one. We have blatant and deliberate equivocation trumpeted in headlines. Like my earlier example of including "night" as an equivocated definition of "day," the authors of these headlines fail to distinguish between types of information. Every one of these articles casts skepticism, the scientific enterprise and those who value rigor in the same mold as believers. I always chuckle at this. Because if the believer mentality is so great, why use words like "apostle" (an ardent promoter), "gospel" (a revered text), "sentiments" (beliefs) as pejoratives about atheism? Aren’t believers accusing atheists of doing exactly what they proudly do? Doesn’t that just boggle the mind? "The Apostle Paul was great, but we should all run from the Apostles of Atheism." Really?

Either an apostle is a good thing or it’s not. I would say that depends highly on what the ‘apostle’ is promoting. Content, baby. Substance over style. But this very construction exposes the rotten core of belief. Believers know damn well that conversion depends not on the truth value of what the apostle is saying, but the emotional content. They only ask, "Is the apostle sincere and convincing? Is he on fire for his message?" Never "Is the apostle right?"–unless it’s an ‘apostle’ of atheism. It’s a category error. They know that describing any message in terms of a "gospel" (God’s spell) removes it from analysis. It must simply be accepted. Unless it’s scientific or skeptical. As they retreat to this contradictory and intellectually rotten core, (what an awful and frightening place to live) believers know they couldn’t be in a weaker position. Their world view literally collapses in on itself as it’s challenged from literally every corner. So they project the abject weakness of their very own beliefs out onto every area of human knowledge they find to be threatening or inconvenient.

It is a cowardly and futile enterprise. Yet seemingly more popular than ever.


Comments (23 comments)

BlackSun / March 26th, 2008, 4:51 am / #1

Godma,

To believe something is just to think it is true.

I guess that's one sense of the word. I would distinguish between believing something (thinking it's true) and believing IN something (having a more general acceptance of a person or a book or a way of life as generally valid). But we need a different word for belief based on evidence. It's not the same as other forms of belief. Which is why I generally do not use the word "belief" to describe it. I like knowledge. valhar2000,

I think everyone does beleive in something (in the traditional rather than the skeptical sense), even you and I, but only because we have not yet identfied and tested the “beliefs” we still hold. In many cases, becuase whatever “beliefs” we may still hold are inconsequential.

That is why my blurb says "the best anyone can do is to attempt to eliminate all beliefs and subjective biases." I don't think we can ever get there–but if we train ourselves to be skeptical, like you said, we can avoid the worst pitfalls of belief.

godma / March 26th, 2008, 10:37 am / #2

I’ve struggled with this as well, but at some point (I think it coincided with reading Sam Harris’s books) I decided to just let “belief” be the more general version and use other words to qualify it as needed (faith and certainty being two main ones). This has been working well: it is an easy way to establish common ground with faithful persons.

To believe something is just to think it is true. This is independent of how the belief is actually justified (e.g. faith, evidence, logic, intuition, etc.). I think this is a better way to avoid equivocation and unnecessary conflict, because it not only conforms better with common usage, but it is more precise.

valhar2000 / March 26th, 2008, 10:38 am / #3

Excellent post, Blacksun.

I just have one nit-pick to make, though I don’t think it impacts the thrust of your post at all:

I think everyone does beleive in something (in the traditional rather than the skeptical sense), even you and I, but only because we have not yet identfied and tested the “beliefs” we still hold. In many cases, becuase whatever “beliefs” we may still hold are inconsequential.

Human brains form beliefs; that’s the way they work. We can and do train ourselves to think in a different way, but we cannot fully scape our human natures.

Other than that, you have expressed vividly and very well thoughts that I have had for a long time. Ever since I saw a commenter in Amazon.com comparing Christians who follow Jesus to Atheists who follow, say, Charles Manson, and I realized how futile it was to try to explain to him that the two are not symmetrical; “we” do not follow anyone in that manner. He simply couldn’t get it, and I’ve seen many others similarly impaired since.

darkeros / March 26th, 2008, 12:22 pm / #4

Great piece, Black Sun. These people should thank you for all the time and energy you have poured into attempting to educate them! Over and over and over again!

And… hey!?!?! has anyone looked at the definition of the word ‘belief’? that is where I would send people who attribute the same characteristics to empirical evidence as to their opinions/convictions. The problem lies in these people’s belief about what ‘belief’ is!

Here’s the definition easily viewed at dictionary.com.

be-lief [bi-leef]
-noun 1. something believed; an opinion or conviction: a belief that the earth is flat. 2. confidence in the truth or existence of something (here it comes!….) not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof: a statement unworthy of belief. 3. confidence; faith; trust: a child’s belief in his parents. 4. a religious tenet or tenets; religious creed or faith: the Christian belief.

Come on people! lets take this discussion up a few notches! we can’t even begin without a baseline language to proceed from… which we have, but most refuse to educate themselves to.

So… please…. get your definitions clear and lets start a real discussion about the topic…. “No, I do not have a religious belief system. I live by what is supported by empirical evidence. And I do have beliefs! yes, I believe in the intelligence of the human to supersede such superstitons.”

godma / March 26th, 2008, 12:49 pm / #5

There are some common beliefs among scientists that the faithful can easily point to as faith-based beliefs:
1. empirical evidence is more reliable for guiding us to truth than intuition is
2. logical inconsistencies, should they occur, will automatically invalidate a belief system
3. repeatability and falsifiability are required in order to trust the results of an experiment

These are all self-supporting, so it seems appropriate to call these beliefs faith-based.

But there is a difference between merely taking something to be true for the purpose of argument and actually believing it to be true. In order for science to work, it must be constrained by certain assumptions such as the above, but they are just assumptions. Basing conclusions on assumptions is not the same as believing the assumptions. I wonder what percentage of scientifically minded people actually believe the above assumptions.

blind / March 27th, 2008, 8:05 am / #6

very good points, although i found myself wondering, "do i truly believe there is no god?" is belief the same as assumption? if i don’t 100% believe there is no god, does that mean i’m not really an atheist? if i take the stance, "well, i assume there isn’t a god" based on my experience, empirical "facts" (which are ever changing), etc., does that put me in the agnostic category?

i point more to the idea of "faith" as being completely unreasonable. faith – a belief that if i do (a) than (b) will happen, faith in the unprovable, unknowable. i don’t have faith in anything, because, as you wrote, "i don’t fucking know" playing the faith card essentially shuts down conversation, shuts down any chance of dialogue – it’s like someone putting their hand up and closing their eyes. this has probably been said before, of course.

BlackSun / March 27th, 2008, 8:35 am / #7

Godma,

I would argue the three points you listed are not beliefs.

1) Empirical methods and intuition are both necessary for science and perform different functions. Intuition tells you which experiments to try, while the experiment itself provides empirical evidence. I don’t think science would have gotten very far without intuition. But intuition must always remain subject to testing.

2) There are many paradoxes in science and mathematics. Some, like Godel’s incompleteness theorem seem to undermine the efficacy of the method. But I would caution against getting too upset about these types of problems. The vast majority of the scientific method is sound, and is also self-correcting. Is it perfect? Of course not. But look what happened with Fermat’s last theorem, which was not proved until 1994. So we cannot say that just because various paradoxes and unsolved problems remain, that it will always be so. There is a great unknown, all we can do is to push back the boundary a little bit. This does not require beliefs. Only that we be astutely careful with what we decide to include in the category of knowledge. As I’m fond of saying: "You don’t have to know everything to know something."

3) This is not a belief. If an experiment is not repeatable, then you have an unexplained phenomenon. This is common sense. You have to control for whatever is making the experiment turn out differently. Only then do you get a meaningful result. The changes you have to make to the experiment to get it to be repeatable are what lead to the expansion of knowledge. Again–not a belief. All we have to do is test this proposition, and we will see that it works. Will it always work? We don’t know. Hume’s point on the problem of induction tells us that no matter how many times we observe a given result we cannot be sure that it will be the same next time. All we can do is keep on checking, and keep looking for inconsistencies–which when found will ultimately add to the body of knowledge.

It’s simple, really.

Blind,

Many people espouse strong atheism, which positively asserts there’s no god. But in practice, this differs little from my position, which says "I’ve seen no evidence for a god, and I consider that the odds of the Judeo-Christian god existing as described by scripture are astronomically low."

Going the final step and positively asserting there’s no god of any kind is a leap of belief. If we want to keep our philosophy straight, thinking atheists should avoid taking this position to avoid the taint of believing something without evidence (since we cannot search the entire universe and prove there is no god). Being aware of the small possibility that some kind of deity exists is a healthy reality check.

nicole / March 27th, 2008, 11:54 am / #8

I am shocked to see these kind of articles. It seems you are so angry that people believe in God. If you don’t ‘believe’ in a God then why waste your energy worrying about it. when it doesn’t matter to you. Right? Why not focus your attention on something else? You seem very judgemental and very angry. This is sad., and definately not something I would want my child to be around. If everyone thought like you – this world would definately be a ‘black sun.”

Cristy / March 27th, 2008, 11:57 am / #9

blacksun,
You can prove nonexistence if something is logically impossible, so I would argue to you that the logical inconsistences in the definition of the western classical conception of god are proof that such a thing is impossible. For example, if I define a unicorn as a horse with a horn and then say that there is a unicorn with no horn, my second proposition contradicts the definition, so they can’t both be true. So if the existence of something is logcally impossible, it is not improper to say that it does not exist.

BlackSun / March 27th, 2008, 12:36 pm / #10

nicole,

Care to make an argument? Or are you just here to carp and vent? Anger is a great motivator–you should try it sometime.

Why do I worry about believers? Because they are trying to control the world we all have to share. They’re not content to pollute their own minds and ruin their own lives–they want to ruin mine and my kids’–who I’ve managed to keep safely away from the nightmare of religion, thank ‘god.’

Cristy,

I agree with you about the logical problem. And I think the likelihood is infinitesimally small. I’m just saying it’s good to not shut down any avenue of inquiry, including the possibility that the universe may contain undiscovered intelligence much greater than our own.

With respect to the Judeo-Christian “god”? It’s a pretty dead issue. I’m a strong atheist when it comes to that old tyrannical misogynistic bastard. You gotta hand it to those old testament scribes. They created a good villain–they did a far better job at that with the god character than with “the devil.”

blind / March 27th, 2008, 2:33 pm / #11

blacksun,
thanks for your reply – i tend to hold any opinionsi might have in an open palm – i’m not so insecure that i won’t change my view if presented with strong, overwhelming evidence that i’m wrong. i honestly find it extremely difficult to “believe” there’s even the slightest chance of a “god”, especially as it’s been defined on this planet by all the cultures that have a god or gods. but i love discussions like this – i have to take some time to think about where my head is at and if i’m holding on to any thought or belief that might be creating a negative outcome for myself or others.

i wanted to reply to nicole’s post because – well, i can (unless you don’t post this) – why do religious people spend some much time worrying about people who aren’t religious? why do religious people spend so much time worrying about gay people? why do religious people worry so much about abortion? if it doesn’t matter to you, that is, if it’s not something you would engage in, then why not focus your attention on something else? you seem very angry and judgmental about atheism and homosexuality and women’s rights (i know, you didn’t bring it up but it seems to be the most important topic for religious groups). i would not want my children to become people who think they know better than anyone else how to the world should be, how people should live their lives, based on some words that some old men wrote thousands of years ago before they even knew how babies were made. unfortunately there are too many people that think the way you do and take every opportunity to shove religion down my throat, trying to perpetuate a global community of fear. if what i believe or don’t believe is so threatening to your faith, then that’s something you need to take up with your god.

Tommy / March 29th, 2008, 7:32 am / #12

If I had a dollar for every time someone like Nicole asked “If you don’t believe in God, why spend so much time talking about it?” Well, as Black Sun wrote above, widely held religious beliefs effect us all.

Let me ask you this Nicole, in a child custody case where one of the parents is an atheist and another is a Christian who goes to church, should the religious belief or lack thereof of the parent be a factor in deciding which parent gets custody? In other words, should the one parent’s atheism be considerd making that parent unfit to get custody? If your answer is yes, then you are a perfect example of why we criticize religion.

dalai_rebel / March 29th, 2008, 1:00 pm / #13

Hey Sean!
What happened with Chris (baby horse)?
Why he left HORSE the band?
What´s he doing right now?

Greetings from a mexican HORSE the band fan,
a reader of black sun journal
and ex-TSL member.

Saludos; Dalai.

blind / March 31st, 2008, 5:45 am / #14

to tommy:
just a note of interest i thought i’d pass on – a few years ago, a friend of mine gave a survey for a research project on adoption by same-sex couples – one of the questions was something like, “mark and brian are a gay couple, they attend church regularly, etc,” and “mary and dave are a straight couple and don’t attend church regularly, etc,” and the question was which couple would be more suitable parents and believe it or not, the gay church-attending couple got the most votes (in all other questions, the gay couple lost). i’m all for gay/lesbian couples being allowed to adopt, but you can see where i might get a little perturbed by this issue!!!

PhillyChief / March 31st, 2008, 9:51 am / #15

Damn, I like this post. I also love the earlier one you linked to. I had a go at the subject you finished with, the apparent contradiction of theists attempting to discredit atheism by assigning to it the same characteristics of religion. In short I feel that the substance of atheism, based on a foundation of esteeming empirical evidence and experience and using them to know and understand the world through reason, is in fact esteemed by them as well and their inability to overcome reasoned objections to their beliefs is disconcerting to them. By instead claiming atheism is based on faith, not reason, they bring it down to their level and once there, it’s then a matter of choice. As a matter of choice then, a theist can use his irrational value system to value his belief over atheism by simply deciding his belief “feels” right.

Once again, great post and I was made aware of it by The Exterminator

Rusty Anchor / March 31st, 2008, 11:26 pm / #16

Very passionate and eloquent post, Blacksun. “How many people live in a vast swirling sea of ‘I don’t fucking know?'”

I don’t fucking know, but it’s way too many. And it really scares me…it’s not nice, but I’ve concluded that one of America’s biggest problems is that stupid people tend to elect stupid Presidents.

IMHO, stupid people shouldn’t vote. They don’t know enough to cast a rational, well-considered and logical vote in today’s complex world. Stupid people don’t read the paper, watch real news or stay in touch with relevant issues. Why the hell should they vote? Can’t we have a test of some sort?

They’re also much more likely to be bigots and essentially brain-dead from Christianity or another false belief system…democracy just doesn’t work well when stupid people are the majority. Many Americans are born stupid, but even more have their intelligence crucified by Christianity. Ain’t being an atheist fucking frustrating? Keep up the insightful posts…

blind / April 1st, 2008, 6:21 am / #17

rusty – stupid people breed more, that’s why. :/

heather / April 1st, 2008, 4:22 pm / #18

Great post. Oh, yes. So many people see no contradiction between willingly following a belief system themselves and ascribing the characteristics of “belief ” as an insult. to atheists. “Atheist dogma”,”fundamentalist atheism”, the “pope of atheism” etc.

Dogma – Surely, by definition, dogma is a set of core things you have to “believe” in as a member of a church. What sanctions uphold the imaginary atheist dogma?

Can you be excommunicated as an atheist and forced to believe in God? Am I failing to carry out the required atheist observances or recite the core beliefs from Dawkins? Will I be sent to heaven?

Cristy / April 2nd, 2008, 9:05 pm / #19

Rusty Anchor,

You said “Stupid people don’t read the paper, watch real news or stay in touch with relevant issues. Why the hell should they vote? Can’t we have a test of some sort?”

You ignore the fact that there are massive inequalities in this country and the level of education that people recieve is not equal at all. Try improving the school systems if you want people to be more knowledgable. Besides, what makes you think you have more of a right to vote than a mentally retarded person, for example? Who gets to set the standard of who is worthy of a vote? Not so long ago, women and nonwhite people were not considered worthy to have the right to vote. Either admit that everyone deserves the right or give up on the whole democracy concept.

Rusty Anchor / April 3rd, 2008, 1:36 am / #20

Cristy: Honesty, for me, trumps political correctness in this instance. The lack of honesty in our society, which I think is strongly linked to our strong Christian roots, is somewhat of a hidden plague.

Of course I’d like to see public schools perform better and receive more funding. But face it, stupid people are prone to casting votes for stupid, non-informed, ill-informed, and/or completely random reasons.

The higher percentage of the voting population that votes based on stupid, clueless reasons…. is basically why Bush is President. They completely dilute and distort our country’s ability to elect the candidate best for the country.

I don’t like calling people stupid. It sounds elitist and mean. But face it, if the goal is to elect qualified, competent and talented leaders, our democracy fails miserably. If stupid people couldn’t vote, the potential for improving education, helping the poor, etc., would increase…ironically helping the very stupid people you defend. That’s stupid.

as long as you have a significant percentage of voters voting based on primitive like, “Well, I remember Billy Bob saying he was supposed to do this…or was that the Republican? I can’t remember, PUNCH.”

Cristy / April 3rd, 2008, 8:45 am / #21

Rusty anchor,

The half of the population that doesn’t vote is more of the problem. I’ve spoken to many people who have disliked people like bush but didn’t vote. The problem in this country isn’t stupidity, it’s apathy and ignorance. Some people just are too lazy to bother and others don’t have the resources to gain the knowledge that they need to make educated decisions about politics. I went to a lower class, rural high school with failing tests scores and now I go to a large private university. The people in my high school were not any stupider than those at college, they just didn’t have the same opportunities. Ask yourself, why do those “stupid” people vote if they don’t care at all? It’s because even if their reasons are misguided, they at least care a little about who runs this country. If those people and the people who don’t vote, cared more and spent time trying to improve things and make rational political decisions, then things would improve. Consider this, if all of the people who didn’t vote had voted for Nader, or any other third party candidate, or Kerry, that person would have won by a landslide.

Rusty Anchor / April 3rd, 2008, 10:45 am / #22

Cristy, let me clarify my position a bit. There are many types of stupidity, some of which are voluntarily embraced, e.g., Christianity, rather than merely the result of a bad roll of the genetic dice.

For instance, any heterosexual Christian who chooses a President solely on two issues which would NEVER have ANY effect on their life–keeping gay marriage and abortion illegal–is, by my definition, stupid. This group includes millions of Americans, many of which would never be considered stupid in the traditional sense. But they truly are stupid, and nobody can argue that their collective stupidity does anything but harm our country.

Imo, stupid people are intimidated by smart Presidential candidates like Obama. They prefer a candidate who gives them a chance to think, “Hey, I’m not that stupid. Look at the President.”

Today, George W. Bush is regularly giving millions of stupid Americans this irresistible yet false re-evaluation of their place in the world’s sea of brains. In conclusion, stupid people DO elect stupid Presidents. If we don’t want the most powerful country in the world run by stupid white men, then I think we should worry about all the stupid votes our well-considered and well-researched votes must compete with.

iconoklast / May 19th, 2008, 9:42 am / #23

Linguistic legerdemain. Ha! I effing love that phrase…. I’m jealous I didn’t write it….

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