Daily Archives: 9 December 2011

Belief vs belief

“Atheists don’t believe in anything” is an odd thing to say, when you think about it. It’s based on a twisted and confused understanding of what belief really is. Very simply put, in everyday conversation, ‘belief’ refers to a person’s convictions. They are matters of faith rather than ones where evidence or proof is thought to be evidence or even relevant. In matters of philosophy a ‘belief’ is ‘any fact of the matter or proposition which might be held to be true’, or what we think of as being true for everyone and everything, for example:

It is Friday.
I was born more than 3 days ago.
The sun will rise in the east and set in the west (relative to my current location).

That kind of thing are objectively true (or false) for everyone. Beliefs can be very specific or very general, trivial or serious. Beliefs can be suppositions (if the sun had come out it would have been a brighter day) or absolute statements of fact (If Alex is taller than Beth and Beth is taller then Cait then Alex is taller than Cait).

Philosophically ‘beliefs’ have truth value. They are capable of being true or false.

We have two distinct kinds of belief: The kind of beliefs that are either true or false and the kind of beliefs that are strongly held convictions. The latter include:

democracy is the best form of government.
cats are better pets than dogs.
Mozart was the finest composer who ever lived.
apples are a finer food than oranges.

These are subjective and are based on the preferences of the person making them. There is a distinction here that is sometimes lost when we discuss beliefs. How many times have you seen or heard the question “How can an atheist go through life believing in nothing?” or something similar? I’ve even seen it given as a statement and a condemnation. Atheists or rational beliefs are dismissed as having less value than theistic beliefs. Ultimately though, it is a failure of the person asking the question in understanding the difference between conviction and truth.

People of strong conviction even refer to their beliefs as truth, sometimes even capitalising it as Truth to give in added power. I know I’ve done it, I’ve considered some of my own convictions as so obvious and irrefutable that they must be true. Again though this is a confusion between the idea of belief inherent in truth and the belief inherent in a strongly held conviction. There being no way to prove (or disprove) the existence of God or gods, religion is a belief that falls firmly within the bounds of a conviction and is incapable of being true or false without further evidence. That isn’t to say that we cannot glean honest and good ideas from religion, just that the idea of proof isn’t relevant.

What meaning do we give to our lives without the firm convictions of religious belief? It isn’t as easy as taking the beliefs of a community (a church) or a family and adopting them. An atheist instead has to ascribe meaning to their own life and adopt those convictions that make sense. For me that gives the beliefs that I hold greater strength. I have challenged them myself in arriving at them (and continue to do so) so they are much stronger as a result. The values that I have and the beliefs that I hold have come about through questioning and evaluating them. It is true that some theists do this too. I just don’t think that they do it as often.

When someone says of an atheist that we don’t believe in anything they are failing to grasp the nature of belief. Both a theist and a non-theist may share identical beliefs in things that have truth value but will differ in beliefs that are formed of conviction. We both have convictions and true beliefs but some people fail to grasp the difference and place them together. This doesn’t help anyone to discuss or understand the differences in their beliefs.

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