Faith, Belief, and Unbelief

John S Wilkins of ‘Evolving Thoughts’  is exploring some definitions to facilitate a discussion of the philosophical landscape around the issues of atheism, agnosticism, theism, and so on.

One point I took issue with in his first post was his statement that “To be an agnostic is to neither have nor not have a belief” which seems to me to be putting the existence of agnostics in conflict with the “Law of the Excluded Middle”. Although in colloquial speech we may often say “I don’t believe it is raining” with an implication that we actually believe it is not raining, this is a) really just a colloquialism, and b) not the same wording as “I don’t have a belief that  it is raining”.

I expect Wilkins’ further discussions to be interesting and possibly illuminating, but I am actually more interested in understanding what drives people who profess apparently (to me) unfounded beliefs, than in clarifying the language of those who do not.  Commenter Sarah Collett, referring to her own Christian belief (Mormon background)  says “I believe in Christ. . .  . I do not know if Christ is divine. But I choose his philosophy”, and on her own site she expresses some of the challenges of what I would describe as sharing faith without belief.

Clearly, by “believe in Christ” Ms Collett cannot mean “believe that Christ is divine” (since she asserts one and denies the other), and it struck me that to “believe in Christ” in the sense of choosing his philosophy does not even have to imply “believe in the existence of Christ as a real physical being”. He or it could be just a concept, and to “believe in” something or someone is not necessarily to believe the proposition of its existence as a physical entity. “I believe in fairies” may ask to be interpreted that way, but for “I believe in you” to be taken the same way would be . . . well . . . at least redundant. In fact, “I believe in you” is not at all an existence claim regarding the listeners, but rather a statement of trust or faith in their ability or willingness to do something that the speaker values. Perhaps it would be less confusing if such occurrences of “belief in” were all replaced by “faith in” or “trust in”, but that is unlikely to happen and the best we can do is try to be aware of the possibility that they aren’t tied to a physical existence claim.

With such a sense of “believe in” it seems not unreasonable for someone to say something like “I believe in Him who I do not believe exists” (or even “who, I believe, almost certainly does not exist”) – and in fact I suspect that many high-ups in the Anglican communion are pretty close to that position.[Note (added Aug 5 2011): as are also apparently a substantial fraction of the mainstream Dutch Protestant Church]

Those who might mock such a faith are answered quite effectively by Ms Collett’s clarification that what she is relying on Christ (be he person, god, or myth) to provide is not anything physical but just moral guidance from what she assumes to be “his” philosophy.

It seems to me that Ms Collett’s sense of what “belief” means is as valid as any other, and that it is unfair of Wilkins to dismiss her definition as “begging the question” – (isn’t that really what all definitions do to some extent anyway?)

But when she says “I find that belief is only valid if it is accompanied by some choice” and “What does an atheist choose to manifest his belief that there is no God?” I think she is making an error in the other direction.  Actually maybe a couple. There is really no reason why belief in  the truth of  a proposition must always lead to some action, and the lack of any such implied action does not make the proposition irrelevant or meaningless. For example “2+2=4” is a useful proposition which I believe to be true, but it calls on no action from me except when combined with other facts. Similarly “there are no gods” does not force any action upon us, and contrary to Wilkins’ reply to Collett, it does not even require that we refuse to act as if we believed its negation. For example Wilkins says that “if an atheist has a positive belief that there is no god, that will necessarily <emphasis added> affect the way they live (for a start, they may not pay any attention to religiously-based prescriptions about sexuality or submission of women)”, but if I was surrounded by co-tribalists who would stone me and my family to death should I fail to beat my wife for crossing some forbidden line then I probably would beat her if she did accidentally cross it (and I suspect that she might well be thankful for that) even if, in the privacy of my own mind, I had no truck with the mean and foolish beliefs of my community.

In fact it is true that atheism per se provides no moral guidance, but what many who fear it fail to note is that that does not preclude those who lack gods from finding such guidance elsewhere (either from external sources or by consulting their own internal “conscience”).


Bible = AllBooks, Divinely inspired? – Isn’t everything?

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2 Responses to Faith, Belief, and Unbelief

  1. I really appreciate that you took my question seriously. I have never read about atheism from a philosophic standpoint and have become aware that many disaffected and ex Mormons choose this conclusion. I did want to clarify some of my words. Or maybe just add to them. What I meant by “I do not know if he is divine” is that I do not have knowledge of his divinity. I no longer feel comfortable claiming knowledge. I accept that he may not be but hope that he is. You are right. My belief does not depend on either as it is a choice. But I do love the Christ as a divine figure. However, I am also in love with the idea that God is not definable. That he manifest himself through us and our experiences with him. I know and love Christianity so I choose it.

  2. Oh and one more thing. You make very good points for how I make an error in the question. Good food for thought. I will think about this some more…

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