I spoke by telephone to Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom from Religion Foundation for a radio interview about my generosity article. It is now available as a podcast at http://ffrf.libsyn.com/generosity.
There is an enormous confusion around what atheists are claiming. It is my belief that theists do not understand the proposition coming from the atheist side, “I don’t believe in any gods.” They literally don’t know what this means. Furthermore, most atheists do not understand the claim of the theist: “I believe in God.” So there is an almost perfect confusion between the two parties.
The root of the problem, in my opinion, lies in the peculiarities of usage of the word ‘belief’ (and of course its cognates ‘believe’, ‘believer’, and so on).
When the theist says to his atheist friend, “I believe in God; you believe that there is no God,” he sounds as if he is saying that there is a certain thing he does, that his friend the atheist does not do; and that this is the practical difference between their philosophies. But this is a misconstrual. What he has in fact done is to use the word ‘believe’ in two different ways in the same sentence.
Let me repeat the example from the atheist point of view, to show that the problem is exactly the same.
When the atheist says to his theist friend, “You believe in God; I don’t,” he has (implicitly) used the word ‘believe’ in two different ways in the same sentence. He seems to be saying that there is a certain thing his friend the theist does, that he does not do; and that this is the practical difference between their philosophies. But this is a mistake.
It is not true that there is a thing that people can do, called “believing in God,” with the difference between theists and atheists being that the first do it and the second do not. The “believing in God” that characterizes theism is a different activity from the “believing in God” that atheists do not do. If this sounds ridiculous, please bear with me a moment.
The problem is that the word ‘believe’ can be used with two, completely different senses.
When I, as an atheist, say I “do not believe” that any gods exist, I am talking about a (possibly tentative) conclusion I have come to about the world based on my experience. I’ve studied the issue, thought about it carefully, consulted with friends; most importantly, I have looked for evidence of these gods, and found none. When I say “I don’t believe,” I mean that as far as I can tell, I don’t see any good evidence.
The theist’s use of this word has a different sense—in fact, the opposite sense. When the theist says that he “believes in God,” he is referring to an opinion that depends not a whit on observational evidence. In religious parlance, my “belief” is something I hold onto no matter what. Nothing I observe in the world, ever, can obligate me to alter my “belief in God.”
So, you see, a theist and an atheist can be standing side by side, and the first can say, “I believe in God,” and the second, “I don’t believe in God,” and they are talking about completely different things. The theist means, “There’s a warm feeling in my heart that I will never give up.” The atheist means, “I’ve looked into it and the case is not strong.” These are not opposite opinions, they are opinions on distinct topics. The two witnesses are not on opposite sides. They don’t even really disagree.
To review. The verb ‘to believe’ refers to something one does with an intelligible proposition.
Compare with the verb ‘to read’. Reading is something you do with a text. If you say, “Let me read you something,” and you talk to us, but you’re not referring to a text, then you used the wrong word. Whatever you’re doing, it isn’t reading.
Similarly, if you say “I believe that Jesus loves me,” you used the wrong word. “Jesus loves me” is not a proposition, only a pseudo-proposition – so your relationship to it is one of pseudo-belief.
To this thesis, some people reply along these lines. “I used to be a Christian, so I know what it’s like. I really believed all that stuff. It is presumptuous and absurd for you to tell me otherwise. I really believed that Jesus loved me. I felt it in my heart. It was a good feeling! And I really believed that if I did the wrong thing I would burn in Hell – which genuinely terrified me, especially when I was little. How can you possibly say I didn’t believe? Are you claiming to know more about the inner workings of my brain than I do?”
Notice that the emphasis in this report is on how the propositions you “believed” made you feel. You’re remembering emotions you had, and offering those emotions as evidence for the idea that you “really believed.” I see a few problems here.
To my claim that you didn’t have a belief about Jesus, you reply that you had a feeling. But I did not say there were no feelings. I said there was no belief.
Are you saying that the intensity of your feelings is a kind of proof that you really believed? That would be false, because an image in your mind can have profound effects on your feelings without it being a belief.
When someone tells me about the horrors of Hell, I am horrified. This is an emotional reaction. The same thing happens when I watch a scary movie. My thoughts, feelings, breathing, heartbeat and skin conductance may all be affected; but none of these responses is properly called belief. I don’t believe the images in the movie. They are not propositions.
Religious teachings put images and slogans and feelings in your mind. And those things are routinely called beliefs, but this is a misuse of the term. An image is not a belief; a slogan is not a belief; nor is a feeling. Belief is something else.
This is not to say that no one can have beliefs! One can have beliefs. There are, for example, comforting notions like “There is someone who loves me,” and “I’m not alone,” and “Some day soon, I’ll be happy.” Such ideas are not incoherent – but neither are they religious. The Credo does not say, “Everything will be OK.” That is not a specifically Christian idea. Christianity says incoherent things like “Jesus loves you” – that is: a living person, who is not living, and not a person, has feelings for you, which are not feelings, and not for you. That’s the kind of thing that the church says you should believe. But no one can do that. It’s impossible. People do have ideas about something they call Jesus, but they don’t have that idea, because it’s not even an idea!
And everyone’s idea is different. Your image of Jesus can’t be canonical, so it’s personal. The comforting picture in your mind is different from everyone else’s comforting picture. One person’s Jesus looks kind of like her dad. Another’s looks like a soft blue cloud. But no one’s picture can be said to be more accurate than anyone else’s, because there is nothing “out there” to compare them with. The ideas we think of as being about Jesus are not about anything at all.
So when people say, “Christians believe X,” it’s not true. There is nothing that fits that description. What the church says you should believe, no one does. There is no Christian belief, only Christian slogans; and myriads of personal, individual beliefs. And all these have in common is the special words used to describe them – a Christian vocabulary of meaningless terms. Everyone uses the word ‘Jesus’, the word ‘God’, the word ‘salvation’; which fosters the appearance that everyone agrees about certain things. But no one knows what the words mean! So they haven’t agreed on anything.
You might be wondering: Why do people say such things, if they don’t believe them? Well, that’s how it all ends up making sense.
Look at it socially instead of semantically. To pronounce a phrase such as “I believe that Jesus loves me” is a social gesture. It’s almost completely independent of what the words mean. “Jesus loves me” is empty of sense, and therefore, “I believe that Jesus loves me” is strictly false. But the saying of those words is meaningful on different level, as a gesture between people – like a wink, or a badge, or a special handshake. People don’t generally go around making theological claims. What they do is to exchange tokens of affiliation, sorting out who belongs to which crowd. The words don’t mean anything as words. That’s not what they’re for. They are a prop to use in public performances.
Someone drops his shopping list in the street. A bird picks it up. The bird does not notice the words on the paper. The bird does not know what writing is, or what paper is. It just seems like useful stuff. It becomes part of her nest. The next day, it is dissolved by rain.
Pollsters … have reported repeatedly that they can find little measurable difference between the moral behavior of churchgoers and the rest of American society. Barna has found that born-again Christians are more likely to divorce (an act strongly condemned by Jesus) than atheists and agnostics, and are more likely to be racist than other Americans. And while evangelical adolescents overwhelmingly say they believe in abstaining from premarital sex, they are more likely to be sexually active — and at an earlier age — than peers who are mainline Protestants, Mormons or Jews … .
How to explain the Grand Canyon-sized gap between principles outlined in the Gospels and the behavior of believers? Christians … respond that shortcomings of the followers of Jesus are simply evidence of man’s inherent sinfulness. But if one adheres to the principle of Occam’s razor — that the simplest explanation is the most likely — there is another, more unsettling conclusion: that many people who call themselves Christian don’t really believe, deep down, in the tenets of their faith.
Zinnia Jones says:
Atheism is not a kind of theistic belief, because it does not involve belief in any deities. It’s actually the absence of such beliefs. Similarly, atheism is not a position based on faith. Instead, it is a lack of faith. We don’t have faith that there are no gods, we just have no faith that there are any gods. Simply not believing in gods does not involve any kind of faith, because it does not require taking a position that is unsupported by evidence or contradicted by evidence. We just find the reasons given for belief in gods insufficient and unconvincing. Faith is not necessary in order to not believe in something that there is no reason to believe in.
- “Send money. It’s not for me, it’s for God!”
- “Of course, God doesn’t need money. So I’ll keep the money part, and just send God the glory you’ve included. He loves glory.”
Here is the whole thing boiled down to a cinder.
The evangelist says: “We are doing this wonderful thing. Won’t you send us money so we can keep doing this wonderful thing?”
But what is he doing, exactly? You just saw it. He’s asking for money. That’s all! It’s not really so wonderful. The “wonderful” part is a lie.
For some reason, however, lots of people kind of want it to be true. So they believe him. And they send money. And he gets to keep doing his thing, which is wonderful, if only for him.
[The following is adapted from my unpublished book, No One Believes in God.]
Why do so many people believe?, we want to ask. But how big is this “so many”? Can we quantify it? How many are the believers – and how do we know?
Of course, there have been surveys. According to them, something like 85 percent of everyone in the world believes in some kind of god. But we cannot trust these polls. They are misleading. The methodology is flawed. Let me explain.
The goal of such surveys is to measure the popularity of various types of religious belief. But of course you can’t measure anyone’s belief directly, the way you can their temperature or their blood oxygen level. Are there indirect ways? Sure, you can just ask them about it! – but the thing is, how do you put the questions? What is the wording? You’d have to be pretty clever, I would think, to get decent results. A bald “Do you believe in god?”, for example, would elicit skewed, hard-to-interpret and probably worthless results.
What do the best pollsters use? Let’s take a look at some of the questions from a recent poll by the “highly respected” Pew Forum.
Q.30 Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?
Q.33 Do you believe in life after death?
Q.35 Do you think there is a heaven, where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded?
Q.36 Do you think there is a hell, where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished?
What – that’s what the Pew asked? I thought they were the real pros! They ask the same questions that the really stupid polls use. Jesus Christ.
Polls like this are misleading because to ask people “Do you believe in god?” is not an effective way to find out whether they believe in god. Here are just two of the many reasons that we know this to be true.
Most obvious and important is the strength of the social norms surrounding professions of “belief in god”. You answer the door, or the telephone, and a pollster is there. He starts asking you strange questions. In a vast number of households, if you are asked whether you “believe in god”, to say anything but yes would be to invite brutal reprisals from your family and neighbors. And in places where the risk is not so dire, there can still be severe pressure to say the right thing. This is a fact of life in any place where religion has serious influence, and that’s an awful lot of places.
The yes answer, on the other hand, is perfectly safe. There is no cost. Whether or not it is required, nothing follows from it. It’s not like saying, for example, “I believe in recycling”, which might be seen as committing you to a change in lifestyle. After you have affirmed your “belief in god”, no further action is required – so heck, why not say it? (Even if your dad is an atheist, he’ll just think you’re being funny. It’s not like he’s going to beat you or withhold meals or something, as a devout Christian or Muslim parent might do with a kid who said no.)
These observations have the following consequence. Of the people answering yes, some unmeasured but significant proportion have made this response not because they understand themselves to have a belief but because they fear the personal consequences of saying – not believing, but saying – the wrong thing. They feel constrained to say certain words, regardless of their actual belief. Even where the local norm is worded as a requirement that one believe, the practical result is rather that one is required to profess such belief. After all, no one can see into your mind. They cannot tell what you really think. Nor, most likely, do they care. They want you to say the right thing. That is the real demand. It’s about the words you say, especially to outsiders.
“Belief in god” is probably best seen as an idiom. It is not a state of mind but simply a stock phrase. Its meaning is not at all clear; however – and this is interesting – in practice, in the quotidian experience of the religious “believer”, the question of belief’s meaning, its nature and definition, does not arise. People are not asking themselves what it really means when they say they “believe in god”. They assume that they know. Whereas actually, they don’t know the first thing about it.
When we go to the trouble of surveying people on their “religious beliefs”, one of the things we should try to find out is what they personally mean when they use those words. But polls like this one – and they are all like this one – do nothing to help us understand this. They tell us nothing about belief. They assume that everyone already knows just what it is. But no one knows this.
Imagine a different poll. This one is measuring belief in Poseidon, so it asks people: “Do you believe in Poseidon?”
This is a very different question from the one we were just considering. Compared to Poseidon, the “god” in the other question sounds awfully vague. Asked whether I believe in “god”, I might find myself wondering nervously which god is being asked about. However, most respondents will recognize, probably before the question comes up, that there is a soothing, obvious, no-need-to-even-mention-it answer, which goes something like “You know which one: the one that most people talk about, and that most questions ask about. The one that most people, you know, believe in.”
And this assumption is written into the poll. People are going to assume that the “god” being asked about is the “god” that everyone always talks about. The fact that so many people pronounce this word so often is part of the de facto, unexamined definition of what the word means.
And now I really have to wonder whether this poll has measured anything at all. I suspect not. I suspect that every such survey is a travesty of research. Yet, the methodology goes entirely unquestioned. This is how religious belief is “tested”: you ask people absurd, pointless, misleading questions that can throw no light at all on what belief in god actually is – other than reminding us, between the lines, that it’s what you’re supposed to do. Heck, maybe that’s the real intention behind these stupid polls.
Many people believe in God. Many people believe in belief in God. What’s the difference? People who believe in God are sure that God exists, and they are glad, because they hold God to be the most wonderful of all things. People who moreover believe in belief in God are sure that belief in God exists (and who could doubt that?), and they think that this is a good state of affairs … . Given the way religious concepts and practices have been designed, the very behaviors that would be clear evidence of belief in God are also behaviors that would be clear evidence of (only) belief in belief in God. … This fact makes it hard to tell who – if anybody! – actually believes in God in addition to believing in belief in God. —Daniel Dennett
As far as I can tell, no one has ever obtained an actual measurement of the prevalence of religious belief, in this country or any other. The pollsters have no idea how many people believe in god, only how many are likely to say that they do, which is a completely different thing. They have neglected to notice that simply asking people this question, in these words, is worse than pointless. Their asking it in this way proves that they do not understand what the question means. Nor are they trying to understand. Nor are they helping us to do so.
In fact, there are many reasons to suppose that the prevalence of religious belief is greatly overestimated by almost everyone. Dennett’s “belief in belief” effect is one reason. Later in the book we will see more of them, the cumulative effect of which is to bring plausible estimates down very close to zero.
Many people have requested a one-page summary of the new book. This one is under 400 words. [Slightly revised 8 June 2010.]
Roy Sablosky: NO ONE BELIEVES IN GOD (second draft, November 2009)
- It’s not about belief
- That religion has to do with beliefs becomes implausible when you look at the behaviors it evokes. For example:
- Their “beliefs” challenged, people are often enraged, as if you had threatened not their opinions but their safety.
- One joins a group, not its beliefs. Self-described Catholics may differ profoundly with their church elders on important issues; they are Catholics despite their beliefs.
- Notoriously, church elders routinely flout the “beliefs” they most fervently espouse.
- Claims of belief are implausible where the tenet in question is nonsensical.
- Religious propositions are incoherent. (This is probably by design. A slogan is catchier if no one knows what it means.) In the sentence “Jesus loves you” for example, both the subject and the verb are impossible to characterize or observe. Such a statement is perfectly empty: it is a pseudo-proposition.
- Since they are without meaning, religious statements can be neither meant nor believed. Thomas Jefferson: “I suppose belief to be the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition.” Ludwig Wittgenstein: “one cannot mean a senseless series of words.”
- Therefore, no one really believes in the teachings of any prophet or the existence of any god. It cannot be done. It does not happen. People who think they are doing it are mistaken.
- That religion has to do with beliefs becomes implausible when you look at the behaviors it evokes. For example:
- Religion is made of memes plus authoritarianism
- Religious “beliefs” are memes. Just like germs, they are contagious; and just like germs they evolve through natural selection. The religious memes circulating now have evolved over thousands of years to be very, very good at what they do.
- People are naturally deferential to authority figures.
- Authority and memetic self-replication combine to form religion.
- What we should do
- Admit no religious exceptions to any legislation. A few examples:
- End all tax breaks (that is: subsidies) for religious organizations and their personnel.
- Eliminate chaplaincy programs at all levels of government, including the armed services.
- Remove legislative impediments to abortion and birth control.
- Outlaw the teaching of antediluvian codswallop in public school.
- Government should ratify only civil unions, not “marriages”. Anyone willing and competent to sign such a contract should be allowed to.
- Revise the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. No proposal having a religious rationale or using religious terminology should become a law.
- Admit no religious exceptions to any legislation. A few examples:
Partly inspired by Greta Christina’s thorough and beautiful takedown of some of the common misunderstandings of atheism, I would like to address another one. It goes like this:
Atheism is a belief-system, just as Christianity is. Christians believe God exists; atheists believe He does not.
This is deeply wrong, as has been explained at length by scores of atheists over the last couple centuries. I am going to rebut it with a method of my own devising, which I have not seen elsewhere.
Take just this part:
Christians believe God exists; atheists believe He does not.
The word ‘belief’ is used with two different meanings in this one sentence.
Let’s take the atheist clause first. My belief that there are no gods is of the same type as my belief that the closest coffee shop to my house is called Peet’s, that coffee beans turn black when roasted, and that when heating coffee in the microwave, you’d best remove that metal spoon. I have acquired these beliefs from personal experiences in the world. I believe that there are no gods because I have looked mighty hard for them, and have found not the tiniest hint of evidence.
I could add that people I trust have done the same kind of work and had the same result; in fact, there are several other categories of reasons that bear on this question. All support the same conclusion, and for now, I leave them all aside. Based solely on my experiences of the world around me, I reckon that no deities of any significance exist on this planet or anywhere nearby.
Now, the Christian clause in that sentence uses the word ‘belief’ in a different way. “I believe in God” does not mean anything like “My experiences of the world suggest that there is a deity nearby.” Preachers and theologians the world over will tell you that you don’t learn about God from looking at the physical world, and in this case I totally agree with them. You cannot tell by looking around that God is in there, or out there, or whatever. That’s why, as everyone knows, you have to take it on faith.
(There are people who say they can “prove” that God exists. But the mainstream view is that God is invisible. In general people don’t tell atheists “I can prove there’s a God”; instead they say, “You can’t prove there’s no God.” The consistent message of Christianity over 20 centuries has been that you have to have faith that God is there, even when it seems pretty fucking obvious that He’s not.)
So when someone says, “I believe in God,” they are not using the word ‘believe’ the way they would be if they were saying, “I believe there’s a post office on J Street.” When they tell you about the post office, they are relying on some sort of empirical support; either they have seen the place themselves, or someone told them about it, or they saw it on the web, or something. Aside from practical jokes and so on, no one would tell you about a post office on J Street unless they had some reason to believe it was there.
And that’s how I mean it when I say that I ‘believe’ that there are no gods. I have a reason. Lots of reasons. But no one has reasons of comparable kinds for saying that they ‘believe’ in God. The two usages are completely different — almost opposite, in fact. One implies reliance on evidence; the other, rejection of evidence. They’re spelled the same, but they’re different words. Look at it again.
Christians believe God exists; atheists believe He does not.
See? It’s sneaky. They look parallel, but they’re not parallel at all. The truth is more like this:
Christians have a belief that God exists; atheists do not.