The other day, I participated in a brief online discussion about whether atheism constitutes a belief.
I think that’s a worthwhile question, because we can use it to look under the hood of human cognition and gain some clarity about otherwise murky areas within the epistemology of belief.
I’m a philosophy instructor, and on top of that I have a graduate degree in theology, so this discussion was right up my alley.
Here’s the thesis that sparked the discussion:
Atheism is not a belief. Atheists may hold beliefs, and might be a part of secular communities that behave dogmatically, but that’s not the same thing.
There are two notions of belief that are potentially in play here.
Belief as an Affirmative Conviction
The first notion, the one I think this thesis is operating with, understands belief to be something akin to faith-based conviction.
That’s the sense I get from the reference to “behave dogmatically,” which likely has in mind religious communities who confidently affirm a set of theological propositions—such as ‘God is triune’ or ‘The Book of Mormon is divinely inspired’—and imbue them with the imprimatur of orthodoxy.
Under this reading, maybe atheism isn’t a belief.
The way some discussion participants captured the overarching idea here was by drawing a distinction between the theist’s main posture and the atheist’s counter-posture. The theist maintains that ‘God exists’ whereas the atheist simply lacks that belief.
Undergirding this conceptualization is the notion that a belief is an affirmative conviction, as in ‘God is real’ rather than ‘God is not real’, or ‘Atlantis was a real city’ rather than ‘Atlantis was not a real city’. The affirmative declaration in each of these cases is the belief, while the negations represent a person’s lack of a belief.
This first approach to belief is fine if all we want to do is capture the difference between a theist and an atheist when they answer the question, ‘Does God exist?’
The theist will say yes and the atheist will say no—one believes and the other disbelieves.
But there’s another way to conceptualize belief that is more aligned with the inner workings of human cognition, with the epistemic hardware and software we’re equipped with.
Belief as a Propositional Attitude
The second notion is to conceptualize belief as a propositional attitude or stance. Let me unpack a few of these terms.
A proposition is what is denoted by a statement, which is a sentence that is either true or false.
Not every sentence has a truth value—for example, ‘Please turn off the light’ is neither true nor false, so it’s not a statement. But a sentence like ‘The earth is round’ is a statement because it has a truth value—specifically, it has the truth value true.
A proposition is the semantic content contained in the statement. The English-language sentence is merely the packaging; the proposition is the content.
As human beings equipped with sophisticated cognitive engines, we are able to take stances toward propositions; we are able to hold attitudes toward them.
A statement such as ‘The earth is round’ expresses the proposition that the earth is round. As human beings, we hold an attitude toward this propostion, we take a stance toward it. My personal attitude/stance toward this particular proposition (Kyrie Irving look away!) is that it’s true, that it’s an accurate representation of reality.
That’s what propositions ultimately are: attempted representations of reality. They are attempts to capture what the world is like.
Think of a map of New York City, or a map of a local park you like to go to—those maps are attempted representations of reality. So is the English-language sentence, ‘The earth is round’. If the map of New York showed the Eiffel Tower in it, that map would not be an accurate representation of reality. If the earth wasn’t round but flat, the above sentence would fail to be an accurate representation of reality.
So the three ingredients here are: (1) reality, (2) epistemic subjects, and (3) representations of reality.
Reality is the world, we are the epistemic subjects, and representations of reality are linguistic items or mental maps or any other ways we have of capturing reality.
A belief is an attitude toward an attempted representation of reality, such as ‘God exists’.
The theist’s attitude toward that attempted representation is, ‘Yup, that’s true’; the atheist’s attitude toward that attempted representation is, ‘Nope, not true’.
Both are stances. It isn’t just the theist who is taking a stance toward it; the atheist is, too.
Under this conceptualization, atheism is straightforwardly a belief, which again is simply to say the atheist mentally assents to the proposition expressed by the sentence, ‘God does not exist’.
If a theist holds up a map of reality that includes God in it, the atheist’s attitude toward that map is, that’s inaccurate. That cognitive reaction right there constitutes a belief.
Someone who prefers the first conceptualization of belief might say that all we have here is an atheist simply lacking the view that the map is accurate, but the atheist’s contention that the map is inaccurate involves judging the map to be an erroneous representation of reality, which is just another way of saying that the atheist believes that attempted representation to be false.
believes a correct representation of ultimate reality includes God
believes a representation of ultimate reality that does not include God is incorrect
believes a correct representation of ultimate reality does not include God
believes a representation of ultimate reality that includes God is incorrect
A belief is, in simplest terms, our minds figuratively nodding yes or shaking no to a picture of reality.
When I report believing that the earth is not flat, that’s my mind shaking its head no to the statement ‘the earth is flat’; in other words, it’s me believing that what we’ve got here is an inaccurate representation of reality. If a flat-earther were to ask me, ‘Do you believe the earth is not flat’, I could answer ‘yes’ (as a shorthand for ‘that’s right, I believe it isn’t flat’) because I think the world picture he’s offered me of a flat earth fails to correspond to reality.
There is no cognitive operation other than belief that could even qualify here. I mean, what else would my view that the earth isn’t flat be but a belief? That’s what belief is: a stance toward a proposition.
Bringing it back to our main question, the lack of belief in God is equivalent to an affirmatively-held belief that an accurate picture of reality will not contain God in it.
This isn’t some eccentric or idiosyncratic notion of belief; it’s literally the conception used within the fields that study the epistemic architecture we humans are equipped with.
For example, the near-canonical understanding of knowledge going all the way back to Plato is justified, true belief. One implication is that for you to be said to know something, you have to believe it. In other words, belief is a necessary condition of knowledge. Someone can’t know something without believing it. It’s incoherent to say, ‘He knew that 1 + 1 = 2, but he didn’t believe it’. It’s impossible to agree with ‘1 + 1 = 2’ without at the same time believing it.
This implies belief is a necessary ingredient of every single instance of anyone knowing anything.
None of this is to say that atheism is a religion, or that atheism requires faith—and I say this as a theist. Those ideas, as far as I can tell, are what the atheist fundamentally takes issue with. But the conceptualization of belief as propositional attitudes shouldn’t be controversial or philosophically unsettling. Beliefs are inescapable.
I think there is another element to consider here, which is that most Atheists would consider their beliefs to be weakly held--if they witnessed Jesus descend from heaven they would change their minds. Their propositional attitude is malleable based on evidence, as opposed to a faith-based propositional attitude, which is resistant to evidence by definition.
To put it another way, some Atheists may bristle at having their views be called a “belief” simply because the word may carry a connotation of inflexibility in the context of religion.
I think the framework for this discussion is a little misleading. If the question is raised in the context of the discipline of philosophy, then it's fine to frame an answer in terms of propositional attitudes. But that means that belief in God or in there being no God is in the same class as belief (or lack of belief) that there are aphids on my garden roses. Pragmatically, we ask whether someone "believes God exists in the universe" with a different type of import, connected to long term intellectual and social behavior, self-conception, and so forth. Simply analyzing that either position will conform to a propositional attitude tells us very little about what we want to know when we ask the question.
I like Mr. Rosenberg's comment about the "weak" nature of an atheist's commitment. I think it points to a fundamental distinction within "propositional attitudes." The religious person accepts the proposition of God's existence "on faith": it is not subject to discomfirmation. The atheist accepts the proposition of God's non-existence on the contingent basis of a lack of determinative evidence, which the occurence of determinative evidence will reverse. The "attitudes" behind the propositional attitudes are entirely different. (There could be a tl;dr riff here about people who have lost their faith but are not atheists, and also about agnostics, but there won't be.)
But there is also a different type of distinction. Because the term "atheism" takes the "-ism" form, it is cast in terms of an affirmative assertion, and for some atheists it can be (e.g., Madeleine Murray). But if we instead used the term "religionless" (or the phrase, "not religious") I think it would come closer to describing the experience of those who do not hold a belief in God.
Here's a thought experiment: An indigenous people is discovered that lacks any religion or belief in God. Have one member (somehow!) listen with understanding to a description of God and then ask the propositional question: Does God exist in the universe? When they answer, "No" concerning a concept that is entirely new to them, is that in any sense "atheism?" If it is, then it seems to me there is nothing actually interesting about the term or its use. But the term is, in fact, one filled with interest and controversy. That social context is lost in the philosophical frame of "propositional attitude," and I think that's why although the frame may produce an answer, it is one that does not satisfy the practical issue the question is driving at.