Belief and Disbelief: I’m putting my cards on the table

Russell Glasser’s request for people to send him links to theist definitions of “atheist” has got me thinking. Here’s one somebody sent him, which I actually found quite funny (however much I disagree with it).

But the idea got me Googling and although I didn’t find any definitions amusing or outrageous enough to send to Russell, I did come across a couple of sites which made for interesting reading.

This one introduced me to the concept “medium subordinate negative implicature” – not as alarming as it sounds! Basically, “I don’t believe in God” functions similarly to “I don’t like Mary”. In normal usage you would understand not just a lack of belief (or liking) but an active disbelief or dislike.

And here’s another one, taking us to task for our shameful failure to bear witness to active disbelief.

Now, I think the CP writer has a point. I don’t simply lack belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster (or fairies, or unicorns, or Thor, or the Loch Ness Monster). I believe that they don’t exist. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I know that they don’t exist, but I would be surprised if it turned out that they did.

How does this affect my position as a counter-apologist? Not much, really. I’ve gone over this to some extent in my earlier post on the burden of proof. I don’t have to prove that God doesn’t exist because Occam’s razor applies to claims which add extra entities to the realm of existence. The same goes for all the other items I’ve listed. I find that by and large, in order for me to believe in the existence of anything from God to Russell’s teapot I need some positive evidence which supports it. That’s just the way I am, and I suspect, the way most people are. You can try to distinguish God-belief from fairy-belief etc and that is what most apologists do try to do. But if you can’t make a valid distinction, then disbelief is our default setting.

That (I think) is different from the philosophical stance we take, which is to categorise God (and fairies etc.) as unproven. Philosophically we are right to say the position we defend is of weak atheism (absence of belief, rather than belief in non-existence). Psychologically, I find in my own case at least, that I do disbelieve.

This leads me on to a topic which crops up fairly regularly in apologetics debates. Can you chose your beliefs? I have always thought not. How is choosing a belief supposed to work? In order to choose a belief, you must, by definition, be open to rejecting the belief. If you find the belief you are about to adopt to be equally capable of rejection, that sounds to me an awful lot like doubting it. It is interesting that when the issue arises between theists and non-believers, it always seems to be the theist who will argue that you can chose your beliefs whilst atheists will usually deny that beliefs can be chosen. Why is that, I wonder?

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