The semantics of belief

An examination of the ideas behind the words “believe” and “belief”.

I was prompted to take on this topic by one or two people who had asked me to explain what I believe. The answer is: absolutely nothing. Now, you might think that this means I am an “atheist”; however, I have to stipulate that you may call me an atheist only if you define the term “atheist” as “one who does not believe in any deity”.

The definition of atheism

Some religious believers claim that atheism is a belief, just like a belief in a god; and some dictionaries (including the Oxford, unfortunately) record this, probably because that university used in past centuries to be stuffed with clergymen, and they tended to conflate all attitudes with their religious way of thinking, and the Oxford dictionary, being purely descriptive, reflects their biassed mode of usage. I, however, very much dislike this approach to the vocabulary of the present discussion, and I am pleased to find that some dictionaries (such as Collins) define atheism simply as “rejection of belief in god or gods”.

It was indeed with some dismay that I discovered those other dictionaries, including the Oxford, effectively agreeing with the said believers here. But I may as well assume that, in the 21st as opposed to the 19th century, their uncritical lexicographic descriptivism is to blame for this.

I therefore reject being described as an atheist by anyone who does not accept the Collins definition of that term; and I thereby reject the Oxford dictionary definition (which, as I say, smacks to me of the time you could not teach at university without being in “holy orders”.)

In fact, I firmly reject any suggestion that I hold any beliefs — comparable to any religious person’s beliefs — in anything at all.

The definition of belief

The big, fundamental problem here is that the verb “believe” is used with a wide range of meanings — far too wide for precise discussion.

Examine these meanings in detail.

Notions of belief: religion versus science

What religious people mean by “believe” is most definitely not what a true scientist means when talking about belief in a scientific theory. Indeed I wish that scientists would stop using the verb “believe” altogether, because they are only giving hostages to fortune in the debate about science and religion, especially in the era when we have seen a renewal of activity by the “creationists” and the philosophical bandits who are the advocates of the bogus theory called “intelligent design”. However, even Richard Dawkins talks about scientists “believing”. So, we are at meaning 4c of the semantics of belief usage list: “believe” means “entertain a scientific theory”. Well, that is all that most newspaper stories about science mean when they use the word. Dawkins and other top scientists tend to reserve it for something a little stronger. To them, “believe” means “currently hold [a particular hypothesis] as being the best available so far”. In his book The God Delusion, Dawkins uses it more or less like this. I consider its use there his most unfortunate ever use of the verb. Just as he wishes scientists would not use the word “god” in the Einsteinian sense, as a metaphor for nature or the mysteries of the universe, I wish he and they would not use the word “believe” — and for essentially the same reason.

The fact is that — either because they are themselves in genuine intellectual confusion on the point, or else disingenuously, which is to say from intellectual dishonesty, even sophistry (as it is sometimes aptly known, “jesuitry”) — religious people (and especially the “intelligent design” merchants) persistently conflate the holding of scientific hypothesis by the true scientist with the belief in doctrine by the religious. This philosphical abuse is utterly wrong and very misleading indeed to the innocent person (especially children) trying to understand the two very different worlds of ideas that are religious belief on the one hand and empirical science on the other.

In my opinion, in philosophical discussion it is dangerous to use the words “believe” or “belief” with any meaning except the strongest, the position religious people adopt with regard to their creed (the tenets of their religion), the acceptance of which involves what is called “faith”. In particular, it is dangerous (meaning highly confusing) to use these words when referring to how scientists entertain scientific theories.

In short: nobody should ever say that any scientist “believes” anything, as a scientist; if a particular person who happens also to be a scientist nevertheless holds religious beliefs, then they are holding intellectually incompatible ideas in their mind, and should not be taken seriously in their activity supposedly as a scientist because no true scientist has any business holding any religious beliefs since these are counter to genuine empiricism.

The nature of science

Science is a methodology by which propositions about the world are formulated and evaluated. To be a true scientist, a person must follow the methodology. This means that every theory is only ever held provisionally. No true scientist ever believes a theory in the religious sense.

See my separate article on the evaluation of propositions in order to decide which to adopt as working hypotheses. It is a subject all of its own.

Followers of religions, at least of the monotheistic religions (Christianity, Islam, and to their limited extent, Judaism) always assert that knowledge is based on their own religion's “holy” book, which they generally consider to be “the word of God”. As such, the contents of such a book can (in the minds of the believers in it) not be questioned, although nowadays there tend to exist some more rationally-minded followers of some religions who are prepared to discuss “modern interpretations” of their texts; in some cases they interpret them out of existence! However, for fundamentalists any evidence that their book may be wrong based on new evidence is met with outright rejection of the evidence, with attacks (of one sort or another, with varying degrees of violence) on the bringers of such evidence or any who question the books absolute veracity, in short, with total hostility and rejection.

Christian fundamentalists in their millions in America, for example, assert that their Bible is “the word of God” and that every verse in it is absolutely true; and(just to show how moronic and evil this very position of theirs is) I have never seen any case where one of them offers any explanation, or admits any exception, in the case of all the verses that command parents to kill their children if they misbehave. See “Kill your naughty children”.

No scientist, and nobody else, should ever “believe in” a scientific theory in the way that religious people believe in the tenets of their religions because all scientific theory is provisional; it is only held so long as no evidence tending to falsify it arises.

What is more, no true scientist can ever, with any intellectual integrity, belong to any religion.

Clear-minded religious people accept this, just as true scientists do: they know that religion is about “faith”, and that means believing something 100% when there is no rational reason to do so. The fact that there are many working scientists who belong to religions does not mean that I am calling them all intellectual blackguards. I explain their existence by presuming just that each of them has at some point in their life accepted that they are called upon to suspend the scientific disbelief called for by the empirical methodology, when it comes to matters concerning their religion. They have opted out of total scientific disbelief as a way of life, and they must necessarily be regarded, by those of us who maintain our stance of scientific disbelief about every aspect of our lives and of the world around us one hundred per cent of the time, as intellectual victims or prisoners of whatever emotional attachment they have to religion that prevents them abandoning it. More

Richard Dawkins maintains that bringing up children in a religion is always a sort of brainwashing, and that to talk of a “Catholic child” or a “Muslim child” is (or ought to be) meaningless, and that we should only ever talk of a “child of Catholic parents” or a “child of Muslim parents”. I agree with him. The reality behind that is the reason that scientist who nevertheless belong to a religion exist at all. As I say, I cannot claim they are bad people, only that they are trapped in the intellectual dishonesty by which, in whichever part (however large or small) of their lives and their intellectual model of the world is governed by their religion, their capacity for dispassionate scientific detachment and disbelief is fatally compromised.

The fact that no true scientist should ever believe any proposition to that extent necessarily makes science methodology and religion incompatible.

A scheme for quantitative evaluation

I have thought of a way of expressing one’s degree of confidence in the reliability of a proposition numerically, using a scale comparable to the concept of a probability (of an event) in probability theory, namely by use of a real number in the closed range 0 to 1 (that is, both extremes included).

Exposition of this idea.