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A Note on the Concept of Belief (1998)

Niclas Berggren

"Ratio omnia vincit" ("Reason defeats everything") - Manilius, Astronomica 4, 931

The purpose of this note is to proffer a needed clarification as to what determines beliefs. Particular attention will be devoted to the idea that it is possible to choose beliefs, i.e., that beliefs are volitional acts, an idea which is central in Christian theology. It will be argued that this idea is incorrect and that, as a consequence, the view that unbelief should be punished is immoral.

In Christian teachings, the phrase "to believe in God" normally entails two propositions: (1) to believe in the existence of God and (2) to trust and worship God. In this essay, only the first proposition will be considered, since only it is concerned with the concept of belief per se. (It is perhaps self-evident, but it bears noting that the second proposition needs belief in the existence of God in order for it to make sense. Hence, if it can be shown that there is no rational basis for a belief in the existence of God, then the idea that one should trust and worship God ipso facto evaporates.) So what is meant here when discussing "belief" is solely a (possibly probabilistic) conviction with regard to facts and has no normative connotations.

The issue that needs clarification is: How is it that we hold the set of beliefs that we hold? Why do we believe that certain things exist and that others do no? Let us take two examples: trolls and the house in which you live. I suspect that you, like me, believe that the houses in which we live exist. Likewise, I guess that you, like me, do not believe that little trolls live in the forest. Why do we hold these beliefs? I propose the following procedure as describing the emergence of beliefs:

(1) We begin by adopting a set of criteria for determining whether fact claims (i.e., claims that a certain thing exists in some specified manner) are true or false.

(2) We are then presented with a fact claim.

(3) We evaluate the fact claim by using the criteria we have adopted for judging them, and in doing this, we make use of all available empirical knowledge pertaining to the fact claim in question.

(4) We arrive at a conviction - a belief - with regard to the level of truth of the fact claim presented to us. It is also possible not to have such a belief after steps (1)-(3), if we think that no convincing evidence has been presented.

This may very well be a dynamic, rather than a static, process, e.g., with a frequent reassessment of a given fact claim (i.e., an alteration between (3) and (4)) or with an introduction of a new set of criteria (i.e., a change in (1) - plausibly a very rare event).

To exemplify,

(1) We begin by adopting the set of criteria for judging fact claims given by the scientific method.

(2) Then someone says to us: "Trolls exist in the forest" (a fact claim).

(3) We consider this claim according to the scientific method, both in methodology (i.e., we investigate matters systematically and logically) and in using all known information regarding trolls.

(4) We end up believing or not believing that trolls exist.

To avoid confusion, let me stress at this point that it is generally not possible to prove the non-existence of a certain thing. However, some things are proposed to have certain properties which may be logically inconsistent, and hence these things can be proved not to exist, and also judgments with reference to existence of a proposed thing are not binary but rather continuous. Thus, one may launch an inductive, probabilistic argument against the existence of a proposed thing, after having gone through steps (1)-(4) above. But even in the absence of a positive belief that trolls do not exist, it should be stressed that the natural default position is one of unbelief, unless convincing evidence supporting the fact claim have been brought up.

What is clear from this explication is that holding a certain belief is not the result of a direct choice. When someone presents us with a fact claim (e.g., "Trolls exist in the forest") we just cannot choose to believe or disbelieve it; rather, we cannot avoid holding a certain belief or unbelief on the basis of steps (1)-(3) above. If, on the basis of the example of the trolls, we are committed to scientific reasoning, and if all available evidence gives no indication whatsoever that there are any trolls around, then we cannot believe that there are trolls, even if we would wish for them to exist.

Let us now turn to the issue of the existence of the Christian god (referred to as "God" in this essay). Oftentimes, Protestant Christians, in particular, have a tendency to ask people to believe in the existence of God as if it is possible to choose to do so. This is in line with Acts 16:31: "And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house." (KJV). Note the imperative mood in this sentence: the prison keeper is urged by Paul and Silas to believe, as if it is an act of the will.

But is there not an element of choice involved in the process described above after all? Or are we totally without a capacity for deciding what we believe? Well, there may be an element of choice in step (1). But it differs from the Christian notion of a belief being a direct choice. Rather, we may choose in any evaluative process of thought to adopt the set of criteria which we later use to judge fact claims. But the central thing to note here is that by rational people these criteria are not chosen to correspond to what beliefs they wish to hold. They choose the criteria a priori that in some sense fulfill their need to know things about the world in the best manner. They do not choose the criteria a priori that lead to certain, specific beliefs: the criteria are general and universal and are adopted to be applicable to all judgments of fact claims. Being able to choose irrationally is not the same as wanting to do so.

When I say that the arrogation of criteria for assessing fact claims may be a choice, this is probably not very often the case. Normally, one is strongly influenced by parents, schools, and the society around one in one's way of thinking, and few people may, at any point in time, be very conscious about why they find certain criteria, and not others, acceptable. But I do think that some humans, like those who first developed the scientific method and others, who are critical thinkers, can rather independently choose their criteria.

In addition, there may be an element of choice in step (2) of the process, in that we may choose not to consider all available evidence. This, however, must be considered irrational if we are interested in believing only true things. As before, being able to choose irrationally is not the same as wanting to do so.

I concede that this line of reasoning is based on the premise that it is, to at least some non-negligible extent, possible for humans to make genuine choices. However, I am far from convinced of this being a correct description of reality (influenced as I am by Bertrand Russell - see, e.g., his "Determinism" in Religion and Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), but suffice it for the purposes of the argument presented here to note that if there is no free will, then the Christian idea of the origin of beliefs is trivially erroneous.

Now, when it is asserted that "God exists", my claim is that the Christian deviates from a general and universal set of criteria for making judgments about fact claims, which he makes use of in life in general (e.g., with regard to the existence of his house and the existence of trolls in the forest). In life in general, the scientific method is accepted as containing the highest possibility to accumulate correct knowledge. But when the issue of God comes in, another criterion is wheeled in, namely, the concept of faith. Whilst the scientific method specifies a careful methodology for gathering knowledge, and whilst it strives to make use of all available evidence pro et con any fact claim, the criterion of faith is about accepting fact claims without or even in opposition to available evidence. In short, it is an irrational criterion to use for gathering knowledge.

Why is it irrational? The reason is that this criterion for judging fact claims is unable to discriminate between competing fact claims in a rational manner (i.e., by discussing evidence pro et con). In other words, it leads to unfalsifiable fact claims. If you accept the fact claim "God exists" without or even in opposition to evidence, then how can you demonstrate that the mutually exclusive fact claims "Allah exists", "Zeus exists", "Krishna exists" and "Thor exists" are false? You cannot do that in any rational manner. Furthermore, how can you argue against the fact claim "Trolls exist in the forest" using the scientific method as the criterion whilst abandoning this criterion when discussing god(s)? This inconsistency should bother the earnest thinker.

The general problem with choosing to use an irrational criterion for assessing fact claims is that one is not concerned with the issue of truth but rather some other issues, such as feeling good. That is to say, one chooses to adopt an irrational criterion to reach a conclusion, a belief, which feels good and one is uninterested in utilizing a universal, belief-independent concept (like the scientific method) the purpose of which is to arrive at truth.

I am still not claiming that this is done on a very conscious level: most religious people believe as a result of having brought up to believe (hence, people born in Saudi Arabia are most often Muslims, whilst those born in the United States are Christians), as explained in "Viruses of the Mind" by Professor Richard Dawkins. But the origin of this mindset is, I think, approximately in accordance with what I have outlined. And, of course, this mindset - of approving of irrationality as a selective method solely used in the area of religion - is nourished in the Bible (Luke 18:17; Col. 2:8). If the Christian would critically and rationally evaluate why he uses the irrational criterion in the realm of religion and not in other realms, he may be able to realize that it needs to be abandoned, for the sake of consistency and for uncovering the truth value of the statement "God exists". Thus, although the Christian may not consciously have chosen the irrational criterion of faith, and while he certainly did not choose to believe that God exists, the choosing of an alternative criterion is possible.

A related problem with the Christian process of belief formation is the tendency to disregard all evidence which is contrary to the desired belief. In other words, it is not just that the criterion for judging facts accepts beliefs without or even in opposition to all available evidence, it is also the case the all available evidence is not taken into consideration. The wish to retain a certain belief - that God exists - for pragmatic rather than truth reasons is evidently so strong as to override all rationality concerns.

What about Pascal's Wager, which asserts that the "safe bet", even though we cannot know if God exists, is to believe that he does? This argument is unsound for many reasons, as shown in "Pascal's Wager" by Fredrik Bendz. Let me just offer a comment directly relating to the discussion here, namely, the assumption of Pascal's, that one can choose to induce a belief in the existence of God. I have argued above that it is possible in some sense to choose the criteria which one uses to assess fact claims (even if one did not choose the criteria one starts out with, which are often the result of one's upbringing). But what is Pascal suggesting? He is suggesting that we abandon the scientific method, since he knows that it at least makes us weak atheists, for blind faith. (Note that weak atheism is to be without a belief in the existence of god(s), whilst strong atheism is a belief in the non-existence of god(s).) We are to accept fact claims without any evidence at all, and we are to expose ourselves selectively only to pro-Christian arguments, simply to reach a position he (on erroneous grounds) considered best for us. This must be considered irrational, on a meta-level: we are to try to develop a belief, in essence, by ceasing to think critically. This is nothing but brainwashing, which I consider distasteful.

I would like to analyze my own development as an illustration of what I have been discussing. Until the age of 16, I was what one could call a weak atheist by default, i.e., I found no real reason to believe in the existence of any god(s). I had not really spent much time thinking about this, but it somehow seemed the natural position for me to take. However, in 7th grade, I received a New Testament from the Gideonites, and I started reading it. I began to consider the fact claim "God exists", and although I in no way was convinced of its being true, I gradually began to pray and continued to read the Bible. In the summer of 1984, I had reached a point where I - after hearing a sermon on TV by a Baptist preacher - for the first time prayed "God, I confess that I am a sinner, and that I need your forgiveness. I confess Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior". After that, I considered myself a Christian.

However, in about 1994, I began to admit that there were severe weaknesses in Christianity. I read a few books which clarified that the Bible contained both errors and cruelties, and I began to see more and more discrepancies between my own moral intuitions and the ethics of the Bible. I finally, in 1995, faced the fact claim "God exists", and I reconsidered my earlier assessment, in 1984, that it was true. On what grounds had I thought so for so long? It was hard to find any rational justification for that assessment, and so I concluded that the belief of mine in the existence of God was erroneous. I ended up an unbeliever.

How can this development of mine be interpreted? The simplistic Christian approach to explaining it is to say that I chose to believe that God existed in the early 1980s and that I chose not to believe that he existed in 1995, for some reason. But this is clearly incorrect. Instead, I assert, this is what really took place.

Even though I tried to use the scientific method as my criterion for evaluating fact claims prior to 1984, I somehow came to think that it was not necessary in the area of religion. I think the reason for this position was that I felt a longing for the comfort and safety which the Christian life seemed to offer. I thought that God could and would help me in life, and even thereafter. Hence, for the sake of obtaining the good feeling of comfort and partnership with someone omnipotent, I implicitly accepted blind faith as the basis for assessing the fact claim "God exists". There, I think one can talk about a choice. However, that choice did not concern my belief in the existence of God; rather, it made this belief possible. The belief, however, followed from my acceptance of this criterion, as I had abandoned my usual requirements of evidence which were prior to a belief, as well as from my explicit disregard of the arguments for atheism. Then, in 1995, I had been presented with new fact claims, like "There are errors in the Bible", "The existence of evil is incompatible with the existence of God, who is said to be good", and finally "There is no reason to suppose that God exists". After having thought through the arguments, and after having considered why I came to believe that God existed in the first place, I came to conclude that the fact claims just mentioned were true. This was not a direct choice - I did not choose not to believe for any particular reason, it was just the inevitable result of a process of reasoning.

If one considers the more usual case, of a Christian who was born into a Christian context, the idea that he chose to believe is even less palatable. Someone who is taught to apply the irrational criterion of faith by parents, pastors, siblings, and friends has a hard time freeing himself from this indoctrination. In this case, the criterion applied in this realm is not really chosen, and naturally then, neither is the subsequent belief in the existence of God.

Hence, at this point we can conclude the following. A belief is the result of applying a criterion for assessing the truth of a fact claim on the basis of some empirical background material (things one has read, things one has heard, things one have seen). This criterion may or may not be chosen, and if it is chosen, it may be rational or irrational. Clearly, beliefs are not directly chosen.

This leads us to a normative evaluation of the Christian idea that those who do not believe are worthy of eternal punishment in hell. (One may legitimately question how the usage of an infinite punishment may ever be acceptable, but that issue is not the topic of this discussion.) John 3:18 states: "He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God" (KJV). There are two possible readings of this verse, connecting to the two propositions presented at the beginning of this essay: (1) Either it means that those who believe in the existence of God but who do not trust and worship him are condemned; or (2) it means that those who do not believe in the existence of God are condemned (they naturally do not trust or worship him). According to Christian teachings, the devil and all demons belong to the first category. But what about atheists? They clearly belong to the second category - that is, indeed, how they are defined (being without a belief in the existence of god(s)).

So either the Bible must be interpreted as saying that atheists will not go to hell for not being able to believe (one wonders where they are going then...), or it must be misinformed about the nature of belief formation. A third possibility is that God is evil, if he entertains the idea that someone should be punished on the basis of unbelief, if unbelief is not a choice.. If the first interpretation is correct, then the atheist - from the point of view of a Christian - need not worry about his eternal state. If the second interpretation is correct, then the Bible contains an error - and for an argument to the effect that any error in the Bible undermines the fact claim "God exists", see my essay "The Errancy of Fundamentalism Disproves the God of the Bible". If the third possibility is correct, then we are dealing with a deity who apparently is immoral, (see my essay "On the Nature of Morality" for a discussion of how it is possible to have moral values without a god) and hence he may, at his caprice, decide to send everybody to hell. In this case, no one is safe.

But if beliefs are not the results of choices, and if Christians or the Christian god cannot condemn the unbelief of atheists without being evil (since only conscious acts of the will can properly be morally condemned), can atheists urge Christians - who did not choose to believe - to reject their belief that God exists? Yes, for the following reason. Even though we hold non-chosen beliefs, it has been shown above that there is room for rational reappraisal of beliefs using reason. That is, if we, perhaps at the instruction of someone else, detect that we have been using irrational criteria for judging fact claims, or that we have not considered all available evidence with bearing on the fact claim in question, it is possible to have one's beliefs revised. So by choosing to throw out irrationalities, we may very well arrive at new convictions and beliefs. But we have to be willing to make such choices and to open up our minds. Interestingly, this can be done. And so the atheist critique of theists can and should continue.

I will close with a quote by the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley which aptly captures the essence of the thesis of this note: "God is an hypothesis, and, as such, stands in need of proof: the onus probandi rests on the theist." - The Necessity of Atheism (1811)

That is, when the fact claim, or hypothesis, "God exists" is presented to us, the default position is not to believe it, unless the theist can accompany the claim with proof - in the rational fashion outlined above - of its being true. Since this has not been done, I remain - as a result of rational reasoning and not as the result of a direct choice - an atheist.

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