I have some trouble with the commonly held belief that being an atheist is simply the lack of belief in a god. I have waffled on this for a while, and I may have even made a blog post about this already that contradicts what I am about to say, but I have become more secure in my position and have decided I need to say something about it.
What is Belief?
We have many things we believe in. Some of the things we believe, we say we know, and some of them we don’t, but for almost everything we think we understand, there is some level of simply believing.
You believe you are reading the words of some other person in some other part of the world than you are in right now. You may think you know it, but do you really? Can you be absolutely sure that the words you are reading aren’t simply an active part of your mind deluding you into believing these words aren’t your own? The truth is, you can’t.
Belief and knowledge can be the same thing, but almost always it is simply when your beliefs happen to coincide with reality that you actually have knowledge, not that you can prove things to be 100% true.
I think that our level of knowledge can be broken down to some of what Descartes said, and not much more. I can know I exist because I am thinking about it. I can know I am a thinking thing because I am thinking about it. Beyond that, I can only know that I think the things I think and I experience what I think to be things outside my mind through my senses.
What is a Theist?
We atheists think it’s simple to explain what a theist is. I haven’t really talked to many atheists that have ever really thought about it much.
We tend to say it’s someone that believes in a personal god, but is that really the extent of it? Do theists believe 100% that there is a god, or is it some fraction of that? Is someone that believes that the chances of a god existing are greater than 50% a theist? What about if they only give it 50%? Is there a level of belief where someone is agnostic, or does that only speak to whether or not someone feels it can be “known” whether or not a god exists?
I tend to not like the word agnostic. I think the word is relatively meaningless, since nobody can really know 100% either way. I think it should be relegated to use only in cases where a person has not ever given the subject any serious thought, so doesn’t really care one way or the other.
Having said this, I think someone is a theist if they believe that it’s more than 50% probable that a god exists.
What is an Atheist?
Now that I have explained what a theist is, I think that it is only appropriate that an atheist would be someone that believes the chances of a god existing are less than 50%. Saying you lack belief says one of two things. Either you have never considered the matter, or you believe the chances are 0% that a god exists.
If you had no opinion on the matter, that means you haven’t really given it any thought whatsoever. That can’t be true of those that call themselves atheists though. We hear arguments for the existence of god, and we give them a probability assessment. I would say that I almost always find the probability to be 0%, but never find the probability to be any appreciable amount greater than 0%.
Whenever we determine whether an argument or evidence holds water, we are making an assessment about the existence of a deity. It can’t be helped.
I know that people really get scared to admit that they believe things, but nobody can get away from it.
I would never consider you an atheist unless you held some belief on the matter, and that belief was that the probability of a god existing was less than 50%.
This especially goes for theists. They often talk about how they were atheists, but when you probe them, the truth is, they had never thought of it in the first place. When they finally did, their probability assessment almost always went from no assessment made to somewhere over 50% instantaneously. That is not an atheist.