June 12, 2009

Do You Believe in God(s)?

Belief (Photo credit: mRio)

The meaning of atheism is quite clear. At least, it should be to those of us who are genuinely interested in the subject and willing to expend some effort learning about it. And yet, it is equally clear that the manner in which we ask about the existence of gods greatly influences the answers we should expect to receive. During a recent visit to Pure Nothing, one of the recent additions to the Atheist Blogroll, I noticed a poll in the sidebar with some interesting responses.

Consider the question contained in the title of this post for a moment. Forget about ontology and metaphysics. Just take the question at face value, and answer it for yourself. Do you believe in god(s)?

You might notice that this question is not synonymous with, "Does some sort of god(s) exist?" In asking directly about something's existence, we open the door to the secondary question of certainty. It is only natural to follow "Does some sort of god(s) exist?" with "How sure are you of that?"

Questions of the existence of god(s) are what we atheists usually address. The theistic belief claim (i.e., some sort of god or gods exists) is precisely the claim to which atheism reacts. The theist asserts this claim. The atheist seeks evidence and, finding none, does not accept the claim.

Agnosticism enters here - not as a meaningful alternative to theism or atheism - but as a statement on the secondary question of certainty. Thus, we can talk intelligently about gnostic and agnostic atheists if we so desire.

Return to the original question: "Do you believe in god(s)?" This question is not asking you whether gods exist. It is not asking you how certain you are that gods can or do exist. It is simply asking about what you believe.

What are we to make of the respondents who answered "I'm not sure" to this question? Does this mean that they are unsure what they believe about god(s)? I find this difficult to imagine.

When the question is framed as one of what one believes, there is little room for agnosticism. Suppose "I'm not sure" means something akin to "I've never really thought about it before." Someone who could honestly claim such a thing clearly does not believe in god(s), for he or she has not considered the matter enough to have any sort of belief.

Now suppose that "I'm not sure" means "I haven't decided yet." This reflects a misunderstanding of the question. Again, the question is about what one believes and not whether one thinks that various entities can or do exist.

I post this merely to make the point that how we ask the question will (and probably should) have an important influence on the sort of responses we consider meaningful.