Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Not believing in something does NOT mean you believe that opposite is true.

Not believing in something does NOT mean you believe that opposite is true. 

Of course I get told often that this is not correct. I get told that because I do not believe there is a god, I must necessarily believe there is NO god. I recently had someone block me on twitter because I was trying to show them this isn’t true.

It seems The Theist [i] is so determined to make atheism a belief or ‘faith’ on its own that they’re prepared to simply make stuff up about it. It’s an interesting strategy to reply to ‘Your faith makes no sense’ with ‘...yeah well you have faith too!’ rather than actually presenting an argument defending the reason for having faith. It’s almost as though they recognise that their position is so weak that it can’t be defended so their only alternative is to drag atheism down to the faith level, because then suddenly ‘we’re all the same’.

But that’s not the purpose of this post. This post will demonstrate that the statement - ‘If you don’t believe something, you believe the opposite is true’ – is false.

The existence of god is binary (but not necessarily a 50/50 chance). Either god[ii] exists, or god does not. Another binary possibility is the flipping of a standard coin. A coin has an obverse side and a reverse side. These are pretty much universally known as Heads and Tails.

If I flip a coin, catch it, and place it on the back of my hand, it is going to be either Heads side up, or Tails side up. They are the only possibilities.

So imagine I flip the coin, catch it, place it on the back of my other hand and keep the coin hidden from your view in the traditional style. But rather than ask you to guess before I immediately reveal the result, I simply tell you that the coin is heads. 

Would you believe me? I hope you respond with ‘of course not’. Why would you? I’ve kept the result hidden not only from you, but also from myself. I have no way of knowing which way the coin has landed and neither do you. So the logical and only reasonable response is to say no, you don’t believe me. Of course I could claim to ‘know’ that the coin has landed heads up. I could say that I was foretold that it would happen that way. I could say that I’ve got a really old book that tells me about coins landing heads. Hey, you might even just find I have a trustworthy look about me and that you just ‘want’ to believe me, or you may even feel that the consequence of believing me and being wrong is so small that you’re simply happy to say you believe me. But none of these things would give you good enough reason to believe me.

Now let’s agree you’ve said, and with good reason, that you don’t believe me that the coin is heads. The next question is – does that mean you necessarily believe the coin is tails? Again the right response is - of course not. Nothing you have said indicates that you believe coin is tails. All you’ve said is what you do NOT believe,  not what you do believe. Sound familiar?

The god/no god debate is the same. The claim is that god exists (the coin has landed heads) – and then the question: do you believe me? With no satisfactory reason to think the claim is true (despite any assertions the claimant might make), the answer is no, I do not believe that god exists (I do not believe the coin is heads). Does that mean I believe god does NOT exist (that the coin has landed tails)? No it does not. It simply means the claimant has not provided sufficient evidence to make their claim believable. Take note – ‘Their’ claim. Their claim is ‘A god exists’. This claim says nothing about god NOT existing. And since the claim says nothing about god not existing, the response of ‘no, I don’t believe you’ says nothing about my stance on god not existing.

Bottom line is – my lack of belief in the claims that there is a god does NOT mean I believe there is no god.

[i] This is a term I’m going to use for a generic amalgamation of the theists I encounter, mainly on twitter. When I use this term I’m not saying this applies to ALL theists or that what I’m writing about in one post applies to the same theist I was writing about in a previous post. It’s a way I’m going to say ‘Some of the theists I’ve encountered’ but in fewer words.
[ii] I was indoctrinated into Catholicism as an infant before coming back to atheism later on in life and I live in a western democracy that’s population is largely Christian so when I think ‘god’ I’m thinking Yahweh – god of the Christians and the Jews (l admire Richard Dawkins’ description of the Old Testament god). But I use the term generically. Like ‘The Theist’ I’m using ‘god’ as a short way to say ‘gods or goddesses’. 


  1. Good analogy. If it makes even one theist understand the position, it will have been worth it. Keep writing.

  2. I also like this as a reference for agnostics. I hear often that you either believe or you don't believe in a god; agnostic is just another word for atheist. I understand where they are coming from with this logic, but, I also see a "side of the coin" that says "Neither I nor you can know which way it landed."

    I'm not sure, maybe this isn't a valid use for your analogy. Can you see it?

    1. I don't see agnosticism and atheism as exclusive. If you don't believe in a god but don't claim to know there is no god, then that would make you an agnostic atheist. Does that make sense?

    2. I see what you are saying. So if you are an agnostic atheist you don't believe in god/gods but don't think there is anyway of knowing for sure there is NOT a god.

      And if you are agnostic theist you do believe in god/gods but don't believe there is anyway to know for sure that there IS a god.

      I challenge that there is and there isn't all at the same time for agnostics...kinda like a schrodinger agnostic. Yeah? No? Maybe?

    3. Handy diagram here to illustrate the point:

  3. This one does come up relatively often, so I recently tried to put myself in the shoes of believers - why do they consistently make this mistake?

    I think with a slight shift in perspective, it's easy to understand. To extend your analogy, I think what believers see happening is this:

    They toss the coin and without looking at it, call it heads and ask you if you believe. We (as atheists) say we don't. And if we stopped there, that would be fine. We are not asserting a position - simply a lack of belief in either.

    But I think a lot of neo-atheist rhetoric at the moment doesn't stop there. What happens next is we say "and you are wrong to believe it is heads". We write books about how it can't possibly be heads. We declare that even saying it is heads has poisoned everything and how everyone who believes it is heads is deluded.

    I don't think it's unreasonable for the believer to then suspect, under this barrage of sentiment against heads, that perhaps the atheists are not asserting a truly neutral position. It is reasonable to draw the conclusion that perhaps they lean a little more towards "tails" after all.

    In fact, in your analogy, the debate lies not along the line of a-theism, but rather a-gnosticism. You staked your claim on the issue of heads or tails (does god exist?) when you declared yourself atheist. Your stated belief under that title is that the coin has indeed come down tails. Your disclaimer of certainty simply prefixes "agnostic" ... and that's where all the hard work is to be done in any case.

  4. Excellent thinking points. I like what Ben has to say in his last paragraph

    But to consider it from a different angle.

    Your argument appears to commit the logical fallacy of being a false dilemma. You state in your post that the only possibilities of the coin flip is heads or tails. This is true. But the game does not stop there.

    There are at least four possibilities. Let me explain:

    Presuming you are playing the standard version where one person is the flipper and the other the guesser. And the guesser is to guess the outcome of the flip. What occurs is as the coin is flipped and before it is covered up the guesser has already been formulating their guess of heads or tails. Let's call these GH and GT.

    But as the coin is being covered up where the result is unknown for both the flipper and the guesser. The flipper makes a claim as to whether it's heads or tails. Let's call these FH and FT.

    After the claim and before the coin is revealed the flipper asks the guesser, "Do you believe me." We would most likely see the following expected outcomes:

    FH and GH = Yes
    FT and GH = No
    FH and GT = No
    FT and GT = Yes.

    Let's now consider the game being played in a vacuum. In this example the guesser has never played the game before and is not asked to guess what the coin will land. The guesser is told that you are going to flip a coin that has 2 different sides (heads and tails). You then flip the coin and cover it up. As you do this you claim, "The coin is heads," and ask the guesser "Do you believe me?"

    Even in this example, one cannot presume to know whether or not the guesser would believe the flippers claim. To do so, would be at great risk of committing the logical fallacy known as the Psychologist's fallacy.

    (I apologize if this is a little jumbled as this is a quick re-write of my original thoughts after I experience an error in submitting my comment.)

    1. There's no four possibilities. Either the coin is heads or it is tales. If the Guesser says they don't believe it's heads, it doesn't mean they believe it's tails. So as the title of the post says Not believing in something does NOT mean you believe that opposite is true. And this is undisputed.

    2. You have the coin heads or tails (2 possibilities) and the flippers claim vs. the guessers guess (2 additional possibilities). You don't have to believe me but feel free to ask 100 people without providing the presumption that you would hope they would respond "no" as that is what you believe the logical answer to be.

      Let me know the results of your research! Also please explain your proposed experiment so I can aid in assuring it avoids any number of potential biased mistakes?

      Oh wait, you'll probably claim it's too tedious and you don't have the time.

    3. The whole point of the article, which is seems you've missed, is not the number of possible answers and it's not what people think is rational or not.

      What the article clearly and unambiguously explains is that saying "I don't believe you" when someone says the coin is heads, does NOT mean that the person saying "I don't believe you" believes the coin is tails.

    4. Nope, haven't missed it. I just don't believe you.

    5. It's plainly written out, quite obviously demonstrated, in a very basic example. If this is beyond your level of comprehension, there's nothing more I can do to try to help you. I'm sorry this concept is beyond your cognitive abilities.

  5. You walk into a room where you were advised there are thousands of ants all over the place. As you enter you find that the lights are off and you cannot see anything. As you are blindly searching for the light switch, you start feeling sensations on your arms, legs, and back. Do you believe you have ants crawling on you?

    1. No. Advised there are ants doesn't mean there are ants. The person advising could have been mistaken. Even if there were ants previously, it doesn't mean there are ants now. Even if the person advising you was right and the ants were still present, it doesn't mean there's nothing else in the room. These are the thoughts off the top of my head because I am a critical thinker. There's so many more possibilities that 'ants'. So no, I would not believe there are ants crawling on me - there's not enough information to believe it.

    2. The point is you cannot think critically. I have grasped this point completely.