It seems to me that the core difference between believers and non-believers is that believers crave certainty and non-believers are comfortable with uncertainty. Believers accept what they are told without sceptical questioning; non-believers are doubtful and question what they are told.

This core difference is more central than the oft-proposed difference between the scientific and non-scientific distinction.  As I have pointed out elsewhere (The Australian Atheist, No.9 May-June 08, p. 10) there are plenty of practicing scientists who hold religious or spiritual beliefs. If they are good scientists they are probably sceptical questioners in their chosen scientific field, but they do not extend that attitude to their total world view. They are willing to accept on faith beliefs about aspects of the human condition, or ideas about the world or universe, that non-believers question and have doubts about. Doubters raise questions that good science attempts to answer. Where science is inadequate, or in domains for which science is not applicable, the doubter is comfortable with ‘I don’t know’.

All this is based on a philosophical position of realism: that there is a physical world out there that is objective and exists independently of our knowledge of it. Our perception of the real world is limited and is often distorted by our biological make-up and our lived experiences. Science tries to overcome these limitations through its rigorous methodology and sceptical appraisal. But even within the scientific community there are those who are less sceptical (at the extreme they are gullible) and, at the other end of the spectrum, are those who are tough-minded sceptics (at the extreme are those who suspend judgement of everything, unable to reach any conclusion no matter how tentative). I have been referring to scientists. But what of humans not versed in or committed to a scientific discipline?

In the sphere of religion, within the broad spectrum of sceptical humanity there is a distinction to be made between the atheist and the agnostic. Strictly speaking the atheist believes there are no gods and, insofar at that position is held as an unquestioned belief, the atheist is a believer (accepts on faith that no gods exist). Agnostics on the other hand question the existence of gods but, lacking any evidence for or against, take the position ‘I don’t know’. From that point of view agnostics are the more rigorous doubters. However, the distinction is often an artificial one, since rigorous agnostics are often so doubtful of any god-like entities—thinking that the probability of the existence of gods is vanishingly small—that they can hardly be distinguished from atheists.  But they do not take their position on gods from a believing stance. They strongly suspect there are no gods and see no evidence for same; but in order to avoid a faith-based intellectual position on the issue they are willing to allow an infinitesimal possibility that they could be wrong. As doubters agnostics are in a stronger position than atheists.

Personally I find the distinction between atheists and agnostics, as outlined above, unsatisfactory and artificial. This is why I think a better term in the twenty-first century is ‘rational secularist’: a sceptical, critical and non-mystical approach in the context of a pluralist secular society. In this day and age questions about the existence of gods are so sixteenth century.

Faiths are a problem because those who subscribe to them,the believers, tend to make others in their image — either in the upbringing of children, or via an ‘educative’ process, or through pressure and coercion. History is replete with this phenomenon, most easily appreciated in our knowledge about such examples as the Inquisition and Stalinism.

Those who wield power through the propagation of a faith have little or no tolerance for those who doubt, especially if that doubt is expressed publicly as sceptical questioning. Despite those who claim that ‘god is love’ and so on, the reality is that believers tend to work for conformity of others to their own beliefs and value positions. Thus, the Catholic Church takes a less-than-humanitarian stance on voluntary euthanasia for those suffering intolerably with unrelievable misery in their illness. And it is not just the Church and religious fundamentalists who lack compassion. Many politicians, ‘cowarded’ by religious extremists, lack the spine to support compassionate legislation that would relieve suffering. This is but one example of the foisting of faith-based positions on an unwilling population. Others are not hard to find. It is much easier, of course, to point to such abuses within theocratic states such as Saudi Arabia or Iran. Even the USA, despite its Constitution and separation of church and state, is a partial theocracy in practice, as politicians bow to political pressure from fundamentalist believers.

Of course, it can be argued that atheists, especially through solidarity organisations, are working to convince others of the rightness of their own value positions. While that is true, it must be noted that atheists (or non-believers by any other name) do not try to convince others to believe a faith, provided that their atheistic position is a product of doubt rather than belief. One is or becomes a non-believer through the exercise of critical thinking, scepticism of positions put forward on the basis of authority, and the cultivation of a general attitude of initial doubt about each and every proposition one is asked to accept.

In his book Angels and Ages Adam Gopnik, in drawing parallels between Charles Darwin’s and Abraham Lincoln’s influence on modern thought, makes the case for a shift in our thinking from theology to naturalism. ‘Darwin and Lincoln were makers and witnesses of the great change that, for good or ill, marks modern times: the slow emergence from a culture of faith and fear to one of observation and argument, and from a belief in the judgement of divinity to a belief in the verdict of history and time. First, the change from soul to mind as the engine of existence, and then from angels to ages as the overseers of life.’

Doubt, that quintessential difference from faith, is not a modern concept or intellectual position. In his book Ideas: A History from Fire to Freud  Peter Watson describes how Aristotle’s logic was rediscovered by Church scholars in the middle ages, giving rise to doubt as a catalyst to dialectical reasoning that produced argument, debate and persuasion within a theological context. Such scholars as Abelard and Peter of Poitiers wrote of ‘their duty to doubt the articles of faith, and to seek and discuss’. Watson comments: ‘For us today, logic is an arid, desiccated word and has lost much of its interest. But in the eleventh and twelfth centuries it was far more colourful and contentious, a stage in the advent of doubt, with the questioning of authority, and offering the chance to approach God in a new way’. Later thinkers built on these foundations: Spinoza did away with magic and devils (and much else) and more than any other thinker ‘persuaded us that man is a natural creature, with a rational place in the animal kingdom’. Spinoza gave us the groundwork for republicanism and democracy and ‘explained that the end-result of all these ideas was toleration’. Watson draws our attention to the Neapolitan Giambattista Vico (1668 – 1744) who, among much else, discussed the history of humans through their language and mythologies: ‘People who are in the depths of ignorance naturally interpret their surroundings by fables and allegories …’. Vico revealed that humans evolve ‘not just biologically but in terms of language, custom, social organisation, law and literature. And under all of that lay a bigger time bomb: that religion itself evolves. Thus Vico helped also the advent of doubt …’ (p. 508).

Deists—those who felt that religious conviction did not need supernatural elements to support it—represented a half-way position between the orthodox devout believer and the genuinely sceptical. As Watson observes: ‘Many people could not have gone directly from orthodox belief to atheism. Deism eased the way.’ While it had lost its influence in Europe and America in the nineteenth century ‘the overall impact of the deists was to achieve a major transformation in the concept of God, arguably the greatest change in understanding since the development of ethical monotheism in the sixth century BC.’

The way was then open for thinkers such as Hobbes, Hume, Bayle (a French sceptic) and Vanini (‘the first outright atheist’) to push back the fog of supernaturalism. At the same time as other scholars were examining the Christian scriptures critically, Paul Henry Thiry (1723 – 1789) made is clear that human concepts of God and supernaturalism ‘had been invented by primitive man who simply did not understand natural phenomena’. He also was clear that an acceptable morality does not depend on religion—a position reinforced by John Stuart Mill who published his essay On Liberty in the same year as Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859.  As Watson observes: ‘The advent of doubt could not but have a major effect on ethical thinking’ (p. 525).

It is foolish, I think, to take the position that all belief systems (and religions in particular) are always destructive or negative in their effects on people. The need to believe in a faith of some sort may even be ‘hard wired’ into the genetic codes we all carry, and only some of us are able to resist them and hold at bay biases, prejudices and beliefs that our critical faculties tell us are indefensible.

On the other hand, there seems little doubt that the social order and general tenor of the times exert an influence on us all, so that for centuries when doubters exercised their critical faculties they did so within an overwhelming social commitment to religious ideas. As illustrated by Watson and summarised above, the struggle to break away from these belief systems occurred gradually and was not a universal phenomenon. It continues today and will do so in the future, perhaps for the lifespan of humanity.

It is my view that we should take a tolerant attitude to those who subscribe to private belief systems, provided their faith is not forced on others. For many religious people, and not just Christians, the exercise of their faith is little more that the expression of a community ritual. The devout and fundamentally religious will continue to hold ideas that we non-believers find strange, illogical and sometimes downright bizarre. Nevertheless, provided their strange beliefs do not impinge on our secular social order or our own freedom of expression and behaviour, perhaps we should be grateful that they are preoccupied with a relatively harmless system of thought that keeps them from intruding on our real world.

As Gopnik sums it up: ‘There is no struggle between science and art or between evolutionary biology and spiritual faith; there is a constant struggle between the spirit of free enquiry and the spirit of fundamentalist dogma. That struggle is the story of human intellectual history … Nothing is a guarantee of humane conduct, except an insistence on it.’

Perhaps the world would be better off without faiths, perhaps not. Religious faith certainly has much to answer for, from stultifying human development, to persecution, to unspeakable tortures and deaths. From that viewpoint faith appears to be a problem. Whether an increase in doubt would alleviate many of the ills of faith is worth thinking about. At the level of individual humans struggling to think clearly about their lives and the world, doubt is probably extremely helpful. A society permeated by doubt about beliefs and faiths is possibly one solution to the negative aspects of faiths.

One thing is clear: today’s struggles to free ourselves from belief systems are not new. While science can help us gradually establish fact from fiction, even science is itself subject to the tension between doubt and belief. The sum total of human knowledge is miniscule by comparison with what remains to be known in the universe, much like a single grain of sand on a large beach. Perhaps it was Karl Popper who wrote or quoted words to the effect that while we differ widely in the knowledge that each of us has, in our infinite ignorance we are all equal.

And to keep us humble in our ignorance I can think of no better medicine than the words of the ancient Greek, Xenophanes:

The gods did not reveal, from the beginning

All things to us; but in the course of time,

Through seeking, men find that which is the better.

But as for certain truth, no man has known it,

Nor will he know it, neither of the gods,

Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.

And even if by chance he were to utter

The final truth, he would himself not know it,

For all is but a woven web of guesses.

Gopnik, A. ‘Angels and Ages: A short book about Darwin, Lincoln, and modern life’ Quercus, 2009.

Watson P. ‘Ideas: A history from fire to Freud’ Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2005.


By Ian Macindoe