The Macquarie Dictionary (2nd Edition, 1991 defines atheist as “one who denies or disbelieves the existence of God (or gods)”. It also defines disbelief as “refusal or inability to believe”. It seems that atheists, at least as far asthis dictionary is concerned, aredefined in terms of their lack of belief or refusal tobelieve. But why must we be defined in terms of negative, as if there might be some virtue in belief?

In recent years, I have taken to calling myself a rational secularist: a critical thinker within a context of reason and a non-superstitious worldview. This is a bit richer than merely calling oneself a non-believer, although the latter serves for brevity and is more satisfactory to me than atheist.

The basic distinction, it seems to me, between a religious person (using “religious” in its broadest sense) and an atheist or rational secularist or non-believer is that the former takes a basic stance of “faith and belief” while the latter’s stance is one of “thinking and scepticism”. This overcomes the common mistake that some make of juxtaposing religious people against scientists. There is no doubt that it is possible to be religious and also be a scientist (that is, one who applies the scientific method to the study of, and the search for, accurate knowledge of some aspect of a subject). If a religious scientist took a scientific approach to all aspects of life, he or she would think of the world in terms of theories, hypotheses, tests or experiments, sceptical conjectures, the search for non-confirming evidence, and reasoned and critical thinking about all things. In practice, however, religious scientists apply these scientific processes only to the narrow fields in which they practice science; in what is usually called their “spiritual life” they take a distinctly non-scientific stance, believing in whichever religion or other belief system they are caught up in. Their mental life is compartmentalised, which seems to bother them not at all.

I think it is good practice, which I try to apply in my own life, to avoid words like “believe” and “faith”, using instead words like “think”, “consider”, “probable”, “possible”, “likely”, “unlikely”, “perhaps” and so on. It is true that such a careful use of language can lead to a somewhat stultified style of speaking or writing; yet it circumvents the very language that atheists may deplore in believers.

Certainly well-known atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, employ the word “belief” in referring to their own thought processes, although I have not detected any instances of their claiming to have “faith” in any position they have taken. In the wonderful introduction to his book The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-believer we find Hitchens writing:

“Some things can be believed and some things simply cannot. I might choose to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was born of a virgin in Bethlehem and that later he both did and did not die, since he was seen again by humans after the time of his apparent decease. . . [S]uppose that I grant the virgin birth and the resurrection. The religious still have all of their work ahead of them. These events, even if confirmed, would not prove that Jesus was the son of god. Nor would they prove the truth or morality of his teachings” (p. xix).

To say “some things can be believed” in this context can be recast as “some things can be thought likely”. So, for example, it is perfectly reasonable for a non-believer to say “it is likely, from the historical record, that a man now known as Jesus of Nazareth lived some two thousand years ago in those parts of the Middle East described in the New Testament, and that he came to be referred to as Jesus Christ, inspiring a religion (springing from Judaism) that became known as Christianity”. This is a far cry from saying “I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God” – or any other similar nonsense.

So, there is a generally recognised difference between “belief” in the sense of “a rational probability” and “belief” in the sense of “faith”. Nevertheless, since our language affects the way we think about matters, and certainly affects how others interpret what we say, there is some advantage (to my way of thinking) in avoiding the “faith” words such as “believe”.

To return briefly to the subject of science and scientists, Christopher Hitchens comments that, as distinct from the position of Dawkins on the role of science, he sees “no special reason to credit ‘science’ as the father or godfather of reason … Even today, there are important men of science — admittedly in a minority — who maintain that their findings are compatible with belief in a creator. They may not be able to derive one from the other, or even to claim to do so, but they testify to the extreme stubbornness with which intelligent people will cling to unsupported opinions” (p. xxi).

A sceptical attitude, rather than a scientific one, appears to me to be the core and essence of the non-believer’s stance. By contrast, the believer adopts the core stance of “faith” which, by its nature, pays little or no heed to evidence, rationality or a sceptical and critical examination of positions purporting to be an accurate interpretation of the real world. However, as noted above, a believer may employ all these intellectual tools in contemplating matters to do with the natural world, but reserves the “right” to abandon those same tools in order to believe in highly improbable ideas that are supernatural or frankly superstitious.

The other aspect of the typical believer is that there is generally an uncritical acceptance of authority, whether that be a written authority (the Bible or Koran, for example) or a human authority, such as a pope or ayatollah. Basic positions taken by such authorities are not to be questioned or challenged by believers. Critical thinking is not encouraged,except “around the edges” (meaning in the interpretation or questioning of minor details of faith). Genuine criticism of or independent ideas on the basics (e.g. the existence or otherwise of a supreme being or principle) is generally regarded as heresy by the authority and invites negative consequences for the person expressing such views.

In a discussion of religion recently, a friend stated that his belief is useful to him because it gives him reassurance and comfort when faced with stress. His criterion for his faith is “usefulness” (in helping him with emotional matters). I, on the other hand — and I’d be interested to know if this is typical of other non-believers — use the criterion of the highest probability of a statement being correct, incorrect or indeterminate in an understanding of the reality of our world. Observation of the natural world leads me to think that certain matters are more or less probable; my understanding of how science works leads me to accept as likely many matters which cannot be directly experienced via the senses; my understanding of psychology leads me to consider the possibility of certain concepts about the human condition as being plausible. But they all are weighed against the likelihood that they approximate reality in the material world we all inhabit. Those things for which we lack a rational and/or scientific explanation are simply “unknown”. I have no problem with saying “we do not yet know the explanation for such-and-such”. I have no need to create some kind of explanation, no matter how bizarre. I can comfortably live with the ambiguity of not knowing.

The existence of supernatural forces or entities (such as gods, ghosts and goblins) seems to me to be extremely unlikely, and I see no evidence for their existence. However, my friend is not much concerned with the most accurate understanding of the real world (the highest probability criterion), but with “usefulness”. To him, his religious beliefs are useful even if they are not an accurate picture of the real world. He just thinks that the highest probability criterion is not very important. While I find that difficult to understand, I accept it.

I am happy for others to follow their religious beliefs if they find them useful, as long as, they do not try to impose their beliefs on my freedom of thought or action; nor should they put them forward as “truth”.

By Ian Macindoe