The Samovar

Nobody believes in God

OK, not nobody, but almost nobody.

To believe something, you have to act in a way that is consistent with the belief being true. Otherwise, you’re just saying that you believe it. If someone tells you that twiglets are highly toxic and will kill you instantly, at the same time as munching a bag full of them, you’re likely to doubt they really believe it. Same thing if they told you that it would lead you to an eternity of damnation. You wouldn’t trade in the brief pleasure of eating a bag of twiglets for an eternity of damnation if you really believed in it. But this is exactly the situation of people claiming to believe in God whilst simultaneously doing things all the time that are inconsistent with it being true. Anyone who believes in hell but sins anyway – they don’t really believe in hell. Someone who believes in the teaching of Jesus, but also thinks that capitalism is a great idea – doesn’t really believe in Jesus’ teachings at all. And so on.

Now at this point, a Catholic will come along and say: you don’t necessarily go to hell if you sin, as long as you repent afterwards. But… if you sin planning to ‘repent’ afterwards, that doesn’t count (so I’m told). Well, I bet quite a lot of that goes on if people were honest with themselves. It seems to me that if you really believed in God, you wouldn’t try to sneak stuff by on a technicality. If you have any respect for the concept at all, you’ve surely gotta believe that He is wise to that.

In fact, when a religious rule is inconvenient, it tends to be ignored, or the meaning of it changed. In a capitalist society, the stuff that is antithetical to the pursuit of wealth is ignored. In a liberal society, the stuff about stoning adulterers and homosexuals is ignored. Conversely, in an illiberal one the stuff about loving your neighbour and turning the other cheek is ignored.

When it comes to a clash between what religion says you should do, and what is convenient to do in real life, convenience wins out over religion almost every time. Or in other words, the reason that there are so many adulterous affairs is that people don’t give any credence to the idea that they will be eternally punished for it in the afterlife (no shag is good enough to warrant infinite and everlasting pain as a consequence, surely?). In practice they behave, quite sensibly, as if the notions of religion were false. And for these reasons, I think it’s fair to say that most people don’t believe in God.

The meaning of ‘belief’

I suppose to make my case a bit more convincing I need to say something about the meaning of the word ‘belief’. Three obvious possibilities come to my mind when trying to define what belief might mean, someone believes something if:

  1. They say they believe it.
  2. They act in a way that is consistent with it being true.
  3. They are in some internal state correlative with the concept ‘belief’.

The twiglet example shows that (1) isn’t good enough, and it’s not clear that (3) has any meaning although it’s obviously compelling in some way. So for me, I have to go with (2), although I’d modify it slightly. I would say that to believe something is, roughly speaking, to act in accordance with a mental model of the world in which the proposition is true. I prefer this way of talking about it because it deals with the difficulty of defining what is or isn’t true (you can define truth or falsity of a proposition relative to a model without having to define it for the real world), and it gives a slightly more precise idea of what sorts of actions would count as consistent (i.e. those that are made by some decision-making procedure based on a mental model relative to which the proposition is true). This definition has its difficult points too, but I think it’s a helpful starting point at least.

In my experience of explaining this idea to people, there are various sticking points that stop people from agreeing that nobody believes in God. For starters, it seems kind of rude to suggest all these people are saying they believe in God but don’t really. Well, maybe that is rude, but is it any ruder than saying that one of their fundamental beliefs is wrong and that their view of the world is completely warped? I don’t think so, but even if it is that’s no reason not to say it. I think a more fundamental sticking point is that most people tend to have some sort of mixture of definitions (1) and (3) in their minds when asked about what belief means. If there is a mental state correlative to ‘belief’ – and introspection and intuition says there is – then surely the best person to report the status of that mental state is the person concerned. All very democratic, but people are often very bad at introspection and may themselves think that the fact that they are saying something without attempting to deceive means they believe it. The problem with that is: what about the unconscious?

The last sticking point is perhaps the most interesting of all, that in many ways it seems as though people do act in a way that is consistent with it being true. They go to church (some of them), they try to avoid sinning too much, they pray, etc. My response to this is that all of these actions are consequences of their believing that they believe, but not their actual believing. And I think that’s not a contradiction. The thing is, our mental models are disjointed fragmentary ones, not grand theories of everything. To get by in the world, we only need incomplete, heuristic models of situations that tend to recur. A mental model of the world in which we act as if we had a mental model of the world in which God exists doesn’t necessarily mean that we do indeed have a mental model of the world in which God exists. Mental models, and decision making procedures based on them, don’t have to be complete or accurate. They don’t need to be deductively complete or consistent, because most of the time we’re not capable of nor interested in making all the deductive conclusions possible from our different fragmentary mental models. In particular, our mental models of ourselves are often quite incredibly wrong. We think “In situation X I would do Y”, but then situation X happens and we do Z, the exact opposite of Y. It happens all the time. So it’s perfectly possible that we can believe that we believe in God, and consequently do all of the things we associate with a person who believes in God, but not actually believe in God (which would if we thought about it deeply enough, entail doing all sorts of things we wouldn’t actually do).


With most ideas, someone has already had them before you (often Hume in my experience, the clever bugger), and this is no exception. I haven’t read much Dennett, but it appears he has covered some of the same ground. I’m told that he makes a distinction between belief and opinion that is somewhat akin to what I’m talking about here. I didn’t find anything directly about this (please post a link in the comments if you have a good one), but his article Do Animals Have Beliefs? has this interesting nugget which might have some relevance to the discussion of the three definitions of belief above:

There are independent, salient states which belief-talk ‘measures’ to a first approximation.

I also found this YouTube video of him saying that he doesn’t believe that believers really believe. It’s my first embedded video on this blog, too.


A difficulty most believers have, and one they most likely don’t even know about, is that they have no idea about the God they in which they believe they believe.

What they really do believe in is what others tell them about whatever it is they believe they believe in!

Comment by taliesin

Dang! No preview function!

Remove the third ‘they’, and my comment may even make sense…

Comment by taliesin

First of all it needs to be clarified which “god” you are referring to. Many people do make up their own gods who they fashion to be exactly as they want them to be at any moment or in any situation. Now as a believer in the Christian God who sent His son Jesus Christ to die for the sins of all men and then rose from the grave to be Savior to all who put their faith and trust in him, let me explain more clearly. God’s standard for mankind is Holiness, perfection, absolute obedience to his sovereign will as revealed in the Bible. No man can live up to this standard. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. God in his love for us, Sent his Son to live a perfect life on this earth, fulfilling the law that none of us could keep. He then offered his life to satisfy God’s wrath against all of our sin. He then rose from the grave to be our living Hope. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life: His sacrifice on our behalf provides the way for us to be reconciled to God. To those who put their faith and trust in the Lord Jesus, their sins are forgiven and are now “clothed” with righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Now to answer the question of way believers don’t always act as though they know God. Christians are forgiven, but not yet perfected. We do strive to follow and live lives pleasing to God because of who he is and all he has done for us. Our obedience is now an act of worship, not fear of condemnation. Christ saves us forever; Hell is no longer an option for us. The blood of Christ has washed away all the sins that would have ever had caused us to be sent there. We still fail and do things we shouldn’t. None of us can be perfect though we strive for this to show our love for God. Our disobedience isn’t due to unbelief but to weakness.
Now let me ask you. Have you ever failed to do something you believed to be right? Have you ever done something you believed to be wrong? Does your failure mean that you didn’t really believe as you thought you should?
Weakness and unbelief are not the same.

God Bless

Comment by earthen vessel

I believe in God. Whatever happen I keep believing in God. Although I’m sinner nor not, God knows that I believe in Him. God knows my weakness. Human being can’t be free of sins or unconsistency.

Comment by jookut

[…] saying that you believe it. If someone tells you that twiglets are highly toxic and will kill you clash before relay The Courier MailTENSIONS are rising between pro-Tibet and pro-Chinese […]

Pingback by thought before religion

Hey Dan, this is another great post. Regarding the assertion that if a person says they believes something it isn’t an act of belief. Have you ever read any J.L. Austin? He came up a with a theory in language called Speech Acts. Speech acts are where a saying constitutes a doing. For example, in a particular context a priest can marry a couple with words. By saying “I now pronounce you man and wife”, he makes something the case in the real world by making a man and a woman, husband and wife. Another example, is a referee sending a person off the field. By saying “I am sending you off for x infraction” he is making it the case that the person is sent off. In similar fashion, if a person says “I believe in God” then they believe in God. Their saying “I believe in God” constitutes an act of belief (again, in specific contexts and under semi-specific linguistic and conversational rules. An athiest also might say “I believe in God” and he may be just being ironic, humorous, or lying, all depending upon context and certain rules of course. In those cases the saying doesn’t constitute a doing).

Comment by Munzenberg

Earthen Vessel: What makes you believe that your God is the true God? Do you think you would believe in the same God if for example you were brought up in Pakistan? Did you read about all the different religions once you reached an age where you could understand the teachings and decide then to become a christian, or, as I suspect, were your indoctrinated before you even had the chance to make up your own mind.

Comment by Kenny

taliesin, yes, an interesting point. What does belief in God constitute if there are disagreements about what God is like? Do all Christians believe in the same God, for example? Another point is that it’s impossible to consistently believe in most religions because they’re self-contradictory. But that’s another story.

earthen vessel (and jookut), thanks for posting here even though what I wrote could be seen as fairly hostile. OK, so my question is, what do you as a Christian think is the minimum someone has to do to count as believing in God? Presumably there is some minimum, it’s not just a matter of saying that you do? I mean, suppose I say I believe in God but then I go around burning down churches, donating large amounts of money to the Richard Dawkins foundation, etc. In that case, I think it would be fair to say that although I claimed to believe in God, I obviously didn’t. So my question is: what are the crucial aspects of belief in God? What is non-negotiable? Or is everything negotiable?

“Now let me ask you. Have you ever failed to do something you believed to be right? Have you ever done something you believed to be wrong? Does your failure mean that you didn’t really believe as you thought you should? Weakness and unbelief are not the same.”

Those are fair questions. Yes, I would say that I almost daily fail to do things I think are right, and do things I think are wrong. (OK, maybe an exaggeration, but fairly frequently anyway.) In some cases, I think that this does raise doubts about whether I really believe what I claim to believe. I believe in equality, and that unearned or unfair advantage is wrong, but do I give away all my money above what I need to survive to others? No. I think that this does throw some doubt on whether I really believe in equality. Dennett in that clip above talks about people ‘believing in belief’ – that is, believing that they should believe, that belief is a good thing that they should strive towards, whilst not actually believing. I think you could make a good case that my failure to give away all my money shows that I believe in belief in equality, but that I don’t actually believe in equality.

But going beyond that, I think there’s a crucial difference between earthly beliefs (like belief in equality), and religious beliefs. An earthly belief only needs to make sense in the context of a single lifetime here on Earth, a trifling 80 years or so. As an atheist, I think that’s all the time I’ve got, so it’s unsurprising that my adherence to my principles is weaker than it should be, when adhering to them has a personal cost to me. However, if I really believed that I had an eternity of bliss in the afterlife coming, then my own personal pleasure or otherwise for a mere 80 years or so on Earth would mean nothing to me, relatively speaking. If I really believed that, I’d certainly devote myself to doing good deeds, sacrifice myself for others, etc. And I think this is a sort of litmus test for whether people really believe or not. Suppose I knew for sure, or believed I knew, that I was going to die in a week. You can be damned sure I wouldn’t spend that week the way I’m actually going to spend it. Our beliefs about the time we will exist for certainly determine the sort of things we do.

Munzenberg, hiya. I have a read a very, very small amount of Austin. It seems to me that although something like ‘you are hereby married’ said in an appropriate context can create that meaning, this isn’t true of belief. The meaning created by the ‘you are hereby married’ speech act comes from the fact that marriage is a social convention. You are married if the social rules that define marriage have been followed. I don’t think that’s true of belief. Or, perhaps in practice it is, but that the practice is in contradiction with how we feel it ought to be. Belief shouldn’t be socially defined, it should be an individual quality. I’m not sure that speech acts can create individual meaning, only social meaning.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

A great Op Ed as ever, Dan. I really must try and keep up and get my blog kickstarted again.

I think a useful thing to do, though, is to try and and look at it from the (non?)believer’s perspective. This gives us a chance at testing out as the strongest possible counter-argument. (Karl Popper and all that). I think Earthen Jar and Jookut (for what cyber-purposes was that nickname created!) have nailed the get out of jail free card well. Their god is a loving and forgiving god who doesn’t expect them to wholly live up to his standards, just so long as they’re trying their best. Now we as unbelievers may think they’ve conveniently given themselves a licence to misbehave, but that’s our problem not theirs. For they believe that their god will forgive them.

Another thing that occurs to me is that some believers might say that ‘god is good’. By this they mean not that god does good, but the concept of ‘god’ subsumes all that is good. If it’s good, then it’s god. The dreadful CS Lewis gives a good expression of this in The Last Battle, the most nakedly theological of his Narnia books, when he argues that if good is done in the name of Tash, then it’s really done in the name of Aslan.

But here’s where it gets interesting. How is ‘good’ defined? Well…if one looks at The Bible, you and I might justifiably think that god hates fags. But a liberal Christian, whose radar might be every bit as sound as any decent Atheist’s – who basically applies the same secular standards as you or I – knows that this is Not Good. Clearly there must be a different interpretation. Similarly a Christian Capitalist knows that greed is good and interprets god’s word accordingly. I know I’m not saying anything new here; we all know that people construct their religions and concepts of god according to their own secular prejudices. So people do believe – but they believe in something different to what you might think.

Finally…I like Dennett’s distinction in ‘Belief’ and ‘Belief in belief’. But I’d say that for many self-defined believers, belief or non-belief is simply not an issue. You or I on the one hand, or various theologians on the other, might be interested in the intellectual basis of belief, but most believers are simply going about their business, doing what they believe to be good. Obviously, they’re doing that for the same secular reasons as non-believers. I think I’d disagree with Dennett if he’s saying that this means they don’t believe. I think it means that we simply can’t tell from the evidence of behaviour whether or not they believe. And neither can they. They don’t think about it.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

“if one looks at The Bible, you and I might justifiably think that god hates fags”

Er, well actually, no, Mr the Bonobo, Jesus seems a lot more concerned about the evils or rich people than he is about homosexuals, actually he seems to have nothing at all to say about homosexuals.

“Christ saves us forever; Hell is no longer an option for us.”

Er, well actually isn’t that contradicted by numerous words attributed to Jesus where he rather seems to be suggesting that those who ignore the poor etc DO go to hell? “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me”, “It is easier for a camel to go tghrough the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven” etc.

Your problem, Mr Vessel, is that you are placing a big interpretation on the word of Paul of Tarsus, which were actually really about why new convers to Christianity don’t have to obey ritual Jewish law and get circumcised actually, which only works as an interpretation if you ignore the words of Jesus of Nazareth …

Comment by Matthew Huntbach

Thanks for the correction. I’d been led to believe that St Paul was led by the Holy Spirit, and was certainly an outrageous homophobe. But presumably various Christians have different interpretations.

But, hey, don’t tell me! Tell some homophobic Christians!

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Thanks Ed!

“Their god is a loving and forgiving god who doesn’t expect them to wholly live up to his standards, just so long as they’re trying their best.”

The thing is though, it seems to me that most of them aren’t even trying their best. They’re taking a very narrow, legalistic view of what their religion says, and behaving according to that. Now that makes sense if you think of them as not believing in the facts that religions want you to believe in, but wanting to be part of the social group. Similarly, the fact that people have adulterous relationships but try to hide them makes sense if you think of their religious beliefs as about their social position. But I think neither of these makes sense if you imagine that people’s religious beliefs are about the way the world actually is.

Anyway, you’ll have recognised this as part of my efforts to argue that the problem with religion is not the belief in God per se, but the authority structures of organised religion, and that focussing on the most obvious part of religion – God – distracts us from the dangerous part (which is a much more general problem).

Another thought occurs to me: should we make a distinction between beliefs with and without consequences for the believer? The worrisome thing is when someone has beliefs with consequences, it doesn’t really matter if they have beliefs without consequences. This might be a useful way of refining the idea in the previous paragraph. Religious belief is composed of two parts: belief in God (without consequences, and therefore harmless), and belief in religious authority structures (with consequences, and therefore potentially dangerous).

I agree with your last paragraph by the way, I think it’s a really useful way of looking at the psychology and sociology of religion (and complementary to the one in my article).

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

There’s one line in one of St Paul’s letters, so far as I recall, which can be interpreted as saying no to gay sex. If Paul was an “outrageous homophobe”, one might have expected him to devote a considerably greater amount of his writings to this issue.

My own view is that it’s not organised religion that’s the problem, it’s disorganised religion. Organised religion is about reaching a consensus and telling the extremists “don’t be silly, you’re taking things out of perspective”. It’s when you reject the idea of religious organisation that you get extremist fundamentalists making up their own interpretations and thinking they know better than anyone else.

Comment by Matthew Huntbach

I’m not sure I can manage to see the phrase “vile affections” as indicating anything other than homophobia. I recognise that not all Christians are like that – Archbishop Tutu has lambasted his own church for its obsession with homosexuality – But it is, I’m afraid, their religion they got it from. Nowhere else.


Can we maybe look at the issue from a neuroscientific perspective. Dennet proposes (in ‘Consciousness Explained’) – and you seem to be following this, Dan – that we adopt a heterophenomenological approach. That is, we should be interested in the things people tell us are going on in their heads, but shouldn’t necessarily take them at face value. Which is what you’re doing, isn’t it, when you say,
To believe something, you have to act in a way that is consistent

Logically, one would think that this is true. However, we come up against ‘The Problem of Qualia’. To a believer, a belief is a thing they experience inside their head. We simply have to take them at their word when they say the believe. All we really observe is that they don’t seem to behave as though they feel that way – but we don’t observe absence of belief. Maybe a belef isn’t like a piece of code:
If belief = Christianity then behaviour = Love thy neighbour.
Maybe belief is a Fimbly Feeling that doesn’t impact on – or only sometimes – behaviour.

Is this maybe why Christians think you’re being rude?
‘It’s blue.’
‘You think it’s green, really.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

I’m not saying Paul never wrote anything we would interpret as homophobic, but I am saying it doesn’t seem to be a major obsession of his, and if one takes the Christian texts as a whole, one cannot say “God hates fags” jumps out as the main message of the religion, quite the contrary. We see a much firmer condemnation of other actions, alongside a message that God condemns sin but not the sinner.

The issue of belief versus actions is at the heart of the distinction between Catholicism and Protestantism. The Catholic holds that we will be judged by our actions as well as our beliefs, the Protestant that we will be judged only by our beliefs.

Comment by Matthew Huntbach

Fine. But I don’t need to be told that. Paul is nothing to me. It’s obsessed Christians you need to be telling this.

However…I simply can’t let anyone off the hook for saying, as some do:
God condemns sin but not the sinner
in relation to homosexuality. How might it feel to be told that one’s normal, loving family life is ‘sinful’? Those who say this should be deeply ashamed of their uncaring, inhumane, anti-family and immoral behaviour. The more caring Christians should be telling them this in the plainest possible terms. Few are.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo


“My own view is that it’s not organised religion that’s the problem, it’s disorganised religion.”

Historically speaking, and contemporarily, it’s been organised religion that is the problem, not disorganised religion. Organised religion is responsible for things like the Crusades, or at the moment discouraging the use of contraceptives in Africa. These things have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Disorganised religion on the other hand is responsible for a few thousand terrorism related deaths, which is pretty minor in comparison.

Also, to add to what Ed said about it, I would also like to take issue with the idea that “God condemns sin but not the sinner”. What does it even mean? What, when it comes down to it, are the consequences of God condemning sin but not the sinner? As far as I can tell, nothing at all. It would be exactly the same if he hadn’t. In more earthly terms, what are you telling me if you tell me that? Is it a denial that people are responsible for their own actions? If so, it hardly seems like a sound moral principle. If anything, the exact opposite.


“That is, we should be interested in the things people tell us are going on in their heads, but shouldn’t necessarily take them at face value.”

Yes exactly, that’s my attitude. Seems to me if you take things like unconscious desires seriously, something like this view is inevitable. A priori, there’s no reason to think that people should be able to report their own mental states accurately (or at all) – and in practice people do indeed seem pretty bad at it.

“We simply have to take them at their word when they say the believe.”

But would we have to take at their word the person who eats twiglets but claims to believe that they’re highly toxic and will instantly kill you? I take this as proof in principle that there is something problematic about using the word ‘belief’ in a naive way and expecting not to get caught up in absurdity.

“Maybe belief is a Fimbly Feeling that doesn’t impact on – or only sometimes – behaviour.”

Or maybe we need a more sophisticated vocabulary that distinguishes different sorts of beliefs, so that say religious beliefs should be regarded as a wholly different sort of a thing to say beliefs about whether or not twiglets will kill you.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

The claim was

“if one looks at The Bible, you and I might justifiably think that god hates fags”

I am making a factual point that this is not so, not a value judgement. If it was so, you’d expect Jesus to be spouting off against gays the whole time, as I said, he isn’t recorded as saying anything once about the issue, the one mention in the entire New Testament is one phrase in one letter of St Paul.

The same with “God condemns sin but not the sinner”: any Christian who says “God hates fags”, even if he points out that one phrase of St Paul and say “look, this indicates that homosexual behaviour is a sin”, is still denying the central point of his religion, which is made clear in many of the stories attributed to Jesus, which is that God does not hate sinners. One may point out that if one saccepts certain premises one’s further arguments from those premises are wrong, without necessarily accepting those premises. Sometimes when arguing with people, as when I am arguing with “fundamentalist Christians”, one has to start with where they are, which does not mean one is necessarily there oneself.

Regarding AIDS in Africa, if the Catholic Church’s position were responsible for the deaths of millions, one would expect to find a correlation between frequency of AIDS and frequency of Catholicism – one does not. The actual position of the Catholic Church is that sex outside marriage is no more a sin if condoms are used than if they aren’t.

Comment by Matthew Huntbach

Hi Matthew,

Sorry I didn’t mean to suggest that you yourself were taking a position on “God hates the sin not the sinner”, I see that I worded what I said badly. My point was just that the phrase itself is meaningless, whomever is saying it.

I don’t really know enough about the culpability of the Catholic church vis-a-vis AIDS in Africa to satisfactorily come back at you on that. Perhaps some of the other people following this discussion would like to (if there are any)?

One thing though. It’s not clear to me: are two sins equal in badness to one sin? Surely sex outside marriage with a condom is the sin of using contraception plus the sin of sex outside marriage, and is therefore worse than either sex outside marriage without a condom or sex within marriage with a condom? Does the sinfulness add, or is it a max operation?

The reason I wonder this is that from the point of view I’m developing above – distinguishing types of belief based on their consequences for the believer – there is a difference in the decision making calculus between sex within and without marriage, and whether or not to use a condom. If you are ignorant about the dangers of not using a condom, then as far as you know, everything stacks up on the side of not using one because the church says it is a sin. Using one then is all risk and no payoff. However, the same is not true of the decision about whether or not to have sex outside marriage. In this case, you have to make a choice between two options which each have pluses and minuses. On the one hand, the Church says it is bad to have sex outside marriage and that it is sin. On the other hand, sex outside marriage is fun. Oh dear, which choice should win? So you see that it’s possible that when the Church makes it clear that they disapprove both of sex outside marriage and contraception, then the net result can be to make it more likely that people will have sex outside marriage without a condom.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

But hang on a minute…the interprtation of many Christians have of the bible appears to be consistent with the notion that god hates fags (or less emotive phrasing thereof). Otherwise, I can’t find a explanation of phenomena such as the burning alive of homosexuals by Italian Christians (traditionally on a pyre of fennel twigs, hence the Italian epithet ‘finoccio’ for a gay person – ‘finoosh’ in The Sopranos).

OK – so it’s not my place I guess, as a non-Christian, to make my own interpretation of scripture. I merely observe the apparent interpretations of the faithful. To my mind, as an outsider, there appears at very least to be a case that The Bible is culpably ambiguous.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

The point I am making throughout is do not assume something and repeat it parrot fashion just because it’s what everyone else says. Thus, if one is going to say “if one looks at The Bible, you and I might justifiably think that god hates fags” perhaps it would be sensible to look at the Bible and see if this message really does jump out from it. If one is going to say that St Paul is “an outrageous homophobe” perhaps one ought to look at his writings to see if that opinion is actually supported by what one sees.

If one wishes to understand the Catholic Church’s position on contraception, then one needs to look at the document which laid it down, called “Humanae Vitae”, which is readily available on line. In pointing this out I am not saying I necessarily agree with it, just that before spouting off on what you think the Catholic Church’s position might be, it would perhaps be a good idea to find out what it is. The position this document takes is based on the assumption that sex takes place only with within marriage. Thus it does not make sense within the grounds set out by this document to suggest there is a separate sin of using artificial contraception which applies outside the assumption that sex is within marriage.

The Bible is indeed ambiguous because it is not meant to be a rule book. Any Christian who treats it as such I suspect hasn’t fully absorbed the message of Christianity. One does not need to be a Christian to point out that saying “God hates fags” is antithetical to what appears to be the message of Jesus as recorded in the Bible.

Comment by Matthew Huntbach

“If one wishes to understand the Catholic Church’s position on contraception, then one needs to look at the document which laid it down, called “Humanae Vitae”, which is readily available on line.”

This give part but not all of the Catholic Church’s position on contraception. It describes what their theological position is on what is right or wrong. However the Church’s “position” on contraception also includes their political stance on, for example, condom promotion programmes. This stance has been one of opposition. The evidence appears to show that these programmes do indeed reduce – in many cases very significantly – the number of cases of HIV/AIDS (see this article). To the extent then that the Church has been successful in stopping these programmes, it has contributed to the consequent cases of HIV/AIDS. I believe then that this supports my contention that “Organised religion is responsible for … discouraging the use of contraceptives in Africa.”

Incidentally, while googling this issue I found some lovely examples of the Catholic Church in action:

The head of the Catholic Church in Mozambique has told the BBC he believes some European-made condoms are infected with HIV deliberately.


The Catholic Church is telling people in countries stricken by Aids not to use condoms because they have tiny holes in them through which HIV can pass – potentially exposing thousands of people to risk.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

I’m not with you, Matthew. Why did Paul use the word ‘vile’ then? Assuming it’s accurately transalated, that’s sufficcient evidence of outrageous homophobia for me. So he apparently said nicer things about other people. I don’t think it’s up to me to reconcile this with his homophobia.

Incidently…I’m getting the feeling that you think that both Dan and I are uninformed and (perhaps?) simply repeating what others have said. Why so?

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

On the infected condoms thing…

The recently deceased Cardinal Trujillo – who was very highly placed in the Church – also propagated the egregious falsehood that condoms are ineffective because the HIV virus can pass through tiny holes in them. As well as being somewhere betwen dishonest and culpably ignorant, it seems somewhat deceptive of him to imply that the theological objection to condoms is based on their ineffectiveness in preventing STDs.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Some of the African clerics don’t have a great record on this, and I feel should be disciplined for some of the rubbish they’re saying. But that of course, is “organised religion”. So there you go – you’re proving my point, the problem is these peope are spouting off on their own without sufficient organisation to rein them in.

On Trujillo, there was at one point a genuine concern that condoms were not a fully effective barrier. In a later interview, Trujillo actually cited scientific papers which raised this concern. The real issue Trujillo was trying to put across is that condoms are not 100% effective because accidents will happen, people won’t use them properly etc, but this was lost because of his throwaway remark on permeability. Trujillo was making the point that the traditional Catholic teaching on sex would act to stop the spread of AIDS if it was obeyed. Well, he’s a Catholic, isn’t that what you’d expect him to say? You may crtiicise him for being unrealistic, but it isn’t actually false.

On Paul and “vile”, well he actually used a Greek word. Whether “vile” is an accurate translation or not, I don’t know, it doesn’t seem to be translated to that word in the Bible I just checked to see what he said (the word used is “shameless”). But I would interpret the statement “Paul was an outrageous homophobe” to suggest he went on and on about the issue in an abusive way. Obviously he was a man of his time and didn’t view homosexuality as we would now in the 21st century west. He was a homophobe only in the sense that that most people were in his time and place. But even that one remark he does make can be put in context of its surrounding material, and is in part a condemnation of sexual promiscuity rather than just homosexuality.

Comment by Matthew Huntbach

Further on Trujillo, I have found a web link to that later interview:

In it (footnote 20), Trujillo notes the following paper:

S. G. Arnold, J. E. Whitman C. H. Fox and M. H. Cottler-Fox, Latex Gloves not Enough to Exclude Viruses, in Nature 335 (1988) 6185: 19

Does he deserve the accusations that have been thrown at him when his comments are backed up by a paper in Nature?

Comment by Matthew Huntbach

So there you go – you’re proving my point, the problem is these peope are spouting off on their own without sufficient organisation to rein them in.

That’s a pretty perverse conclusion to draw from that. When you get to be the head of the Church in a country, you can no longer be painted as a renegade working outside the structures of the organisation.

The real issue Trujillo was trying to put across is that condoms are not 100% effective because accidents will happen, people won’t use them properly etc, but this was lost because of his throwaway remark on permeability.

And because they’re only 99% effective (or whatever) they should be discouraged? No, the numbers don’t stack up.

You may crtiicise him for being unrealistic, but it isn’t actually false.

Ignorance and stupidity are not excuses when you wield enormous power. It’s not about making excuses for people, it’s about doing the right thing, and the Church is very much doing the wrong thing in this matter.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

Hey Dan,

Hope everything’s going well. Do you really think that people don’t believe in God? The arguments you give are all about tenets of particular religions, like belief in the afterlife, eternal punishment, etc. None of these follow from the existence of God, right? No contradiction arises from believing in God, but not in any of these other things. In fact – believing in God (by itself) seems to have no consequences at all regarding human behavior – so doesn’t this render (2) useless? I suppose a behavior inconsistent with believing in God might be saying that you don’t believe, but the would-be believers seem to pass that test every time 😉

In fact, I’m not sure that most people who believe in God would even say they believe in any of these other things. For example, lots of people claim to be deists – they think that God created the universe, but doesn’t intervene or care about humans in any way.

On the other hand, I think there is an interesting question about whether people believe in the afterlife. That could have all sorts of consequences about the degree to which one cares about the ‘before-life’. And truly balancing the finite life we have now with an infinite afterlife would surely involve behaving very differently (and pathologically) from normal. Probably something similar could be said about many religious notions (other than mere belief in God).

This kind of phenomenon makes me wonder if the word believe is really adequate (no matter how it is defined) to capture what is going on. At the very least phrases like ‘cognitive dissonance’ seem to come into things. For example, you often hear Christians discussing the miracles performed by Jesus as though they were two different people: “as a historian I believe X, but as a Christian I believe Y” …

I think maybe there’s no point in arguing about whether such a person ‘really believes’, whatever that might mean, and that instead maybe we should try to describe their mental state and the way it relates to their actions as accurately as we can.


Comment by Simon

Hey Simon,

I guess I’m arguing that they don’t believe in the God that most religions tell them about. They may believe in some sort of airy fairy “I think there’s something, but I’m not sure what” sort of God (although I suspect that amounts to just finding the universe a little bewildering). These are not the people we need to be worrying about though.

“maybe we should try to describe their mental state and the way it relates to their actions as accurately as we can.”

Agreed. And my take here is that their actions are largely affected by the social aspects of religion rather than the belief aspects, and that therefore we don’t need to consider religion differently than any social or political phenomenon. The fact that a whole load of supernatural talk comes along with it is neither here nor there.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

In practice the failure rate of condoms is about 10%, due to improper usage, slippage, breakage and so on. Trujillo was making the point that if promiscuity is encouraged because the argument is put across “condoms will solve all problems of AIDS transmission” then AIDS will still spread.

The argument “the Catholic Church is responsible for millions of deaths from AIDS” is based on the assumption that there are Catholics who are so pious they won’t use condoms because the Church tells them not to, but strangely still make use of prostitutes and have other sexual relationships outside marriage. As I have already said, the Church’s teachings on contraception are entirely in the assumption that sex takes place within marriage, having sex with a prostitute does not become less of a sin if a condom isn’t used. If the African Church hieracrchy haven’t maneged to put this message across, them they are at fault, yes.

Comment by Matthew Huntbach

OK, let’s get this straight. Are you arguing – as you appear to be now but not before – that the Church’s position is actually correct?

First of all, some links for anyone following this conversation since I took the trouble to look them up:

Family values versus safe sex (Cardinal Trujillo’s statement reflecting the Vatican’s position, 2003)
Humanae Vitae (Catholic Church’s position, 1968)
NIH report on effectiveness of condoms (2001, cited in Trujillo’s statement)

In practice the failure rate of condoms is about 10%, due to improper usage, slippage, breakage and so on.

One has to be quite careful about what figures like this mean. Without knowing where you came up with this statistic, it’s difficult to be sure what it means. First of all, you need to distinguish between the ‘efficacy’ and ‘effectiveness’. The efficacy tells you how effective the condom is if used perfectly, the effectiveness tells you how effective it is in normal use (including incorrect use). So, for comparison, perfect condom use results in 2% of pregnancies per year, whereas imperfect use results in 10-18% (according to wikipedia’s article on condoms). Now the NIH report linked to above gives figures in ‘seroconversions per 100 person years’. I’ll quote the report:

Among participants who reported always using condoms, the summary estimate of HIV/AIDS incidence from the twelve studies was 0.9 seroconversion per 100 person years. Among those who reported never using condoms, the summary estimate of HIV/AIDS incidence from the seven studies was 6.7 seroconversions per 100 person years. Overall, Davis and Weller estimated that condoms provided an 85% reduction in HIV/AIDS transmission risk when infection rates were compared in always versus never users.

The final line summarises it: normal usage of condoms reduces the risk by 85%.

OK, so now let’s compare to what the Catholic church has to say. To be clear, we’re comparing the ‘condom use method’ to the ‘abstinence method’. In both cases, we can distinguish between perfect use of the method and imperfect use. In the latter case, imperfect use would mean the occasional sins that God doesn’t hate us for. So let’s start with perfect use. In perfect use, we don’t have the figures for the reduction in risk for condom use, but if we look at how much better perfect condom use is than imperfect condom use for pregnancies, we could estimate that perfect use reduces the risk relative to imperfect use by 80-89% (2% compared to 10-18%). This would mean that perfect condom use would reduce the risk compared to no condom use by 97-98% if we compare to the 85% reduction in risk reported by the NIH report. So that’s a bit of a guess, but the assumptions are not too bad. By comparison, perfect use of the abstinence method looks to be 100% sure. Score one for Catholicism. Well, sort of. Actually, it’s not quite true because (quoting from an article I linked to already):

As already noted, the church in Africa is facing a grim reality even when it comes to sex in marriage. According to UNICEF, teenage brides in some African countries are becoming infected with the AIDS virus at higher rates than sexually active unmarried girls of similar ages. That’s because young brides are acquiring HIV from their husbands, who tend to be many years older and were infected before marriage. Clearly, abstinence and fidelity prevention strategies will not reliably protect these women.

OK, so much for perfect use which is anyway a bit of a fantasy. In both cases, the reality is that people won’t use either method perfectly. Moving on to imperfect use, we know that using condoms reduces the risk by 85%. We don’t know to what extent imperfect use of abstinence reduces the risk, but my guess would be not very much given what people are like, and high rates of marital infidelity. So let’s look at how programmes encouraging the use of condoms work in practice, quoting from the same article again:

Although it is true that condoms are not 100-percent effective in preventing HIV infection, they do reduce the risk of transmission significantly. Comparing condom use to a suicidal dare, as Cardinal Trujillo does, is scientifically inaccurate and socially irresponsible. A preponderance of medical research demonstrates that condoms help prevent the spread of HIV. For example, the European Study Group on Heterosexual Transmission of HIV followed 124 discordant couples (in which only one of the pair is infected with HIV) who consistently used condoms. Over a two-year period and roughly fifteen thousand sexual acts, none of the HIV-negative partners contracted the virus. Thai investigators examining the impact of condom use among the military reported that new infections dropped from 12.5 percent in 1993 to 6.7 percent in 1995. The number of new HIV infections in Thailand plummeted after the introduction of a “100-percent condom use” program.

Looks to be pretty good, and in consequence it looks like successfully opposing these sorts of programmes makes you responsible for an awful lot of suffering.

OK, now some other comments on what you said:

The argument “the Catholic Church is responsible for millions of deaths from AIDS” is based on the assumption that there are Catholics who are so pious they won’t use condoms because the Church tells them not to, but strangely still make use of prostitutes and have other sexual relationships outside marriage.

First of all, I didn’t say “the Catholic Church is responsible for millions of deaths from AIDS”, I said “Organised religion is responsible for things like the Crusades, or at the moment discouraging the use of contraceptives in Africa. These things have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions.” But I understand that you’re addressing the argument in quotation marks, not my argument, and that’s fine. Moving on. The argument is not based on the assumption you say it is, as I think I’ve made clear in repeated posts here. The argument is that their responsibility consists of their actions in various spheres, one of which is their political opposition to programmes encouraging the use of condoms, which because of their significant political clout can get these programmes cancelled. That’s the major point of contention, but actually your assumption is not so strange. Many people believe in their religion inconsistently. For example, there are many Jewish people who won’t eat pork but will happily have sex outside marriage. The Catholic church promotes ignorance about condom use (both by trying not to talk about it at all where possible, and by talking complete nonsense such as in that Trujillo ‘Family Values’ statement when they do talk about it). People’s ignorance about the risks of not using condoms is why they consider it to be OK to follow the rule about not using condoms (because they don’t see the danger) but not OK to follow the rule about not having sex outside marriage (because they very much want to do that).

OK I’m pretty much done now. For anyone who has made it this far, here’s another gem of a quote from Trujillo’s statement on ‘Family values’:

The typical, real-life use of condoms is far from perfect; it is rather frequently used inconsistently and incorrectly. This is not difficult to understand, given that consistent use requires an enormous amount of self-discipline


Anyway, I do recommend you read the article I keep linking to, which ends:

But by narrowly diagnosing AIDS as a problem of morality and by discrediting a vital component of HIV prevention, the church is advancing a remedy that is woefully inadequate. In medicine, partial therapy is at best ineffective-and at worst lethal.

If men did not stray, if women had rights, if AIDS did not kill, perhaps the church’s strict ban on condom use would be morally defensible. But none of these conditions applies in Africa today. As a consequence, the cost of the church’s inflexibility may mean not only untold human suffering, but the loss of millions of innocent lives.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

I’ll take ‘shameless’ in place of ‘vile’. To be without shame about a perfectly normal human relationship is fine by me. I guess it’s not for me to judge whether Paul was, in fact, being more liberal than many professed Christians apparently are.

But you miss my point, Matthew. For myself, I am deeply uninterested in scriptural attitudes towards sexuality. Like any decent human, I do not see anything remotely ‘sinful’ or immoral about the consensual, familial relationships of others, irrespective of the sex combination of couples. I don’t need scripture to bring me to this position. Any other position is uttely, despicably immoral. No argument. Agreed?

Whence, then, the apparent attitude of some Christians? Why is it that the Christian hierarchy is not vocal in opposition tom the moral outrage of homophobia? I can fully accept that Christians are capable of great human good (whether this can be ascribed to Christian teaching is another matter. However.) So why is there what looks to an outsider a blind spot over the human rights of couples? So maybe – as you have argued – homosexuality is not a major issue in scripture. So who is it, then, who is in opposition to gay marriage, adoption by gay couples, IVF for lesbian couples…etc? In comparison with, say, poverty and homelessness, these may be relatively trivial issues. But shouldn’t Christians be a little more vocal in support of the only reasonable moral position on these? Is Christianity a moral force or isn’t it?

Can you maybe see why it might be that I, as an outsider, might doubt the soundness of Christian morality? In the absence of clear guidance from Paul, what is its position on relationships betwen consensual adults in whatever combintion they choose? Does it meet basic, universal standards of human decency? Because you seem to be suggesting that I’m mistaken in implying that Christinity is a homophobic religion.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

“To believe something, you have to act in a way that is consistent with the belief being true. ”

This is a bizarre definition, certainly not in accordance with how anyone else uses the term.

The rest of your post attacks a straw-man.

Comment by Dan tdaxp

I don’t see how this post directly challenges the belief in God. A better concept might have been something that highlights great hypocrisy’s in religion (Osama bin Laden, obscenely rich Christian evangelists or others that pontificate or act out in the name of God and yet contradict the very doctrine they claim to represent.) I’m hardly an expert but in respect to those of Christian faith I’d surmise it’s an accepted matter of faith that all are, to a degree or another, sinners. That people sin isn’t an indictment of disbelief, rather a fatal flaw of humanity that Christ died to atone for.

Comment by Jay@Soob

I came to similar conclusions on a similar topic a few months ago.

Enjoyed your post.

Comment by Allen In Fort Worth

Dan, why is it a bizarre definition? I mean, take the twiglet eating example I gave – what grounds do we have to say he doesn’t believe other than his actions clearly contradicting his stated beliefs?

Hi Jay,

No you’re right, in some sense this doesn’t challenge belief in God in general, it challenges belief in the particular Gods of most religions (see my reply to Simon above, who made a similar point).

“That people sin isn’t an indictment of disbelief, rather a fatal flaw of humanity that Christ died to atone for.”

I think that the idea that people just can’t help sinning can only be taken so far. To take the example that nobody really believes in any more it seems, that if you sin you go to hell: for someone to really believe both this and yet to sin anyway doesn’t make any sense. Either they don’t understand the nature of hell, or they don’t believe, or ‘they’ aren’t actually ‘in control’ of their actions. In the first case, they don’t believe because they are ‘believing in’ the wrong thing. In the second case they don’t believe. In the third case, what is our basis for identifying the individual who is doing the ‘believing’ as the same individual who is performing the actions? In other words, if ‘they’ are not ‘in control’ then who are ‘they’? Think about this with respect to the twiglets example: this theory of someone not being in control of their own actions but believing such and such would suggest that the man munching the twiglets but sincerely believing they are toxic and will kill him could say: yes I see that I am eating twiglets, and I believe that this will kill me, but I’m not in control of my impulse to eat twiglets. Actually, I’m almost persuading myself that this is possible now. This seems to be the attitude of a drug addict. (Sidenote: could we then describe people who believe but sin anyway as addicted to real life?)

Hmm, interesting. I’ll have to ponder that now. My initial reaction is to think along the lines of there being two kinds of beliefs, those which do and don’t entail a behavioural correlate (as I described in comments above).

Comment by Anonymous

Oh, that last post was from me btw.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar


As you chose to respond seriously at Soob’s blog, but not here, my substantive responce is in that thread [1].


Comment by Dan tdaxp

Hi Dan. I think your conflating the intrinsic term of belief with the intangible aspect of belief. One is tied to pure logic (I believe in gravity) the other a manifestation of faith. I think you’re applying a logical argument and definition to something that’s beyond the black and white of pure science. From a pragmatic standpoint your argument makes sense. But faith, as I understand it, isn’t reliant on pragmatism or so easily quantified in such a strict manner. I think the common mistake of atheist’s in arguing faith is to apply strict scientific arguments to an element that really can’t be honestly considered from such a position.

Comment by Jay@Soob

I, lake many Atheists, am often confused by religious language. Jay, can you explain to me what the dickens ‘a manifestation of faith’ means, in plain, ordinary language? The only meaning I can guess at is equivalent to the intrinsic belief that you’re contrasting it to.

In othere words…what’s the difference?

I think the common mistake of atheist’s in arguing faith is to apply strict scientific arguments to an element that really can’t be honestly considered from such a position.

While you’re at it…can you clarify the nature of this ‘mistake’. Why can’t faith be examined – as, in fact, Daniel Dennet proposes – scientifically. Compare and contrast the science of psychology which looks at things such as how knoweldge representations affect decision making. What is faith other than a variety of knowledge representation?

As an aside – it is a common assertion that faith is beyond logical or scientific analysis (with the implication that those who try to analyse it thus are missing some important intellectual point). But isn’t this simply a get-out clause? Asserting it don’t make it so

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Hi Jay, I’m inclined to agree with what Ed said in his post above. I’ll add one thing to that.

Another way of characterising my idea about this is that theists *are* behaving pragmatically in some sense. They appear to weigh up the consequences of various actions they could take and make decisions about which is the best one. The thing is though, if you think about how they are making these decisions, it doesn’t seem to involve them acting as if what they say they believe is really true.

What you seem to be saying is that faith isn’t rational or pragmatic, and so considering it from the point of view of rationality and pragmatism is not helpful. What I’m saying in response to that is that the believers themselves do appear to be behaving pragmatically relative to the real world, and in many ways rationally with respect to the real world (but not rationally with respect to what they claim they believe). The fact that they appear to be behaving pragmatically in general it seems to me casts doubt on the idea that you can’t think about these things pragmatically or rationally.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

Oh, and people following this discussion might also like to follow the smaller discussion at Jay’s blog too:

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

Another quick addition: the other Dan let me know that his second comment hadn’t appeared on the blog and I’ve just rescued it from the over-zealous Akismet filter (along with Allen’s post too). So I’m responding to his second post here.

I don’t think my reply wasn’t serious just because I used a joke example to illustrate my point.

“A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

OK, I just wrote a comment in reply to other Dan’s comment on Jay’s blog, which I’m copying here because it’s relevant here too. Other Dan wrote:

“Re: Dennett, you appear to be be extending his claim that belief-talk imperfectly measures belief-state to asserting that action perfectly measures belief state. I don’t think Dennet, or many others, would agree with you in your extension.”

I wouldn’t say that action perfectly measures belief state, although I can see how you would get that idea from my post. It’s cleared up somewhat in the comments, but it’s not a point I’ve directly replied to.

If I understand you correctly, you’re saying something like: people do believe, they act largely consistently with their beliefs, but not entirely consistently (they sin, we are all imperfect, etc.). You are taking me as saying that since everyone has sinned at least once nobody can believe. Is that about right?

OK, so my reply to that is a refinement of the point I was originally trying to make (some of which is in the comments already there and in my latest reply to Jay over at my blog). I would say that theists act consistently with their stated beliefs when it is not inconvenient to do so, but inconsistently when it is inconvenient. Seeing sin as a sign of weakness or mistake is to say that they act consistently with their beliefs, but that they occasionally make mistakes (fail to act completely rationally with respect to them). My alternative view is to say that they are largely acting consistently, but that they are acting consistently with respect to a different set of beliefs from their stated set. The beliefs they are acting consistently with respect to are about their place in the social hierarchy, and what Dennett calls ‘belief in belief’.

I find my alternative view of it a more useful one, with greater explanatory power. In line with Dennett’s view of the intentional stance (as I understand it), I conclude that they do not believe in their stated beliefs, but in this alternative set of beliefs.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

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Sorry, but I really think that you make your case only by defining belief in God in such a way as to make your case plausible!

Yes, of course believers sin. But there’s much less premeditation or thought involved than you seem to think. People are rarely if ever wholly consistent, and that people seem to act, to you as if they don’t really believe, doesn’t make you right!.


Comment by Debbie Kean

The whole point is to ask what ‘belief in God’ might actually mean, what does it amount to? Do you have a definition of belief? Does it deal satisfactorily with the twiglet problem in the post above? I’d love to hear it!

See also my follow-up post on this: where I conclude:

“Things like belief in gravity or belief about some observable facts, which people act consistently with almost all of the time, could be still used unproblematically, but talk of belief in ideals or belief in God should raise alarm bells because we know that these beliefs will not inform us as to individuals actions. An alternative conclusion to my previous controversial entry would then be: belief in God is beyond the pragmatic limit of applicability of the concept ‘belief’.”

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

Edward, sigh..
You say ” I’d been led to believe that St Paul was led by the Holy Spirit, and was certainly an outrageous homophobe. But presumably various Christians have different interpretations.”
First, define homophobe! Second, explain who and or what led you to believe that?


Comment by Debbie Kean

Matthew, I really like the points you’re making! Awesome!
Especially “Regarding AIDS in Africa, if the Catholic Church’s position were responsible for the deaths of millions, one would expect to find a correlation between frequency of AIDS and frequency of Catholicism – one does not. The actual position of the Catholic Church is that sex outside marriage is no more a sin if condoms are used than if they aren’t.”


Comment by Debbie Kean

good thought and great points. if someone does something without worry of consequence, that doesn’t neccessarily mean that person does not believe in consequence or the enforcement of.

Comment by deez

I suppose we have to accept that words have different meanings in different contexts (something I’m constantly banging on about), which means that people may believe in one sense and not in another.

It means you have to be very precise with your definitions.


Comment by Timothy (TRiG)

Well yes of course. In those terms, my point is that there is a very important, everyday, common sense meaning of the word ‘belief’ such that (most) theists do not believe in God. This point is largely unacknowledged, and important I think. If we assume that because a theist ‘believes’ in God in the sense that they say ‘I believe in God’ and don’t appear to be lying, that they will act in a way that is even slightly consistent with the actual existence of God, then we’re making a big mistake.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

You may find your arguments on ice when pointing them in the direction of Muslims, considering christianity is riddled with inconsistancies and even its followers don’t deny this fact.

In Islam, our holy book the Qur’an directly addresses the fact that all the children of Adam (mankind as a whole) are sinners and some of the reasons are as follows:

1: We are placed on this Earth as a test. In other words, living in our world we are surrounded by things at all times which Allaah has made prohibited to us while at the same time making them desireable. None of us will see Allaah with our own two eyes, or see His Fire, or see His Paradise with our eyes so the Devil is here to make us believe it is all just a big accident and that we’re not going anywhere when we die (which is the exact error that you guys have fallen into).

With these issues it is not an issue of disbelieving in Allah when we sin, but rather it is the likeness of a child who eats a cookie out of the jar even though he knows his parents will find out and spank him. He does it anyway because at the time of stealing the cookie he is so overpowered by his desire to have it that it overshadows his judgement and his fear of being spanked. Its the same with Heaven and Hell. We know that they are real but the temptations we feel sometimes cause us to live in the “now” and ignore the oncoming consequences for our actions.

By your standard of logic it would be the same for someone to say that a criminal can’t really exist because everyone knows jail is a real place but then why do they commit crimes?

People do things because they dont consider the consequences. This is human and even animal nature so don’t try to pull that card as a proof for the disbelief of believers.

2: Humans are created flawed. We are designed with error in our genetics, hence why mistakes happen to everyone on a regular basis. If a guy crashes his car into someone elses, it doesnt mean he didnt BELIEVE it could happen, it just means he wasn’t aware that it would happen to him at that moment.

Allaah created us this way on purpose, and the reason is, like it or not, repentance. You see, Allaah explained that when He created the first man he commanded all the angels and spirits to bow to him because Adam was the best creation that Allaah had ever put forth. The angels asked him why would He create a creature that will cause mischief and wreak havoc on the Earth (IE A creature who has the ability to do evil as well as good, unlike the angels who only do good and nothing else)? He explained that He Knows better than them so they all bowed except for Iblis (the devil). The point is, the reason that Adam (man) is the best of creation is because HE HAS the ability to choose right or wrong – unlike the angels – so while it is bad when he does evil it is EXCEPTIONALLY good when he does good. You see, when a man chooses to obey Allaah even though he has the ABILITY not to, then there is nothing more pure and sincere than that.

Allaah says in the Quran, the translation of the meaning:

“Surely Allah loves those who turn unto Him in repentence and loves those who purify themselves.”» [Qur’an, Chapter 2: Verse 222]

So this shows you that doing evil makes Allaah Angry but the ability to do it is there so that the humans can choose to ask Allaah for forgiveness, and that is the way Allaah intended us to be. He was aware we would make errors and sins and even planned for that, but He wanted us to feel guilt for it and shame so that we would honor Him and His Command.

3: Muslims take from not only the Quran but also the Sunnah, or the hadiths, meaning the recorded sayings and actions of our Prophet Muhammad, Peace and prayers of Allaah be upon him. One such narration says as follows:

“If you did not commit sins, Allah would sweep you out of existence and replace you by another people who would commit sins, ask for Allah’s forgiveness and He would forgive them.”

(Narrated by Abu Ayyoob & Abu Hurayrah & collected by Sahih Muslim (Eng. trans. vol.4 pp.1436-7 nos.6620-2)

So this narration only strengthens my point. We are supposed to sin and Allaah is Aware of that, but the sin only counts against those who do not feel guilty of it and ask for forgiveness. We need evil in order for good to exist, and likewise. So contemplate on these things if you truly consider yourself a rationalist.

-Ibn Faisal

Comment by Royal Flush

Thanks for your interesting comment. I acknowledge the point that we sometimes behave in the moment in ways that we know will have large negative effects in the longer term, which I deal with in the followup to this entry.

To some extent, you can explain this sort of behaviour in terms of the concept from economics of ‘discounting’ – we value future pleasure less than pleasure now. However, that doesn’t explain sinning, because you cannot discount the (infinite) afterlife. There’s also gambling going on – someone committing a crime is gambling on what can be gained by doing so compared to the costs of getting caught multiplied by the probability of getting caught. Sometimes this will be a good gamble, sometimes a bad one. This explains why your jail example doesn’t work. The same thing doesn’t hold in the case of sin, because god being omniscient means it is certain that you will get caught. But I won’t pursue these points because you’re not arguing that sinful behaviour is rational.

You also suggest the example of the child who takes the cookie knowing it’ll get smacked. This example is flawed I think – the child is still learning the association of actions and consequences.

To cut a long story short (see the comments and the entry linked to for more on this) I would describe my current position as saying that ‘belief’ in God is quite a curious sort of ‘belief’ that is quite dissimilar in many substantial ways to other sorts of belief.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

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