Belief Orbits

The final narrative sequence to the game Portal 2 [Spoiler Alert!] features Wheatley and the Space Core drifting through the emptiness of space. (So much space!) Wheatley is reflecting on the events which put him into his present predicament while the Space Core orbits around him, gleefully taking in all the splendor of space. (Need to see it all!) In the clip, the focus is on Wheatley, but I got to thinking that from the Space Core’s frame of reference, Wheatley is the one in orbit. From an objective frame of reference, the two spheres are pirouetting around each other in a cosmic dance that will last until a third gravitational force causes them to do otherwise. (SPAAAAACE!)

I’m currently reading a book called The Religious Case Against Belief by James P. Carse. In part one, Carse goes into detail about the properties of beliefs and belief systems and how they persist in contrast to one another.

Belief systems thrive in circumstances of collision. They are energized by their opposites. For every believer there is a nonbeliever on whom the believer is focused, whose resistance is carefully delineated. We could go so far as to say that belief is so dependent on the hostile other that it many need to stimulate the other’s active resistance. Belief has a confrontational element built into itself that is essential to its own vitality. If believers need to inspire fellow believers to hold firmly to their position, they need just as much to inspire nonbelievers to hold to theirs. (Carse p.40-41)

Examples of beliefs that thrive in direct opposition to one another might be something like “Debian is a more stable Linux distribution than Slackware”, to something else like “the Oregon Ducks are a better football team than the Stanford Cardinal even though they lost”, to something that people have been willing to kill for such as “Catholic Christendom is superior to all other faiths because it is true and all others are false”. Beliefs can only exist where there is an opposing belief to be held. Carse elaborates on this.

Because belief is always belief against, it is itself an act of unbelief. It is the active refusal to take a rival position. To believe something, one must disbelieve something; it must have an opponent whose (dis)beliefs are a perfect match. For this reason, each is largely defined by its opposite [original emphasis]. If beliefs die when their opposition disappears, they are obliged to mimic any changes the opposition makes of itself. Belief and unbelief are therefore locked into mutual self-creation. (Carse p.41-42)

Just as Wheatley and the Space Core are locked in a perpetual pirouette around one another, each observing the other as the one who is in orbit, so too are believers and nonbelievers of all manner of beliefs locked into “belief orbits” around one another, each thinking that their vantage point is the true center. Like wearing proverbial rose-tinted glasses, the believer (of whatever it is they believe in) looks at the world through the filter of their belief, and is either unaware or consciously chooses to ignore the fact that their view is being limited by their vantage point.

Nowadays, it’s nearly impossible to be voted into public office if a candidate does not profess (Christian) religious beliefs. In the runoffs for the 2012 election, even Mormon Mitt Romney was a viable candidate in the Republican Party because at least Mormonism 1) believes in Jesus Christ, and 2) isn’t atheism. But there was a time in American history not that long ago when a candidate could not be elected if he didn’t belong to the correct religious institution.

When John F. Kennedy ran for President, Protestants all over America were terrified that he take orders from the Pope and would institute Catholicism as the official religion of the United States. In September 1960, Kennedy presented a speech explaining his position regarding his own religion, and religion in general in the United States.

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

After World War II and the emergence of America and the Soviet Union as political superpowers, a belief orbit emerged pitting “godly democracy” against “godless communism”. Nothing unites disparate groups such as Protestants and Catholics quite like an even greater external threat such as atheism. This, along with Kennedy’s commitment to separation of church and state, helped Kennedy become America’s first Catholic president in November 1960. As it became clear to Protestant Americans that there was no papal influence in Kennedy’s presidency, and the consensus among the religious that theism is better than atheism, anti-Catholic sentiment which had been present in America since before its founding began to diminish over the following decades. By the end of the 20th century, American Catholics and Protestants alike had set aside most of their antagonism toward one another, looking beyond the limitation of their own belief orbits, to address the new godless threat coming their way in the form of 21st century outspoken atheism.

Now the beliefs in orbit around each other had literally become belief versus nonbelief. In much the same way that matter and antimatter annihilate when they come in contact with one another, rhetoric between theists and atheists in the 21st century became explosive. Atheists argued that religious convictions are delusions, spells which turn otherwise good people into bigoted, violent monsters. Theists countered with arguments that atheism lacks morality and empathy, and that atheists are actively fighting to take away the right to religious freedom. Reality, as always, proves to be far more nuanced than the extremes observe from their limited vantage points.

Many atheist activists, and some theist ones as well, fight to maintain the separation of church and state as it is understood in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The only way to ensure freedom of religion for all Americans is to ensure that government is free from religion. The Protestant voters during Kennedy’s candidacy for President, as well as Kennedy himself, were well aware of that. However today, concerned conservative theists from all denominations are arguing that atheism is every bit as much a religion as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam are.

Beliefs within religious institutions thrive on dichotomies such as the Protestant/Catholic belief orbit, the Catholic/Eastern Orthodox belief orbit, or the Christianity/Judaism and Christianity/Islam belief orbits. Now, thanks to outspoken atheism, religious institutions further define themselves through the theism/atheism belief orbit. This suggests that atheism is indeed a belief (more specifically a nonbelief) just as theism is a belief. And this is the argument conservative theists use to claim that atheism is a religion.

I don’t mean to state the plainly obvious, but doesn’t atheism have all the makings of a religion? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines religion as “an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.” ~Don Oehlrich

Source: Could atheism become state religion? – Orlando Sentinel


Of course, once atheists begin forming churches, they will start being recognized as a religion, and our government will no longer be able to discriminate against teaching the Bible in our schools. The belief in evolution that is essential to atheism will be recognized as what it is — a religious belief. ~Sandra Kershner

Source: Atheism, Nazism, and Communism – Idaho Press


By removing God little by little from the public square, the courts — note, not Congress — are in fact establishing the religion of atheism as our national religion. ~Neil Mccaffrey

Source: Atheism becoming national religion of U.S. – The Coloradoan

Religion is a tricky concept to define. Even scholars of religion often struggle with finding an adequate definition. The dictionary on my computer defines religion as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods”, but it also defines it as “a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance”. This latter definition allows for just about any -ism (i.e. consumerism, capitalism, secularism, atheism) to be defined as religion. Carse defines religion as a network of belief systems, and a belief system as a network of beliefs (in my terminology, belief orbits). Thus, religion has an additional complexity to it that is lacking in belief systems such as the -isms listed above. Using this as a definition of religion, it’s clear that atheism does not fulfill the requisite criteria, as atheism is merely a belief orbit defined by its lack of belief in a deity and not a network of a network of multiple belief orbits.

Atheism is not a religion. Yet conservative theists maintain the claim that it is in the hope that if atheism should become recognized as a religion, then theists can use the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to keep the values atheists promote out of government.

Here is where the rubber hits the road: Doesn’t the atheist religion dominate our public institutions? This clearly violates the true intention of the First Amendment, which was to prohibit the establishment of a state religion. Atheists have unfairly pushed out other religions in favor of their own. I find this offensive. ~Don Oehlrich

So what are the values atheists support which cause such offense that theists would go so far as to define atheism as a religion comparable to Christianity? That’s difficult to answer as there is little uniting atheists beyond our nonbelief in a deity. Atheism is not a religion, nor is it even a belief system, if we are to use Carse’s definitions.

One belief system to which many atheists adhere is secular humanism. The term “secularism” was coined at the end of the 19th century by George Jacob Holyoake. In his book The Origin and Nature of Secularism, Holyoake describes Secularism (with the capital ‘S’) as a three-stage process beginning with Freethought, continuing with Enterprise, and concluding with Secularism itself.

Holyoake states that Freethought is “the exercise of reason” and it “implies three things as conditions of truth:”

  1. Free inquiry, which is the pathway to truth.
  2. Free publicity of the ideas acquired, in order to learn whether they are useful—which is the encouragement of truth.
  3. The free discussion of convictions, without which it is not possible to know whether they are true or false—which is the verification of the truth.

(Holyoake p.18-19)

It’s hard to see how conservative theists, such as the columnists quoted above, might take issue with Freethought when all three of these conditions are present within the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights which offers all Americans the right to think as they choose, to speak as they choose, and to publish as they choose, free from government censorship. Holyoake urges discretion with free speech, however, saying:

[F]ree speech without courtesy is repulsive, as free publicity would be if not mainly limited to reasoned truth. Otherwise, every blatant impulse would have the same right of utterance as verified ideas. Even truth can only claim priority of utterance when its utility is manifest…. (Holyoake p.22)

Although people are perfectly within their right to express uninformed or deceptive speech, its utility is dubious at best in terms of the pursuit of truth. As Uncle Ben once said to Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility”, and Freethought is definitely great power.

The stages of Secularism continue with Enterprise, which is the application of Freethought to ideas deemed by authorities as sacrosanct. Criticism of authorities is often construed as a direct attack depending on who, or what, authorities are being criticized. Politicians seems to be fair game, but criticizing religious doctrines and/or practices has often been punished by excommunication, exile, or execution.

Because we place authority in the role of protecting us, we have an equal obligation to protect our authorities, that is, to do all that is necessary to maintain the illusion that we are in their service, and not they in ours [original emphasis]. (Carse p.94)

Holyoake wonders if a Christian could ever truly participate in Freethought in light of their reverence for religious authority.

It is not conceivable how a Christian can be a free-thinker. [emphasis original] He who is afraid to know both sides of a question cannot think upon it. Christians do not, as a rule, want to know what can be said against their views, and they keep out of libraries all books which would inform others. Thus the Christian cannot think freely, and is against others doing it. Doubt comes of thinking; the Christian regards doubt as sin. How can he be a Freethinker who thinks thinking a sin? (Holyoake p.18)

I have said in a previous post that it is in the best interest of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and so forth to study their faith not just in a theological context, but in an historical one as well. Fortunately there are religious adherents who do value investigating the historic context of their traditions, and who are also willing to challenge the doctrines of their faith. These folks are disillusioned by fanatical fundamentalism expressed by the extremists of their faiths, and seek to encourage interfaith dialogue in order to bring positive changes to their traditions.

The final stage of Secularism emerges out of Freethought and Enterprise, and is Secularism itself.

Self-regarding criticism, having discovered the insufficiency of theology for the guidance of man, next sought to ascertain what rules human reason may supply for the independent conduct of life, which is the object of Secularism. At first the term was taken to be a mask concealing sinister features—”a new name for an old thing”—or as a substitute term for “Skepticism” or “Atheism.” … The term Secularism was chosen to express the extension of Freethought to Ethics. Freethinkers commonly go no further than saying, “We search for Truth.” Secularists say we have found it—at least, so much as replaces the chief errors and uncertainties of theology. (Holyoake p.40-41)

Secularism promotes many of the same things spelled out in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. All of these documents promote the freedom, dignity, and welfare of all human beings. It’s bewildering to try and fathom how the ideas within these documents, which atheists and secular humanists champion, could be viewed as not only a threat to American democracy, but to religious freedom as well.

Holyoake makes it clear that there is room for theists and atheists alike under the banner of Secularism. However, I imagine few theists would feel comfortable or welcome within a belief system which actively challenges the scriptures theists hold so dear. Holyoake addresses this very issue of the tendency for some critics of theism and its tenets to attack and belittle followers of religious traditions rather than engage in constructive and critical dialogue with them.

There is a natural satisfaction in being free from the superstition of the vulgar—in the Church as well as out of it. No wonder many find abiding pleasure in the intellectual refutation of the errors of supernaturalism, and in putting its priests to confusion. Absorbed in the antagonism of theology, many lose sight of ultimate utility, and regard error, not as a misfortune to be alleviated, so much as a fault to be exposed. … Their ambition is to make those in error look foolish. (Holyoake p.34)

When I first knew Freethought societies they were engaged in Church-fighting, which is still popular among them. This has led the public to confuse anti-theology with Secularism, an entirely different thing. (Holyoake p.35)

I suspect this is precisely how many theists perceive the tack of outspoken atheism over the last decade: not as a criticism of problematic doctrines which advocate restrictions of human rights and justifications for violent behavior, but as anti-theism and direct ad hominem attacks on the religious themselves. According to many conservative theists, this time of year is when secular activists are particularly aggressive. Despite all evidence to the contrary, conservative pundits insist that the so-called “War on Christmas” persists. In a recent article for, Chris Stedman comments on the almost symbiotic relationship between Fox News and the secular activism organization, American Atheists.

Based on how much play they give it each December, the “War on Christmas” narrative seems to be good for Fox News ratings. And American Atheists has openly admitted that it is good for their pocketbooks, as their talk show appearances bring in a swell of donations.

Consider this from a recent profile of Silverman:

“Silverman’s notorious anti-Christmas billboards and subsequent TV appearances have breathed new life into American Atheists and are often followed by an uptick in subscribers and donations. … According to Silverman, the primary objective of the billboards is to get invitations to talk shows.”

In other words: American Atheists and Fox News – alongside conservatives like Sarah Palin – seem to have discovered a mutually beneficial relationship.

This is a prime example of belief orbits in action. Not only does each side define itself as the inverse of its opposite, they reinforce one another in order to further promote their respective beliefs. All this seems to accomplish is benefit the pair within the belief orbit. It does little to advance society as a whole. Theists continue to view atheists as antagonistic, and atheists continue to view theists as delusional.

What hinders our ability to make any sort of headway, intellectually, socially, and otherwise, isn’t belief itself, but the belief that it’s possible to have an objectively true belief. I mentioned earlier that when one looks at the world from a particular viewpoint, they are either unaware that there are alternative viewpoints, or they are aware yet choose to ignore them. Carse addresses these types of ignorance early on in his book noting that, in addition to ordinary ignorance and willful ignorance, there is a third type of ignorance which he calls higher ignorance. This higher ignorance is actually a step beyond the Socratic paradox “all I know is that I know nothing”. Higher ignorance is the knowledge that despite all one learns, it is impossible to obtain objective truth.

No matter how many truths we may accumulate, our knowledge falls infinitely short of the truth. (Carse p.15)

Not one of us will ever fully understand the grandeur of objective reality, whether it is God, the universe, or something else entirely. It’s far better for everyone if we strive to seek an attainable ‘little-t’ truth which can benefit all of humanity in the here and now, than to try and pursue an ineffable ‘big-T’ Truth which cannot ever be known. Secular humanists argue that the best way to seek out ‘little-t’ truth is with Freethought. And given that the tenets of Freethought are summed up in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, it’s illogical for conservative theists to argue that anyone who endorses secularism (such as atheists) is actively fighting to eliminate freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.

A few atheists and theists alike are now beginning to understand that constructive dialogue cannot be achieved by hurling insults and attacks at one another. The only way we can begin to see beyond our belief orbit is to first recognize its limitations. Carse emphasizes that “belief marks the line at which our thinking stops….” By accepting only one vantage point within a belief orbit as the objective center, we deny ourselves Freethought. We deny ourselves the opportunity to further our understanding of our ideas, our world, and ourselves. Our objective should be to try and understand one another from the other’s vantage point and beyond rather than continue arguing who is the one in the center and who is the one in orbit. It would behoove us to begin doing this now, because by the time an external threat obliges us to look beyond our tiny orbits, it may be too late to do anything about it.


  • Dan Linford
    22 December 2013 - 14:07 | Permalink

    I find it difficult to understand the claim that all beliefs necessarily require an Other against which to stand. On the one hand, there are beliefs which do not existent Others (my belief that I am named ‘Dan’, for example). On the other hand, for any belief that I could have, we could imagine someone who — for whatever reason — held an opposing view (we can imagine someone who believed I was actually named ‘Bob’, even though no such person exists).

    I take it that in order for your piece to make more sense, you would need to tell me about more about what you mean by ‘belief’.

    • 22 December 2013 - 17:16 | Permalink

      Dagummit! You’re right. I spent all that time on this piece and I completely neglected to define “belief”. That’s a big oops on my part!

      Carse puts belief on a continuum, ranging in degrees of significance from, for example, “I believe I’ll have another beer,” to “I believe alcohol is a sin.” He elaborates:

      Not that the content of our beliefs does not in itself determine where we locate them on a scale of intensity. I may believe that God created the world in a week, but have no interest in what the schools are teaching children. For the same belief, I might chain myself to the doors at the Board of Education and refuse all food and legal assistance until God is firmly installed in the curriculum. What seems trivial to one believer may produce anguish and vital challenges to another. (Carse p.23)

      This suggests that it’s not a belief itself that causes problems, but rather how an individual chooses to practice that belief. Of course, this still doesn’t define what “belief” is.

      Perhaps I could define “belief” as “an idea which has not been substantiated by an empirical fact”. I believe I’ll have another beer, but since there is no beer in front of me, there is the possibility that I won’t; an opposing view. Might that definition work in the context of this article?

      • Dan Linford
        22 December 2013 - 23:12 | Permalink

        “Perhaps I could define ‘belief’ as ‘an idea which has not been substantiated by an empirical fact’. I believe I’ll have another beer, but since there is no beer in front of me, there is the possibility that I won’t; an opposing view.”

        It’s not clear to me that this works, or that the argument you just gave is a good justification for using this sort of definition. I can imagine two possible cases:

        1. I have a belief and there does not exist anyone who actually believes otherwise. Nonetheless, we can imagine someone who believes otherwise (there is nothing logically contradictory about the existence of an opposing opinion). In this case, because we can imagine a person holding an opposing view, we say that an opposing view exists.

        2. I have a belief and there does actually exist at least one person who believes otherwise. In this case, because a person who actually holds an opposing view exists, we say that an opposing view exists.

        Now, let’s test out what you just said in these two cases.

        Suppose that we go with (1). Then, it’s unclear to me why empirical data matters. Given any degree of empirical data, we can always imagine someone who does not accept the empirical data for at least some reason and thus rejects the conclusions we might draw from the empirical data.

        Suppose that we go with (2). In this case, your beer example doesn’t seem to work because we are not guaranteed that there would be someone who disbelieves that I will have a beer (perhaps I am alone).

        • 23 December 2013 - 04:49 | Permalink

          I suspect you’re much better at logic than I am. I’m just going to muddle my way through and hope I learn something through the discussion. If I can’t clarify a definition for ‘belief’, then I suspect my argument collapses.

          For case one, empirical data wouldn’t matter because, based on the definition I suggest, a belief is an idea which doesn’t require empirical data. (Maybe my definition was poorly worded?) Even if a belief had empirical data to support it, rejection of said data by a person holding an opposing belief wouldn’t void the original belief.

          For case two, is it required that another person be present for an opposing belief to exist? In case one, it is imagined that someone exists who could belief otherwise. Why not also in case two?

          Carse doesn’t offer a hard and fast definition for what precisely a belief is. Convictions? Opinions? Ideas? Memes? Are they rational hypotheses made in the absence of enough (or any) data? Or are they thoughts that defy reason? Attempting to define ‘belief’ could probably fill up a whole book, let alone a 3500 word blog post. I can understand Carse’s definition of a belief existing in opposition, but trying to define belief alone is like trying to find a magnetic monopole.

          Maybe it would be simpler to use the dictionary definition of ‘belief’ as:

          An acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.

          And then my clumsy addition (reworded from my prior comment) would include: “even if there is no evidence supporting its truth and/or existence”. An acceptance that something exists and/or is true then also suggests the possibility that there is a rejection of something existing and/or being true (and its corollary, an acceptance that something does not exist and/or is false).

          Maybe 4:30 am isn’t the best time to be thinking about this. (Or maybe it is!)

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