I recently had a run in with John Loftus on his blog and on Facebook concerning whether or not it was ever rational to hold beliefs and whether it was accurate for atheists to self-identify as holding beliefs. This discussion was motivated by his review of the debate between atheist Chris Hallquist and Christian apologist Randal Rauser (on whether belief in God was irrational) in which Loftus states that, “If I were to debate Rauser on this question I would focus on the word ‘belief.’ Belief is always irrational.” Since I think that some beliefs are rational, I found myself in disagreement with Loftus.
I have to confess that, in one sense, I am at a disadvantage in this exchange because it isn’t very clear to me what the problem is supposed to be. From my perspective, it is obvious that there is no problem – atheists hold plenty of beliefs (i.e. I believe there are two coffee mugs on this table) and at least some of those beliefs are rational (i.e. I can see and touch the two coffee mugs). While some Christians might equivocate between belief and faith, philosophers use the term ‘belief’ in a more general sense: to believe x means something like thinking that x is true. In the philosopher’s sense, beliefs can be either rational or irrational depending on the specific details (such as whether or not one is justified in holding the belief).
Nonetheless, Loftus and his followers seem to think that this isn’t all so obvious and that there really is some problem with beliefs and with belief-talk. From my exchanges with Loftus, I take it that something like the following is what the problem is supposed to be. Either:
- Holding beliefs, for anyone anywhere, is always irrational. This is because holding beliefs involves thinking something to be true when one does not have sufficient justification or warrant. See Loftus defend this position here.
- Belief-talk represents a kind of Christian hegemony. To say that one holds beliefs simply reinforces Christian notions and privilege because the term ‘belief’ has its origins in Christian theology. See Loftus defend this position here. And see him double down (?) here.
(Note: For anyone that would like to see our debate on Facebook, I have screen shots available that can be sent out. Loftus has complained at least once that I wrote about his responses to me without directly quoting him so I can make his Facebook comments available to anyone who would lke to read them.)
In the rest of this post, I will present several arguments against both (1) and (2). It is important to note that I will be assessing (1) and (2) as responses to the Rauser/Hallquist debate.
Consider (1). Loftus states that to have beliefs is always irrational. If so, then the debate question becomes trivial to answer: is it rational to irrationally think that some form of orthodox Christianity is true? Of course not. One might argue that this is not a proper sort of engagement with the debate question because it does not interpret the question in as charitable a way as possible – e.g. is it rational to think that some form of orthodox Christianity is true? Nonetheless, if Loftus’s definition is in line with standard usage, then this is fair interpretation of the question and Loftus is right – holding beliefs is always irrational (by definition).
Thus, we may begin by asking whether or not Loftus’s definition of ‘belief’ is in line with the use intended by the Randall/Hallquist debate. As I understand it, the debate assumed the definition of ‘belief’ common amongst philosophers. For that reason, I will now consider whether or not Loftus’s argument assumes the same definition or if it is contrary to that definition. If Loftus’s definition is found to be contrary to the definition standard amongst philosophers, we will have good reason to think that Loftus has not engaged with the debate question.
Unfortunately for Loftus, the standard definition of ‘belief’ used by philosophers implies that there are plenty of beliefs that are rational to hold.
To establish that Loftus’s thoughts concerning beliefs are out of line with the definitions common amongst philosophers, I will turn to a standard professional reference work – the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – which has a peer reviewed entry on Belief. Then, I will turn to an example from a famous philosophy textbook (Willard Van Orman Quine’s Web of Belief). Finally, I will show that the technical definition of ‘belief’ is recognized in the broader culture by examining Isaac Asimov’s statement concerning his own beliefs. None of this will be a mere appeal to authority. Instead, these examples will serve as a representative survey of how thinkers have defined the term ‘belief’ in the contemporary philosophical literature with a brief nod to the wider culture.
Consider the following quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia entry:
Contemporary analytic philosophers of mind generally use the term ‘belief’ to refer to the attitude we have, roughly, whenever we take something to be the case or regard it as true. To believe something, in this sense, needn’t involve actively reflecting on it: Of the vast number of things ordinary adults believe, only a few can be at the fore of the mind at any single time. Nor does the term ‘belief’, in standard philosophical usage, imply any uncertainty or any extended reflection about the matter in question (as it sometimes does in ordinary English usage). Many of the things we believe, in the relevant sense, are quite mundane: that we have heads, that it’s the 21st century, that a coffee mug is on the desk… Most contemporary philosophers characterize belief as a “propositional attitude”. Propositions are generally taken to be whatever it is that sentences express… For example, if two sentences mean the same thing (e.g., “snow is white” in English, “Schnee ist weiss” in German), they express the same proposition, and if two sentences differ in meaning, they express different propositions… A propositional attitude, then, is the mental state of having some attitude, stance, take, or opinion about a proposition or about the potential state of affairs in which that proposition is true.
Thus, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia’s definition, having a belief can be quite mundane. The fact that I think there are two coffee mugs on the table where I am writing this post implies that I believe that there are two coffee mugs on the table. And I am rationally justified in holding that belief because I can see and touch the two mugs; in other words, I rationally hold these two beliefs because I have evidence that these two mugs are presently on the table.
Now consider Quine’s definition in his book Web of Belief:
[Belief] is a disposition to respond in certain ways when the appropriate issue arises. To believe that Hannibal crossed the Alps is to be disposed, among other things, to say ‘Yes’ when asked. To believe that frozen foods will thaw on the table is to be disposed, among other things, to leave such foods on the table only when one wants them thawed… And what criterion have we for saying that someone holds a sentence to be true? For most purposes the criterion is the obvious one: he or she assents to the sentence when asked.
Quine would say that I believe there to be two mugs on the table because I have a certain set of behaviors: I avoid knocking the mugs over, I will pick up the mugs later this evening, I say “yes” when asked whether there are two mugs, I am writing about the mugs in this post, and so on. So, on Quine’s understanding of the term ‘belief’, I can certainly be said to hold beliefs!
Is this term only used in this more general way by philosophers or is it used in popular culture this way as well? When asked if there is anything he believes in, science fiction novelist Isaac Asimov answers in the affirmative – he believes in the things revealed by observations and evidence:
I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I’ll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be.
This statement is most charitably understood from the standpoint that Asimov is using the broader definition of ‘belief’ as opposed to Loftus’s more narrow definition. Asimov does not mean that he has faith in the evidence or observation or that he assents to the objects he observes in the manner of a religious belief. Instead, Asimov merely means that he thinks there are various sorts of objects in the world readily available to his sensess. And who would deny that Asimov is rational for thinking this.
Having shown that the standard philosophical usage does not support Loftus’s claim that all beliefs are irrational, I want to mention that Loftus acknowledges the more general meaning of ‘belief’. At one point during our Facebook exchange, Loftus states his agreement that the term ‘belief’ has a broader meaning, but implies that the term should still be rejected since we have more specific terms which mean the same thing. He states, “Other terms better describe what we mean, like hope, trust, accept, think, know, conclude…”
While I don’t think that the term ‘belief’, as used by philosophers, could be used as a synonym for ‘hope’ or for ‘trust’, Loftus has admitted here that it may be used as a synonym for ‘accept’, ‘think’, ‘know’, and ‘conclude’. Loftus might not like or prefer the use of the term ‘belief’ in those cases, but his admission that this is a recognized usage has the implication that not all beliefs are irrational. He may prefer us to only use the word ‘belief’ for those cases where someone believes irrationally, but that seems to beg the question in the debate between Rauser and Hallquist.
Furthermore, if Loftus’s argument for preferring other words over ‘belief’ is simply that ‘belief’ is too general, he seems to be using the assumption that we should always prefer more specific words. It’s not clear why we should always prefer more specific words. For example, the words ‘giraffe’, ‘chimpanzee’, and ‘cat’ are all more specific than ‘animal’, yet it would be absurd to demand that we stop using the word ‘animal’.
Nonetheless, one may wonder if the difference between ‘animal’ and ‘belief’ is most charitably found in (2). One might claim that ‘belief’ is not only more general, but it also representative of a problematic Christian hegemony. For that reason, I now proceed to consider (2). Here, I will argue that the word ‘belief’ does not constitute a problematic Christian hegemony.
Before proceeding, however, I want to note that defending (2) lends no credence to (1). Even if the term ‘belief’ did represent Christian hegemony, that does not mean that the sentence “John Loftus holds at least some rational beliefs” is false. The question of hegemony is distinct from the question of rationality, yet if (2) is the reason to defend Loftus’s response to the debate question, then either Loftus has moved the goal posts or equivocated between these two issues.
Although Loftus is correct that the term ‘belief’ originates in Christian theology, the term has had a suitable secular definition since the 16th century: “mental acceptance of something as true”. Notice that this secular definition is similar to our contemporary definition, but is 500 years old. To say that a term still represents a problematic Christian hegemony after it has had a secular definition for 500 years seems absurd.
There are many words derived from Christianity but which we do not think of as representing a kind of problematic Christian hegemony. For example, the phrase “broken heart” originates from the King James translation of the Bible. Yet due to the secularization of that phrase, we no longer associate it with Christianity.
The notion of laws of nature arises from medieval theology, yet we do not say that the use of that notion amongst physicists represents a problematic Christian hegemony.
Furthermore, it is difficult to see how or why the contemporary usage of ‘belief’ amongst philosophers has much to do with Christianity. Statistics show that a majority of philosophers are atheists and, from experience, I can attest that philosophers are not generally sympathetic to Christianity.
In sum, it is neither necessarily irrational to hold beliefs nor is it representative of a problematic Christian hegemony that philosophers use the term ‘belief’. John Loftus’s statement that “Belief is always irrational” is left without support.