The Word “Believe” To a Non-believer

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I’m a non-believer.  That means I don’t believe in anything.  I hold no truth that I can not prove or make sense of.

As a practice, I try to avoid using the word “believe,” because I don’t want to empower it.  As I’ve discussed on this blog plenty of times, beliefs hold undeserved privilege in our society and it is my goal to dismantle that privilege.

Many have tried to convince me that I do, in fact, believe things.  This is the result of the fact that “believe” can mean different things.  I wish to clarify what it means to me and what it doesn’t.

Here is a case in which I would use it:

believe: to trust or have confidence in another person

Example: “I believe what you told me about what happened.”
Example: “I don’t believe you; you’re lying.”
Example: “I can’t believe you would do this to me!”

If someone told me something, I’m relying on that person’s word for truth.  Whether or not I believe them is not a measure of faith, but a measure of trust.  It is a determination about whether I value that person’s version of truth.

Here’s a version I could use, but I try not to:

believe: to suppose or assume, to have conviction about

Example: “I believe he went to the store.”
Example: “Officials believe the fire was not arson.”
Example: “I believe I want some ice cream.”

This is really just slang.  I try to avoid it.  In the above examples, I would replace “believe” with “think,” “am pretty sure,” “suppose,” or “guess.”

Here is a version that I tolerate, but I try to avoid it:

believe: committing to and giving credence to a value or assertion

Example: “I believe in the power of education to shape the world.”
Example: “I believe in this student’s potential.”
Example: “I believe in you and me.”

For me, this one is more about optimism and understanding.  I might be heard using it, but I’m not crazy about it.  I understand it can be very sentimental and pretty meaningful to folks.  Still, it gets into that territory of “knowing”, without actually knowing.  I prefer to use the word “hope.”  When I have hope for something, I am indicating that I don’t know, but I’m optimistic.  It is strong without the overbearing sense of conviction that “believe” can have.

believe: to have confidence in the truth of something without proof

Example: “I believe in God.”
Example: “I believe we’re all here for a purpose.”
Example: “I believe homosexuality is wrong.”

You will never hear me use the word in this sense.  I actually don’t understand why society values this version so much.  How or why does a person come to believe?  I can’t think of an example where convincing isn’t required.  Religious beliefs don’t occur naturally, they are passed on by parents and community.  And what is the value of holding an absolute truth without proof?  It strikes me as terribly anti-intellectual.

I can only speak for myself, but I think many atheists and those of us who identify as non-believers get tripped up by the word “believe.”  While we’d like to think otherwise, words do have power and meaning, and we have to be careful how we use them.  I hope my perspective on this tricky word is helpful to others.

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There are 8 Comments to "The Word “Believe” To a Non-believer"

  • Tyson says:

    Is your problem really with the word ‘believe’ or is your problem with how people use this word? So you would have the same problem with people saying “I think homosexuality is wrong” or “I think we’re all here for a purpose.” I think (or believe) that you should go after the bigger issues, and not the use of one word.

    At the same time, do you have a problem with “I believe homosexuality is okay and should be accepted by all” or “I don’t believe in God?”

    To me, it sounds like you hold a double standard for what you should be allowed to think / feel compared to what others should think / feel, because you “feel” that certain beliefs harp on your lifestyle.

  • aforcier says:

    “believe” is a word of convieniece. it is a non commital word.

    interestingly, by using the word “believe” in a “god”… religions are atheistic. it shows the believer’s inability to to say: i know for certain that the said divinity exists. i know for certain where he/she is at the present moment. i know for certain where heaven is located.

    in a natural world that is continuously changing, belief replaces knowledge.(conviniently)

  • Tyson says:

    So then you would never say “I believe homosexuality to be ok?”

  • ZackFord says:

    Tyson! Thank you for your comment. I think you have actually made some revealing points. I’m happy to respond to them.

    To answer your first question: yes. The word means different things and it is used in different ways. Because there are ways in which I might use it, I have actually been accused of its other definitions being applicable to my life. The word’s multiple definitions open it to misuse, and that is why I wanted to draw some distinctions for how I use it.

    “I think homosexuality is wrong.” If the person were actually thinking, ze would realize that sexual orientation is not something that can be judged, as it is an immutable quality. Hir choice to disregard this knowledge and to judge it anyway surely stems from a belief that it should be judged. Thus, the word “think” is actually not being properly used.

    “I think we’re all here for a purpose.” This is another great example. Your point is valid, Tyson, but the comment has to be unpacked. I would respond with, “Why do you think that? How do you know? Who or what determines the purpose?” Ultimately, like in the other example, there is a belief at the root of the statement, and so “think” is being misused.

    Yes, this is all an exercise in rhetoric, and there are a lot of big issues I do care about addressing, but this one empowers so many others. We can’t just address symptoms, we have to address problems at the root. I think the way we use and treat language is very much at the root. If nothing else, helping others understand my worldview (NOT my “belief system”) helps them better understand and respect where I’m coming from and WHY I do want to address bigger issues. On to your other examples…

    If I heard “I believe homosexuality is okay…” my reaction would probably be, “Great!” but my thought would be “So what?” Any kind of belief is still just asserting truth without reason. I’d still argue that homosexuality isn’t open to judgment, or at least I’d think it. In this case, though, if my goal was for the person to support gay rights, I probably wouldn’t quibble about it.

    “I don’t believe in God.” I say this. I don’t believe in anything. Now, I think what you might have wondered about is “I believe in no God.” This I would not say. I think anyone who positively believes there is NO God is just as foolish as anyone who positively believes there is a God. Both are assertions of truth without reason. “I don’t believe…” is asserting no truth. In the question of whether there is a God, I would never answer yes or no. The answer is “I don’t know, but it seems unlikely.” (I’m planning another post, probably this week, about what “atheist” means, because there is some confusion about this point as well.)

    My point has nothing to do with my lifestyle. My point is actually about intellect and reason. Believing, holding convicting truth without reason, is, IMHO, anti-intellectual. When people believe, they limit their scope of knowledge. A person who believes Jesus is the son of God would also believe that Muhammad is not a messenger of God, but what REASON do they hold for believing one and not the other? As an atheist, I am equally open-minded and yet skeptical (and subsequently doubtful) of either assertion. By not committing to one belief, my mind is more open to considering all possibilities with the same regard.

    Overall, my point was not to address how others use “believe,” but to help others understand how and why I do and do not use it.

    I hope I answered your questions, but please feel free to continue the dialogue if my clarifications have not sufficiently addressed your concerns!

  • Tyson says:

    Thank you for the detailed response! I think that makes a lot of sense. I now understand the difference between “I don’t believe in God” and “I believe in no God.” That makes great sense. And I now understand your overall point better.

    I do have one question, however, and that is why homosexuality can’t be judged because it is immutable? You obviously can help me understand this better, as I am a heterosexual, but I don’t understand why it being immutable makes it unable to be judged. If you take other immutable qualities, such as someone who is a pedophile (not to put the two in the same category, just playing devils advocate). I feel pretty strongly about people who are pedophiles, especially those who act on it, and I’m pretty sure I should be able to judge that person because of their actions and the way that they are “programmed” to have this need / want to do horrible things to innocent little children. Now I personally do not judge homosexuality, but I’m trying to understand why someone should be vindicated for judging it? I have no problem with someone judging my heterosexuality, and no matter what anyone says about it I just brush it off, but homosexuality is different it seems. Thoughts?

  • ZackFord says:

    I’m glad things make more sense about believing. Now let’s address your other question, because it is important one.

    I’m glad we’re on the same page that homosexuality and pedophilia are different, but I’m not sure you understand WHY they are different, so hopefully I can provide some illumination.

    Homosexuality is an example of sexual orientation. Think of sexual orientation as a sort of continuum. How you define your sexual orientation is based on what sex and/or gender to whom you have enduring emotional, romantic, and/or sexual interests. It can be towards men, towards women, towards both, towards neither, or you can have no such interests at all. Think about sexual orientation NOT in terms of combinations but just in terms of who you are attracted to.

    This might seem a bit confusing, because the labels we use DO refer to combinations, since those labels help us connect with partners. So a straight woman is a “woman who likes men.” A gay man is a “man who likes men.” But if you think about it, BOTH of them have the same sexual orientation: men. In our society, it is just less common for men to have that orientation.

    The bottom line is that EVERYBODY has a sexual orientation (even if it is an orientation to nothing). That is what makes it an immutable quality, just like everyone has a race, a gender, etc.

    Pedophilia is NOT a sexual orientation. It is what the APA calls a paraphilia. Other paraphilia include exhibitionism, fetishism, and voyeurism (among many others). Paraphilias “are characterized by recurrent, intense sexual urges, fantasies, or behaviors that involve unusual objects, activities, or situations and cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (DSM-IV). It is obvious to see how pedophilia, as our example, impairs social functioning, especially legally, since children cannot consent.

    Not all paraphilia are considered bad or unhealthy (though we might not find them personally appealing), and some even advocate to remove the diagnosis from the DSM in favor of celebrating sexual diversity. Just something to think about.

    At any rate, the important distinction is that NOT everyone has a paraphilia. While they might also be considered “immutable,” they are, at least currently, considered disorders. Having a sexual fetish for children is actually in NO way similar to having normal sexual and emotional attractions oriented toward the same sex.

    So, Tyson, I can understand why you would want to judge some paraphilia. Obviously, they can influence obscene and even criminal behavior. I suspect, though, that you would not judge all paraphilia. I doubt you have a personal problem if someone has a fetish for underwear. You might not want to try bondage or control play, but it is hard to challenge other people’s choice to participate in consensual BDSM. Heck, just because even the smell of peanut butter makes me nauseous doesn’t mean I judge other people for enjoying it or perhaps even having an unhealthy propensity for it.

    But sexual orientation is a core part of the human experience. To judge a person’s sexual orientation is to judge the person’s nature. Think about how heteronormative our society has been for thousands of years. It’s easy to see how over that period of time, it was easy for society as a whole to see homosexuality as abnormal and perhaps “wrong.” I mean, it’s only been in the past century or so that the LGBT community has really developed visibility. Society is still learning how to understand what sexual orientation is all about. If you really understand that orientation is a core identity that just has variations (as opposed to a paraphilia), you see that judging one’s orientation is actually quite ignorant, quite similar to judging a person’s race or gender.

  • Tyson says:

    Interesting. I gotya. Makes sense.. and I totally see that sexual orientation is very different from paraphilia, but, in your opinion, who gets to say where the line is drawn? Who get’s to say that certain paraphilia are right and certain are wrong? This is where it gets tricky for me, because while some people have sexual orientation towards men and some women, some also have no orientation, and some may feel that their personal orientation is toward, say, animals. Shouldn’t there be some level of societal rejection of some of this? I in no way think that it should ever be towards homosexuality, but using that argument, couldn’t some say that? I’m curious as to more of your thoughts, and if anything, hopefully these types of questions help you in your postings, arguments and thoughts. I also think that if you can explain where a line can be drawn, you can truly help your cause to show people who think that homosexuality is wrong that it is in fact okay. Does that make sense?

  • ZackFord says:

    Haha, there is much conditioning to undo when it comes to educating about sexual orientation. Zoophilia, like pedophilia, is a paraphilia, NOT a sexual orientation. It is not on the continuum I described earlier.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -|- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    Men- – – -Gender Queer/3rd Gender- – – -Women

    I hope this little graphic works. This continuum represents all the possible sexual orientations (though it does not do justice to the true variation that exists!). Here are some examples of how a person’s orientation could look.

    You can be just on the left.
    You can be just on the right.
    You can be just in the middle.
    You can be on the left and the right, but not the middle.
    You can encompass the whole line.
    You can be off the line (have an orientation towards nothing).

    Sexual orientation refers exclusively to what kind of attraction a person has to another person based on sex or gender. It’s just about people; it’s just about their anatomy and/or gender identification. Where we draw the line with paraphilia is irrelevant, because there is NO comparison to be made between the two phenomena. People who think homosexuality is wrong think that all things that they see as “abnormal” can be compared, but this is not the case. Judging a person’s sexual orientation belies an understanding of sexual orientation at all.

    This is why I tend to avoid using the word “homosexual” on my blog. It’s a clinical term, not an identity, and its historical implications are that gays and lesbians are aberrant and “less than.” Anti-gay activists use the word a lot to add to the shunning effect of their words. In fact, right-wing news sites have been caught using filters to automatically change “gay” to “homosexual” in imported news stories.

    Also, sexual orientation has NOTHING to do with intended number of partners. Bisexual does NOT mean “both,” it means “either.” (I discuss bisexuality and other unique orientations in this post: People wishing to pursue polygamy do not do so because of their sexual orientation.

    I want to make all of this clear before I go on. I will address your question about paraphilia, but I just want to be clear that it has NO implications for how we understand sexual orientation.

    As for paraphilia, I draw the line at consent. Children can’t consent to pedophilia. Animals can’t consent to zoophilia. Victims of exhibitionism and voyeurism, by definition, do not consent. That’s a concern for me. Those are behaviors that need to be controlled. (This is likely why they are treated as disorders, allowing therapy to help those with such attractions to control their behaviors.)

    Anything done privately, safely, and consensually I’m okay with. That doesn’t mean I’d try anything, of course. There are plenty of things I have no desire to try, and they need not even be mentioned on this blog. 🙂

    The same consent argument could be made for non-heterosexual orientations, but it’s shallow and almost disrespectful to people’s identities and relationships. I’d argue that non-heterosexual couples are deserving of at least the same respect as “normal” heterosexual couples, if not moreso for supporting each other in a very heterosexist society.

    How we doing, Tyson?

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