What’s a Good Reason to Reject a Belief as False?

September 19, 2007 at 10:22 am 20 comments

Reject Stamp 3When I wrote about demanding that one read some holy book, such as the Bible, I got a good deal of criticism for saying that I reject the Bible without having read all of it. What I meant, of course, was that I reject the foundation of the Christian religion, which I do know, and I don’t particularly care about the rest of the book as long as its teachings are irrelevant to me.

I’m not going to open that particular can of worms again. Rather, let’s take a step back and consider what a good reason to reject a belief system would look like.

Every religion is a body of different belief systems. There’s ethical teachings, mythology, cosmology, biology, philosophy, all jammed together from a time when there was no real separation between the various branches of science, the various branches of philosophy and religion. We all have some kind of attitude to these systems. And here comes the crucial point: there is no neutral belief system. Every belief system, so long as its body of beliefs is halfway coherent, will include an implicit claim to the opposite of opposing belief systems.

Consider a Christian who believes that Jesus is the Son of God, and God is the creator and ultimate moral legislator of the universe. Implicit in this person’s belief system lies the claim that Jesus is not not the Son of God, and God isn’t not the creator and ultimate moral legislator. If our hypotethical Christian is to maintain a coherent worldview, she must also deny all beliefs that contradict hers.

Flat Earthers implicitly claim that the world is not spheroid in shape. Muslims implicitly claim that Jesus is not the Son of God. So do atheists, and so on.

This is what everyone with a coherent worldview does. We reject views that contradict our views. It’s not coherent to believe that Jesus is both the Son of God and not the Son of God. Since everyone does it, and it seems impossible to form a coherent worldview that doesn’t, what’s so wrong with it? And what is it, really, that we’re doing here? What did I just point out?

It’s the fact that, despite not having read every single religious scripture in the world, despite not having read The End of Faith or The God Delusion, everyone rejects contradictory views. Even those who study religion for a living haven’t read all religious scriptures ever to have existed. Every single one of them, no matter how well-read and informed they are, have an implicit claim in their belief system to the opposite of any view contradicting their views.

It seems, then, that if we believe something, it’s not only reasonable to reject the opposite, it is the only option if we want to remain coherent and rational.

It also seems that those who said I cannot reject the Christian god without having read the entire Christian canon are hypocrites, because every single one of them rejects a whole bunch of other scriptures as false, without having read a single sentence of them.

So what is a good reason to reject a belief as untrue, or at least as unsupported and unreasonable?

– Simen

Entry filed under: Simen. Tags: , , , , , .

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20 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jim  |  September 19, 2007 at 11:42 am


    I really like this post. You make a great point.

    I would imagine that a place where many Christians (as well as many non-Christians) falter is that they reject everything about a particular belief system that differs from one’s own, when odds are there is some overlap in the details, but the conclusions obviously are at odds.

    Sometimes I like to think of how often I used to get math problems wrong in college: it wasn’t that my entire analysis was wrong and everything about my formula was incorrect, but rather, it was one or a few points that that I dealt with incorrectly that led me to a wrong answer. I’m still toying with that idea, it probably doesn’t completely fit this.

    Anyway, a good post.

  • 2. Simen  |  September 19, 2007 at 11:46 am

    You’re right, there’s considerable overlap between many different religions, philosophies, systems of ethics and other belief systems. Something good can come out of the most deluded person, and vice versa.

    There are many good things about religion. Sadly, to me, the negative sides outweigh the positives.

  • 3. Scott  |  September 19, 2007 at 1:00 pm

    I agree with Jim. When I read this post it struck me that it contained a logical fallacy: The entire belief system of one religion is not entirely contradictory to the entire belief system of another. One can have a consistent world view having overlapping views with another, but still disagree on many points. I think most of us athiests agree with many of the morals of many Christians or Jews, while not sharing other morals, and completely disagreeing on the origin of those morals.

  • 4. Simen  |  September 19, 2007 at 1:10 pm

    Where, in the post, do I assume that belief systems are entirely contradictory? Because that’s not what I meant. But all belief systems contradict all others on at least one point, or else they’re simply the same belief system dressed in different clothing.

  • 5. Simen  |  September 19, 2007 at 1:11 pm

    In addition, if that was so, it would not be a logical fallacy, but a false premise.

  • 6. Mike 2  |  September 19, 2007 at 1:44 pm

    >So what is a good reason to reject a belief as untrue, or at least as unsupported and unreasonable?<

    I think there are several reasons. Any one alone, would probably not be enough. You’d need to have a belief fail on <1 reason to firmly dismiss it. I couldn’t make an exhaustive list, but I’ll put a few down and maybe others can add to it.

    Reasons to reject a belief:
    1- It contains many errors of verifiable fact (e.g. historical, scientific, geographical errors)
    2- It contains fallacious logic at several points. (e.g. circular logic, post-hoc ergo propter-hoc, etc.)
    3- It contains claims that can be tested, and testing shows the claims to be untrue. (e.g. Matthew 18:19)
    4- It’s adherents cannot present the belief system cohesively.
    5- It’s adherents clearly don’t live by the dictates of the belief system, thereby showing that they don’t really believe it themselves.
    6- It’s founder is shown to be a liar, hypocrite, madman, etc.

    Those are a few that pop to mind. More anyone?

  • 7. Simen  |  September 19, 2007 at 2:05 pm

    I wouldn’t reject a belief system just because its founder(s) or practionioner(s) are hypocritical. That would be a form of ad hominem. But, of course, if its originators are horrible, it might not be worth the time spent investigating it…I don’t think I’ll ever care to investigate nazism or racism seriously.

    The other four are gold.

    There’s also lack of evidence, of course.

  • 8. Mike 2  |  September 19, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    Of course reasons 5 & 6 don’t stand alone as reasons to reject. But then, none of them are. That’s why I said you’d need to have a belief fail on <1 reason to firmly dismiss it. So you’re point is totally correct. Thanks.

  • 9. Simen  |  September 19, 2007 at 2:44 pm

    You’d need to fail on less than one reason to dismiss it? Sure that shouldn’t be a >?

  • 10. evanescent  |  September 19, 2007 at 3:39 pm

    Great post this.

  • 11. societyvs  |  September 19, 2007 at 4:46 pm

    “So what is a good reason to reject a belief as untrue, or at least as unsupported and unreasonable?” (Simen)

    Belief – singular.

    I think for me the belief has to be tried and tested in the realm of reality (it needs substance) – or the idea has to be tested in reality.

    If someone asks me to ‘love my neighbor’ (idea) – then I need to take that and figure out what that means in the day to day setting. Love – how? Neighbor – is who? What are the benefits and drawbacks? It’s a process and beliefs are not set in stone – they are learned, practiced, adopted, then refined…process does not truly end.

    If a belief fails this test – for example ‘violence is okay in any and all situations’ – then we drop it from the paradigm altogether – replacing it with what does work – for example – situational ethics and how we handle other’s emotions – this changes.

    I think that is the pattern that defines my belief system – it has to be lived, felt, or observed before we outright dismiss it (first 2 build stronger conviction than the 3rd). This is rational.

    Now if we get into beliefs we can do nothing about – for example a Trinity – then what? To be honest, acceptance or rejection of that belief does nothing in particular for you. This is another shade of what ‘belief’ means that I have also noticed. These beliefs get people kicked in and out of church – yet in all reality – they do not affect the way ‘you treat another’. So with these beliefs they either ‘are’ or ‘are not’. And to me, I can wait to find out (it’s no biggie).

  • 12. Mike 2  |  September 19, 2007 at 5:01 pm

    Simen. Yes that should have been >1. Thought I’ve met a lot of folks who happily reject things for <1 reason. 🙂

  • 13. Mike 2  |  September 19, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    > it has to be lived, felt, or observed before we outright dismiss it beliefs are not set in stone – they are learned, practiced, adopted, then refined…process does not truly end.<

    Good. I like it. Says a lot toward dismissing the “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” mindset.

  • 14. DJH  |  September 20, 2007 at 5:48 pm

    The common apologists’ objection that one cannot logically reject Christianity except in its entirety … i.e. you have to have read the Bible cover-to-cover before deciding it’s bunk … is most certainly a diversion. Beliefs can fail based on any test one chooses to apply to it, not only if ALL the tests one can imagine, fail.

    Thus, one need not reject the Bible only after reading it cover-to-cover; one can find discrepancies between the Bible and reality and decide it’s bunk based on those.

    This objection (diversionary as it may be) is belied by the fact that there are Bible scholars who, after devoting years of study to it, decide that it’s bunk. Not that this satisfies your usual apologist, they’ll just launch into another diversion, that being that the person who studied the Bible for years never studied it “correctly.”

    At any rate, it’s all just a diversion.

  • 15. Dan Marvin  |  September 21, 2007 at 4:02 pm

    From my blog:

    “That is, our religion is from the Creator. It is a result of our hope and trust in God. It is the natural fruit. False religions have stolen from God and not the other way around. False religions have a common denominator and that is there assault on the term “Justification.” They are working toward their salvation. We are working as a result of our salvation.

    We have to separate the biblical Jews from religious Jews. One had hope in the Messiah’s coming. They acted as a result of this promise. King David loved God because of the promise given to him by faith. The religious Jew (Judaism), as in the case today, denies Jesus and attempts to bring to God their religious efforts.

    A religion that is pure in the sight of God is a “discipline” which results and originates, from God. We do these things as a result of being justified. We do these things because God has declared us “not guilty” because of the passive/active obedience of the Messiah being given to us as a gift. His works are what save us. In contrast, the religions of the world who deny justification seek to bring their “religious” efforts to God to “save” them.

    Don’t let that word religion, be a hindrance. We as believers have a beautiful religion because it is a fruit which comes from God. It starts with him and ends with him. Like I said; the religion we show is a result of what God did. It is an external response. For example, we love because he first loved us right? The false religions out there have a completely different gospel. As a result they bring their filthy rags and present then to God thinking they are working their way to God. We have been made clean by the word. The false religions make themselves clean.” (Moshe, carm.org)

  • 16. Doris Tracey  |  September 22, 2007 at 9:12 am

    I believe there are two kinds of beliefs. A person will believe something because they have experienced it and other beliefs are are just having simple faith until it is proven through works. Some people would like to destroy all belief in reality, which this world is not. This world is the ultimate illusion, because it is unstable.There is no permenant reality here. The only permenant reality is change.

  • 17. bipolar2  |  September 22, 2007 at 2:05 pm

    ** Without a context the word ‘god’ is meaningless **

    The ‘god’ of the state, the ‘god’ of theism, the ‘god’ of xianity are different, very different. To mark differences, I’ll use ‘Deus’, ‘Theos’, and ‘God’ as their proper names.

    Let’s first consider the presence of MSG in the Western cultural diet.

    Not the stuff that gives you headaches from Chinese restaurant take-out. No, I mean the Minimum Standard God. Philosophers can indulge themselves forever, and evolutionary biologists can await life’s arising from some self-organizing system. But, the U.S. Federal Courts have had to bring some reasonable specificity to the meaning of the word, ‘god.’

    And, the winner (surprise!) is one deistic divinity — what I call the Minimum Standard God within the Western Tradition, “MSG” for short.

    Courts have consistently held that ‘God’ as in the notorious “In God We Trust” refers to a one-size-fits-all unique deistic divinity — creator, sustainer of the universe consistent within Western tradition. The Deus of the state belongs to no religion. It is an hypothesized philosophical entity.

    Just add personhood and meaningful interaction with human beings, and MSG thus “enriched” becomes SG, the supposed Theos outside of any particular big-3 monotheism. He (it’s default gender is male) is also an hypothesized philosophical entity. Mental slovenliness being what is, Deus takes on a coloration of Theos in popular culture.

    I expect U.S. courts to trot out MSG as precedent for beating back an atheist’s challenge to the ‘under God’ clause in the pledge of allegiance — Deus is today invoked before each Supreme Court session and each House of Congress opens with a prayer — recently by a Hindu who was booed from the House Gallery by radical xian know-nothings. (Deus not Theos was clearly the object of address.)

    The courts will argue that the concept of MSG does not violate the establishment clause. Traditionally, most Westerners averred that MSG would answer their minimal notion of a ‘god.’ The MSG concept is certainly non-sectarian.

    No one is legally obligated to equate MSG with that moral monster embraced by the late (unlamented) “Rev.” Falwell. Or, the merely xian “God” of C.S. Lewis. Or, “God” as Paul Tillich’s “ultimate concern.” And, the deist can claim that God has no more interest in the universe than the gods of Epicurus.

    >> “I ask God to rid me of ‘God’.” [Meister Eckhart]

    Unfortunately, tradition also dictates that MSG exists. It leaves open any god hypothesis, except of course denying the existence of a unique god, however bland. That is however “logically weak” or “pared down” the concept. (MSG is “weaker” than SG.)

    Still remaining outside the sheepfold: secular humanists, Buddhists, Chinese ancestor worshipers, Shintoists, traditional Hindus, Wiccans, assorted polytheists, devil worshipers . . . those few too principled to be hypocrites . . . and legions of the wholly indifferent.

    The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution actually guarantees freedom of conscience to each citizen. Thus, each person is free to deny even the MSG of blessed tradition and to seek the foundations of morality in philosophy rather than theology, for example.

    Western tradition is also androcentric and paternalistic. That’s why MSG slyly assumes a masculine coloring (“He”), certainly not “She”, instead of the correct “It.”

    Some xians can perhaps jettison God’s misogyny and masculinity as culturally limited metaphor, but it’s hard to see how personhood could be eliminated as Hinduism has done with the Absolute (Brahman). And by parity of reasoning, Islam and Judaism are likewise inflexible.

    In general xianity has to grapple with how much of its so-called sacred text can be characterized as time-bound metaphor, myth-managed history, and quietly ignored. This task has been on-going for about 200 years under titles like “higher criticism” and “de-mythologicizing the NT.” [You can make evil spirits fly from the mouths of fundies if you dare to utter either of these phrases. Atheist exorcism!]

    copyright asserted 2007

  • 18. Why Do You Believe What You Believe? « de-conversion  |  September 25, 2007 at 9:54 pm

    […] one and two). The theme continues in this post (as well as a continuation from one of Simen’s articles), but only because the questions I have been asking myself and others has consistently led back to […]

  • 19. Lex  |  September 25, 2007 at 10:28 pm

    I love this post and this discussion. It’s such an important question for where I am in the process of de-conversion. I am actively trying to see if there is anything for me to hold on to in Christianity. Mike 2’s very example of Matt. 18:19 is such a telling illustration for me. Many who challenge me in this process want me to evaluate Christian tenets based upon the presupposition (which, of course they will not concede as such) that the Bible is true. This verse is such a perfect example of a ridiculous claim. It’s easy to see it for what it is when one has moved beyond the presupposition. Those who buy it attribute failed tests of the claim to lack of faith on the part of the tester, of course.

    Good post.

  • 20. Jon  |  September 26, 2007 at 1:03 am

    I think the easiest way to analyze a belief is to ask the question, “How did we get that information?” A snarkier way of putting it might be, “How do we know someone didn’t just invent that idea out of thin air?”

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