Dispositional Atheism

It occurs to me that if one is a dispositionalist or logical behaviorist about beliefs, then just about everybody in the West is an atheist. It might take a while to develop this, so I’ll probably just give a brief sketch. If you don’t care for the fancy terms, we could boil the thesis down to say that almost everybody in the West is a practical atheist, i.e. they act as though there is no God.

I’m not going to defend dispositionalism as a general view but, as I understand it, it’s the view that beliefs are essentially dispositions toward certain types of behavior. Some beliefs, I think, are clearly of this type. For example, the belief that I am thirsty is probably just another way of saying that I’m disposed to act in a certain way, i.e. drinking water. Other beliefs are harder to fit into a dispositionalist framework, i.e. I believe I’m seeing the color blue. I’m not sure what behavior this entails, if any. Still other beliefs seem to be in between. In other words, they may or may not entail certain behaviors. I think one such belief is the belief that God exists. While it is possible to simply intellectually assent to this belief and leave it at that, most religious conceptions of God entail a much thicker web of practices or behaviors associated with that belief. Depending on the religious tradition in question, such practices include behaviors like prayer, fasting, worship, devotions, dietary practices, and abstinence from certain behaviors like sex or consumption of alcohol. In more general terms, such belief entails a faith or trust in God. Some are serious about such practices, but many, especially Christians, in the West are not. I’ll provide some concrete examples below, but first I want to clarify my starting point.

My general contention is that most Christians don’t really believe in God, where really means something like ‘their professed belief entails a discernible disposition toward the kind of behavior associated with said belief.’ This is a very abstract way of putting it. Allow me to indulge in a religiously neutral (and somewhat geeky) example of the kind of belief I mean. In Superman II: The Donner Cut (far superior to the theatrical version, by the way) Lois Lane believes that Clark Kent is really Superman. She confronts him with her theory, which he denies. Undaunted, she tells him she’s so sure that he’s Superman that she’s willing to bet her life on it. She then jumps out the window of the Daily Planet building and begins falling toward the sidewalk hundreds of feet below. In other words, she really believes that Clark is Superman! (Clark manages to rescue Lois in a way that doesn’t reveal his superpowers.) Lois, in this example, places so much credence in the belief that Clark is Superman, that she’s willing to risk death. Stated differently, she places a very high epistemic probability on the truth of the proposition Clark Kent is Superman and she acts in a manner consistent with that very strong credence. If she didn’t, I think we’d be justified in saying that she didn’t really believe the truth of that proposition.

Now compare this to the belief in God exhibited by most contemporary Western Christians. Do they really believe in God? Or are they, as I suspect, dispositional, or practical, atheists? I think we need to look at their behavior to answer this question. Rather than point the finger at Christians in general and open myself to the accusation of making the argument from hypocrisy in slightly more sophisticated terms, I’ll use myself as an example. For many years, I was a professing Christian, but I often struggled with the question ‘do I really believe this?’ I had a very difficult time believing that prayer worked, for example. I also noticed that my behavior, and that of my fellow believers, didn’t suggest much credence in the power of prayer. Quite the contrary. In practice, we’d place our trust in just about any other method. This was most obvious in the case of health concerns. I saw people try not only conventional medicine but also various alternative treatments and remedies. These were sometimes talked about as supplements to prayer or methods that God could ‘use’, but at numerous points it seemed as though prayer was the supplement — just another alternative treatment that it ‘wouldn’t hurt’ to try. When it comes to practical concerns, like health, I doubt most contemporary Christians really believe. They are atheists for practical purposes. Of course, occasionally one hears about some ‘true believers’ who don’t seek out conventional medical aid and perish as a result, but these people tend to be denounced even by mainstream Christians.

There are numerous other examples I could mention, but you get the idea. Christians, at least in the contemporary West, don’t act as though they really believe in God. Rather, their actions are consistent with that of any run-of-the-mill unbeliever. If one is a dispositionalist with respect to belief, one would have to conclude that they don’t actually believe in God. Even if one isn’t a dispositionalist, I think one can sensibly question how much credence contemporary Christians place in their belief in God. I suggest, in practice, that it’s less than half. Again, I’m not trying to press the argument from hypocrisy here. I was once one of those professing Christians who didn’t really believe. I don’t think this was so much hypocrisy as genuine doubt.  In my case, I became self-conscious about my disbelief and abandoned the trappings of faith altogether.

Of course, even if everything I’ve said is true, it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist. But I think there is a correlation between a person’s disposition toward action and the epistemic probability that one places in a given belief. If I’m right, that suggests that many professing believers are dispositional, or practical, atheists.


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