What’s Wrong With Believing In Nothing?

I was having a friendly discussion/argument the other day:  it had something to do with my militant, Dawkins-esque atheism, and my disparagement of some sorts of religious ritual.  “At least I believe in something”, said my sparring partner.  

This struck me as an interesting attack on my position.  Putting aside the point that in this case believing in nothing (that there is no God) is believing in something (it is not a belief without content, it is a belief that there is no supernatural being), the criticism had echoes of that routinely levelled at politicians.  “He/She doesn’t really believe in anything”, people say, as though this were the most damning of rebukes.  And Tony Blair, condemned by many for taking Britain into a war with Iraq, would repeatedly fall back on the flip side of this:  “I believe in the rightness of my position”, he would insist, as though this alone made his actions acceptable.

Again, putting aside the merits of the Iraq war, why would one believe that there was anything good about believing something false?

One sort of politician derided for ‘believing in nothing’ is the pragmatist or managerial type.  Pragmatists are those who push for the implementation of policies that ‘work’.   In the tribal politics of Britain, the pragmatist attracts particular scorn.  However, even political pragmatists have to believe in some ultimate ends: pragmatists are pragmatists about means, not ends.  They have to have a definition of what counts as ‘working’…and so ideology can’t be entirely excluded from the equation.  Is ‘working’ maximizing GDP, is it redistributing to the worst off…? Etc.

But my guess is that when people accuse a politician of believing in nothing, they usually have in mind a form of life even lower than the pragmatist…the politician who has no morals or principled ends. And this accusation involves two types of attack on character.  First, the politician is being charged with inauthenticity and hypocrisy: of pretending to believe in something that he or she doesn’t.   Second, the politician is accused of being self-interested and egotistical: of espousing a party ideology whilst only really caring about power and self-advancement for its own sake.

And I can see why, in this regard, believing in nothing is a bad thing.  Does it therefore follow that believing in something, even something false, is, at least in this one sense, an improvement?


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11 Responses to What’s Wrong With Believing In Nothing?

  • Owen Schaefer says:

    This reminds me a bit of that scene from The Big Lebowski, where Walter complains: “Nihilists! !@#$ me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”

    I think this gets to at least one part of the objection to not believing in anything. Now, your position is of course theological rather than ethical. But many take there to be a tight connection between theism and morality. The worry, then, is that people who don’t believe in anything (theologically) will be less trustworthy, moral, etc., and perhaps cannot even properly justify their ethical beliefs. Even false religious beliefs, in contrast, will provide some reasonable foundation and set of generally-acceptable moral tenets that have divine authority (don’t lie, cheat, steal, etc.).

    Alternatively, the thought could have to do with spiritualism in general. Many believe that faith fills a particularly important human need, that for spiritual fulfillment. Even false religions can fill this hole, and provide some level of spiritual fulfillment. You will likely reply that you feel no such need or spiritual emptiness, but perhaps one could use a sort of objective-list concept of well-being to argue that, nevertheless, your life is still lacking.

  • mitra says:

    It seems to me that the last category of politicians that you describe also believe in something : ‘maximizing my own personal benefit is more important than any greater good anyone talks about’.

  • Tracy W says:

    If you believe something, you can be proved wrong, and change and therefore grow.

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    «Believing in something» is a little vague. Without wanting to indulge in semantics, let me define it for the purpose of this reply as having some convictions.
    A couple of points:
    1. In this sense, taking your example of the politician accused of having no beliefs, it seems probable that what is being criticised is the implicit contradiction in being a politician (ie, someone who claims to have convictions, and puts themselves forward election because of them) and in reality not having any (or not sticking to them).
    It is a non-sequitur to believe as a consequence that having no convictions is worse than having them. What is criticisable is the inauthenticity, not the lack of belief.
    2. As concerns atheism, you may not believe in anything – it’s your right – but my reply in a debate such as you relate would be that there are plenty of convictions one can have without God. Personally, I reject the false alternative that one has to believe in a god or else believe in nothing. You are playing into the hands of your sparring partner, David!

  • Sam Brown says:

    The phrase “believing in nothing” equivocates between the doctrines of Atheism (nothing spiritual), Positivism (nothing metaphysical), Pyrrhonism (nothing known), Cynicism (nothing valued), and Nihilism (nothing meaningful). A lot of critiques and counterarguments trade on this equivocation.
    The question posed above deals with spiritual beliefs (at least initially). For clarification, we can turn Kierkegaard. He was acutely cognisant that the primary motivation for religious belief is to reduce existential anxiety.
    We inevitably face decisions with no obvious resolution, and the threat of undesirable or painful consequences hangs over every choice. The more we question our knowledge, our choices, our principles, and our values the more we stare into the abyss. Yet we can’t shirk the responsibility: to repudiate the possibility of choosing is itself (inevitably) a decision. We also can’t disclaim all our personal values, and our interest in outcomes, without ending up motivationally paralysed like Buridan’s fabled donkey: we need some basis on which to choose. Furthermore, we each have a will to seek and advance personal goals, however ill-defined: to repudiate this like the Nihilists is surely itself a motivated choice (to avoid the angst of ultimate uncertainty). K analysed and embraced these paradoxes. He concluded that, for him, he should commit to a religious belief, making the proverbial “leap of faith”. But he didn’t evangelise or espouse organised religion: it was a purely personal choice. Some of us would say it was a cop-out. But it worked for him.
    By contrast, Nietzsche stared into the nihilistic abyss and the anxiety consumed him. That, I think, is the ultimate danger of “believing in nothing”. The leap of faith is the way out. It doesn’t have to be religious or spiritual: we can find our answers in many different worldviews, including atheism, Stoicism and (ironically) Nihilism. What matters is that we commit to the fundamental tenets, explicitly or implicitly. To do otherwise is wallow in anxiety and indecision, or to give up on life.

  • Chris Pfaff says:

    Believing in nothing is a contradiction in terms, such a belief cannot exist, it is absurd, hence cannot be viable.
    Furthermore, that “the primary motivation for religious belief is to reduce existential anxiety” is simply inaccurate.
    Such an assertion is merely an assumption made by a person or people who just do(es) not get “it”, the Truth, from legitimate personal experience.
    Granted, experience is not to be trusted without verification, such verification to be based on a complete and accurate set of assurances.
    However, equally: no one who does NOT possess a true personal, life-changing experience with the true and living God has either the necessary qualification or right to make Kierkegaard’s assertion or any other non-vain philosophical assertion.
    See my web site, OHMS . org, or see RZIM . com for a better handle on why atheism is self-contradictory.

    • Peter Wicks says:

      Not so much a contradiction in terms, surely, as syntactically ambiguous. It could mean “not believing in anything” (a rock, for example, doesn’t believe in anything) or it could mean holding a belief in “nothing”, though it’s somewhat less clear what the latter might mean. When people accuse others of “believing in nothing” they doubtless generally have the first of these meanings in mind (so definitely no contradiction in terms), but when applied to atheists this is ironic, since atheism is, in some sense, precisely a belief in “nothing”.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Regarding “believing in nothing” as a legitimate slur is just one of the many irritating (to rationalists) examples of muddled thinking and rhetorical trickery. I think the best retort to your sparring partner would have be, “And so what?” But you were probably thinking too much 🙂

  • Peter Wicks says:

    By the way, re “why would one believe that there was anything good about believing something false?” firstly surely everything we believe is at best an approximation to reality, and is this in some sense “false”, and secondly beliefs, in addition to hopefully providing us with a reasonably accurate model of reality, also serve as a basis for action and can make us feel better or worse. The athlete is probably better off believing at the start of the race that victory is inevitable (not in training, of course, since this would breed complacency), and the dying person might be better off falsely believing that his or her spouse had not been unfaithful.

    This is important, by the way, when arguing with religious or other people who are deeply invested in a belief system. We may not always be serving the public good (let alone that of the individual concerned) by disabusing them of their delusions.

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