The Belief Matrix – A functional description of evidence and theism/atheism

In response to my previous post on the rules of evidence for my apologetics, a friend of mine who is himself a seeker of truth pointed out to me that I probably mischaracterized agnosticism as a simple midpoint between theism and atheism.  As he quite correctly said, one can be an agnostic while leaning toward either atheism or theism, and that even agnosticism has at least two important variants:  those who believe one cannot know the truth about the existence or not of a divine being, and those who believe that we simply have insufficient evidence to know.  He was right on both counts.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the relationship between strength of belief and theism/atheism could be visualized as independent variables in a bivariate function, and that doing so might shed some light on my own perspective.  So I invite you to consider the following graphic to which I have given the working title “The Belief Matrix,” though that title may not survive further discussion:

A graphical representation of a functional relationship between certainty and theism/atheismAs you can see, in the above graphic I have represented the spectrum of Atheism to Theism along the X axis, with the degree of certainty of one’s belief as a scale from zero to 100% along the Y axis.  I suggest that most people’s stance with regard to the existence or nonexistence of a divine being (any divine being, not necessarily tied to a particular religion) ranges somewhere along that parabolic function I have graphed.  True agnostics, as my friend pointed out, exist in that fairly small middle range with zero or near-zero certainty of their belief, though they may lean slightly toward atheism or theism.  As the strength of evidence (evaluated by whatever criteria the believer considers compelling) increases, the individual’s certainty regarding the existence or not of a God increases.  It is important to acknowledge that the strength of belief varies rather similarly among both atheist-leaning and theist-leaning individuals.

A very important part of my perspective, however, is my conviction that evidence alone can only take one just so far toward either end of the Theism scale.  That’s the meaning of the red (but fuzzy by design) “Evidence Horizon” I’ve placed partway up the certainty scale.  One can argue about just how high up the scale the Evidence Horizon should be placed, which is beside the point.  The purpose of this element in the graph is to show that there exists a level of certainty–again, on both Theist and Atheist sides of the midpoint–that can only be attained by a decision informed by factors other than strict evidence and reason.  Atheist or Theist, we call those factors “faith.”  As I have said in discussions before, the Muslim Shahada “There is no God but Allah” (or its equivalent in the Jewish Shema) is a statement of faith.  Drop the words “but Allah” from the end, and the remainder is still a statement of faith.

Even having crossed the Evidence Horizon, there remains a significant range of certainty among believers.  Doubt is still very much a possibility, perhaps a strong one, among people who’ve decided in faith to throw their hat into either the Theist and Atheist ring.  Although it is not a linear relationship, I would say the inclination of the individual to proselytize–that is, to attempt to win others to camps that occupy the same region on the curve–increases proportionally with the level of certainty.  It is only at the extreme ends of our curve, in the range I have labeled “Fundamentalism,” where uncertainty disappears.  It is at these extremes–again, extremes I have observed among Theists of various religions and also among Atheists–where people are not only certain of their own belief, they are upset or even angry that anyone else might find themselves anywhere else on the curve.  I have further observed that fundamentalists on both ends of the Theism scale, tend to claim that the Evidence Horizon is actually closer to the top on their end, and slopes toward zero at the opposite end of the scale. I disagree with both.

So where do I land on this curve?  I’ll get to that later.  Where do you land?  And does the function ring true to you?

15 thoughts on “The Belief Matrix – A functional description of evidence and theism/atheism”

  1. Ruth Martin

    Although I consider myself a committed follower of Jesus Christ, I cannot place myself anywhere on that “belief” chart. This is because “belief” is far down the list, if it exists at all, among the things that I think he considered important.
    I am one of those odd birds who chose to follow Jesus because of what I saw among others who said they took their instructions from him. As I began to read, and then to study, the New Testament, which is still the best record we have available of his life and teaching, the way of life described there became increasingly attractive to me.
    It was only after this led me to commitment to him and his ways, that I began to “believe” that he was more than just an exceptionally kind and clever person.
    After all, there is no record of his ever telling anyone what they ought to “believe”. His invitation to everyone was to “come and see!” And even in the few scenes of “judgment”, the only indictments are about people’s behavior toward those in need, and never mention what they thought or “believed.”
    It has been 56 years since I accepted that invitation to “come and see.” In my (often stumbling) efforts to follow his instructions, I have seen wonderful evidence of his identity, his power, and his care. I have also seen a lot of things that I cannot understand. I have experienced very specific guidance, and also times when I search for it in vain. I have seen beautiful examples of the way I think he intended for folks to live and relate, and other examples of the direct opposite, both among people or groups that claimed his name. Some of this has led to “beliefs”, and some to uncertainties. But neither of those is of the highest importance.
    The defining feature, for me, is not “belief” but commitment. Every person makes many choices, but most of these are informed by the basic commitment, or direction, or focus of his life. Once that choice is made, “beliefs” follow.
    I do not find a “mind trip” attractive. I greatly prefer an interactive life as a “citizen of his Kingdom”.
    Love, Mom

  2. Dan Martin

    To some extent, Mom, you’re foreshadowing where I’m going with this series. But I have to part with you in one way…if I had to rely only on what I have been able to “come and see,” I don’t think I’d be a Jesus follower at all. What I have seen, far too frequently, is either antithetical, or at best tangential, to the claims of Jesus himself. Consequently, I need a different evidentiary path to explain why I haven’t just chucked it all by now (which I haven’t).

    Perhaps this path will really only describe things adequately for one person–me. That remains to be seen.

  3. Pingback: The Go Deep Link List « Thinking Out Loud

  4. Mark Carlton

    Dan, if I were drawing this diagram i would put that which can be known by the evidence, as you have, with a bold dark line, and that which we believe beyond the evidence in a lighter or even a dotted line. And since you believe the case for God can be demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence the solid line should be a little longer at this point that on the atheistic side of the line, especially in light of the fact that we now know the universe is finite and came into existence ex-nihilo.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      I don’t know that I quite agree, in that I was trying to analyze a mechanism of belief, apart from judging (at this juncture) the quality of any given belief, other than the contention that any belief structure is wholly and exclusively rational or evidence-based.

  5. Pingback: Link: Matrix of Belief – where would Jesus be? | Christianity Simplified

  6. Jason J. Shaw

    Doing some further research into understanding my own belief, I think I have come across the missing top half of your matrix where the opposite of agnosticism resides – panentheism. I think the matrix line can possibly take the form of a circle to form a more complete picture of belief.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      That’s an interesting thought, Jason. I’m going to have to chew on it a bit. My first thought would be that panentheism would be one of the options at the right-hand (Theist) end of the X axis. Remember the axes are certainty and theism/atheism, without any particular form to the kind of theism chosen. So I’m thinking a more correct placement for not only panentheism, but Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. would be as non-scalar options at the “Theism” side of the graph (and by “non-scalar” I mean that there isn’t really a single metric along which the various definitions of the divine would neatly range themselves.

  7. Jason J. Shaw

    I actually just learned about panentheism today, so correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it more of a connecting belief between theism and atheism that embraces both sides, much in the way agnosticism keeps a certain disconnect with either side?

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Not really, Jason. Panentheism is the idea that God is really the aggregation of everything, or conversely that everything that exists is somehow in God or a part of God. See this definition at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a good overview.

  8. Jason J. Shaw

    From your link: “panentheism maintains the identity and significance of the non-divine.”

    Maybe it’s sitting on the theist side of the mid-point, where as agnosticism is on the atheist side? Maybe some overlap?

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      I think agnosticism is correctly located as at the midpoint between theism/atheism with a certainty value near zero. Yes, panentheism would be on the theist side of the curve. The line you quote about significance of the non-divine is in part a response to those whose theology insists that God is so self-sufficient that he doesn’t “need” creation, therefore dependence flows only one way. At its most extreme, this theology holds that God must be “impassable;” that is, unaffected in any way by his creation, which of course obviates any meaning to our prayers, worship, or anything else.

      Panentheism, by contrast, makes creation significant in and of itself, and the divine-creation takes on a variety of levels of meaning.

  9. Stan Johnston

    Good stuff. However, I think we now have a fourth category — the apathetics. They avoid the conversation altogether. They have no certainty but don’t care. To them, religion is not relevant, so they avoid even considering the existence of God. “Everyone has their own truth,” so tolerance becomes more important than truth itself. They seem to sit outside the belief matrix because they are not engaged in the process at all.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      You have a very good point, Stan. I would suggest that some — but by no means all — of those who are nominally apathetic, actually have created a façade of apathy to mask questions they’d rather not ask. Some of those are questions I treat in this series. For others, I think it would probably be accurate to say that their apathy would be reasonably associated with the low-certainty agnosticism at the bottom center of the graph (as a side note, in an off-blog discussion I once had with a friend, we determined agnosticism as being of two main stripes: ‘we just don’t know’ and ‘we can’t know’). Nevertheless you are absolutely right that for some folks this is simply an irrelevant question.

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