Although I am no proponent of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, it is notable that our language fails to clearly distinguish two distinct but similar ideas which often confuse unreflective intellects. It is precisely on this account that I must explicitly delineate my meaning in order to discuss the topic. Thus, I present three definitions for the purpose of this entry, the second and third being of greater interest:
- belief: an opinion that a certain proposition is true
- unbelief: lack of an opinion regarding a certain proposition
- disbelief: an opinion that a certain proposition is false
Let us consider an example to understand the three concepts. Say someone tells you that you have won the lottery. If you accept this as true, you believe that you have won. If you reject this as false, you disbelieve that you have won. If you fail either to accept this as true or to reject this as false, you neither believe nor disbelieve that you have won. The three choices correspond to the three most basic responses to a question: Yes, No, and I don't know. When the question is whether you believe a certain proposition, the second and third options are frequently lumped together in the minds of many.
The implications for atheism are evident. Atheists may be divided into two main groups: those who don't believe in any gods (unbelief; often called weak atheists) and those who believe that no gods exist (disbelief; often called strong atheists). Unfortunately weak atheists are very often labeled, and even often label themselves agnostics despite the original technical meaning of the word which can apply not only to both varieties of atheist, but even to theists! This usage causes many to assume that atheist always means strong atheist. To further complicate matters, many also quite wrongly assume that strong atheists must necessarily claim absolute certainty.
Additional linguistic considerations
There is one additional word similar to disbelief and unbelief which further complicates the situation: nonbelief (also spelled non-belief). Moreover the statistical inequality of these words in their various inflections and derivations indicates deserves special notice. I present the following the table comparing the three words based on the number of hits at Google on each term:
Note: The numbers for nonbelief include the alternate spelling of non-belief.
The table sufficiently demonstrates why English speakers at least might have difficulty with the important distinction of not believing something true and believing something false.