In college, my roommate and I explored the genre of complaint letters. Our concerns were honest, but the letters themselves were far from serious. Tonight, I was inspired to revisit these letters after a Twitter friend shared a frustrating story that ended with a complaint letter to an airline. My favorite exchange from college occurred with Meriam-Webster. Unfortunately, I do not have a copy of our original letter, but the reply gives a good sense for our concern and our tone. Encouraged by the aforementioned Twitter friend to share the response, I’ll offer it here.
Dear Mr. O’Connor and Mr. King:
Your recent letter addressed to Mr. Webster has been forwarded to me for reply, since regretfully, our eminent forebear passed away in 1843. Here is my analysis of the situation you present (I will keep my discussion very brief in a sincere effort not to become mired in rhetoric):
First, take the definition of disbelieve, as we have it: “to hold not worthy of belief: not believe.” Using our definition of believe, if you do “not believe” something you do not accept it as true, which is very much the same as your “reject as untrue” definition. But you do not yourself reject the existence of God as untrue. You say you think it is possible that God exists; thus, is that not saying that you do not reject the possibility of the existence of God? Therefore, as I see it, you actually do not disbelieve in the existence of God.
But that doesn’t mean you believe in the existence of God. In fact, it leaves the door open. While not disbelieving in the existence of God, neither do you believe that God exists. For while, certainly, you cannot believe and disbelieve something at the same time (and I see no contradiction in the definition of the term disbelief, simply “the act of disbelieving”), it is actually possible to not disbelieve and not believe something at the same time. Here at play is a subtle nuance of English, a connotation of syntax which is difficult to define. If you had said, “I believe that God does not exist,” you would not then have followed that with your statement “I think it is quite possible that God exists.” But you did not say that; instead, you said “I do not believe that God exists.” “Not believing” in something, as it turns out, simply does not require the same steadfast unwaveringness as “believing” does.
A definition cannot necessarily convey these subtleties; a definition can only say what is denoted at face value by a word; and in that regard, there is, I hope you will see, nothing incorrect about our definitions of disbelief and disbelieve.
P.S. It may interest you to know that nonbelieve appears to be a back-formation from the noun nonbeliever (as ghostwrite is from ghostwriter, and burgle from burglar), that is, the noun existed before the verb came into being and the definition of the noun and the verb are directly related. Nonbeliever is defined in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary as “a person who does not believe or have faith in something; a person without religious beliefs; atheist.”