Ask An Atheist: Does it take faith to be an atheist?


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Q. Does it take faith to be an atheist?

SPO_House-ad_Ask-an-atheist_0425133A. I heard several religious visitors to the booth our Inland Northwest Freethought Society and Spokane Secular Society hosted at the recent Spokane Country Fair toss off a similar trope: “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist,” they would say, and then walk off without engaging any further.

The issue here is an odd view of what “faith” entails.  You can say “I have faith that if I drop a hammer onto my foot it will hurt,” but “faith” in this case is only a glib shorthand for a chain of naturalistic reasoning: hammers have mass and under the acceleration of gravity a dropped one will gain sufficient momentum that by the time it bumps into my foot it will distribute that energy in ways which will excite nervous system, signalling something that my brain will end up translating into an “ouch” that my emotion-based amygdala probably will not like.

The “faith” that this atheist has about a non-belief in this or that deity is of that same class.  Nothing in the physical universe has “made by X” stamped on it, and so the intelligent design arguments on the existence of their particular X turn into “science cannot (yet) explain such-and-so” and therefore it must have been done by X.  It is an argument that becomes increasingly untenable when it comes to the nuts and bolts of actual biology (big long argument there of course).

As for the “why is there something rather than nothing” ontological argument, this is a different class of reasoning that ultimately is one of arbitrary assumption.  Is “nothing” really an option?  Can the universe not have been?  And if it cannot, why can it not be one of those mysterious “un-caused causes” that Aristotleans get so exercised about?  As with life, the universe has no designer label stamped on it.  If someone has a faith conviction that the un-caused cause must be entity X, that is fine, but it is stretching things to attribute a failure to pencil in a name on the back of the otherwise blank un-caused cause card. It involves the same class of “faith” as those who are so confident that it is X that must be written in and not Y or Z or so forth.

If you do not presume any particular deity to be a default condition, then the “faith” of the atheist turns into a reflection of how difficult it is to pick and chose among the “embarrassment of riches” that constitute religious arguments for why things are the way they are.

The natural evolution of life is a solid fact of science (and I am more than happy to debate that one with comers-on), constructed from a massive interlocking chain of evidence.  The origin of life is still an unsettled question, so a rigorous person cannot assume a natural source for this, but there are a lot of circumstantial clues and experimental evidence about abiotic development of amino acids, lipid layers and such to suggest that this, too, will be accounted for in due course.  Not that this is the only “we don’t know (yet)” in science; for example, to this day it is not clear how lightning is generated in thunderclouds. While bolts are electrical, it is a mystery how sufficiently massive charge differentiation can occur in a cloud to cross the zot threshold.

Now one could jump in and conclude that the Zeus or Thor models for lightning generation are therefore still viable players, but I doubt too many these days would start pestering the schools to stop propagandizing about the “naturalistic theory of lightning” that gets taught these days.  But is that only because there are not many Zeus or Thor believers these days, and hence, it is only an accident of history that some religious explanations fall away while others do not?

To give one particular deity priority of consideration over another is a matter of arbitrary selection, and the atheist cannot help but look at the whole package of any one god theory and evaluate the persuasiveness of it compared to others.  The Bible account, to take one locally prominent contender, has plenty of problems with it long before it gets to the “let’s explain the Big Bang and natural life” department. Thomas Paine knew nothing of the modern facts of either in 1794 when he raked the Bible over the coals in The Age of Reason.

I suppose one can call his level of analysis, “faith,” but it seems to be a misuse of the term.  One should reserve “faith” for matters of import that relate to undecidable propositions, where faith is a positive affirmation of something that you believe to be true but cannot prove in the end because you cannot settle on what would be sufficient evidence for that proof (I shall be posting a piece on that topic soon discussing “NOMA Revisited”).  Since every religious believer is an “atheist” when it comes to the even larger body of people on Earth who do not believe in the way they do, the convictions full blown atheists have are not really dipping from the same well as those believers do.

I do not believe Zeus or Thor or Tlaloc or Vishnu or the God of Abraham exists, but it is not because I have “faith” they do not.  I see no good reason based on the history and practice of those beliefs to consider any of them any more defensible than any other, despite the millions who have (or still do) entertain the idea that they are (or were) real.

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Paul Susac

Just to chime in:

Atheists come in two flavors. I’ll call them Agnostic and Gnostic atheists.
Agnostic Atheists: Most (myself included) are simply non-believers. That is to say, we are agnostic in our belief in God, but being agnostic, we must assume that God only exists as a character in a story, written by humans as the “most likely explanation” for the concept. This is an explicit assumption that we hold, because we know that we don’t know. This is the “I don’t believe in God for the same reason that I don’t believe in Unicorns” atheist.

Gnostic Atheists: Other atheists hold a positive belief that deities do not exist. These are in the minority, and I for one hold this to be a faith position. If you are deciding that something doesn’t exist, then you must jump to a conclusion on the basis of insufficient evidence. These atheists generally have some (very good in my opinion) arguments as to why a deity cannot exist, but even so, an argument is not evidence.

See the difference? What differentiates the two groups is not the non-belief in a deity, it’s the strategy that they use to arrive at their non-belief. It is a difference of EPISTEMOLOGY.

Now doe these guys have faith? Well, that depends on what you mean by faith. Faith is a word that is used to signify several different, but connected ideas.

Per Webster:
: strong belief or trust in someone or something
: belief in the existence of God : strong religious feelings or beliefs
: a system of religious beliefs
a : allegiance to duty or a person : LOYALTY
b (1) : fidelity to one’s promises (2) : sincerity of intentions
a (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion
b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust
: something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs

So let’s look at these 3 definitions as they apply to AGNOSTIC atheist:
1) Loyalty, fidelity and sincerity of intentions: Well, I think this DOES apply to me. I am loyal and sincere in holding to my value of intellectual honesty. I try to pursue this value with fidelity. But note, I am NOT being loyal to a CONCLUSION, I am being loyal to a PROCESS that I use for DECIDING WHAT’s TRUE. I try not to cling to the outcome, but I am loyal to my process. This is not something that I think Christains/Muslims/Jews do. I think you guys start with the end in mind, and then try to find a process that fits your conclusions after the fact. I think that you guys try to be loyal to your deity, and then figure out how to reconcile your deity with the facts AFTER The fact.

2) Belief and trust in and loyalty to God and the Doctrines of a religion, complete trust w/o proof: Nope, not me. Perish the thought! This is where I feel morally outraged by religious belief in fact. This is the aspect of faith that says “intellectual honesty be damned, I believe in the sacred text!” So this is a part of the word faith that I not only do not identify with, if find the whole concept morally repugnant. Sorry, there is just no way to sugar coat that.

3) Something that is believed with strong convictions (especially religious): If we soften this definition up a bit to include ideologies that are non-religious, I probably have to cop to this definition of faith. This is because I find myself agreeing with ideologues like Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens who are sick of religious privilege going unchallenged in our society.

OK, so now let’s look GNOSTIC atheists:

Here I think 1 & 3 have not changed. Most gnostic theists I know are prone hold views similar to the agnostic atheists. But we differ on #2 above. The gnostic atheist is holding knowledge of God’s non-existence. This is belief without sufficient evidence I think. They would probably disagree with me. But this is where I draw the line.

A Note on Ideology:

Is the decision to hold evidence-based reasoning as the gold-standard of human knowledge an ideology? Personally, I would say no, but it may emerge as the moral and epistemological foundation for an ideology. Ideologies are complex systems of both belief and socio-political structure. All religions are ideologies, but not all ideologies are religions. Right now I would say that culturally, atheism is emerging as a non-religious ideology; one that uses evidence-based reasoning as its “sacred value.”

We atheists are just as prone to irrationality and groupishness as the next guy, so we will doubtless have our own weird irrational beliefs in no time. This is a feature of human groups. My hope is that we will have the courage to live up to our core values, and in so doing we will build social structures that provide the great service of pointing out how we are wrong. It is the process of finding our mistakes that drives progress. This has been the core lesson of science. Bringing this lesson into other social systems is what the best of the atheist movement is all about.

Sam Fletcher

I don’t find anything in faith (textually) that interests me, and I often find faith (socially) to bring out the most abhorrent in human behavior.

The universe is plenty weird enough. We live in a cosmos of swirling, excited energy. If you could shrink down to the size of a molecule (although this makes no sense; you couldn’t see anything because photons would be of enormous size) you’d see that the building blocks of your own skin are scorchingly hot and vibrating with such agitation that they fling torrents of electromagnetic particles. If you scaled up, you’d see a universe where globs of energy get so dense, they gum up space and time itself into vast pools of infinite gravity and infinitely slow time. Not even light escapes.

That’s pretty weird. It’s also very calculable. You can predict when, where, and how the weirdness of our universe will manifest. Using math and observation, you can predict where those black holes will be, or the state of excitement in that molecule, with uncanny accuracy. You can even replicate some of that weirdness in a laboratory, using methods that are just as improbable and strange as the phenomena they are looking to discover — I bring your memory back to the recent discovery of the Higgs Boson (basically the fabric of space pooping out a little material drop of itself) using a giant tube to fling little bits of matter at each other at the speed of light. The point is, with intelligence, grit and ingenuity, practically group of people can summon the universe’s strangest stuff.

Pretty weird. Also much more interesting than the portentous stories of agrarian people who were very much concerned about the proper way to make blood sacrifices to the oat god. Or a traveling miracle worker in an age rife with traveling messianic miracle workers. These are not impressive stories. The morality they teach is not compelling. There is so much more to be found in the works of great philosophers, whose most successful enthusiasts open themselves and each other to mutually beneficial criticism and willingness to change. Priesthoods try against all reason to preserve the ideas of people who are now all incredibly dead. They give tremendous validation to stories about ancient bloodthirsty people and their long-forgotten tribal disputes and mythological lords.

What excites me is the future. What excites me is discovering that current ideas were mistaken, and the universe is actually like this. Tradition doesn’t bring improvements to life. Tradition holds to a few advances made long ago but keeps with it so many ideas from a less enlightened age. Faith demands we pay obeisance to tradition, despite our doubts.

People are, on their own, capable of a pretty awesome amount of self-validation and improvement. When you get to that point, you’ve found you’ve outgrown the need for faith.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x