What is Faith? Do Atheists Need Faith?
One of the most common things that we see is as atheists is some form of the following, “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist”. We see this from amateur apologists and lay theists, but we also see it from the professional apologists such as Frank Turek and Norman Geisler. (I must say to even title a book in that fashion is a great example of apologetic dishonesty—they are out to sell books, not dabble with reality—but I digress). The quote above is patently absurd. Before delving into that, we first need to look at what faith is.
When we look up words in the dictionary, we often see that there is more than one definition. It is incumbent upon the user to select the definition that best fits the context. When we look up the word “faith” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary this is what we get:
1: a : allegiance to duty or a person : loyalty
b (1) : fidelity to one’s promises (2) : sincerity of intentions
2 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
The first definition (1a) we can rule out completely when discussing religion. I do not think that at any religion views god as a person. However, even if they did, I think that we can all agree that if we are to have allegiance or duty to a person, we not do so without evidence. In reality, the use of faith in this sense is more akin to trust that is earned through deeds. I have faith that my friend Bob will arrive on time because he is never late. I have faith that my friend Bob will be there for me if I get sick because he has demonstrated to me that he is that type of person and has always been there for me. No matter how we look at it, definition 1a has nothing to do with religion or religious faith.
Definition 1b can also be ruled out of the religious context, as it has to do with intentions and fidelity of promises and not “belief”.
This brings us to definitions 2a and 2b. It is here that we learn how the word faith relates to belief and religion. We immediately learn that faith relates to belief, trust, and loyalty to a god and the doctrines of a religion. This should not surprise anyone. We regularly refer to religions as “faiths” after all. We hear people say I am of the “Catholic faith” or the “Lutheran faith” or the “Jewish faith” etc. It is incredibly common for us to equate the word faith with god-belief of some sort.
Definition 2b is a key part of this entire discussion. If one believes something on faith, they are doing so in the absence of “proof”. This is a huge point that must not be overlooked. In the end, after all of the apologetics, after all the posturing, the theist must at some point “punt to faith”. We simply do not have the evidence to prove that any deities exist. (One could argue that we do not have the evidence to show that deities do not exist. On that point they are only partially correct, but more on that later.) In the end, the theist must rely on faith (belief in the absence of proof) in order to believe in their god. It is why they all use this word. Faith is a key part of the three monotheistic religions.
The seasoned apologist, like Turek, Geisler, or Craig, will try to argue the above point. They fail every time. However, they continue to give lectures, participate in debates, and write books. They do so because they are “preaching to the choir”. I have a tremendous dislike for the professional apologist. I find them to be incredibly intelligent, yet they often act as if refutations of their arguments do not exist. Oh sure, they occasionally rewrite the argument after it has been shredded by an opponent. But it is just another canned version of the “same old thing”. In the end, the theist needs faith.
This is incredibly important to grasp. If the theist had evidence for god, they would not need faith. When we have facts, we do not need faith. Fact-based belief and faith are opposites. Further if theists had facts to support their conclusion that god(s) exist, many people who identify as atheists would likely become theist in light of that evidence. This does not occur. In fact, the opposite is happening, it is the secular community that is growing. Theists will tell us that there is proof for god. From this point we find that what they consider proof is quite shaky, subjective, or easily explained by other means. That is not the sort of evidence that we demand in other areas of our lives. The threshold for evidence needed for god belief is somehow less than the threshold for evidence we have for car salesmen/women…
How then can we apply all of this to an atheist? First, we must define what atheism is. It appears to me that some theists struggle with this basic concept. Atheism is: the LACK of belief in god(s). There is no positive belief required for atheism. We must pause here and acknowledge the terms agnosticism and gnostic. Agnosticism implies that we do not have knowledge of something. Gnosticism implies that we do have knowledge of something. There is some confusion as to how all of these words fit together. In short, one can be, and most likely is agnostic atheist, gnostic atheist, agnostic theist or gnostic theist. For more on that subject, click here.
So if faith is “firm belief in something for which there is no proof” generally related to a deity, how can an atheist, who has no positive belief need faith? The answer is that we do not. Atheism requires no faith. None, zip, zero, zilch. In fact, faith and atheism are incompatible. Faith requires a belief and atheism does not possess belief. (Some theists will say that an atheist “believes god doesn’t exist”—more on that later).
From this point, it becomes important to understand much of what I wrote in my Burden of Proof post. Many theists will state, “atheists must have faith that god does not exist”. That statement is false for a few reasons. First, most atheists are agnostic atheists. In other words, they do not completely rule out the existence of god(s), but rather, they either find god(s) to be improbable, see no evidence that would indicate god-belief is rational, or more likely, both. Faith does not play a role here, facts are what become important.
It is incumbent upon the theist to lay out his/her case for why an atheist should believe in god(s). The atheist must then listen and evaluate that case. It is incumbent upon the atheist to either accept the case for god, which if that happens, this conversation is over as they are no longer atheist, or to reject the case that has been presented. In rejecting this case, the atheist, if they are rational, will be able to point out why they find the case for god erroneous. They must show where the theist’s case is wrong, illogical, or missing parts. Like any argument, the arguments for god-belief must rely on facts. The atheist points out the absence of those facts or problems with the theists “perceived facts”. Again, faith will not play a role here. Remember, faith requires a positive belief of some sort (without evidence). An atheist stating “I do not accept the evidence you have laid out for your god. I find it faulty because of X, Y, and Z” does not need faith. It does not take faith to show someone where and why they are incorrect.
This leads us to another common scenario. The theist, upon realizing that the atheist has rejected his/her case for god-belief often launches into the fallacy of argument from ignorance. Let me explain. It is common at this point in an argument for the theist to ask “well how do you think X happened if god didn’t do it or isn’t real?” This question is fallacious. The answer “we don’t know yet” is an acceptable answer. Simply because we have not yet discerned an answer for something (think origin of the cosmos) does not mean that “god exists and created it”. The god-concept does not win by default. It, like all other hypotheses must be vetted and proven. It has not been. In fact, I find that most theists do not even hold it to the same standard of evidence that they do for scientific theories or hypotheses. Ignorance cannot lead to proof of god.
Faith is not needed, by the atheist, in the above scenario. We do not need to have faith to say that the god-concept is a faulty answer. This is particularly true, because as if often the case, the only truthful and rational answer is “we do not yet know for sure”.
Lastly, it is common to hear a theist ask, “…well if you believe there is no god, where is your evidence for that belief?” This question also has problems. First, they are mistakenly attributing a positive belief to atheism. As previously noted most atheists are agnostic atheist, which means they do not completely rule out the idea of a god, they just find it improbable or lacking evidence—in other words, they don’t say “I believe no gods exist”. However, many theists and atheists see that answer, though correct, to be a cop-out.
Not to worry, we can proceed without it. If we are to do so, we must first ask the theist to define “which god” they are talking about. This is incredibly important. If the theist is talking about some type of abstract creator god living outside of time and space that in no way resembles any of the gods currently being worshipped by the traditions of Western religion, we can say the following. “I do not believe in that god because there is no evidence indicating that I should”. That would be a completely true and rational statement to make. We do not believe everything that someone can conceive unless we can definitively disprove the idea. That is not how we live our lives. If that were the case, the theist asking the question MUST believe the following exist: unicorns, leprechauns, elves, centaurs, etc.—until they can definitively prove these things do not exist. We do not believe in those things because we can prove they do not exist, but rather, because there is no evidence that leads us to believe that they do exist. The same holds true for an abstract version of god. No matter how we attempt to play with semantics, god belief is not justified and faith is not required to hold that opinion.
If the theist posits a specific god, for example the Christian god, things get a bit easier. First, everything I stated in the previous paragraph is still true and relevant in this scenario. Second, we can look at the qualities of this god and show where and why they fail to make sense logically. As many atheists will tell you, the more specific a theist is on which god they believe, the less “agnostic” the atheist becomes.
In either case, faith is not required to “believe there is no god”. If there is a lack of evidence for god(s) or if they god is question is a logical train wreck, the atheist is justified in believing “there is no god” once again, without relying in any way on faith. It is the only reasonable conclusion.
In closing, faith is not necessary to be an atheist. In fact, I am an atheist and I have zero faith in anything. Everything that I believe can be backed up with some sort of evidence—even if that evidence is an absence of evidence. That statement may bring to mind the famous quote by Carl Sagan, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. He is quite right, but…absence of evidence IS a valid reason to reasonably reject belief in something (which incidentally brings us back to agnostic atheists). If evidence were to be presented, then we would be justified in believing the initial premise. So could a god exist? I suppose it is distinctly possible, depending on how you define “god”, but there is no evidence available to reasonably conclude that one does—and I can confidently say that without ever relying on faith.
Thanks for reading. I look forward to your comments.
If you have a blog please feel free to promote it on my “Promote Your Blog” page above.
I invite you to follow me on Twitter @logicalbeing
If you would like to share your story of how you became an atheist, please do that on my “Share your Atheism Story” forum. Our stories may help to encourage others with similar feelings to know that life is more than just okay without god(s).
If you have not yet checked out Alltop.com’s Atheism Blogs….what are you waiting for?