Atheism Does Not Require Faith

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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.


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18 thoughts on “Atheism Does Not Require Faith

  1. don from Singapore, Singapore (general), Singapore

    How do you respond to theists asking what kind of evidence are your looking for?

    1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

      Don—I was just about to respond to your question, and realized that the answer would be quite long. I have no idea if you are theist or atheist, but the question is worth looking at. Would you be willing to wait for an answer? I will make your question the subject of my next post (either this weekend or Monday). In short, I find the question, in the manner that it is often asked, to be quite problematic, absurd, and often fallacious. I want to do it justice, so give me some time to write out a good answer.

      1. @vinimarques from Marina Del Rey, CA, United States

        Great question.

        In my limited informal debates with believers, I've found that the biggest problem is their lack of understanding of basic principals of rational thinking, e.g., "what is evidence" – which makes the whole endeavor quite impossible and frustrating. That's why in their eyes they're fully justified in pointing to the Bible or personal experiences as evidence. That's why you'll never meet a believer who thinks they're acting or thinking irrationally.

        I look forward to John's post on this.

      2. don from Singapore, Singapore (general), Singapore

        I am an atheist. I had this encounter with a theist friend. And he surprised me with this question.

        I told him that if it was evidence, no matter what form or shape, it will be obvious, I guess. But I’m not convince with my own answer.

      1. don from Singapore, Singapore (general), Singapore

        Ah, yes objectivity and not relying on their personal interpretation sounds like a good response.

  2. Loren Miller from Bedford, OH, United States

    Of all the definitions listed above, 1b seems to be the most apt as regards the issue of religion: " firm belief in something for which there is no proof."

    As an engineer, I have not fully tested some electronic principles on my own, yet I still TRUST them because others have wrung them out to the point where their reliability is beyond any practical question. I could do the same thing if I wished, to satisfy my own curiosity or the pleasure of more fully understanding the pioneering work of someone like Georg Ohm or Michael Faraday, but such is hardly necessary to be an effective designer or troubleshooter. There are also other principles outside of my discipline of electrical engineering, which I have a passing understanding of but not the in-depth comprehension which an expert might enjoy. I still trust them because they too have been through the wringer, through the scrutiny of skeptical minds and the gauntlet of peer review and in some cases, proven by repeated practical application.

    If I have no faith in religious postulates, it is because too many of them are too often self-contradictory, irrational or immoral, but most of all because there is no objective means to verify them. I also can't help but notice that religion is the only venue were faith has any supposed utility or regard. Anyone attempting to forward faith as a mechanism of understanding in a scientific discipline would most likely be laughed out of the room. This is because faith is an anachronism, a practice from an age when dicta ex cathedra held sway and science had not yet asserted itself as a reliable means of gaining knowledge.

    As educated atheists, we know this. Those who wish to cling to religion either don't know it or don't want to, because such knowledge threatens to reveal that their faith is as baseless as we know it to be. It sums up in a quote I have come to love as much for its simplicity as for its profundity:

    "I don't want to believe; I want to KNOW."
    – Carl Sagan

      1. criticalthinker from Cincinnati, OH, United States

        Can you have faith in other people? If you are married, can you have faith in your spouse? Before sitting on a chair, do you have faith it will hold you? This is where the definition 2b comes into play outside religion and directly applies to Atheism. Absolute trust. Agnostics do not display faith because they do not fully embrace an ideology. Atheists do, in fact their belief impacts other areas of their reasoning. The "absolute there is no God" plays a major role in areas. Atheists do have faith in that they believe in absolutes. If they had proof there was no God then Anthony Flew, Francis Collins and others would not have jumped ship being they seeing how these individuals rely on science and evidence.

  3. Hausdorff from Oak Park, MI, United States

    Great post, I was thinking of doing a post somewhat along these lines after watching the last few episodes of extra credits yesterday. They talked about faith in science vs faith in religion and then were surprised at the backlash :)

    The only other thing I wanted to mention, near then end you had the quote "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence". At some point I heard and amended version of this quote which I like a lot

    "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence unless you would expect it"

    Is the absence of blood all over the walls of my apartment evidence of the fact that a violent murder did not take place here recently? It absolutely is! If such a murder had taken place here, you would expect blood spatter on the walls. The absence of such blood is evidence of the absence of said murder as you would expect the walls to have gotten messy. It's not proof, the murderer could have cleaned up, but it is evidence.

    I would argue the same is true of god claims, particularly for the god of the bible. They make a lot of claims about God that don't seem to hold up in reality (answered prayers for example). The absence of such evidence is evidence against that particular God.

    My recent post William Lane Craig Doesn't Understand Infinity

  4. Pingback: Evidence for God | Reason Being from Columbus, OH, United States

  5. Ugg Classic Tall Pas Cher from Fuzhou, Fujian, China

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