Saturday, March 26, 2016

The F-Word, Yet Again

The F-word to many atheists is "faith." So many atheists abhor the word, and its very utterance is usually reacted to with disgust.

But I've been thinking lately, as atheists should we omit the word entirely from our vocabulary? Are there any contexts where an atheist can sensibly use the word faith? I want to explore this.

Consider the phrase, "Faith in humanity,"—which I say from time to time, and what I mean by "faith" when I say this.

When I am tempted, at times, to proclaim that I'm losing my faith in humanity, I generally mean that my expectations for the human race are unlikely to be met, given the circumstances. In other words, given human beings and our abilities to be rational, to cooperate with one another to solve problems, to be empathetic towards one another and to nature, there exists a bar, a standard I'd expect humanity to be capable of reaching. And when we fail to reach that standard, I say that I'm losing my "faith,"—or expectation, that humanity can do so.

This is different from the kind of faith in religion. That faith can be defined a number of ways. It can be the belief in the existence of something without evidence, or without good evidence. But there is a difference between having faith in something that exists, with having faith that something particular happens in the future. No one can be certain about what happens in the future. I'm using faith to refer to humanity in this sense: I have an expectation of future human behavior that may or may not come true. My expectation is based on evidence from past human behavior (and requires nothing supernatural), but humans and societies are highly complex things, and there is no guarantee of anything.

The reason why faith is a dirty word among atheists is because it's so closely associated with non-evidence based reasoning and belief. I agree with that, but I don't think the word necessarily has to be toxic to atheists. It may be however, that the word itself can never be divorced from its religious connotations and many atheists, skeptics, and so called freethinkers will refuse to ever use it.

But in the sense of using the term to refer to my feelings and beliefs about humanity, atheists who think the term should never be used can look at it several ways:

On the one hand atheists could never use the term due to its negative connotations. On the other hand the term could be used in relation to certain degrees of importance in belief and of epistemology. For example, maybe when it comes to one's worldview, politics, morality, and philosophy, we should use a high degree of reason and evidence, because these views hold a higher degree of importance and thus we should never use faith when referring to them. But when it comes to relatively trivial beliefs in your everyday interactions, like whether or not your friend's going to pay you back that $5 he owes you, or whether or not so-and-so will show up at the party, perhaps it isn't toxic for atheists to use the word "faith" in these situations.

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