Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Do Atheists Have Faith?

We hear a lot about faith today – from pious politicians, to small town preachers. One of the goals of the New Atheists is to turn the word "faith" into a dirty word. Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking Bill Maher said in Religulous. Christopher Hitchens wanted to attach a negative stigma to anyone who professed to be a "person of faith." I'm definitely on board with the mission of creating a culture based on reason and evidence and not faith. But, theists often accuse atheists of being just as faithful. They say atheism takes just as much faith as theism, maybe more.

So is this true? Does it take more faith to be an atheist than a theist?

Let's look at some definitions of "faith." From we get a few answers:

1. confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another's ability.
2. belief that is not based on proof: He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact.
3. belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion: the firm faith of the Pilgrims.
4. belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards of merit, etc.: to be of the same faith with someone concerning honesty.
5. a system of religious belief: the Christian faith; the Jewish faith.

For the atheist, it's definitions 2, 3, and 5 that are the most controversial and the kind of faith that we would like to see eradicated. Certainly we can all say that we have faith in a friend, faith in humanity, or faith that the economy will recover. This kind of faith is informed trust in a person or a thing when we are not certain what will happen. That's definition 1 – uncontroversial. Definition 4 kind of pushes the meaning of faith and conflates it somewhat with belief. But, it is still dealing with things that exist, such as a code of ethics, or values.

When it comes to things that exist, or ontology, such as with the existence of angels, spirits or karma, that is something that must be believed on faith without proof. And the more specific the belief, and the more detailed the claims are that it makes, the more faith it requires that you have to believe it. But does atheism fall under this category? Does it take the same kind of faith to disbelieve in these supernatural things as it does to believe in them?

Atheism is simply just the disbelief in god or gods, or anything supernatural (naturalism provides the philosophical worldview of the atheist). In the modern scientific era that we live in, atheism is the default position since we have no evidence that anything supernatural exists. We know for a fact that the natural world exists, so the person who believes in the supernatural bares the burden of proof to provide evidence that the supernatural exists, whether it be god, spirits, or karma. The atheist then assesses the argument and evidence for the supernatural and if it cannot prove that the supernatural exists, is justified in reasonable doubt and continuing their disbelief.

A common tactic of theists is to point to specific holes in our scientific understanding and fill it in with god as the "best" explanation. It seems that the theist here is saying, "Until science can explain every single thing about the universe, god wins by default." What nonsense. Natural explanations have always been found every time we've closed a gap in our scientific knowledge. It's like there's a horse that wins every single race, and so the next time it competes, are you really going to put your money on the horse that has yet to win a single race? That takes a lot more faith then betting on the champion whose record is solid.

But I think the theist here will try to make the case that even if we do have natural explanations that have worked every time in the past, that is no guarantee that there won't be a supernatural one in the future. And you what? They're right. There is no guarantee that we won't find evidence for the supernatural one day in the future. But, for the atheist, the glaring lack of good evidence for the existence of the supernatural gives him the reasonable doubt he needs to disbelieve and maintain atheism as a tenable position. And therefore, disbelieving in the supernatural is not a faith based position - it's a logical consequence of a fair assessment of the evidence - especially since all theistic beliefs are riddled with holes and there are very good arguments against them.

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