Answering Accusations Against Atheists: The Charge That Atheists Have Faith Too

Chris tosses out his frustrations with activist atheists in reply to my post on Jon Stewart’s views on religion. In a post last night, I rejected his assumption that not liking the tactics or particular arguments that particular atheists use is somehow a reason to reject the essential atheist position that there are no gods. I argued that regardless of the likability or unlikability of atheists, either you believe in gods or not. But now I would like to address his impressions of atheists, primarily from the internet, which lead him to think of us unfavorably.

The more I’ve looked into organizations, read the arguments, spent time on forums and talking with people…but more and more it seems that Aethism is nothing more than another belief group.  I should elbaorate as some might be confused since it isn’t technically a relgion.  It is from what I have seen that most outspoken Aethists usally don’t seem more like the new age “Bible Thumpers” that often they never listen to any other views tending to think of their way is the best way, and that if everyone followed it people would be alot better off.

There is nothing inherently “religious” about forming a group based on a common belief or, in this case, lack of belief.  The word “belief” is not strictly synonymous in all usages with the word “faith.”  There are political and social groups of all sorts which are in some essential way oriented around common beliefs about the nature of the world and the nature of the good.  That does not in anyway directly imply that those groups have either an explicit or implicit commitment to faith-based beliefs.  Explicitly it is clear that the sorts of organized atheists you are referring to who run organizations and who debate on the internet are part of a subculture that explicitly rejects any explicit appeals to faith.  This is a major distinction from the religions who not only rely on faith in order to believe things that they themselves will readily admit to you are insufficiently supported by reason, but who even go so far as to endorse believing according to faith on principle.  So, if you are disappointed with particular instances of atheists reasoning insufficiently or adhering to their positions dogmatically, joining the ranks of the religious who not only reason insufficiently but endorse such reasoning on principle, is no option if you are being intellectually honest here.  If you’d like to argue that implicitly atheists hold some positions by faith and with inadequate justification, then you are more than welcome to explain to me what these particular positions are and to demonstrate that these positions admit of no independent support.  It may be the case that a given atheist or atheists in general succumbed to another unsupportable faith belief.  You can argue for that if you think you can point to such a belief and prove they’re holding it by faith implicitly.  But, as a matter of clear fact, the atheists are explicitly opposed to making the holding of beliefs by faith into a virtue.  As a matter of clear fact, the atheists, if they were convinced they held a position by unjustifiable faith would not take that fact as a justification for their belief.  The most an atheist would allow is that insofar as an assumption was powerful for explanation, she might still hold it provisionally.  This is clearly and indisputably different from the religious position where beliefs are routinely held without sufficient warrant and holding beliefs in that manner is trumpeted as a virtue, rather than as a necessary evil resulting from the limitations on our abilities to reason free of all provisional assumptions.

In other words, if you think atheists are betraying their own explicit opposition to faith based beliefs, then point out these specific beliefs, explain how they admit of no other good reasons, and challenge them to be consistent and to abandon that belief.  It’s logically clear that it’s wrong to side with those embrace faith as a virtue just because even atheists struggle to overcome all dogmatism themselves (assuming for argument’s sake that your thesis is correct).  If you reject atheists for holding faith-based beliefs against their own explicit intentions, then you certainly have to doubly reject those who willfully hold faith-based beliefs.

Furthermore, it is important to point out that it is quite possible that even if a particular atheist holds a particular position with an implicit attitude of faith that does not mean that that belief is actually rationally unsupported.  What is important is that in principle it is a rationally defensible belief or that it is a belief that can rationally be held provisionally rather than dogmatically.  Just because a given atheist might psychologically reject belief in gods in a way that is accurately describable as faith-based does not mean that there is not a way to hold that same position rationally appropriately.  So, you can go ahead and be an atheist who forms your beliefs carefully and keeps them with a proper provisionality but don’t use the existence of some particular unthinking or dogmatic atheist as an excuse to hold irrational beliefs yourself on the cop out that “I guess everyone has faith after all.”

Finally, it is unfair to atheists that we get the charge that we offer no meaning or that people need faith in order to have community, ethics, and ritual, but then when we develop explicitly and conscientiously non-faith-based organizations for community, ethical formation, and, even, ritual, we get accused of being “just another faith group.”  It’s false.  You can, and atheists inevitably need to evolve to, develop non-theistic cultural institutions to replace superstition-based ones that will meet the same important human needs that people in the past have had to turn to irrationalist superstitious institutions to get.  People need many of the functions religion has served, but they don’t need the training in dogmatism, irrationalism, sloppy or outdated forms of inference, authoritarianism, superstition, etc. with which religion poisons its provision of services.

As atheists finally stop being just atheists and start forming bonds to combat the hegemony of superstition and to provide constructive institutions to meet human needs in a way that can replace the religious ones with their drawbacks, we are going to run the risk of being superficially confused with religions that are faith-based.  But for as long as atheists are not promoting belief without justification as a virtue and for as long as atheists’ positions in general admit of defensible reasons, atheist groups will decidedly not be guilty of religion’s vices.

And merely thinking that they’re right and that the world would be a better place if people ruled their lives more conscientiously according to principles of reason, freedom, and equality is not the same thing as holding “religious convictions.”  There are good reasons to support commitment to reason, freedom, and equality and atheists are as logically capable of believing in these guiding ideals and advocating for them without the spurious charge that this makes them religious as political groups are capable of holding beliefs about the good and how to implement it without themselves being “religious.”  There are more groups than just the religious who hold beliefs about the world and about what is moral, etc.  It’s facile to lump all passionate advocacy in with “Bible thumping.”  Unless there are arbitrary demands that you accept arbitrary authorities who have truths not confirmable by reason but which come from a divine or otherwise unconfirmable source, you are not part of a “faith” group.

This post is getting long, so I’ll cut here for the time being and post the rest of my reply to Chris this afternoon.  In the meantime…

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.