Here at Camels With Hammers Eric Steinhart recently accused popular atheism with being guilty of faith in versions of naturalism, materialism, and empiricism on the grounds that their particular positions are “based on weak arguments or no arguments at all”.
But believing a position based on a weak argument is not the same thing as believing on faith. Sometimes people are simply confused. All false belief may be formally similar to faith beliefs in that, like faith beliefs, they are unsupported and contradicted by evidence. But the crucial difference between faith beliefs and other false beliefs is that the holder of a false belief need not knowingly be eschewing evidence. He might just misunderstand the evidence, have incomplete evidence, have misleading evidence, or badly weigh up the relative relevance of different pieces of evidence.
If his sincere, deliberate, and conscientious intentions are to go with the evidence and yet his available information or skills fail him, he does not thereby magically become equivalent to a religious believer who makes believing despite insufficient or contradicting evidence a matter of principle and a virtue.
So even were many atheists to hold flawed versions of naturalism, materialism, and empiricism, that would not be sufficient for them to be people of “faith”.
But let’s say that in addition to weak, wrong, or missing arguments, Eric really meant to charge them popular atheism with a deliberate will to disbelief or non-belief in God. What he would have to be saying, in order for atheists’ alleged bad arguments to be evidence of faith, is that even though atheists do not explicitly say that they deliberately choose to believe by faith that there is no God or that they think it a virtue to be atheists even if the evidence were to go in favor of God (when in fact, the vast majority of atheists I hear say the opposite—that they would be happy to believe if only there were the evidence), nonetheless atheists implicitly have faith because they do fervently will to not believe and they are prejudicial in favor of any beliefs that conform to their desired atheism and against any counter-evidence.
In short, Eric is implying that atheists do not just have weak, wrong, and unsupported positions but that they have them because they are prejudiced against theism and willfully choose to believe whatever they think conforms with this prejudice and to attack whatever threatens it. And all the atheists’ claims about being interested in evidence is disingenuous.
I think this is likely false to say about the majority of popular atheist writers and everyday activist atheists I know. I think the explanations I am about to give are more likely stories about why such atheists hold the versions of naturalism, empiricism, and materialism they do, even if Eric is right that they generally do so with weak, wrong, or missing argumentation. (And I’m not conceding Eric’s generalizations should be as sweeping as they are.)
1. A sizable number of atheists came from religious backgrounds that involved intense personal commitment and/or strong familial and cultural pressure to believe. For them their wills and prejudices were usually shaped from early ages to favor theism. For them becoming an atheist may have meant painful alienation from family and peer groups. And for them becoming an atheist is not like joining a minority religion, where even though you might lose your biological family you gain a new religious one. Deconverts usually see becoming atheists not as gaining a new social circle or a new framework of values and meanings, but as entering a frightening void that threatens nihilism.
Of course there are plenty of positives available to atheists, but religions do a good job of keeping their adherents ignorant of them and of making becoming an atheist feel like a terrifying prospect. I doubt many of these deconverts became atheists, naturalists, materialists, etc. because it was what their will wanted at the time. It sure was not what I wanted by a long, long stretch when I deconverted (much as I have grown to love it since).
2. We can explain why atheists so typically default to naturalism, materialism, or empiricism more naturally without any positing any volitional hostility to counter-evidence. For one thing, someone even implicitly hostile to evidence would be a strange candidate to praise empiricism in the first place. But hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance are possible, so let’s look for the most likely account of why they can be trusted to genuinely adopt naturalism, materialism, and empiricism out of embrace of evidence and not out of secret hostility to it.
The simplest explanation of why atheists are naturalists (regardless of whether they can articulate this well or would formulate it as I do) is because the question of naturalism is usually presented as a contrast with supernaturalism. Atheists typically are making an inference to the best explanation. The search for verifiable and falsifiable natural regularities has been astoundingly fruitful and vindicated the belief in them. On the other hand alleged supernatural realities prove in every instance so far adequately examined to be better explained by either known or conceivable natural causes than by any appeal to the supernatural. Whether or not Eric thinks that this is sufficient grounds for metaphysical naturalism, it makes perfect sense to me that most atheists at least perceive the proven power of natural explanations and the impotence of supernatural explanations to be an evidentiary basis to say that only natural realities exist and that supernatural ones either do not exist or might as well not exist if they do, and that therefore they should not be believed in, given the current state of affairs.
Maybe this inference is weak or incomplete in some way. Maybe it is ignorant of the existence of positive reasons to adopt something other than naturalism. All that matters to me is that implicitly this is the inference atheists are making and they need no volitional prejudice towards naturalism or against supernaturalism to make it. To use my own case, as a devout believer, I was entirely inclined to believe in supernaturalism until I considered all the evidence of natural regularity against the paucity of evidence of the supernatural. By my most sincerely believed in evidentiary standards, I came to adopt naturalism and reject supernaturalism specifically as a principled opposition to believing by faith in what I then preferred to believe but had no evidence for. I am open to consideration that I may yet have been wrong, but not that my inference was a faith based one when it was wholly a deference to the evidence as I judged it.
While I am not personally a materialist because I think the concept is poorly defined and the standards of evidence for it are too unclear to me, again I think the average atheist means to reject wholly unfounded and scientifically undermined notions of “immaterial souls” when she avows “materialism”. I hardly think she chooses to be a materialist out of some volitional prejudice (faith) for materialism. Rather I think it is obvious that she means to articulate an Ockham’s Razor like approach to alleged immaterial entities which are superfluous for explanation given what is known and what can be inferred from physics, biology, and chemistry.
Even if the average atheist’s account of what materialism is is confused and sloppy and even if the atheist can hardly give an adequate justification of the position, I see no reason to infer that prejudice motivates the belief and not a murky but sensible inference which is responsive to scientific evidence and not hostile to it.
The typical atheist’s reflexive empiricism also evidences no special prejudice against God or non-empirical entities. It stems from a culture impressed with the power of empirical data for creating the most solid, least contested facts we have in our science and our culture. It stems from the prejudice of common sense experience in which our senses are our most reliable guides to reality. It stems from the difficulties involved in distinguishing science from non-science precisely. It stems from a sometimes overactive but generally commendable suspicion of reifying abstract entities beyond necessity. Over-emphasis on the role of senses in knowledge is often a result of an overly crude but nonetheless understandable way of articulating what makes science different than bullshit.
Yes, the typical atheist desperately needs more metaphysical clarity, but it is no special faith that leads her to think the evidence of experience and of the scientific method’s power point her to materialism, naturalism, and empiricism. She likely suffers no doubt at all in these positions and, so, even feels no need to exercise any willful faith—either implicitly or explicitly.
3. It should also be noted that some positions are based on no argument at all and yet are not “faith positions”. We believe many things our senses tell us without any argument at all but we are justified in doing so because of their great reliability which would argue in their favor in specific cases if we were ever called upon to give an explicit case for some particular thing they tell us. Many atheists trust their naturalism and empiricism with the reflexiveness with which they trust their senses. If they never see any reason not to trust in these things, why would they ever doubt them? A metaphysician might see need to create doubt in them but if they do not have any doubt, again, they do not need any act of faith.4. Eric seems to argue that lest we be charged with faith we must all adopt the best supported metaphysical theories even if they are still only highly speculative given the current state of affairs in knowledge and only even known to be the best metaphysical theories by a small handful of technical philospohers. On Eric’s reading, a naturalist who infers from no experience of the supernatural to no existence of anything outside the natural is a person of faith but at the same time someone strongly adopts a highly speculative metaphysical belief only 20% likely (but still more likely than all other possibilities) is not having a faith position. This strikes me as backwards, or at least an overreach on his part.
A skeptical agnostic about metaphysics might say, “I refrain from speculative metaphysical beliefs because even the best supported ones are too insufficiently supported to warrant any strength of belief. It is inappropriate to believe any more than 20% in a belief which is only 20% likely to be true, even if it is the most likely true belief available. Especially when nothing of practical importance hinges on the belief in question. Speculative hypotheses may be adopted provisionally to be tested without being believed. And pragmatically useful, possibly true beliefs may be adopted for their practical value. But otherwise belief should be strictly proportioned only to evidence.”
I think something like this standard of evidence is persuasive but even if it is not, I am sure that it is at least a respectable, non-faith-based philosophical position. I would certainly not accuse any one who rejected belief in supernatural entities on these grounds of being guilty of faith just because they refuse to have highly speculative beliefs and refuse even to attempt to answer even the most intransigent and unclear philosophical questions. If by default, they say they are “naturalists”, this is nothing remotely worth calling “faith” unless all beliefs whatsoever are faith beliefs (in which case the word loses all its significance).
May any of the atheist inferences above yet be wrong? Sure. But do they betray a mindset of faith in atheists? Hardly.
For more on faith, read any or all posts in my “Disambiguating Faith” series (listed below) which strike you as interesting or whose titles indicate they might answer your own questions, concerns, or objections having read the post above. It is unnecessary to read all the posts below to understand any given one. They are written to each stand on their own but also contribute to a long sustained argument if read all together.