How much faith does it take to be an atheist?
By Christian Piatt
Originally printed in the Pueblo Chieftain Newspaper
I love National Public Radio. I might as well wear a scarlet “N” because I’m such an NPR nerd.
Every Friday, the show, Talk of the Nation, does a “Science Friday” special. This week, they interviewed Richard Dawkins, who is an evolutionary biologist, an atheist, and author of the book, The God Delusion. He is articulate and moderated in his comments. However, he’s unequivocal about his belief that God does not exist.
A caller made an interesting point about atheism, suggesting it takes more faith to be an atheist than it does to believe in God.
He said that you must be willing to depend completely on your own human experience and intellect to categorically reject even the possibility of the existence of God within a potentially infinite universe. Basically, you have to have faith that, in our inestimable smallness and relatively subjective experience, we have enough information to claim God could not exist, even beyond our sphere of understanding.
Dawkins labeled this as a specious argument, pointing out that there are plenty of other things most people don’t believe in, including fairies, Thor, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster (look it up online – I’m not making it up). However, it is only in claiming a disbelief in God that one is branded as arrogant or bitter. We disbelieve any number of things, so why should God be any different?
So there I was with two compelling but opposing arguments, left to sort out what I thought on my own. But the more I thought about Dawkins’ position, the more I took issue with it.
First, one distinct difference between belief in fairies and belief in God is a matter of numbers. There may be a few people who claim that fairies exist, but of the six and a half billion people on the planet, it is estimated that between five and six billion claim to have faith in God.
This is not a matter of majority rule; just because most people believe something doesn’t make it right. However, when a vast majority of the human species claims a common belief in a Creator, it places more of a burden on those who seek to confront the majority opinion. Faith is, by definition, not based in reason. However, those who deny God’s existence are depending on reason for their position. This places the burden of proof on the atheist.
Second, there’s a unique characteristic about the popular understanding of God that sets God apart from other mythical beings. While people may believe in anything from aliens to ghosts, the general consensus is that God is the source of all creation. Therefore nothing else that we could argue could have more of an impact on our worldview, our values and understanding of who we are than the existence of God.
To compare the question of God’s existence to that of fairies or characters popularized by the internet is to diminish the relative place of God within our cultural anthropology.
I don’t want to discourage discussions about the existence of God. However, it always should be approached with the reverence and gravity it deserves, even by self-proclaimed atheists. We should all have the opportunity to grow and be enriched from one another’s understanding of the universe.
I’m guessing most atheists have something to teach me, but in order to sit at the same table, we all should be willing to take something away from the conversation, other than what we brought with us.