AronRa: Faith is Not a Virtue

AronRa is well known in the YouTube atheist community for his epic anti-Creationist take-downs.

Lately, however, he’s decided to go to the root of the problem: faith, or the belief in things without evidence. Ultimately, he says, if we are to succeed as skeptics, and not simply replace religion with hippy-dippy homeopathic “spiritual” gobbledygook, it is faith that is the ultimate opponent. Aron makes the case in this great talk to Eastern Illinois University.

The first half is Aron’s talk, and the second is the Q & A. As always, if you see something that stands out, leave the timestamp and summary in the comments!

(via The Ace of Clades)

About Claudia

I'm a lifelong atheist and a molecular biologist with a passion for science and a passionate opposition to its enemies.

  • Pseudonym


    Look, I know that language change is inevitable and unstoppable. Perhaps I should give up on this as I have with “hopefully”. Unfortunately, for as long as Bible translators translate the Greek word [i]pisteo[/i] as “faith”, assuming the usual definition of “trust” or “loyalty” rather than the novel definition of “belief without evidence”, both sides are going to commit equivocation fallacies.

    I blame both US Christian fundamentalists [i]and[/i] Sam Harris for this. They both have a vested interest in defining “faith” as “belief without evidence”. In the fundamentalists’ case, it’s to make people believe things despite evidence to the contrary, and in Sam Harris’ case it makes for a more convenient straw man. (Though to be fair to Sam Harris, I think he’s his usage is partly a justified reaction to the fundamentalists, and partly based on him only half understanding Bertrand Russell. But I digress.)

    Both theists (the liberal kind, at least) and atheists need to say firmly that strongly-held beliefs without evidence are dangerous. I agree with this completely.

    Nonetheless, acting in good faith is virtuous. Being faithful in your relationships is virtuous. Faith can be a virtue, by any [i]reasonable[/i] definition of the word “faith”.

  • ortcutt

    Being “faithful” in the sense of upholding your duties and
    commitments is laudable, but that has no theological implications
    whatsoever.  An atheist is just as capable of such “faith” and it tells us nothing about God or the reliability of religious claims. 

    Sorry, but the sense of “faith” that religious people gesture toward when they cut short inquiries into the epistemological status of beliefs is in fact “belief without evidence”.  Sometimes I hear from Christians that “faith” is about having trust of loyalty in God, but you can’t reasonably trust or have loyalty in a being that you have no evidence to believe actually exists.  I can’t trust Harry Potter to be a reliable source since Harry Potter doesn’t exist.  Furthermore, my trust in Harry Potter’s alleged claims that Harry Potter exists won’t get us anywhere.  So, trust and loyalty ultimately end up back at “belief without evidence”.  I know Christians resist that fact because it makes them people who just don’t give a damn about whether their beliefs are true, but sadly that is the case.

  • Andrew B.

     It’s not difficult to come up with the definition of faith as “belief without evidence” when the NT declares “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11.1).  If your “loyalty” or “trust” is based on something not seen (or generally not “evident”) and is based on something you HOPE is true, then “belief without evidence” seems an apt description.

  • Pseudonym

    I’m not going to get into a Greek translation discussion here, but Heb 11:1 is one of the most notoriously quote-mined statements in the entire Bible. The author of Hebrews was not defining faith, he was describing what he believed to be the effects of faith. This is clear if you read the chapter as a whole.

  • Pseudonym

    Being “faithful” in the sense of upholding your duties and
    commitments is laudable, but that has no theological implications
    whatsoever.  An atheist is just as capable of such “faith” and it tells us nothing about God or the reliability of religious claims.

    Of course an atheist is perfectly capable of faith, just like an atheist is perfectly capable of temperance, prudence, courage and justice. We don’t taint most virtues just because they also happen to be religious virtues. Faith is the odd one out, and the only reason I can think of is that everyone is ignorant of what it’s supposed to mean.

    Sorry, but the sense of “faith” that religious people gesture toward
    when they cut short inquiries into the epistemological status of beliefs
    is in fact “belief without evidence”.

    For what it’s worth, I agree that many religious people do precisely this. I’m not blaming people like Sam Harris for initiating the confusion. They are, in part, reacting to confusion sown by certain religious people, particularly those who have an interest in pushing beliefs which flatly contradict evidence.

  • sdorst

     In John 20:29, Jesus says to Thomas (concerning his resurrection), “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” So, whatever the meaning of the Greek word “pisteo” may be, the New Testament depicts Jesus himself as clearly being in favor of belief without evidence. (Of course, as the gospel attributed to John was written long after the resurrection is supposed to have happened, the author would have a vested interest in promoting belief without evidence. I think that is almost certainly the reason the author attributes those words to Jesus – not because Jesus actually said them.)

  • machintelligence

    The author of Hebrews was not defining faith, he was describing what he believed to be the effects of faith.

    OK Please don’t leave us in suspense, did he approve or not?

  • ortcutt

     The atheist (and everyone else) is capable of faith in the duty-and-loyalty sense because the people we have duties toward, e.g. spouses, children, co-workers, friends, etc…, actually exist.  You can’t have duties toward a being that doesn’t exist and you can’t be loyal to a being that doesn’t exist.  I don’t have any duties toward Santa Claus because he needs to exist in order for me to have duties toward him.   I can’t be loyal to Santa Claus because, again, he needs to exist for me to be loyal to him.  So, we are back to the atheist’s basic question, what evidence is there to believe that there actually is such a being as God?  And when we ask that question, we don’t get an answer.  Instead people give a name to their refusal to give an answer.  That name is “Faith”.   And you’re wrong to claim that this is something exclusive to fundamentalists.  I’ve personally experience many liberal Christians end conversations in the same way.  “You just have to have faith.”  In other words, they’re going to believe what they believe regardless of the lack of evidence. 

  • Efrique

     Indeed, for Christians, faith is clearly defined in Hebrews 11:1

  • C Peterson

    Your point escapes me. Obviously, “faith” has more than one meaning, and some of them, in some contexts, can be considered virtuous. This discussion is about “faith” in its most commonly accepted religious meaning, which describes belief without evidence… and which no rational person can see as having virtue.

  • C Peterson

    We don’t taint most virtues just because they also happen to be religious virtues.

    Faith (in this context) is uniquely religious. What other “virtues” would you identify that are uniquely religious?

  • Ben Leedom

    I created a transcription of the first half of this video:

  • Tatarize

     Faith isn’t really a virtue, you’re better off without it. Interestingly enough if you could identify a uniquely religious virtue outside of faith, it would share this property of not really being a virtue and that you’d be better off without it. Strictly because if you were better with that virtue it really would be a virtue and would not be restricted to religion.

    Secular culture steals anything good from religions and refines them into being really good. The only things that remain uniquely religious are things which suck balls and make your life worse. There’s a reason meditation is no longer very religious, because it turned out to have some positive qualities.

  • David McNerney

    “The only meaning my life ever had, is whatever my life meant to someone else.”


    “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

    The latter is a command – the former is a reason.  I like that.

  • C Peterson

    You don’t need to convince me that faith isn’t a virtue. But religious people see it as such, and are challenged on that by rationalists. So my question remains, are there other religious “virtues” that rationalists let slide, as Pseudonym seems to be suggesting? I can’t think of any.

  • Pseudonym

    I agree with you. And I think that this is a bad development in the history of Christianity. But even the author of John, or whatever source he used, didn’t call that “faith”.

  • Pseudonym

    Sorry, I was probably unclear. I didn’t mean to say that any virtue was uniquely religious. In fact, that’s the exact opposite of what I am trying to say, namely, that faith is a non-religious virtue.

    Christianity in particular also considers classical virtues to be virtuous. This is understandable, since it grew out of the classical era.

  • Pseudonym

    I’m not sure I understand. The author of Hebrews certainly approved of trust.

  • Ewan

    I’m still not quite clear what your point actually is – are you saying that modern christians don’t use the term ‘faith’ to mean ‘belief without evidence’, or that they do, but are wrong to do so because that’s not what the bible says?

  • C Peterson

    Well, I’m saying that faith (in this context) is uniquely religious- at least, as a “virtue”. I’ll agree that there are non-religious examples of people who have beliefs without any objective evidence, but those are not reported as virtues. It is only in the case of religion that “faith”, meaning to believe without objective evidence, is treated as a virtue. Even religious people, who consider their faith a virtue, tend to look on those with the same mindset applied to nonreligious things as being screwy.

    If we don’t “taint” virtues other than faith that happen to be associated with religion, it is because they are not exclusively associated with religion. Unless you have some examples?

  • Nazani14

    I like his “you don’t use the bible as a moral guide” remarks.  I’d like to see an experiment where professed Christians were given a Bible edition where Confucian, Native American, and Buddhist rules for living were interspersed.  Would the Christians accept or reject these passages?

  • Pseudonym

    First, let me be clear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that anyone who uses the word “faith” to mean “belief without evidence” isn’t wrong, any more than anyone who uses the word “literally” to mean “figuratively” is wrong.

    My point, such that it is, is that this is not what the word has meant for most if its history. In particular, it’s not what the early influential translators of the Bible into English meant. It’s not what any historic Christian theologians meant. It’s certainly not what Heb 11:1 meant, despite protests in this thread to the contrary.

    Defining “faith” as “belief without evidence” and concluding that “faith” is not a virtue is kind of like defining “atheism” as “the belief that religion should be eradicated” and then concluding that “atheism” is intolerant.

    If someone were to make that argument, everyone on this blog would rightly point out that even though some (perhaps even many) atheists may believe that, that’s not what “atheism” means. Even if so many people started using the word “atheism” in that way that it gained a new definition in a dictionary somewhere, those who objected would be correct to do so.

  • Tatarize

    Churched, Christian, Pro-life, Temperance, God-fearing, Bible-Believing, Abstinent, Preacher/Religious Authority (pro-religion). — there are plenty of them and they certainly are seen as virtues. Faith generally only wiggles into the list of things we don’t scoff at because one can be truthworthy and faithful which generally are virtues and kind of equivocate from there.

  • Ewan

     “First, let me be clear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that anyone
    who uses the word “faith” to mean “belief without evidence” isn’t wrong”

    Firstly, if you want to make something clear, you’re better off avoiding the double negatives. However, parsing that out, you are saying that anyone that uses ‘faith’ in the sense of ‘belief without evidence’ is using the word wrongly. I’m not sure I agree, but it’s a semantic twiddle that’s really beside the main point. It’s clear that in many religions, including christianity, that ‘belief without evidence’ is considered to be a good thing.

    The case being made here is that it is not a good thing. Would you agree with that case or not?

  • C Peterson

    Pro-life, temperance, abstinent are not uniquely religious. The others are… and all are attacked as silly by non-believers.

  • C Peterson

    Etymology is a fascinating subject, and we can learn lots of interesting things from it. But in this case, it matters not in the least what “faith”  meant to people in the past. In the religious context, what it means today is believing without evidence, and that’s a terrible way to think, which has negative consequences for all of society.

  • Tatarize

     Because they are silly. It doesn’t change the fact that they are seen as virtues by the religious.

  • Pseudonym

    On the first point, I apologise for the double negative.

    On the second point, I’m saying that anyone who uses the word “faith” as “belief without evidence” is using the word in an unnecessarily confusing way, and is in serious danger of (and often outright commits) an equivocation fallacy.

    As for whether or not belief without evidence is a good thing or not, my position is that it can be bad and it can be neutral, but either way, it’s not virtuous.

  • Pseudonym

    But in this case, it matters not in the least what “faith”  meant to people in the past.

    On the contrary, as the discussion of Heb 11:1 indicates, it clearly still matters a great deal. That’s a perfect example of people (theists and atheists alike) mistakenly reading a novel definition into an older text,  resulting in confusion.

  • Queen_Hatshepsut

    Perfect timing for this blog!  A book just came out on this very subject.  ‘Virtue’ by Gordon Loud is about this subject.  If I didn’t know better, I would think there was divine intervention- juju going on here.  If you search ‘virtue’ on it pops up, but if you google it you get the ebook at  The ebook is the cheapest way to get the book.  Lulu also has the paperback and hardcover books.  Plus, lulu gives a preview of some of the book.  Anyways, the book is exactly on the subject of religion and faith not being virtuous.  It’s a quick read and has some pretty good stuff on what everyone is posting about.  Just thought I would point it out.

  • Cory

    Not many of the catechisms of the main historical Christian traditions attempt to define “faith” in the way described by Dawkins and Harris. Certainly, through the 20th Century development of Christian Fundamentalism along with its suspicion of intellectual pursuits, this notion of faith appears very much to be part and parcel with the historical Christian faith. However, that is only an appearance.

    Keep in mind that Pseudonym’s initial point is that it was the books of the New Testament, written by First Century Christian leaders and read by First Century Christians, which uses the word “trust” for its notion of faith.

  • Cory

    Don’t the following 2 verses disconfirm your interpretation of verse 29?

    Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30, 31 ESV)

    It seems as though reading 29-31 indicates that Jesus expected Thomas to believe he was risen based not on nothing, but on the eyewitness testimony of his fellow disciples.

    All throughout Acts, the apostles are attempting to persuade their audiences with reasons they expect the audience to consider as respectable. (Acts 16-18 is packed with this kind of persuasion language)

    Hebrews 11:1 is unfortunately interpreted in much the same way: as a proof-text. As pseudonym has already said, the author is trying to describe what faith looks like when you are still hoping for something. Even then, your faith for that thing which you are still hoping for is grounded in your experiences in the past. I have faith in my wife’s future trustworthiness because has been trustworthy so far. So to with the author of Hebrew’s faith in God, in which he goes through the history of Israel (as he understood it) and highlighted all the times that people had faith in God, and God was faithful.

  • Vada Luening

    Wow. I am just learning about this guy. Pretty good speaker.