What if Your Faith Still Remains After You Hear Convincing Arguments for Atheism?

The video below, part of The Atheist Voice series, discusses what happens when atheist arguments sound convincing but you still can’t shake your faith:

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the project — more videos will be posted soon — and we’d also appreciate your suggestions as to which questions we ought to tackle next!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Randay

    You mention pastors several times. You could address the question of what purpose do pastors or other clerics serve. Why does any believer need to have another person explain the text for them. The pastors and the flock all simply read the same book. The flock can decide what it means for themselves; they don’t need a translator Pastors have no more knowledge about it than them.

    Let’s suppose that there is a hidden meaning or message. Why should the flock think that their pastor has deciphered it or found the clues? Maybe they should ask him how he knows what he claims to know. You could ask these questions to the person you are responding to in this video.

    Then there is also a difference between believing in a god and believing in the dogma of any particular religion which claims to explain what that god is. I can more easily understand why a person wishes to believe in a superior being than why they wish to believe in the rules, regulations, and rites of an organized religion.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, TOWAN

      this is a powerful tool and i’ve used it several times myself with believers. The “Missouri Synod of 1863, or 1841?” joke.

      then i like to start talking about money. why, again, are so many clerics so stinking rich?

  • Jasper

    Of course it’s “faith”. That’s what faith means… believing something without sufficient evidence, or in the face of contradicting evidence.

    That’s faith SOP… we aren’t “forgetting” it. We’re trying to talk you out of it. Directly.

  • James Sutton

    Mr. Mehta,
    To address indivuals who are beginning to have questions but are afraid of proceeding further in their questioning you may want to try the following:
    - Avoid using the term losing faith, replace that with seeking the truth. This will have a much more positive effect and besides they’re probably being told that exact phrase by the religious authorities in their life when they do start asking questions. “Becareful what you listen to and what you read, you can be deceived into losing your faith.” Additionally I think faith is probably a very fundamental requirement for a human being. For example I have faith that good tiumphs over evil or that love is more powerful than hatred. Faiths are like waypoints on the horizion that guide decisions when taking a next step even when there is no map indicating the precise path. The problem is of course is when a faith persists despite evidence to the contrary. What these new enquirers, who are used to having a faith as a compass in their daily life, need is assurance that dispelling a belief does not mean they have to give up believing, just that they will believe in things that are actually closer to the truth.
    - Secondly encourage them that their mind is fantastic and amazing and that they are capable of recognizing truth. Many religions will push the idea that minds are easily corrupted and that an individual cannot determine truth on its own. They discourage their adherents from looking at any information outside the prescribed body of information approved by their religion. Encourage them truth is derrived by looking at a wide variety information and that their mind is entirely capable of discerning the valuable bits and formulating their new beliefs. One way you can do this is tell them not to just believe you but to read as much as they can and decide for themselves.

    Hope this helps.

    • Jasper

      “For example I have faith that good tiumphs over evil or that love is more powerful than hatred. Faiths are like waypoints on the horizion that guide decisions when taking a next step even when there is no map indicating the precise path.”

      And here I thought that was just “hope” or “setting goals” or “planning for the future”. Good to know though. I can pencil that in for Faith Definition #12.

      “Faith” is the wildcard of words. Means anything to anyone. Once I heard a theist switch definitions mid-sentence.

      • Greg G.

        Once I heard a theist switch definitions mid-sentence.

        I don’t believe you. If you changed “once” to “innumerable times”, then I would believe you. How many times have you heard “It takes more faith to believe in evolution than in God”? There they equivocate religious faith with accepting evidence.

        • Artor

          Don’t be hard on Jasper. I’m sure he said that in good faith.

        • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, TOWAN

          i read that comment as ‘possibly two or more definitions of the word faith.’ and yes, it can be done. ask anyone who’s ever been the recipient of the “love the sinner, hate the sin” BS.

      • primenumbers

        Theists will switch from the traditional religious faith of belief despite good evidence, or belief over the evidence, or belief despite contradictory evidence to faith meaning “earned trust” in attempt to justify the former with the latter. Only the former should be called “faith” though and all other meanings should be named accordingly – hope, trust, earned trust etc.

        • Jasper

          It’s almost as though that, through appropriating other words’ definitions, they hope to import legitimacy from them, since the pertinent, Biblical supported definition – they understand – comes across as wholly irrational.

          • primenumbers

            Yup. They also then do the flip and paint “faith” as negative by slurring atheists with “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist”. They cannot keep their view on faith straight because they know that faith is bad, yet fail to admit it. When they do, the rest of their religious beliefs tumble.

      • James Sutton

        Hey Jasper,

        First of all words are defined by how they are used and I’m sure you‘d agree that a word can have many meanings. Saying I hope love is more powerful than hatred, or I trust that it is or I plan based on that it is, just doesn’t at all seem to convey what I’m trying to communicate. I would readily replace the word faith with some other word if it made my phrase clearer, but I just can’t think of one right now.

        It seems that many are really afraid of the word faith and challenge its use automatically. I suppose I can understand that when we see how often that word is used to justify terrible things. I also believe we can only only change ideas of others by using language that makes sense to them. I probably wouldn’t use the word faith when communicating with an atheist but dismissing the idea of faith while communicating with a religious person won’t really win heats and minds.

        Faith allows us to make decisions without 100% of all the facts. Blind faith allows us to make decisions despite the facts. I consider the former much better than the later.

        • Jasper

          First of all words are defined by how they are used and I’m sure you‘d agree that a word can have many meanings.

          Of course, but that doesn’t help with a word where the context doesn’t often distinguish the meaning. Further, what you did specifically was an equivocation by not using the definitions Hehmet was using.

          It’d be like you insisted that Faith also means “breathing”, and so therefore Faith is critical to all humans, and so our positions against the concept of believing things without sufficient evidence (or in the face of) is wrong… and the only connection between the two is the fact the word “faith” was assigned to both definitions.

          Apparently, “faith” is fundamental to being a human being, as long as one picks one of the myriad of disparate selections from the menu, to use. As long as that “f-word” is used, you’re all set.

          Saying I hope love is more powerful than hatred, or I trust that it is or I plan based on that it is, just doesn’t at all seem to convey what I’m trying to communicate.

          So therefore, let’s muddle the waters more with additional on-the-fly definitions? You’re lumping together all these different concepts under the umbrella of a single, arbitrarily selected word.

          I would readily replace the word faith with some other word if it made my phrase clearer, but I just can’t think of one right now.

          I’m sure you’ll figure out a few new definitions in short order. I’m curious why you think this makes communication clearer, when it takes a lot of effort, and reading between the lines, to even figure out what the person means, specifically?

          Hope is not faith. It’s hope. Your adding a non-evidence supported assertion on top of it (hoping good triumphs over evil) is where the actual faith part comes in – incidentally, the part we’re opposed to – believing crap for no good reason.

          It seems that many are really afraid of the word faith and challenge its use automatically.

          Don’t lie. Are you a telepath? The only emotion I feel here is annoyance – the same kind of annoyance I get whenever I try to talk to someone about spirituality, and it becomes nearly impossible to pin the person down on what he/she is talking about… where every consecutive second brings a new shifted amorphous concept.

          I suppose I can understand that when we see how often that word is used to justify terrible things.

          Faith contributes no capacity for error correction, as error correction requires evidence-based analysis of what’s wrong. Faith has no mechanism for stopping atrocity. The people who have “faith to do good” will do so, and those who have “faith to do things they think is good, but is actually bad”, will do so.

          My problem with the concept is that the only ability to actually be correct/right about anything is luck – that one has managed to guess the correct position – because it’s a mechanism that isn’t based on anything in reality intentionally so.

          … and as soon as it becomes evidence-based, in any form, it’s no longer faith. It’s evidence-based reasoning.

          I also believe we can only only change ideas of others by using language that makes sense to them.

          Perhaps it may be faster, but it doesn’t build a rational foundation as starting with the basics of critical thinking and logic. Indulging in their fantasies is more likely to simply mix together into a half-reason/half-delusion soup.

          I probably wouldn’t use the word faith when communicating with an atheist but dismissing the idea of faith while communicating with a religious person won’t really win heats and minds.

          Many formerly religious people disagree.

          Faith allows us to make decisions without 100% of all the facts. Blind faith allows us to make decisions despite the facts. I consider the former much better than the later.

          False – Faith is the explicitly believing something without evidence, or in the face of contrary evidence. Even within science, “proof”, as much as the term has any significance outside of mathematics, means “demonstration beyond a reasonable doubt” – which is never 100%.

          “Blind faith” is “faith” – and the other definitions are nothing but smokescreen. Either the other definitions already have synonyms with other, standard, non-controversial definitions and concepts, or the “faith” variant has taken one of those other standard non-controversial words, and added in “Believing extra stuff without evidence”, like you did with “hope that good triumphs over evil”.

          By your definition, “faith” is every possible thing that one can accept as true, as long as it’s not absolutely 100% supported, which is always going to be true – thus, casting “faith” into an abyss of irrelevancy.

          • Castilliano

            Jasper, great response.
            James, while I agree with your sentiments, Jasper has the right of it. You may have removed superstition as your source of faith, but it’s still faith (sans evidence) that you are referring to.

            The question becomes, is such faith bad?
            Sadly, I would reason, yes.
            I think without such faith, reality spurs us stronger toward right action. Good might triumph over evil, and while I hope it will, I know it won’t always. I know hope (and faith) won’t aid without action, and if I want good to triumph I must act.

            As James said, all the various definitions of faith are smokescreens for the core one: Faith is believing without evidence.
            Allowing ‘harmless’ faith justifies ‘mostly harmless’ faith which justifies ‘usually harmless’ faith and so on like the Sam Harris onion metaphor, each shell of faith protecting its closest neighbor, ultimately protecting the rotten center.
            Evidence-based, self-correcting thinking is paramount to our development as a society. Or so the evidence seems to point. :)

            Cheers, JMK

    • spitzs

      >. The problem is of course is when a faith persists despite evidence to the contrary.

      No, it’s a problem before that. The basic form of an argument from ignorance is treating things you know nothing about as a fill in the blank. There’s plenty of room for mistakes to be made even when evidence to the contrary does not exist. That’s an opportunity to investigate and find evidence that will allow you to make a reasonable decision, not faith. You don’t need to have faith that love is stronger than hate. If you have reason to think love is more valuable than hate, then hate being stronger than love would just mean that that much more effort would be required for love to overcome it. There is no “oh, hate is stronger? Guess it’s time to hate everything!” “Good doesn’t triumph over evil? Welp, time to be bad!” No, it’s probably time to look at the damage “evil” does and help the “good” avoid suffering too much because of it.

      Those kinds of waypoints don’t require faith.

  • Machintelligence

    Faith is just gullibility dressed up in its Sunday best.

  • http://ma-sblog.blogspot.com/ Alice

    The things that I get when trying to explain my losing faith to people are much the same. They understand that facts make sense, but faith isn’t about facts. I guess I just can’t see what good there is in living in a (maybe…I don’t know everything) fantasy world.

    For me the cognitive dissonance was too much to bear.

    • FaithIsGlorifiedDelusion

      For such people, I would ask them. “Do you care whether or not your beliefs are true?”

      • http://ma-sblog.blogspot.com/ Alice

        I may just do that.

  • Greg G.
  • C Peterson

    Regaining one’s reason takes more than simply hearing good arguments, good ideas. It requires a mode of thinking that is truly open to considering those arguments and ideas. Unfortunately, the mindset of “faith” is precisely the opposite of that. Faith, or more precisely the mode of thinking that allows faith to be strong, is a pit not easily escaped.

    My sense from reading the stories of those who regained their reason is that in most cases no single argument did it, no single revelation was involved. Rather, the shift occurred over time, as reasonable arguments (and unreasonable ones, as well) slowly chipped at the walls that were built during their early indoctrination.

    The destruction of faith isn’t a goal we can approach by thinking of individuals. It’s a societal shift, something to direct at entire populations. We do that by keeping reason at the forefront, always in the news, always in public forums. We do it by showing the unreasonableness of most religious ideas. We do it by being good people.

  • FaithIsGlorifiedDelusion

    Faith is glorified delusion.

    • ethics

      What is your reasoning behind this?

      • FaithIsGlorifiedDelusion

        Faith is (pretending) to believe something for no good reason and/or despite all reason.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, TOWAN

    i love you like pancakes, Hemant. but i’m staying the hell out of youtooobe comment world. your blog is civilized, it’s better here.

    that was well done. i don’t really have anything to add. the fact that he’s watching atheist vids and sending you email means the “crack” was already there. we should start a pool on how long it takes him to come all the way down the road to truth.

  • Justin Miyundees

    I think if religious people will look closely at the episodes where they feel they actually applied their faith and their faith had purpose, they’ll find it wasn’t faith at all but their own clear honest thinking.

    One of my favorite little sermons (when I was a believer) was the man in the flood story. I’m sure most have heard, a man is stranded on his porch in high water. His neighbor comes by with a row boat but he refuses help saying “I place my faith in the lord”. Later the water rises and he finds himself on the roof. The sheriff turns up in a motorboat – again he refuses saying “I place my faith in the lord!” Finally on the chimney a helicopter arrives from the National Guard but he steadfastly refuses with “I place my faith in the lord!” So, he drowns and when he meets his maker he asks “why did you foresake me lord?” And the lord says (and this is blasphemy by old standards – speaking for the lord, no less) “I sent you two boats and a helicopter!”

    ["That's some catch that Catch-22," he observed.
    "The best ther is!" Doc Daneeka agreed.]

    That story really sticks and it really sucks, looking back. I thought it was so very concise and poignant and showed how “God” works through humans. That kind of thinking is very hard to penetrate – I’m a classic example.

    But like you say, the cracks were there.

    For me, it was looking into my infant son’s eyes when he was about 3 months old. He had been lucky to live through childbirth having suffered a fetal to mother transfusion – he nearly died. This was on top of being 6 weeks early, but it was the doctors that saved him and today he’s a healthy happy 16 year old with a 98% overall grade average.

    Science saved that boy’s life and his mind. It would be petty (and arrogant) to pretend some magical force was looking over us – if it weren’t for the doctor seeing his skin color and immediately calling for plasma and oxygen and ICU, the boy would’ve died right then and there.

    He also got several doses of a surfactant (which allowed his lungs to mature) that was keenly pursued as a result of JFK’s child being premature. That led me to think of the moon landing (of all things). Again, I had to confess, it was science & human effort. These cracks all added up and looking into my child’s eyes under the intense pressure to baptize him (we were late – he was under intense care for over a month), I said, enough!! No, son, you’re not a sinner and I’ll not be the one to put that label on you and anyone else will have to get past me if they want to try.

    That very moment the most wonderful and liberating event of my life.

  • sTv0

    I left the Roman Catholic Church after 49 years as a follower. What did *not* shake my faith: the Inquisition; the witch trials/burnings; the Crusades; the torture and execution by starvation and disease of indigenous tribes all across the planet; the subjugation and mistreatment of women; the African slave trade; the RCC’s involvement in 1930′s Germany politics; The RCC’s lack of action during Hitler’s Final Solution…and etc.

    Since, as a Catholic, I hadn’t read the Bible, I can not comment on its flaws, as they, too, did not shake my faith, since I was ignorant of them.

    What shook my faith? The “accidental” discovery, by me, of the child rape and torture crisis in the Church. “Accidental” because I wasn’t looking for it, I happened to be doing some self-education on climate change and wanted to read what the Holy See had to say about it on their website. Happened to notice a link to a story about child sex abuse in the Church, and down the rabbit hole I went.

    Now, that’s not evidence for atheism (actually anti-theism). That came later. First, I had to discard my RCC faith, and that happened with extreme prejudice.

    Once I was out from under the control of the indoctrination of my faith, it was then I began to ask a series of questions of myself…such as “well, now that you’re no longer Catholic, what is your faith?” “What’s in the Bible?” “Haven’t read it, have you, asshole?” “Self-righteous prick, doesn’t even know what’s in his own Holy Book, do he?” And on and on. It was then I discovered Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, John Loftus, Dan Barker, D.M. Murdock, Michael Shermer, Hemant Mehta, and a cast of thousands.

    I have a dear old Dad and an older sister who remain in the faith, and they fought me tooth and nail for a couple of years trying to tell me how strong their faith is. They didn’t try to bring me back, they didn’t even ask me any questions! They just took many opportunities to tell me how strong their faith in God was. I would respond by asking them questions about their faith, like if they’ve read the Bible, or if they really believe that prayer heals the sick, or if they agree with scripture that homosexuals should be put to death. That just made them mad, then they would stop talking to me.

    We’ve mended our fences, now. My Dad, my best friend in the whole wide world, has come out and said “Look, as your Dad, my job is to make sure that you’re happy”. Isn’t that marvelous? He chose his own son over his faith.

    Marvelous!

    Atheist? Yep! Anti-theist? Uh-huh!

    Still love and am loved by my family? You betcha!

    Love you, Dad!!! :)

    • http://www.everydayintheparkwithgeorge.com/ Matt Eggler

      Give my best to your Dad, he’s great!

  • Joyful Freethinker

    “Kick the faith habit.”
    First, I want to say that I’m a huge fan of Mr Mehta and this blog.
    I really like your points on this issue. I would like to take one idea a bit further. Mr Mehta, you used the term “lose your faith”. I’d like to reframe that from something that sounds bad to something that describes it more accurately (IMHO). I see faith as an anesthesia, or other mood altering drug that we use to numb pain.
    So, I think “kick the faith habit” is a better way to say it.

  • Davo

    The bible is the best argument for atheism. There really isn’t an argument though because it is painfully obvious that it is jsut a story book. Baffingly, a lot of people still believe it.

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      As arguments for atheism, it’s mostly only effective for persuading Christians.

  • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

    A failure of persuasion seems to fall in three (not necessarily exclusive) categories: an inherent weakness of the thesis (such as actual falsity from or undecidability under the starting premises held in common), a failure of the persuader to present a message with valid line of inference leading to the thesis, or a failure of the persuadee to follow message from premises to conclusion.

    • Daniel Schealler

      I think that’s little bit too simplistic: You’re assuming that the audience member has already taken on board the dialectic approach to truth discovery.

      The problem of how to persuade someone who isn’t already into critical reasoning is a tricky one. Rhetoric is a big subject with multiple distinct and interesting failure states. :P

      • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

        Sub-classifications are possible. However, that would seem to fit in my taxa, as a “failure of the persaudee”, merely being categorical rather than particular. For example, I’ve yet to persuade a boulder to tap dance, and suspect that it is in part an inherent limit on the persuadability of rocks — though I agree it is also likely that a lack of shared premises and my own ineptitude at persuasion contribute.

  • TheShadow

    Yeah, that was me 6 months ago; faith was my last refuge as all the other arguments collapsed. Then BAM! Even my faith crumbled. And you know what? I’m OK!

  • Caroline

    The problem with chosing “reason” over “faith” is that reason is not all that reliable. Human mental abilities are very small. We are lucky if we manage to probe a small aspect of life and understand the process and ramifications of what is going on. Because of out limited abilities, we seek simpler models to guide us, and these simpler models can blind us, whether they are based in faith or reason. All of life is infinitely specific and complex. Instead of accepting this, we attempt to “learn lessons” we can easily apply to life’s challenges, without looking too closely at the situation the next time. No wonder we blunder through life!


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