If I had a nickel for every time someone told me that atheists have faith, too, I could quit my day job. Okay, so maybe that’s an exaggeration but I probably could at least afford a pretty decent steak dinner. It’s very frustrating to hear and it’s not for the reason the person saying it thinks it is. This assertion doesn’t irritate me because it’s clever or insightful; it irritates me because it’s nowhere near as clever or as insightful as it sounds. In fact, it’s a logical fallacy called equivocation. I’ll explain what I mean by that in a second, but ultimately I’m not interested in talking about argumentation (well, maybe I am a little bit…this is my second post in a row about the subject). I’m more interested in explaining how faith and reason represent two very different approaches to perceiving the world, and how they operate on very different principles.
Equivocation happens when one’s argument hinges on a single word that has different meanings in different contexts, but one uses the word as if it has only one meaning for all situations. Remember in third grade when you would say “I love pizza” and your friends would reply with “Well then why don’t you marry it?” They knew good and well what you meant. The word “love” means different things in different contexts, and they were capitalizing on the ambivalence of the meaning in order to make a joke. The words “faith” and “belief” work the same way. If I say that I believe that the Earth revolves around the Sun, it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as what you mean when you say you believe an invisible spirit made them. They are both beliefs, technically speaking, but they are not both faith—not, at least, in the usual sense of the word. One of those beliefs is based on empirical observation and science while the other is based on, well, something else.
Some people love to insist that those of us who seek natural explanations for our experiences and for the world around us are exhibiting our own kind of “faith,” a faith that such explanations exist. For example, if a naturalist like myself cannot explain how living things arose from the original stuff of the universe, I am told the appropriate answer is “God did it.” If I suggest there may be a natural explanation for it, I am told that means I have “faith” in something. But is that really true? You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means. At least not in this case. When you form a hypothesis based on a series of observations, it’s an educated guess about how or why something works the way it does. To whatever extent this educated guess is based on empirical observation it can be called science, broadly conceived. If a further investigation into the hypothesis turns up contrary data, the hypothesis should and will be either modified to account for the new data or else it will be abandoned for a new hypothesis. But is that the way that faith works? In the sense that Christians use it? Let us be careful not to swap definitions halfway through this process.
Faith, as the Bible describes it, is not a matter of empirical observation, even though some like to present it as if it were. In fact, the Bible praises a man’s faith to whatever extent he ignores the empirical data. The more contrary to the observable facts a man’s belief is, the greater faith he is said to have. It praised Noah for building a boat before there was even any rain. It praised Abraham for expecting children even though he was (as the story goes) over 100 years old and was apparently infertile. It praised Gideon for expecting a military victory despite what appeared to be the worst tactical plan in history. On and on it goes, celebrating those whose beliefs flew directly in the face of their observable circumstances. This is not a mode of perception or decision-making which follows empirical data. It is not a matter of forming hypotheses based on what you see and experience. In fact, it is explicitly and expressly the opposite idea. To have faith, in the biblical sense, is hold onto a belief which is unsupported by what you see or experience. The more at odds the former is with the latter, the greater faith you have.
Christians know this, just as my third grade friends knew that I didn’t want to marry my pizza. But that doesn’t stop some from telling me that naturalism is a kind of faith. They should know better than to swap definitions on me halfway through a conversation. It’s at best irresponsible, and at worst dishonest. When I suppose that there are natural explanations for things that happen, it’s because so far the majority of things we’ve looked into support that idea. Each time we begin not understanding how something works, we find that years of study and experimentation usually provide us with some useful answers. Just because we aren’t finished answering all our questions about life and the universe doesn’t mean it’s a fool’s errand. We have good reason to expect that enough time, thought, and experimentation will eventually yield the results we are seeking. That’s not faith. That’s just good scientific curiosity, and each of us benefits from the fruits of that endeavor on a daily basis. You’re reading this on an electric screen, for example. And many if not most of us are still alive today because of modern medicines, inoculations, and antibiotics. Before you become one of those who loves to say “You can’t trust science!” you should consider the many ways you depend on its discoveries every day. Some are far too quick to denigrate a discipline on which their lives depend.
Faith in Action
These two different modes of perceiving the world impact more things than you may at first realize. One way takes the world as it is and bases its responses and methodology on what we find there and on what works—what produces results. The other way looks first at an authority-based model for how the world should be and works to make the world fit that model regardless of the outcome. Please note that last phrase: regardless of outcome. The best way I know to illustrate this difference is to look at one of the basic premises of a highly-acclaimed book on church ministry by Mark Dever entitled Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. In that book, Dever disparages many numerically successful churches for doing what “works”—what produces results—rather than doing what his tradition dictates is “biblical.” Making his basic premise clear in the introduction, Dever says: “we must re-hear the Bible and re-imagine the concept of successful ministry not as necessarily immediately fruitful but as demonstrably faithful to God’s word” (Nine Marks, p.9, emphasis mine). Do you see the difference of orientation there? The emphasis is on faithfulness (to an ideal) rather than effectiveness (results). Granted, Dever and the rest would argue that results will come later, but a commitment to this methodology will force them to redefine results along qualitative lines rather than quantitative ones. In other words, in order to declare this approach successful, the measuring stick will have to be crafted strictly according to the pre-determined ideals of the measurer. They will have to shoot their arrow first and then draw a circle around wherever it hits.
This mentality doesn’t just stay sequestered inside churches; it impacts everything its adherents do. In defending their faith toward outsiders, it compels some to choose an apologetic method (along with a typically abrasive tone) which turns people away more than it brings them in. Faithfulness over effectiveness. Many who share this ideology seek to influence public policy in government, grasping for social control amidst a culture they feel is beginning to turn on them. They push for legislation which dictates that all public schools must teach “abstinence only” rather than comprehensive sex ed classes despite the fact that states which choose the former (generally the most conservative states) tend to have higher pregnancy rates (chief of all my state) than those which choose the latter. Faithfulness over effectiveness. At present, one major political party is internally hemorrhaging because of division between its pragmatists, who are willing to compromise on some issues in order to regain the White House, and its idealists, who will not bend on anything, and who see compromise as a dirty word. When the latter are informed that their inflexible approach will make them even less popular than they already are, they double down and use the same language of faithfulness to principles which the preachers use in their pulpits (Incidentally, since politics is all about compromise and popularity you would think this kind of politician would be eliminated by the natural selection of the election process. But they are not. They are circumnavigating the democratic process through district gerrymandering, through rolling back decades-old voting rights regulations, and through sneaking controversial legislation into completely unrelated bills).
It is the culture of faith that produces this odd disconnect between reality and perception because results and empirical observation bear little relevance to the mind of faith. You are to believe what you’re supposed to believe, results be damned. If you have to go to the grave having never seen the promised fruits of your faith, you are praised all the more. “What great faith he had!” they say, “for he never gave up and stayed true to his calling, come what may!” Perhaps he will be rewarded in the afterlife. This is not the attitude of someone following the evidence wherever it leads. It’s precisely the opposite.
So my answer is No. When an atheist says he believes there are natural explanations for the world around us, it is because experience thus far has upheld that notion with significant, objectively measurable benefits to our daily lives. Such belief is not of the same sort which bases itself on the word of a religious authority. Those who insist otherwise are only demonstrating their lack of awareness of what exactly goes into the rigorous development of modern scientific discovery. Doesn’t matter to them, though. They have faith. Until they learn to genuinely question that mode of perception, disagreement is basically futile. That’s why I don’t like debates with such people. We’re not even using the same rules.