Popular atheism in America celebrates versions of naturalism, materialism, empiricism, and so on, that are often based on weak arguments or even on no arguments at all. Popular atheism in America is already faith – and I’m sympathetic to the Christians who refer to it as such. Unfortunately, popular atheism is often just as scientifically illiterate and closed-minded as the worst Christianity. I love it when an atheist tells me that our universe is all that exists. I like to ask: How do you know? What’s your argument? And I have yet to meet a single atheist who can answer those questions.
Popular atheism is not a faith position. What Eric is encountering are inarticulate, under-informed, or conceptually confused atheists (or maybe in some cases only atheists who happen to disagree with him). But none of that amounts to adopting a faith, either implicitly or explicitly. The salient connotations of the word faith, as it relates to manners of believing among modern Western religious people and as it is denounced by contemporary popular atheism, must be clearly distinguished from other instances of believing with no argument, or based on weak arguments, wrong arguments, or appeals to authority, etc. Someone can be wrong or argue badly or defer to authorities without having an analogue of the kind of religious faith which is at issue in debates about the justification of religious beliefs and practices.
In this and my next posts, I will lay out some of the relevant features of religious faith which are crucially missing from popular atheist forms of belief and whose absence makes accusing most atheists of faith a matter of false, unfair, and misleading equivalence. The first point is simple: Atheists explicitly reject faith as a source of justification for beliefs.
Now, just because a group denies they do something does not of itself mean they are not guilty of that very thing. Atheists might still have some kind of implicit faith. But in the case of robust modern Western religious faith, one of its distinguishing features is that it involves a willingness to explicitly, deliberately, and as a matter of virtue believe things which are under-supported by evidence or counter-indicated by evidence.
Often faith even goes an eggregious step further and involves a commitment to ignore or rationalize away all future counter-evidence. The chosen nature of religious faith is an essential ingredient distinguishing it from other kinds of unstable beliefs and is one of the most important parts of the atheist critique of it.
Insofar as the contemporary atheist insists that faith is a vice and not a virtue, something to be rooted out of oneself rather than cultivated in oneself, she is already doing something different than the religious faith adherent. If she is nonetheless guilty of shoddily apportioning her beliefs to evidence you can at least call her on that and by her own avowed principles she will be forced to either come up with better evidence, soften her commitment to her belief, abandon her position outright, or be charged with an intellectual/moral hypocrisy. By contrast, if you point out that the religious person is not apportioning his belief to evidence properly but rather granting himself whatever beliefs he likes purely on faith his principles allow him to take this as a compliment!
In short faith of the modern religious kind denounced by atheists cannot be had by accident. It involves acts of volition which enable religious people to treat it as a matter of special commendation and justifies atheists in treating it as a morally culpable thing religious people have control to stop doing. And I don’t know of any representative atheist types who would put volitional faith in the virtue category rather than the vice one.
To elide this fundamental difference in epistemic principles and equivocate by imputing to “faith” to both people is deeply unfair to the atheist.
But even if the atheist’s rejection of explicit faith is significant, might the average contemporary atheist have enough “implicit faith” to nonetheless be guilty of the charge of faith? I think not. But I will save my arguments against generally treating wrong, weak, and missing arguments as faith positions for other posts. I will also defend atheists against the charge of holding naturalism, materialism, and empiricism by faith.
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.
Blind Faith: How Faith Traditions Turn Trust Without Warrant Into A Test Of Loyalty