Bad atheist arguments: “Atheists have no use for faith”

Bad atheist arguments: “Atheists have no use for faith” August 19, 2021

In today’s episode, our hero is about to enjoy a quiet lunch when he spots Fred, who looks shockingly thin. When offered some lunch, Fred not only rejects the idea but knocks our hero’s sandwich onto the ground. “Haven’t you heard of the Panini poisoner of Pimlico?” Fred asks. It turns out that Fred is now terrified of eating a randomly poisoned sandwich. He refuses to put his faith in the government’s health and safety agency and won’t eat anything without certainty that it’s not poisoned, though by playing it safe, he’s starving himself.

This continues our review of The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist by Andy Bannister (part 1), which critiques a number of atheist arguments. This is mercifully the last chapter where he does his childish best to attack atheist arguments. (There’s one final one where he works on the case for Christianity.)

What use do atheists have for faith?

Many atheists say that there is no room for faith in modern society. Bannister gives Sam Harris as an example: “Faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse—constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor.” Richard Dawkins says that faith is belief “in the very teeth of the evidence.”

Bannister then mocked the 2012 Reason Rally (which I attended) as an event where “20,000 people rallied for a noun.” You mean a noun like “justice”? Would that be worth rallying for? What about love or peace? Those are nouns—would they get you off the couch? If so, what’s wrong with a rally for “reason”? (And is this what passes for intellectual critique?)

In his typical long-winded style, he imagined an atheist attending the Reason Rally who wondered, How do I know that these other atheists really exist? He mulls over implausible explanations—he could be imagining them, or they could be robots. Could he prove these other “atheists” were who they appeared to be? And then, another question comes to mind: How do I know that any of this is real? He could be a brain in a jar, or he could be hallucinating. Then more questions: How do I know the world is ancient? How do I know hackers aren’t emptying my bank account right now? How do I know my return flight will go safely? How could he be certain? (To give an idea of Bannister’s style, he stretched the story in this paragraph to fill four pages.)

Bannister says that indeed we can’t know for sure, and that’s the role of faith.

“Faith is the opposite of reason!” may make a great bumper sticker or tweetable moment, but when it bangs into reality—the small matter of how each and every one of us lives, every day, in the real world—it fails spectacularly. Try if you wish to live a totally faith-free existence, but that will require doing nothing, going nowhere, and trusting no one. . . . Faith is part of the bedrock of human experience and one on which we rely in a million different ways every day.

Predictably, he’s determined to obfuscate the word “faith.” In fact, it can mean two different things:

  • Faith can be belief that follows from the evidence. This belief would change if presented with compelling contrary evidence, and it is often called “trust.”
  • Or, faith can be belief not held primarily because of evidence and little shaken in the face of contrary evidence; that is, belief neither supported nor undercut by evidence. “Blind faith” is in this category, though it needn’t be as extreme as that.

(I explore the definitions of “faith” and how they are deliberately misused here).

Acknowledging these two categories, assigning different words to them (may I suggest “trust” and “faith,” respectively?), and exploring the different areas where humans use them isn’t where apologists want to go. In my experience, they benefit from the confusion. They want to say that faith can be misused, but we’re stuck with it, which allows them to bolster the reputation of faith while it opens the door to the supernatural.

Let’s return to the atheist fretting about the safety of his return flight. Bannister wants to compare how we approach those worries—you will never be certain about the safety, but near certainty should be enough—with worries about God’s existence. However, he ignores the fundamental differences between airline flights and God. On one hand we have pilots, planes, mechanical failure, the science of aerodynamics, weather, and so on, and on the other, the supernatural. Not only do theists disagree about the supernatural such that they can’t all agree how many gods there are, every single trait about it could be made up.

See also: How Reliable Is a Bridge Built on Faith?

Putting your faith into practice

Bannister moves on to Christian applications of faith. He imagines falling down a cliff and reaching for a branch to save himself. “What I know [about trees] can’t save me; rather, I have to put my facts to the test and exercise my faith. Now what goes for the tree goes for everything else in life. Facts without faith are causally effete, simply trivia, mere intellectual stamp-collecting.”*

Here again, the comparison fails. Botanists are in agreement on the basic facts about trees, but not even Christians agree among themselves about the basic facts about God. First let’s get a reasonably objective factual foundation for your hypothesis and then we can worry about accepting it. You haven’t gotten off the ground.

With his definition (of the moment) of faith as a quest for evidence, Bannister encourages us to think about some tough questions, questions that he thinks he can answer best. But no, these are not much trouble.

  • Why is there something rather than nothing? I’ve responded here.
  • What about fine tuning? I’ve responded here and here.
  • What holds up the laws of nature? I’ve responded here and here.
  • Why does mathematics work? I’ve responded here.
  • Where did beauty, meaning, and purpose come from? We can’t be like Douglas Adams’ puddle that marveled that its hole was perfectly tuned to fit it. We adapted to the conditions of our environment; it wasn’t tuned for our benefit or pleasure.

Making a list of God evidence

Bannister proposes that we consider different factors to see if they argue for God, against God, or neither. He gets us started with a few examples.

  • Evolution. He uses the Hypothetical God Fallacy (let’s assume God first and select facts to support this conclusion) to say that this fits in the Neither bin (that is, it’s neither pro- nor con-God). Who’s to say that God couldn’t use evolution? Nope: evolution doesn’t prove God, but it explains a tough puzzle, why life is the way it is. And it does it with a natural explanation. This is a vote against God.
  • Evil. He concedes that this may be a vote against God, though he falls back on the “How can an atheist say anything is objectively wrong?” fallacy. Atheists don’t make that claim. Atheists are waiting impatiently for evidence that objective morality exists (see here and here).
  • Reason. How can there be reason without God?? This is a vote for God. Nope. Reason is an emergent phenomenon. If you’re saying that science has unanswered questions about how human consciousness works (say), that’s true, but Christianity doesn’t win by default. Christianity has never answered any scientific question, so there’s no reason to imagine it will this time. This topic is related to Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, to which I responded here.

Bannister concludes: “Do you see how this works?”

Sure, I see how this works: you put your thumb on the scale to get what you want.

“As I fill in these three columns, where does the growing weight of evidence gather?”

You’re 0 for 3 so far. Are you sure you want to continue? Only your cherry picking of the evidence helps support your presupposition.

And then, a page from the chapter’s end, he agrees that, yes, faith can be dangerous, too. But how is this possible, when he’s made clear that it’s how anyone knows anything, from that it’s safe to cross the street to that God exists?

This is the problem he makes for himself when he refuses to make the obvious distinction between belief well-grounded on evidence and not. He doesn’t like this dichotomy because God belief would largely be lumped into the same category as “I just know I’m going to win the lottery this time!”

I’ll wrap up with a comment he made as he encouraged all of us to read or listen to people outside our comfort zone. I agree, of course; I read his book. He says he values Dawkins and the New Atheists “for forcing me to think.”

And I wish he’d force me to think a little more.

See also: Top 10 Most Common Atheist Arguments—Do They Fail?

Final post in this series: Bad atheist arguments: “History is unreliable”.

“God” is merely a hypothesis
with a large marketing department.
— commenter Richard S. Russell

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 2/23/17.)

Image from flickr (license CC BY 2.0)

*Completely off topic: here’s a clever xkcd cartoon that picks up on that.

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