Does It Take Faith to Be an Atheist?

Does It Take Faith to Be an Atheist? November 18, 2017

“I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.”

I know it must be gratifying to pull out a zinger like this from time to time, but I’m here to tell you it’s not as clever as it sounds to you.

When people say this, they’re going for style over substance, and it only works on people who are already members of their tribe. It’s like a verbal hair flip meant to communicate confidence and superiority. But it’s as disingenuous as it is dismissive, so I wouldn’t recommend pulling it out around anyone but a room full of people who already agree with you about pretty much everything.

Permit me a few moments to enumerate how many different layers of carelessness this overused catchphrase represents.

You Keep Using That Word

First of all, are you suggesting that a person can have too much faith?

Is it preferable to have less than more? Is faith a bad thing now, or perhaps something you feel should only be used in moderation? Is that what you’re suggesting?

Next, I’d like you to consider how you are now defining the word “faith.” Are you here using it to signify stepping out beyond what the facts themselves merit? The way you are using the word here, does having faith mean drawing conclusions that aren’t quite warranted by the data in front of them, but rather going beyond them?

[Related: “Faith: Believing Without (Enough) Evidence“]

Are you sure you want to define the word “faith” in that way? Because if you are, it’s going to affect what I hear from now on when you speak of your own faith.

But of course the biggest problem I have with this preening phrase is that it depends on a false equivalency wherein believing in invisible spirits is automatically preferable to not believing in them, but who gets to make that call?

Why is the greater burden of proof on the people who don’t think people come back from the dead, or that closing your eyes and thinking about something outside of your control doesn’t make it more likely to happen?

Does it really take “faith” not to automatically believe in such things? Exactly how many acceptable uses for the word “faith” do you feel there are these days?

Do you suppose that every kind of belief is, by default, a kind of faith?

What about principles of math? If I believe that knowing two sides of a right triangle will enable me to find the third, is that faith? Is faith operating when I assert that tomorrow the sun will rise in the east and set in the west? Or when I believe that the planet I’m standing on is circling the ball of fire in the sky and not the other way around?

Whenever skeptics lean on a demand for scientific evidence for things, they are told they’re placing their faith in science, or in their own intellects. But then amongst themselves Christians use the word “faith” to indicate something very different from this, and frankly it’s dishonest to equivocate and swap meanings in the middle of a conversation like this.

I have even been told by would-be apologists that trusting empirical observation requires its own kind of “faith” because it requires believing that sense experience can lead us to discover things that are true.

But not all beliefs are “faith,” and when you pretend like they are it makes you look a little too desperate to prove that your way of thinking doesn’t require accepting a number of exceptional claims the rest of the world doesn’t so readily accept.

Rodin ThinkerShifting the Burden of Proof

And maybe that’s what’s really going on here. I suspect the church is tired of feeling like the underdog in today’s world. They’ve lost the cultural hegemony they once enjoyed and they’d like to see the playing field leveled wherever possible. I’m sure it gets old being the ones holding on to the heaviest burden of proof and they’d like to see some of it shifted to someone else for a change.

If only people who don’t subscribe to your beliefs had to do just as much defending of their perspective as you have to do for yours, what a relief that would be!

But really it doesn’t take faith NOT to believe in gods, demons, spirits, or afterlives. A person can be excused for observing the world and drawing conclusions that make sense out of what they see, and as Julia Sweeney put it so well:

“The world behaves exactly the way you’d expect it would if there were no Supreme Being.”

Concluding that there isn’t anyone in charge of things isn’t really on a par with concluding that someone came back from the dead thousands of years ago and that, for some reason, believing that happened is somehow a prerequisite for avoiding punishment after we are dead.

Strictly speaking, if an atheist confidently asserts that there cannot possibly be any kinds of deities, he is stepping out beyond what he could definitively know or demonstrate. But not everyone who disbelieves in the gods we’ve heard about (including yours) is willing to go that far. In fact, why must we?

What’s relevant to our discussion is that the gods we’ve been told to believe in don’t add up for us. The many outlandish claims of each of the religions we’ve seen lack the evidential support we ordinarily require for all other kinds of things (would you take medicine that has never been tested?).

We are being told we must treat this particular category of claims differently than we do all others, in some cases being told we must believe before seeing evidence because the proof only comes to those who already believe what’s being claimed. And if we aren’t cool with this arrangement, we’re the ones being difficult?

No. You don’t get to shift the burden of proof that easily. I know this snarky saying scratches a deep itch for validation in a world that seems increasingly bent on not taking you seriously (especially if your tribe was largely responsible for electing the most morally reprehensible president our country has ever known). But this pithy line doesn’t make you look smart to the rest of us. It makes you look petty and dismissive.

Just because we haven’t come up with testable explanations for every phenomenon that occurs in the universe doesn’t mean our only alternative is to believe in invisible spirits. Surely we can be more patient in our search, more intellectually responsible than that.

I know it’s psychologically satisfying to suppose that behind everything we don’t understand in the universe is a Giant Invisible Person, because of course that’s what persons would imagine. But you’ll have to forgive the rest of us for not being impressed with this explanation, especially given the dishonest way you keep switching meanings of words on us. Surely you can do better than that.

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

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