I need to start by saying this was a tough piece to write. I don’t want to alienate those readers who do follow a faith of some kind, and I don’t have a good answer to this titular question. As an atheist married to a pastor and who goes to church to support RevMo, I want to respect that people have faith. I try, but I don’t have a respect for faith that I wish I could.
Several years ago, I was discussing theology with an Episcopalian friend and he asked me “Do you specifically identify as an atheist?” I had to give it some thought. Usually when it came up, I would go ahead and say I was atheist. I hadn’t yet looked into different atheist groups like Secular Humanists or atheist churches.
Finally I replied, “I don’t necessarily identify as an atheist, but I do fit the definition of one because I don’t believe in any gods. If anything, I identify as a skeptic.” In simple terms, that means that I am skeptical of any notions that lack empirical evidence. Essentially the reason I can’t subscribe to a religion or belief in any gods is because I lack faith. So I’m what’s called an agnostic atheist. I came to this conclusion before I learned that there was a specific Skeptic community among some atheists.
I realize a lot of readers know exactly what I’m saying here, but many won’t, so I’ll break it down.
Faith is a requirement of all religions. If there was proof, there would only be one belief system, or at least that’s my expectation. After all, we can prove evolution and climate change and there are still deniers.
It’s easy enough to define faith. It’s “Belief despite a lack of evidence.” The Bible even agrees with me on that. Although I agree it’s out of context, the Book of Hebrews says “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”
One of my favorite easy-to-debunk claims about faith is, “You can’t see the air. You have to have faith that it’s there.” No you don’t. We know the air we breathe is approximately 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and 1% other trace gases. We can feel air temperature. We can barometrically measure air pressure. We can feel wind and see it with a visible gas, smoke or lightly enough weighted debris.
There is plenty of evidence concerning air. But when I say “evidence” what exactly does that entail? There are lots of things we could call “evidence” to back up an argument. There’s “Empirical Evidence” and something called “Anecdotal Evidence.” And in my experience, there are a lot of atheists and believers who think they know the difference, but clearly don’t.
“Empirical Evidence” comes from sense experience, which can be confusing because it sounds similar to “Anecdotal Evidence,” which is an unreliable and cherry picked explanation based on an anecdote, which is a cute-little-story.
Empirical evidence can be shared through observation. For a simple example, let’s say a dozen people test the properties of water by finding the boiling point and freezing point of purified water at sea level. With a proper thermometer, all would find the same thing. It will boil and turn to gas at 212˚ F (100˚ C) and freeze to a solid at 32˚ F (0˚ C). This is empirical evidence that can be observed and shared universally by way of a simple experiment.
Anecdotal evidence is far trickier. A joke is a story with a punchline while an anecdote is just a story without one. Any time a religious believer claims to have evidence for a god, their evidence is always anecdotal. Sometimes it can be “I see God in a sunset or a baby’s smile.” This isn’t something that can be universally shared. Not everyone will observe those things and come to the same conclusion.
A better example is one I heard several years ago. One of RevMo’s relatives told he had proof of his god. He had $100 dollars that he didn’t need, so he prayed and asked what to do with it. Soon one of his friends told him that he really needed $100 for something, so he gave it to him. He considered this to be evidence that his god was real because he answered that prayer. But those of us who recognize the difference will understand that this was nothing more than an anecdote that was cherry picked to support an argument.Every religion requires faith, or belief that is not backed up by empirical evidence. And if a religion had that evidence, it would no longer need to place any importance on faith. But it doesn’t stop with religion. There is also no empirical evidence for real magic, magical creatures like vampires, werewolves, leprechauns, ghosts, spirits, angels, unicorns, and so on. It extends further to alternative medicine, the notion of vaccines causing autism, and conspiracy theories, including chemtrails, 9/11 being an inside job, and so on. If a conspiracy theory has proof, it becomes a conspiracy, and no longer requires faith.
When I say I’m a “Skeptic,” that means I don’t have faith. I lack belief in any notions that are not or cannot be backed up by empirical evidence. It therefore follows that I lack belief in any and all supernatural claims, which include gods. Gods are always supernatural, which is to say they work outside of the natural, observable world. Miracles cannot be measured.
Like most atheists, I admit to being agnostic, which means “without knowledge.” As there is no empirical evidence to prove any supernatural claims, it logically follows that there cannot be a way to disprove them. Unlike religious beliefs, agnostic atheism requires no faith. Look for more details on that in a future post.
As the husband of a church pastor, I honestly want to value faith, even though I don’t share it. My intention when I decided to write about this was to explain ways that those of us without faith can still accept it, but I just can’t. Another aspect of being agnostic is feeling safe simply saying “I don’t know.” And I don’t know how to value faith.
I do however value tolerance. Sometimes people of faith will indeed try to infringe upon the rights and lives of others, but many do not. It’s unfair to lump a general group as acting a specific way. We call it prejudice and bigotry because that’s what it is. When someone’s faith is used to legislate in my country or to remove rights from others, I will be on the front lines railing against it. But most believers I know today have no interest in that, including RevMo and the members of her congregation (at least as far as I know).
We all, as humans in our society, have similarities and differences, biologically, physically and ideologically. I feel it’s my duty as a member of this society to uphold the rights of others. There are plenty of differences I accept. I’m straight and cis, but support the rights of the LGTB. I’m white, but think people of other colors and races should have the same rights that I have. I’m male and think women should be treated the same way I’m treated. These are differences I accept.
I don’t accept faith. But I do choose to tolerate it. Again that is as long as it isn’t being used to infringe upon my rights and the rights of others. I see value in tolerance. Those who disagree with something like homosexuality still have a social obligation to tolerate it, even if they choose not to accept it. Obviously there are those who will disagree with me on that. But I’ve found that tolerance takes far less effort than intolerance. And who am I to tell someone they shouldn’t believe what they have faith in?
If you have faith, do you value other faiths and those who lack it?
If you don’t have faith, are you able to accept or tolerate those who have it?