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Do You Need Faith to be an Atheist?

Updated on January 9, 2015

Faith vs Disbelief

I have encountered more and more people recently who have asserted that in order to be an atheist, you need to have faith. It also comes across as a snide remark such as "I don't have enough faith to be an atheist". The assumption is absurd, to say the least.

It requires no amount of faith to lack a belief in something. An atheist is a person who lacks a belief in a god - any god. It literally translates as "without belief". It requires no faith to not believe in something. For example, people who do not believe in Bigfoot or Aliens do not have faith that these things do not exist, they simply do not believe in them. There is a big difference between being without belief in something and believing the opposite - yet this is a concept that many theists seem to have a hard time grasping. Understanding that not all atheists (and in fact a very small minority of them) actually assert positively that there is no god. This position is called "strong atheism". "Weak atheism", conversely, is withholding a belief in a deity due to a lack of convincing, sufficient proof of it's existence - this is being without belief, and does not, by definition, have to affirm the opposite.

What is Faith?

Faith has multiple definitions. As atheists see faith, it is the belief in something without evidence or proof that is logical or material. In order to have faith, therefore, you must believe in something without a sufficient justification for that belief. When you have a lack of faith in something, you do not need a reason for disbelief.

What is an Atheist?

I think that a large part of the confusion here has to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of what being an atheist means. Atheism, by definition, is the lack of a belief in a god or in gods. Atheism is a lack of belief. While some atheists (considered strong atheists) may go so far as to state that they believe no god exists, they are hardly the norm. Most atheists will simply assert that they have not been presented with enough evidence to justify belief in a god. Since atheism is therefore a lack of a belief, faith does not come into play. More confusion may exist due to a fundamental misunderstanding of faith.

The Comparison

Claiming that someone needs to have faith in order to be an atheist, according to the above definitions is absurd on multiple levels. No one needs to have faith to not believe in Santa Clause or Bigfoot. You do not need to constantly prove to people that aliens don't exist. You don't need to have faith to NOT to believe in every other god claim except for the one that you adhere to. How many times have you been asked to prove that leprechauns or fairies don't exist? However, if someone is going to assert that mythological creatures DO exist, they would need to provide evidence that backs up that belief (or that faith).


The Burden of Proof

Ultimately, this argument about atheists requiring faith is a large-scale attempt to shift the burden of proof off of the person asserting that a god exists onto the atheist. Theists will often ask atheists to prove that no god exists, or ask them to prove why their version of god doesn't exist. Ultimately, it is not the atheists responsibility. The responsibility of proof rests with the person making the positive assertion. If you are claiming to know that a god exists, it is up to you to prove why that belief is justified. That means providing proof - not personal experience, not what you think, not an opinion - it requires actual evidence.

Conversely, if an atheist goes as far as to say "no god exists", that atheist is making a positive claim, and they should be able to justify that assertion. I do not make that assertion, myself. When it comes to all god claims, I can state that I don't currently believe any of the ones that I've studied or been presented with. I don't believe the evidence is substantial to justify belief in those gods. I cannot say, however, that I believe that no god exists. I have not been presented with evidence for every god throughout history, and i would have to investigate those claims on an individual basis. When it comes to all god claims, I am agnostic. I simply don't know.

Agnosticism vs. Atheism

Another common misconception is the fact that a lot of theists confuse agnosticism with atheism. Agnosticism speaks to knowledge, hence the gnostic gospels. An agnostic simply says that they have a lack of knowledge of a god. Atheism speaks to belief. Therefore, atheism simply is a lack of a belief in a god claim. It is possible to be an agnostic atheist or an atheist agnostic, or an agnostic theist, etc. You can mix and max any version of labels that you want, but none of them require faith. They speak to belief, knowledge or a combination of more than one. None of them require "faith".


The Default Position

A lot of theists, despite their own personal belief, will claim that a belief in a god is the default position for everyone entering the world. That assertion is simply untrue. Atheism is actually the default position. Belief in a god claim - any god claim - has to be taught. In the United States, the predominant belief is in the Christian god. Therefore parents teach their children from a very young age to read the bible and they are taught that the bible is the infallible word of god himself. That kind of indoctrination is hard to break free from - but it is possible. If, on the contrary, you teach your children to think critically and skeptically about a lot of different claims and to examine the evidence, you are more likely to have intellectually honest children that question everything.

the Atheist Experience - the Default Position


Do you have to have faith in order to be an atheist? The answer is quite simply no. Atheism requires no faith. It examines the evidence. A true free-thinker/skeptic has an inherently open mind. A lot of theists will try to disprove evolution to an atheist without quite realizing that their atheism is not contingent on evolution. Evolution is the science that explains how life changes. It has been tested, proven and peer-reviewed. Even if evolution was disproved tomorrow, I would still be an atheist. Disproving evolution does not equal to faith without evidence in a god. I consider myself to have an open mind. I am willing to change my position based on the evidence that i am presented with on a number of issues. I would even go as far as to say MOST issues. I take the evidence for what it is - no more, no less. If I have questions, I research. Nothing I believe is based on faith. This is not to say that I don't believe in anything. I can believe things without faith. Faith is not comparable with trust.


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    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      The only reason an atheist needs faith is because he can only be a non-theist if there is a theism that he doesn't believe. If there were no theisms, everyone would be an atheist except we wouldn't have a word for it.

    • Paladin_ profile image

      Paladin_ 5 years ago from Michigan, USA

      I agree with JMcFarland. There are plenty of atheists who face life-threatening situations without appealing to a God, including especially the military. I sometimes recount my own experience with almost drowning, when my first thought was "I wonder if those people on shore know I'm in trouble...", then, I'd better get myself back to shore or I'm dead meat...paddle backwards...." (I can't swim). God or Jesus never once crossed my mind.

      When people trot out the old "no atheists in foxholes" nonsense, I often reply that, conversely, "there are no believers in burning theaters." You don't see people praying for God to save them from the flames. They're screaming and running for their lives, just like the animals we all are.

      As for atheism requiring faith, I always make the distinction between rational faith -- that is, faith that is justified by evidence, knowledge and experience -- and blind faith, which is the sort required to believe in something for which there is no compelling evidence, like God.

      If atheism requires any faith at all, it requires faith in one's own intellectual ability to distinguish objective reality from wishful thinking.

    • JMcFarland profile image

      Elizabeth 5 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      cajunsnake - while I understand your own personal experience, it's a common argument. It's commonly referred to as "atheists in foxholes". The idea is that when your life is imminently threatened, even people without faith will turn to god in crisis. This has not been my experience at all. I know plenty of atheists who are currently in the military who never turned to god - even when faced with life-threatening situations.

    • profile image

      cajunsnake 5 years ago

      I agree with Claire, this would be a good thread. My point of view is this, from '69-'72, every guy I knew that proclaimed to be an atheist, called to God just before they died. I don't down play their deaths by any stracth of the imagination. My point here the time of death...1) Finally acknowledge God...2) Why call on someone that you don't believe in.

    • secularist10 profile image

      secularist10 5 years ago from New York City

      Excellent arguments. The one making the positive assertion has the burden of proof. To many theists, it is just so "obvious" that there should be a god, they can't imagine things any other way. They think the existence of a god is as self-evident as the existence of the stars or the sky.

    • Claire Evans profile image

      Claire Evans 5 years ago from South Africa

      Make this into a forum thread.