It Takes Faith to be An Atheist?
One of the common misconceptions about atheism I hear repeatedly endlessly on the lips of theists is that it takes more FAITH to be an atheist than it does to be a Christian (or any other religion). In this hub I want to discuss why this claim holds no weight whatsoever, makes no sense and is extremely frustrating to those of us involved in the atheist versus theist debate. Along the way I will discuss the nature of extraordinary beliefs, disbelief and common themes in discussion and debate on the subject.
Ye of Little Faith
In a recent hub I explained the way religiously based faith works. Faith is the evidence of things not seen according to the Apostle Paul, and the “substance” of things hoped for. In other terms faith is a place-holder for actual solid evidence, a belief that is held despite its controversial or unproved nature. Unlike beliefs based on evidence those beliefs based on this empty place-holder (faith) can exist in the face of insurmountable implausibility.
Furthermore faith is seen as being able to be quantified and be of high or low quality. Those with a strong unwavering faith are said to be able to summon God's favor with prayer much more consistently than those of little faith. The Bible seems to suggest that the faith of a child is also very strong. Rather than abandon faith when it is proven wrong faith is meant to be STRENGTHENED by its own failures. When a prayer or invocation of the supernatural fails the cure prescribed isn't to doubt the supernatural but instead to believe THAT MUCH MORE FERVENTLY. In this way faith can be very self-deceptive – if the supernatural fails than you're just not BELIEVING hard enough and there must be some doubt within you to stamp out before God will come through for you.
This emphasis on the power of faith lead to religious debate even as the Bible was being put together with various opinions as to what was more important, faith or good deeds, or both.
Beliefs based on good evidence, sound argument or solid logic are not the same as those based on faith. In several online discussions I've had with theists the discussion has started out with the claim that they DO have evidence for God. When this evidence is probed and proved to be nothing of the sort the theist will then retort with “well of course, it's not all just about evidence, it's about faith as well”.
This comment reveals the fundamental self-deception that is happening here. This person wasn't convinced of God's existence by evidence or argument, rather, like most, they were either indoctrinated or had an emotionally compelling conversion experience (perhaps both). Only later, post-conversion, did they become concerned with defending these beliefs and expelling doubts. At this point, with the false emotions of the conversion likely wearing off, their reasons for actually believing have run dry, now it is up to faith alone (and perhaps some more emotions and “religious experiences”) to help them hold on to a belief they have no good reason to hold onto.
If you have good reasons to believe than you don't need, or have, faith.
Disbelief, the Asantaclausist
Disbelief, The Asantaclausist
The claim that it requires faith to disbelieve in God is a lot like the claim that it requires faith to disbelieve in Santa Claus, fairies or the Easter Bunny. Let us examine a hypothetical conversation between two “children”, one who is a believer in Santa Claus (Sarah), and another who isn't (Billy).
Sarah: “Look at all the wonderful gifts that Santa has bestowed upon us this Christmas morning.”
Billy: “Oh please, don't start with that Santa business again!”
Sarah: “How else do you explain all the good things we have before us? Look at this keyboard, and this doll can walk AND talk. Are you going to tell me these presents all just poofed here magically?”
Billy: “No, I'm saying they got here naturally, there's no reason to jump to supernatural explanations.”
Sarah: “All of this just coming out of nothing? Sounds supernatural to me.”
Billy: “I didn't say it came from nothing, I'm just not convinced of this Santa Claus existence, or his involvement with the presents. You're the one claiming magic, a magical sleigh, magical sack, magical elves. There's probably a natural explanation, our parents probably put those presents here.”
Sarah: “Yeah right. Our parents couldn't build a doll that walks and talks, let alone your toy helicopter. These are WAY too complex for a natural explanation!”
Billy: “I'm not saying our parents built them, it's got to be a bit more complex than that.”
Sarah: “Well, what evidence do you have that Santa doesn't exist?”
Billy: “That isn't how it works-”
Sarah: “I'm waiting.”
Billy: “Well none really, but I bet if we did some investigating we might find some.”
Sarah: “I don't need to investigate, I don't need evidence, I can feel the spirit of Father Christmas in my heart. He calls me to be good for goodness sake, just like it says in the song, and rewards me with blessings of gifts. I just can't imagine being like you, it takes so much faith to believe that all this beauty came about without Santa, that it all just came out of nothing.”
Billy: “I NEVER SAID IT CAME OUT OF NOTHING! You haven't given a single good reason for believing this Santa stuff!”
Sarah: “I'm done talking to you, all you asantaclausists just become angry and rude so quickly.”
So who has faith here? The obvious answer is that it's Sarah. While Billy isn't quite sure of the answer to where the presents came from he knows enough to discount the illogical and incredibly implausible explanation that a magical man in a magical sleigh delivered them to every house on the same night. The miraculous explanation doesn't make any sense and requires the suspension of doubt and logic to hold on to. When an extreme or supernatural claim is made, one which seems miraculous or would overturn everything we know in a given field, doubting or disbelieving the claim requires no evidence or faith to do.
There are many examples which demonstrate this same point, including Bertrand Russell's famous teapot analogy. If you claim that Bigfoot is living in your toolshed I am more than justified to dismiss your claim without evidence to disprove it. If it didn't work that way scientists would spend nearly all of their time disproving supernatural or pseudoscientific claims yet the vast majority of scientists don't bother. It is true that in recent years many scientists have joined in with the skeptical community to voice their opinions, folks like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins are among the most outspoken.
Also worth nothing is Sarah's demand that an explanation be provided or else she will resort to believing in Santa. Often times theists will demand that atheists explain the more mysterious aspects of life, the Universe, and everything or else they will simply go on believing. The fact of the matter is that we human beings lack explanations for a great deal of phenomenon and that good NATURAL explanations for certain phenomenon are not always readily available especially to laypersons. The implication here is that somehow a supernatural explanation is superior to withholding judgment or resorting to default disbelief in absence of a natural one. Sarah feels that, since Billy cannot provide evidence to support the current natural explanation (that the parents were responsible), her belief in the Santa explanation is therefore supported. Absence of evidence for a natural explanation is not, itself, evidence for a supernatural one.
In discussions on theism the Big Bang is a great example of this. Theists sometimes claim that atheists “believe in nothing” and that we believe the Universe just popped into existence out of nothing. This misconception has only been bolstered by modern physicists some of whom now believe that the Universe did self-generate from “nothing”, though their version of nothing isn't nothing is the abstract sense most of us think of it. Not all atheists believe that the Universe came from “nothing”. It may be that the origins of the Universe are unknowable, the question unanswerable, but merely because we may be left with a mystery does not excuse inserting Gods, magic or other absurdities that serve only as place-holder explanations.
The Vanishing God
Let's go back to our two hypothetical children for this, an example of how theists sometimes shift the goal-posts and won't accept a shred of evidence that might actually disprove their beliefs and how when they do give ground to said evidence their God becomes a more and more nebulous idea.
Billy: “Here, look, I've found some evidence, it's a fake white beard and Santa hat, I found it in Dad's closet!”
Sarah: “This doesn't disprove Santa! Look at this old book I found in the attic, it was written before Mom and Dad were even born and it mentions Santa! It even says it was written by Santa and contains his words and teachings.”
Billy: “But it's just a book, like any other.”
Sarah: “So, YOUR evidence is just a stupid beard, mine helps me be a better person, and is read by millions.”
Billy: “It claims to be written by Santa, but here you can clearly see the publisher's information in the front of the book. This was written by people, not Santa!”
Sarah: “But it says Santa is good and kind and merciful and that if I'm a good girl I'll get rewarded! It's clearly the proof that Santa delivered these presents.”
Billy: “But you can't use the book to prove itself! That's circular reasoning, it's like using Little Red Riding Hood to prove the Big Bad Wolf exists!”
Sarah: “How dare you compare my beliefs to that, that, that FAIRY TALE!”
Billy: “This beard clearly means that Dad was the one who dressed up as Santa Claus, it wasn't REALLY him.”
Sarah: “So what? That doesn't prove anything! Santa could still exist!"
Billy: “And look here, I found the receipts from the store where Mom and Dad bought the presents.”
Sarah: “Not all the presents are on there though! How do you explain the candy canes in your stockings or the sweater that you got!”
Billy: “If Mom and Dad bought some of the presents isn't it possible that they bought all of them?”
Sarah: “Of course not! How do you know Santa didn't put that receipt there to test your faith? How do we even know its Moms and Dads? Your story is SO full of holes, I don't know how you believe any of it! Plus, the cookies were gone this morning, explain THAT skeptic!”
Billy: “Dad might have eaten the cookies, he loves cookies.”
Sarah: “I've seen Dad's bite marks, these are totally different, and besides the milk was gone too and you KNOW Dad is lactose intolerant, so ha, Santa is real after all and you haven't disproved it!”
Billy: “Also, I watched a documentary, men have been to the North Pole and there's nothing there, no workshop, no Santa, so where is he?”
Sarah: “Santa is more a feeling, he's like a spirit, or maybe his workshop is just invisible to those that don't believe. Why don't you ask him yourself? You know you can write him letters right? He wants to have a relationship with you. I asked him for my dolly and that's what I got.”
Billy: “I saw that letter he sent back to you. His handwriting looks an awful lot like Moms.”
In a discussion sometimes a theist will move the goal-posts after a piece of evidence or line or reasoning they purpose turns out to be a dead-end. If they propose an argument for God that is shown to be unconvincing to the skeptic or attribute a phenomenon or event to God that can be shown to have better natural explanations God is moved farther away and becomes harder to define. For the last few centuries theists have been forced to give ground as more and more natural explanations have been found that make their God more and more unlikely.
Bigfoot was in your toolshed, but when I opened the door it was empty and you said, “well of course he's invisible dummy!”
God used to be in Heaven, which was a Kingdom in the sky, in which he sat on a throne. Now God is in some other dimension or spiritual plane of existence, nebulous and unreachable even with the fabled Tower of Babel the Bible speaks of. We've been to Olympus, we've been to the North Pole, there was no Zeus, there was no Santa Claus. We've looked under the bed and in the closet, no monsters. Some Christians have now pushed their God back to be almost as nebulous and useless as the Prime Mover of deism, a God whose gap in which to exist is the enigmatic beginning of the Universe.
Gods were once the makers of thunder, the creators of life from dirt and dust, the very forgers of the Earth, firmament, sun and stars. Now they are vanishing, pushed back by the search for real satisfying answers to the questions we've always pondered about as a species. Some mystery will be lost in the process, and of course, faith will be shaken and shed, but in the end we will be in possession of the one truly invaluable thing, truth itself. And in the process of pursuing that truth we will find many more mysteries and oddities to be interested and intrigued by, all without needing to invoke monsters, magic or even gods.
Intellectual honesty and understanding how science and skepticism relate is important in forming a realistic model of reality in our minds. As an atheist there are many mysteries left unanswered and many doors that remain open. Being a skeptic and an atheist does not mean closing your mind to possibilities, even implausible ones, but it also means balancing the desire to believe things that you want to believe with the desire to believe things that are likely to be true. There's no use self-deceiving yourself into believing something just because its appealing on some level or has a bit of anecdotal evidence in its favor.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Instead it is seen as alright that such claims, which should require MORE evidence than their mundane counter-parts, often require no evidence at all, but rather the gullibility and emptiness of faith. Atheism is a null hypothesis, a rejection of an extraordinary claim that has failed to meet the burden of proof, and as such simply cannot be bolstered or supported by any form of faith.