Thursday, 8 March 2012

Do Atheists Need Faith?

Since becoming an atheist I've been thinking a lot about faith.  As a Christian I was taught that faith is a good thing; a VERY good thing.  In fact, in Christianity, it's one of the three biggies ("faith, hope and love...").

I can still remember what it felt like when I first encountered the mere suggestion, during my de-conversion, that faith might not be a positive attribute after all.  The very thought of it was startling (and deeply disturbing) to me.  You mean there are actually people who think it's bad to have faith?!  Sane people?

As I began to analyze it, more and more, I ultimately came to the conclusion that faith is, by and large, something to be avoided wherever possible.  Yes, you read that last sentence correctly.  To repeat, I now believe that faith is something to be avoided.

Below, I will do my best to explain cogently why I would ever say such a scandalous thing.

First, let's begin with a quick clarification.  I've noticed that discussions about faith have a tendency to get bogged down in semantics.  I think this is partly due to the fact that the word faith itself has several different definitions.  For the purposes of this post I'd like to hone in on definition number 2, according to, "belief that is not based on proof".  To be clear, I have no significant problem with some of the other definitions of the word faith (such as definition number 1, "confidence or trust in a person or thing").  More on that later.

Let's get back to my original it necessary, or even healthy, for any of us to cleave to a "belief that is not based on proof"?  Ever??  No.  Absolutely not.  Christian, can you think of any other area in life, besides religion, where "belief without proof" is beneficial in some way? Just one example?

Take your time.

Now, notice that I did not title this post "do atheists have faith".  I'm certain there are plenty of atheists who hold firmly to all sorts of unsupported beliefs.  My point is that they shouldn't. Faith, in this second sense of the word, is simply not required nor is it helpful.

I once interacted with a Christian who "played the faith card" by accusing atheists of having "faith" in The Big Bang Theory.  To illustrate she linked to a document which contained numerous highly technical, and supposedly unresolved, problems with the theory.  What she failed to realize is that such an objection is completely irrelevant to the atheist.  It can't even get off the ground, because we do not hold to The Big Bang Theory in a manner that is comparable to the way in which she holds to the Christian religion.  If The Big Bang were disproved tomorrow, it wouldn't phase us skeptics.  Our core beliefs would remain fully intact.  I do "believe" in the Big Bang theory, mind you, but only because it's the best explanation we've got (and, despite what she claimed, there is an abundance of evidence in its favor).  I don't have "faith" in it by any means.  She further viewed our unwillingness to debate it point by point as a rhetorical win, for her side, when in fact it was simple humility (and respect for proper scientists) that kept us from taking this approach.  What she should have been doing instead is seeking out a physicist or a cosmologist.  Did she?  I sincerely hope so, but I doubt it.

Also, as I discussed last time, Christianity does not win by default even if our best minds are unable to explain where The Universe came from.  Atheists/agnostics are completely o.k. with answering "I don't know", whenever and wherever necessary; can Christians say the same?

My current belief is that it's perfectly alright to have varying degrees of certainty about pretty well anything and everything.  For example, I feel around 99% certain that I will wake up tomorrow morning.  I am a relatively young man, without any significant health problems (that I am aware of), and it is pretty rare for people like me to die suddenly in the middle of the night.  I am about 75% sure that I won't have to replace either one of my aging cars within the next year.  I feel roundabout 60% sure that it will rain tomorrow.  (Or at least that's what the meteorologist says.) Should I be feeling the need to use faith, to "top up" any of these beliefs?  Let's say someone is 51% convinced that Jesus died for their sins, but 49% of them doubts it (pretending, for the moment, that such a thing could be accurately measured); do they squeeze into eternal bliss by the skin of their teeth?  And what if you flip those numbers the other way?  Does such a person merit eternal punishment, with no chance of reprieve, but "just barely"?  The absurdities, in the Christian worldview, only deepen the more that you allow yourself to ponder on such conundrums.

Some Christians will object to my points above by claiming that they hold exclusively to the "trust" definition of faith.  Atheists need not believe anything on insufficient evidence, they will say, they need only have "faith" (aka "trust") in God.  This is utterly nonsensical, of course, because it's meaningless to ask someone to "trust" in something that they don't even believe exists.  Do you "trust" the Tooth Fairy?  How about Santa Claus?  Bigfoot?  Or perhaps you prefer to "trust" in space aliens?

I'm sure I will wind up coming back to this subject again sometime, perhaps several times, so I'll leave you for now with those initial thoughts.  I'd like to close with the following discussion, from "The Atheist Experience" TV show, since it illustrates quite nicely the difference in perspective between atheists and Christians on this issue (and be sure to stay tuned until the very end for a special surprise...). 


  1. I can't think of any good reason to believe in something without proof. Because it makes you feel good? I guess that's why kids believe in Santa, but as an adult we have to be more realistic. Good post. I liked your paragraph on the varying degrees of certainty.

  2. First off thanks for blogging. I find your perspective and commentary interesting and your topics relevant. At times I question the "respectful" part because you tend to look at Christians... condescendingly may be the best word but in the strongest sense of that word. I find it interesting that you're a closet atheist. If you've blogged about why please point me in the direction so you don't have to write about it again but this seems quite curious. I am a Christian and I do like hard questions so this (like several of your other posts) is fun for me to read and it has caused me to think about things.

    A few points about this post. I will often say "I don't know" in many situations. I know many things but one of the things I'm constantly learning is how much I don't know. There are so many people out there who are smarter than I and also those who are more learned. This doesn't shake my "faith" and I am talking about "belief without proof." Are Christians not allowed to use the "I don't know" phrase without being seen and foolish? Lacking knowledge about a topic doesn't immediately make one unintelligent or even wrong. Your percentages point doesn't seem really logical to me and maybe I just don't understand it. Most of the things you're talking about are based on past experience and other theories conjured from generally accepted sources but in reality the future is unknown. But then you make the jump from knowing the future to belief in a God which is not exactly comparing apples to apples. Honestly a better analogy would be Santa to God. Except that God has so many more plausibilities (and I'll admit they are not empirical facts simply plausibilites) than Santa as to make such a comparison seem silly and, interestingly, a comparison to knowing the future at least seem closer. You go back to creation a lot and while you currently hold the "big bang" theory to be the most logical explanation you hold that loosely and say "I don't know" if something else comes up against it. Is it possible, even in the smallest minute chance, that it might have had some sort of intelligent overseer behind it all? To be fair I have no idea what happened at the beginning of what we call time. Did God poof the universe as a whole into existence with all of it's history latent in the making or did He use a Big Bang to kick things off? Where did the other nations and peoples come from that Cain was afraid of and eventually move out to live among? To be honest I don't really care. I'm curious but it doesn't matter one hill of beans to me either way. My faith in God isn't based on that. It's not based on a feeling altho the joy and hope is a nice fringe benefit. Its informed by but not even really based on Scripture. God's basic design and plan make sense to me (okay sure I'll admit there are hard things to swallow that God has said and done in the past but those don't change the basic ideas of God) and at the end of the day I simply want to believe in God. If at the end of my life I find out I'm wrong I will honestly have no regrets. I will have lived a life full of joy, hope and love. I will have done the best to help those around me. I may not have a huge amount of wealth to show for it all, but I am truly happy and expect my love of life, wife, family, and the world around me only to grow as I do. And I attribute all of that simply to my faith in a good God. I'm curious what motivates an atheist. What do you look forward to? What guides where you want to go with your life and how you want to act towards and be seen by others?


    Dan C

  3. I'm an agnostic about most metaphysical matters. Nevertheless, your claim, "Let's get back to my original it necessary, or even healthy, for any of us to cleave to a "belief that is not based on proof"? Ever?? No. Absolutely not." is something that needs to be argued for extensively.


    I enjoyed the video clip and your post. Keep it up.