Sunday, May 9, 2010

Does Atheism or Secular Belief Entail Faith? In Short: NO.

Does Atheism or Secular Belief Entail Faith? In Short: NO.

Christians often times state that atheists rely on faith too. Not that we have faith that God isn’t, since it requires more faith to believe that God is, but rather that secular beliefs and ideologies in general are dependent on our faith in them in order for us to believe them. This is two things really, one it is a question about the nature of the ideologies we hold, and second it is a question about the beliefs we hold. I would agree that any involved ideology may require a certain amount of faith in the soundness of said ideology, but can the same be said of our beliefs? No, I don't think so. Belief comes down to what is justifiable and what isn’t. For example, Christians sometimes claim that we rely on our faith in science, that we have faith in physics, and basically that we have faith that the sun will come up tomorrow as it does everyday and that it will continue to do so. See, they cry out victoriously! You atheists, skeptics, and non-believers require faith as well!

Yet this is not entirely correct, as such isn’t faith, per se. This is knowing. Knowing comes down to what we can prove and verify thereby authenticate as a discernable fact because we have reliable evidence that, whatever it should be, is sound. Likewise, we know that science is trustworthy, and the laws of physics steadfast, because these things are provably true, not just assumed, and so I must correct those people of a religious stripe who claim we rely on faith in the same way as they do. This is certainly not the case.

Atheists and non-believers don’t have “faith” in such things as the physical constants of the universe and the scientific method so much as we place our trust in their dependability because they happen to be true, not in spite of it. Whereas religious belief, I might point out, is faith dependent. There is a slight, yet pertinent, difference here not to go overlooked.

What’s the difference you might ask? Faith is, by its very nature, an affirmation of belief despite of, or sometimes even because of, a distinct lack of evidence. Where there's evidence, however, "faith" doesn't even enter the equation. We simply accept reality as it is presented to us, and because this presentation is accurately described by science as it describes the nature of the universe to us, we find science and the laws of physics trustworthy. How do we know this? Because we can test them repeatedly and thereby determine a level of consistency and accuracy which would validate our trust in science and justify our placing trust in it. Religion lacks such testability and therefore can never be properly validated, and as a consequence, never truly vindicated. Without faith, religious belief would crumble away to nothing.

Knowing, on the other hand, only comes with empirical evidence where beliefs can be substantiated, confirmed, and proved beyond a reason of a doubt. Science corroborates, supports, and upholds the reality of nature and demonstrates that there is a discernable, indeed quantifiable, truth to be had. Religion just assumes its own truths.

On the other hand, if science made the wrong predictions, frequently came out with incomprehensible suppositions, and explained things in a way which is contrary to what we observe daily, then it would cease to be trustworthy and it would lose all validity. Luckily for us, this is not the case. Religion, on the other hand, well that requires a stunning amount of mental gymnastics and constant harmonization to maintain belief in. After all, belief in belief is all you have left when the facts are lacking, or else, non-existent. Therefore, for a religious person to take the tenets of his faith seriously they must exercise an excessive sort of faith that is, simultaneously, void of knowing and horribly strained.

Additionally, religious faith requires a plethora of fallacies to go unquestioned. To add even the smallest amount of skepticism to religious faith would start to erode it with constant doubt and grating inquiry as certainly as it would lead to a demand for better answers. Where the lack of evidence should lead critical thinkers to dismiss the claims outright, people of faith can rationalize away such deficiencies by finding theological premises which harmonize their problems away. For ardent skeptics, free-thinkers, and rationalists this excuse making simply won’t do. When it comes to empty claims and untestable unverifiable hypothesis we must simply dismiss the claims as either untenable or unknowable, at least until better evidence if forthcoming.

In the atheist community there is no such thing as groupthink. Often likened to trying to herd cats, atheists are notorious for holding dissenting views and not wanting to conform. Even so, skepticism and questioning everything is encouraged. As a matter of principle most atheists do not take anything on blind faith because to do so would undermine the very capacity for reason which allows us to reliably discern truth from falsehood. For example, if you were raised by religious parents, went to church regularly, surrounded yourself with religious friends, kept to religious practice, partook in religious ceremony, and maintained your faith as such you would never have any reason to question or doubt it. Everyone would be telling you that you’re right and that they agree with you, so you would have no reason to even begin to doubt your beliefs in God or question the validity of your religion.

Yet if a person of faith didn’t have this tightly woven support group, with people who all thought the same way, then groupthink would vanish leaving only unanswered questions, and as the other famous saying goes, curiosity killed the cat. Which is to say, skepticism and doubt can destroy one’s faith, either by dismantling it or discrediting unfounded beliefs, or by discovering arguments and facts which prove contrary to one’s personal convictions.

Perhaps this is why people of all religious faiths are, to some degree, discouraged from skepticism. After all, faith itself is a suspension of one's tendency toward skepticism. Why is this? Because it safeguards their convictions and protects them from a potential loss of their support network of the religious community they are a part of.

But for those who find reason to inquire, it’s not such a simple matter of shrugging of the difficult questions. Just to illustrate, Christians rarely think it sounds more than a little implausible that an all-powerful deity knowingly sacrificed himself to himself as a blood offering to free humanity from a curse he (himself) put on us. Why doesn’t such an absurdity upset, vex, or bother them? Because they have faith! Of all the thousands of religions throughout the world, right through human history, with tens of thousands of dead or forgotten gods, to believe that you just got lucky enough to have found the one correct one, we must ask, doesn’t it sound overly ethnocentric not to mention highly improbable? How can the religious believe as much? They take it on faith!

This is the problem with faith—it allows you to believe in anything you want to for any reason! And how do you justify such a tendency? You invoke faith! It’s a circular digress of reasoning, the same reason people believe the Bible is true, because the Bible says so. Simple as that. So when a theist claims that atheists rely on faith too, this is simply false. We depend on science and nature and trust that they continue to remain steadfast, but if they should ever cease to be dependable, we’d cease to put our trust in them faster than a dead cat can bounce. The same cannot be said for religious faith however.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist