This week, I’d like to explore whether atheism is based on faith in the same way that religious belief is. It’s a commonly asked question, and one that I am sure many (if not most) atheists have encountered at one point or another. On its face, it seems potentially troubling. However, I am certain that atheism is not faith-based in the same way as religion. My certainty stems from two sources: the belief that the burden of proof within an argument is on the person who would posit something new or contrary to accepted beliefs and my unwillingness to conflate the way religious people use the word “faith” with the way it is used outside of a religious context. I’ll tease apart these two meanings after we explore the concept of burden of proof within an argument.
The Elephant in the Room
Consider the following scenario:
Jill asserts the belief that an elephant is in the (apparently empty) room with her and her friend Jim. Jim counters with the belief that there is no such elephant in the room. A tense stand-off ensues.
If you were in the room with Jim and Jill, who would you instinctively side with? I am sure that most (if not all) people would side with Jim, at least until sufficient evidence has been put forth to justify Jill’s case. Can we see the elephant? Can we hear it? Is it busy trampling the antique ottoman, sending debris flying everywhere in between deafening trumpet blasts? Any of these would serve to buoy Jill’s assertion that there is an elephant in the room. Only something of this sort would supply the certainty required to allow us to confidently state that a pachyderm is currently the roommate of this particular duo.
What about Jim’s position? Do we demand such a high level of evidence to justify his position that such an elephant is not in the room? Of course we don’t. The burden of proof – the idea that those who would posit something must provide sufficient evidence – lies with Jill because her statement flies in the face of what appears to be the case in this empty room. A quick glance around the room warrants Jim to believe that no elephant is present.
Generally speaking, the burden of proof lies with those who would assert something at the start of an argument (as Jill does in the example above), in the same way that someone is innocent until proven guilty. One can generally assume that “x is not the case” until sufficient evidence has been provided that proves that “x is the case”. This is how most people operate in the real world. We accept something and will hold that belief until it is proven wrong (though in many instances we will still hold the belief even after the evidence has shown it to be false. Sigh.) I openly acknowledge that I accept many things on faith, and I know for a fact that every atheist out there does the same. We simply have to accept many (if not most) things on faith, because we personally lack the means to confirm these things for ourselves.
A Philosophical Concession
It is important to acknowledge that this approach to the burden of proof is grounded in common sense. Things are done this way because it has worked and continues to work well for us, but there is not a concrete philosophical foundation on which this principle rests. We have faith in the methodology because it works, but there is nothing inherent in the notion that necessitates that it must work. This acceptance is as much a practical tactic as a philosophical one – we have faith in these things because they have worked for us in the past and continue to work for us in the present. For example, I trust that atoms are real because highly intelligent, competent, and respected people have determined this to be the case. This belief then informs my worldview and – a point strongly in its favor – fits well into the scheme of things as I know them to be. It is reinforced by other things I “know” and at the same time reinforces those beliefs. Faith in these beliefs is a necessary first step to establishing an inter-connected web of beliefs that ultimately form my worldview. Faith is necessary for us to know and understand anything at all, as Descartes demonstrated so long ago when he questioned the world away with his skeptical thought experiment. Faith is an epistemic necessity. It prevents us from a sort of intellectual paralysis and lets us get on with the task of living. In light of what we have just covered, we must acknowledge that faith plays an important role for everyone in at least one way. Is religious faith of the same type as this type of epistemic faith?
No! Consider the following:
If you say to me that there is a mouse that lives under your bed, the evidence required for me to accept that statement as true need not be very stringent. A photo of said mouse could suffice, or perhaps samples of mouse droppings. On the other hand, if you say that there is a massive alien invasion taking place in Alabama at this very moment, I am going to need something more convincing that a single photograph, or a handful of alien droppings to similarly convince me. I would want multiple eye-witness accounts, photos, video, and physical evidence that such aliens are real before I would seriously entertain the idea that Alabama is being overrun by an extraterrestrial horde.
A Little Common Sense Goes a Long Way
Common sense seems to be the guiding force behind the intellectual demand that the evidence supporting a given proposition should scale along with the magnitude of the proposition in question. Inconsequential statements require little of us and threaten little harm if they turn out to be false, so we may reasonably accept such statements as true based on little evidence. In this way, we seem to be putting our faith in that meager evidence. On the other hand, important propositions (i.e. ones with potentially serious consequences in some regard) are much more difficult for someone to accept on faith. Strong, convincing evidence will be required in most instances so as to lessen the chance that we might end up mistaken.
The key difference between the faith demonstrated by the average atheist in their day-to-day life and the faith of a religious person in their religious propositions is that an atheist could (in principle) be convinced when the evidence is good enough. A religious person has no such bar to be reach. As such, no amount of evidence can ever be good enough to cause them to disavow their god. They are willing to accept hugely formative beliefs on what is usually little more than an argument from authority or tradition (both of which are logical fallacies, as they do not justify an argument in and of themselves). Very little seems to ground the religious position, and yet what little justification is offered is usually considered unassailable in principle. In other words, their faith is absolute, whereas my faith is conditional. These two meanings of the word “faith” are not often explicitly spelled out, and this ambiguity is what gives the assertion that “atheists are just as faithful as the religious” its supposed bite. Upon further inspection, however, we can see that the shot is wide of the mark and, consequently, harmless.
Show Me What You’ve Got
I freely admit that one could prove to me that a god exists, even though I would demand some solid empirical evidence before I would be convinced. I do not deny the possibility that there is a god, I simply do not think that the evidence supports such a drastic belief; and let’s be clear: it is a statement with drastic consequences. Anyone who believes in a god is asserting a worldview that is fundamentally different than my own. The metaphysics of such a world is so different it’s practically alien, as are the epistemic and moral systems that such a world might contain.
As I have said elsewhere, there are costs associated with what someone believes, and a belief in god(s) has conceptual repercussions that would alter any worldview to its core. This may be why the evidence required for an atheist to “switch sides” is so high; an atheist would have to alter the structure of their entire worldview to make place for even one, teeny-tiny deity. However, I believe that I could be so convinced, and I am sure others could be as well. We atheists just don’t usually find ancient books written by scientifically-ignorant nomads all that convincing, and the world seems to have been rather bereft of publically viewable miracles since the prophets stopped coming around so often. (If god wants to convince us, it’s going to have to step up its game! Fables and purely subjective, experiential data is not sufficient for the empirically-minded.)
To conflate the two meanings of faith as we have explored them here is a mistake. Any attack against the atheist’s position that uses this tactic has failed from the outset, because the faith atheists are charged with is of a wholly different type that that held by the religious. I accept that I am a man of faith, but mine is a questioning, conditional faith. It is falsifiable in principle. The faith touted and revered by the religious too often is not; it brooks no argument and ignores that which contradicts it. Sadly, this is too often considered a moral virtue, rather than the intellectual sin that it is.