Sunday, 25 September 2011

Atheism: not faith, not religion

Two common misconceptions I encounter about rational atheism are this:

1. It requires just as much faith to be an atheist as to believe in a god.

2. Atheism is a religion.

Here's why this is not true, at least for me.

Atheism does not require faith. I suspect that some atheism requires faith - not all atheists are atheist for rational reasons. The argument cannot be levelled at atheists such as myself, however, who believe there is no god based on rationality and experience. A bold claim? No. But to see why, we first have to understand where this idea comes from.

The theist believes that their deity created this and that because their religion/priest/deity/scripture told them so. It therefore follows that the atheist believes that no god made this and that because their atheism tells them so. Atheists "have faith" that there is no god and therefore that there is a godless explanation for everything. They ask atheists whether we believe certain things that cannot be proven - such as the spontaneous origin of life without divine intervention - and then cry "Haha! Faith!" when we acknowledge that we do.

This is wrong. It is wrong because they are making the ancient and oft-repeated mistake of confusing correlation with causation. I do not believe that life spontaneously arose without divine intervention because I am an atheist. I belief that life spontaneously arose without divine intervention and I am an atheist for the same reason. Nothing that I have experienced in my life (including my 18+ years as an evangelical fundamentalist Christian) has required a deity to explain it. More than that, nothing I have experienced could be better explained with a deity than without. The rest is simply extrapolation.

I do not need faith to believe that gravity will not switch off during the night and that I am safe not tying myself into my bed; I simply extrapolate from a lifetime of experience. For the same reason, I do not need faith to be an atheist or believe that there is a god-free explanation for life; I simply extrapolate from past experience. Every satisfactory explanation for anything I have ever encountered has come from science, not religion. Only science, in my experience, honestly and openly adapts its position in the light of new data, and rejects assumptions found wanting. Only science produces predictable, testable and demonstrable outputs, including all the modern technology that makes my life convenient and all the modern medicine that makes my life longer. I don't need faith to believe in these things. For me, atheism is simply an extension of that. No faith needed. (Does this mean that additional evidence or experience could lead me to reject atheism? You betcha. Although it would have to be quite spectacular at this stage!)

There is no "Atheist Religion". This is a simpler one. Atheism is not a religion because it has no dogmas, churches, priests or creeds. There is no atheist scripture or Chief Atheist telling us what to believe. There is one unifying idea - the lack of the existence of god - and that's it. It annoys me when forms have "atheism" and "no religion" as two options under religion. Atheism is not a religion, it is a (lack of) belief! You can have atheist buddhists and theists without religion. Humanism is probably the closest to an atheist religion, fulfilling many of the same roles as religion, but even this is not right because you do not have to be atheist to be a humanist nor humanist to be an atheist.

So, criticise my atheism all you like. Take issue with my materialism and unwillingness to accept certain "alternative forms of evidence". But please, don't accuse me of having faith or religion; I have neither.


  1. The trouble with the above is that it is not disprovable with in it's own belief system. There is no possible evidence or observation that can disprove athiesm from athiestic point of view. Any miracle will either be ignored, rationalized or left to be explained later. The reason is that it is just as much an assumption that God does not exist as it is that God exists. Assumptions (and faith) are not options, they are also either or propositions that are necessary foundations for any rational thought.

  2. Assumptions, yes. Faith? No. I am willing to change my beliefs (and have done). I don't really care if god made the universe if that god has no relevance now. I don't think a god did but this is not a position of faith to be defended, just a natural conclusion based on my (yes) assumptions and observation. Religious faith generally starts from the explicit assumption that a specific god exists and then distorts the evidence to fit. This is "faith" to me - committed belief in the face of a lack of evidence or, even, contrary evidence. I do not have this kind of faith as an atheist. They are not the same.

    I also believe that a god could show itself and/or perform miracles that could not be denied. It doesn't. Therefore, either no god exists, or we have a god who plays games and hides in the shadows, making the world appear as if it doesn't exist. I'm not interested in the latter even if they exist - what's the point? - and the two explanations for observation are certainly not equally satisfactory or likely. Only the latter needs faith. The former simply needs a refusal to accept things without evidence. Under what definition does that constitute faith? (And is it a useful definition? I suspect then EVERYTHING needs faith, making the word itself useless.)

  3. You are almost there. What you are missing is that reason also "distorts the evidence to fit" the unquestioned assumptions of the reasoner. Your statement that EVERYTHING needs faith is exactly right.

  4. How do you define faith, then? If EVERYTHING requires faith, then I would argue that this definition is not useful. In the same vein, we know NOTHING but it is not useful to use this definition in working life.

    I am explicitly talking about the kind of faith that underlies most religious belief - the kind of thing that (I think) most people would consider faith. (Do you really need faith that you won't wake up in the body of a tortoise, or that the road won't turn into marshmallow when you're driving?)

    Googling "faith definition" produces (top):
    1. Complete trust or confidence in something or someone.
    2. Strong belief in God or in the doctrine of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.

    These seem like reasonable definitions of faith to me. I neither have complete confidence nor base my beliefs on spiritual apprehension (nor "wisdom" nor "sacred texts") but rather proof. (In the "beyond reasonable doubt" sense - strictly speakng, you cannot prove anything but, again, this strict usage is not very helpful.) Therefore, I do not consider that I have faith.

    If you really want to stick to the hardline definitions then surely you have to agree that it is not the same kind of faith as religion? Furthermore, what word would you use for committed belief in myths and legends that have no discernible evidence? (Or even evidence that they are wrong?)

  5. (I'm also a little alarmed if you really believe that reason distorts evidence to fit unquestioned assumptions. If the evidence NEEDS to be distorted, the assumptions should be (and are) questioned. To me, that's the essence of the difference between faith and reason! If you don't question those assumptions, it's not reason. If you do, it's not faith.)


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