Do Atheists Have Faith?
“It takes more faith to disbelieve in God than to believe,” according to some Christian writers.
That’s a rather dramatic and cheeky claim.
I’m sure that, for some individuals, who feel powerfully convinced of the existence of God, that claim is true: For them it would be harder to disbelieve than to believe.
But that’s not the way it is for everyone.
The people who make the claim are on solid ground, though, in supposing that atheism involves a leap of faith.
For a very large number of atheists, atheism itself is a position of faith.
Here’s why . . .
Eliminating the Obvious
There are different kinds of faith, and atheists obviously do not possess some of them:
- It’s obvious that atheists do not have Christian faith. If they did, they’d be Christians.
- It’s also apparent that they do not have the theological virtue of faith, by which we believe in God and believe all that he has revealed to us because he is truth itself.
But there are other forms of faith. Unfortunately, the definitions proposed for them are often inadequate.
Belief Against the Evidence?
For example, sometimes people suggest that faith is believing in spite of proof, or at least the stronger balance of evidence, to the contrary.
This is not the way the term is used most of the time, and certainly not by most people who profess to have faith.
The idea of faith-as-belief-against-evidence is more often a straw man that will derail the discussion rather than a helpful contribution to it.
In any event, I will not be proposing that atheists have this kind of faith.
Belief Without Evidence?
Somewhat less problematic is the idea that faith is belief without evidence.
However, people of faith do not tend to regard themselves as having no evidence for their faith beliefs.
They tend at least to think that evidence for their beliefs is available, whether or not they have personally studied that evidence in detail.
Framing the issue of faith as being belief without evidence is thus not what people of faith understand themselves to be doing, and so this, too, tends to be more of a straw man and an impediment to discussion.
Belief Without Certain Proof?
I think that the concept of faith can be understood, in many cases, as involving belief without a certain kind or amount of evidence—the kind or amount that would give us certain proof.
This understanding of faith seems to be reflected where St. Paul writes that “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).
He seems to acknowledge that the Christian life involves a commitment to certain spiritual realities—without the complete and certain proof that we would have if these realities were immediately obvious to our senses.
The commitment of faith is not divorced from evidence. One might have, and St. Paul thought that he did have, very good evidence for his beliefs.
But he acknowledges that it is not the same kind of evidence as if we could see the spiritual realities as easily as we see the physical world around us.
It is this type of faith that I think atheists also share.
Christian authors sometimes point out that atheists display faith every day and that faith is a fundamental part of the human condition.
In everyday life, nobody has complete proof that:
- his food isn’t poisoned
- he won’t die in a car crash on the way to work
- his friends aren’t engaged in a conspiracy to harm him
- the accuracy of his own memory
Indeed, nobody has complete proof of even more fundamental things, like:
- the law of gravity won’t suddenly stop working
- the sun won’t explode today
- the existence of the external world
- the existence of other minds
- the axioms of logic
But this doesn’t stop people from acting on and believing precisely these things.
In doing so, they are exercising a form of faith, and atheists do that, too.
“Faith” Is Not a Dirty Word
It’s fair and worthwhile to make this point, because faith is a fundamental part of the human condition.
“Faith” is not a dirty word.
We all have faith, and it would be a mistake to pretend that we don’t.
It’s just a question of what we put our faith in and how good the choices we make in doing that are.
The question of how to make good faith choices is obviously of great importance, but we won’t be going into it here. That’s a subject for another time.
What I’d like to do is advance the discussion beyond the claim that atheists display the same form of everyday faith that everyone does.
Atheists undoubtedly do that, but they also—at least normally—display faith at the core of their religious lives, with the very beliefs that make one an atheist.
To see this, let’s look at a parallel . . .
The Existence of God
In the Catholic view, it is possible to prove the existence of God in a way that allows us to have certainty regarding his existence (CCC 31).
When that’s done, the existence of God is not held as an article of faith but as something that has been proven.
It thus doesn’t fall under the definition of faith that we’re working with here (i.e., faith as belief without certain proof).
But that doesn’t mean that everyone is in a position to have this kind of proof.
Even a great theologian or philosopher, who in the past may have worked out the existence of God with what he regards as mathematical certainty, may not have the details of the proof at his fingertips—only the memory that he has so worked it out in the past.
He may be in the same position as a mathematician who remembers working out an elaborate, mathematical proof, but who does not presently have the whole of the proof in his mind.
Whether a person has never had certain proof of God’s existence or whether he doesn’t have it at the moment, that doesn’t prevent him from accepting the existence of God.
It just means that, when he does so, he is acting on faith (in the sense that we’re working with).
Thus, for example, if you ask a typical Christian, who has not studied philosophy or apologetics, “Do you believe that God exists?” He’ll say yes.
But if you ask him, “Do you have proof that God exists—conclusive proof?” he may well say, “No, but I still believe he exists.”
In this case, the Christian is holding his belief in God as a matter of faith rather than a matter of conclusive proof.
This is all summed up, in similar language, by St. Thomas Aquinas:
The existence of God and other like truths about God, which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles. . . .
Nevertheless, there is nothing to prevent a man, who cannot grasp a proof, accepting, as a matter of faith, something which in itself is capable of being scientifically known and demonstrated [ST I:2:2 ad 1].
Now here’s the twist . . .
Atheists Do the Same Thing
Some atheists may claim that they have conclusive proof that God does not exist.
If so then, per Aquinas, they are not holding this belief as a matter of faith. They are, to borrow St. Paul’s phrase, not walking by faith with respect to the existence of God but by what they regard as sight.
But even an atheist who has worked out such a proof to his satisfaction may find himself in the same position as the theologian, philosopher, or mathematician we discussed before.
He may not have the details of his proof before his mind, only the memory of having done one.
Most atheists do not claim to have a conclusive disproof of God’s existence.
Indeed, it is common today for atheists to say, “I can’t prove that there is no God—but I think it highly unlikely that he exists, or at least I haven’t seen convincing proof of his existence, so I don’t believe in him.”
Whether they think it highly unlikely that God exists, or whether they just have not been presented with proof they consider sufficient, they are doing the same thing: adopting a belief without certain proof.
In other words, they are exercising faith.
They are in the same position as the ordinary Christian who holds the existence of God despite his acknowledgement that he does not have conclusive proof of this.
And atheists exercising faith in this way are doing so regarding the central belief of atheism—the non-existence of God.
Standard western atheism does not just involve a rejection of the existence of God.
It also, at least typically, involves a rejection of the idea of an afterlife and the belief that the material universe is all that exists.
On these additional beliefs, atheists also exercise faith in the sense we are discussing.
Although the defining issue of God’s existence gets most of the attention, many atheists would be prepared to acknowledge that they also do not have certain proof that human consciousness in no way survives death.
And many would be prepared to acknowledge that they do not have certain proof that the material universe is all that exists.
If an atheist did claim to have certain proof on these matters then he would not be holding them as matters of faith, but to the extent that certain proof is not available to an atheist, he is exercising faith regarding them.
It thus seems that atheists do, indeed, have faith—not just in the everyday matters that everyone does, but specifically in regard to the three beliefs that tend to characterize standard western atheism.
They may think that they have good, if not conclusive, evidence for their views, just as Christians do, but there is still an exercise of faith here.
It’s not a question of whether faith is being exercised but what the content of that faith is.
This raises the question of how to make good choices in determining faith commitments, but as we said, that’s a subject for another time.
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