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Atheism a "faith position" too

Give a theist a good argument against their belief, and often they'll play the "faith" card. "Ah, well, theism is ultimately a faith position", they say. And then, very often, they add, "But of course atheism is a faith position too - you can't scientifically prove either, can you?"

Here are a few examples. First, Alister McGrath in The Dawkins Delusion:

There can be no question of scientific 'proof' of ultimate questions. Either we cannot answer them. or we must answer them on grounds other than the sciences.

(I concede McGrath doesn't use the word "faith", but I think it's clear where he's going). Here's another example (not McGrath) I found on the internet (link now dead):

(God’s) existence cannot be proved by physical means. However, neither can it be disproved. What does this mean? It means it takes complete and utter faith to believe there is a god (or gods) and complete and utter faith to believe there is not one.

And here is a recent example - a comment on A.C. Grayling's piece on Comment is Free.

It will never be possible to prove or disprove the existence of God using science or mathematical logic (read John D. Barrow's "Impossibility" for a fascinating description of the limits of science). So, you place too much "faith" in the abilities of science and mathematical inference.

Perhaps you are badly informed of the limitations of the scientific experimental method. I suggest you get better informed of the subject in which you place so much faith.

Is atheism a "faith position"? Anything can be, of course. But I challenge anyone to show that my atheism - or Dawkins' atheism - is a "faith position". It's not. I'll be explaining why in next blog.

But if you want a sneak preview go here.


May I throw this into the 'philosophical hat' :
Larry Hamelin said…
(cough Russell's teapot cough)
Matt M said…
I think that if you take an atheistic position (as I do), you really have to give up on the idea of absolute truths and start dealing in degrees of certainty.

Given all the evidence I've encountered to date, I'm fairly certain that none of the gods exist - in order to be absolutely certain I'd need to be omniscient (so that there's nothing I could possibly have overlooked).
St Anselm bowled a devilishly difficult googly in 'Proslogion' - God is that of which nothing greater can be conceived.

If you're unimpressed with that, Pascal's Wager is quite fun.

Even Cyril Joad believed the Christian faith to be the "least implausible explanations of the Universe"

But Atheism ?

Pretty shallow argument to bet your life, and death, on - in my (fallible) view.
Anonymous said…
Matt M.: "Given all the evidence I've encountered to date, I'm fairly certain that none of the gods exist - in order to be absolutely certain I'd need to be omniscient (so that there's nothing I could possibly have overlooked)."

right. so you can never know anything. not one single thing. are you a brain in a vat? no? prove it.

sure, literally speaking we can only be agnostics about absolutely everything, since we're neither omniscient not infallible. but given our limited framework, we can be just as sure that there's no god as we can be sure that we're not mere brains in vats.
Matt M said…

right. so you can never know anything. not one single thing

Depends what you mean by "know".

I've never encountered any evidence that I'm a brain in a vat, so as hypothesis go it's an incredibly weak one. But I can't prove conclusively that I'm not.

Lacking absolute knowledge I can only go with the hypothesis that strikes me as the most plausible: hence I'm an atheist who believes he's not a brain in a vat. I could be wrong about both points - but I've never seen much evidence to suggest so.
Anonymous said…
Richard W. Symonds: "St Anselm bowled a devilishly difficult googly in 'Proslogion' - God is that of which nothing greater can be conceived."

This argument has never made sense to me. I imagine incredible things all the time, but have no reason to think that something even greater (stranger, scarier, lovelier, etc.) necessarily actually exists (or even that the grandiosity of what I have imagined verifiably exists in objective reality). Sort of a twist on Descartes: I think, therefore it is (but even better than I thought!).

At any rate, I'm dubious about St. Anselm's ability to communicate anything coherent about the details or desires of a deity which he himself is unable even to imagine.

Richard W. Symonds: "If you're unimpressed with that, Pascal's Wager is quite fun."

That's not a bad argument; safety first, as they say. It's just that considering the many hundreds of sects that comprise Christianity, and the different styles of Islam and Judaism, not to mention the thousands of non-Abrahamic religions in the world, I'm having a bit of trouble with selection. That, and there don't seem to be enough hours in the day to accommodate the amazing diversity of required practices.
potentilla said…
I seem to recall that Dawkins, in TGD, sets up a scale where 1 is convinced that God exists and 7 is convinced that he doesn't, and puts himself at 6. As of course a good scientist should.
Stephen Law said…
Hello there Richard Symonds. I am not much impressed by Anselm's argument. As a response to your comment, I'll do that in a post in a short while.

In the meantime, here's my challenge to you: how do explain why all good- all-powerful god would crush thousands of Pakistini children under buildings, leaving them to die alone hours or days later?
Anonymous said…
What is it with the "atheism-is-a-faith" prattlers?

No matter how many times they are told, they still do it.
Along with the "Satlin-and-Hitler-were-evil-atheists" crap one gets (usually from the USA).

It isn't true, we know it isn't true, and so do they.
Or do they?

Are they so deluded, that they "think" (you should excuse the expression) that everyone has faith, because they do?

Or are (some of them at least) deliberately lying, bacuse they fear their blackmailing power-base might be eroded - remembering that all religions are a combination of moral and physoical blackmail.

Oddly enough, the muslims are more honest about this...
They believe that "non-peoples of the book" are completely godless (as are atheists of course) and must either be converted to submission, or killed.
Brutal, but honest.

As opposed to (historically speaking) christianity which has bee equally brutal and dishonest.
Anonymous said…
Regarding Anselm’s Ontological Argument: I don’t think you can simply define things into existence. I tried once. I imagined the perfect suitcase-stuffed-with-money-and-in-my-hands. It wouldn’t be all that perfect if it didn’t exist. And it wouldn’t be very in-my-hands if instead of being in-my-hands it was somewhere else in the universe. But I’m still poor as a church mouse. And that’s the only connection with church I have.
Anonymous said…
So you set out your case rationally and logically.It is,you imply, simple and straightforward and philosophically irrefutable.What you write ought therefore to provide a concise test for those who aspire to be professors of philosophy in this countries universities.If they read it and are unpersuaded then they are lacking in a key ability,to think clearly.At the moment Clark of Liverpool,Cottingham of Reading,Haldane of St Andrews,Trigg of Warwick are professors of philosophy at British universities who I think would call themselves Christian believers.There may well be others.Does the fact that they will all have dealt with the issues you raise in your essay and have come to an entirely different conclusion to you show that they are,unlike you,mentally deficient.Are they mere dupes of faith in contrast to your clear-sighted rationality?Should any professor of philosophy in British universities perhaps be excluded from occupying such positions in the future if there is evidence of religious belief on his or her part?
Anonymous said…
Thanks to author! I like articles like this, very interesting.
Anonymous said…
Oh Stephen, I do love you. See you in lectures babes.
Its.Cold.Outside said…
Atheism is a "faith" and we need to define "faith" properly. Stephen Law dismisses something crucial in his definition.

The same evidence is reasonable for one person and completely unreasonable for another.

Stephen Law fails to address this when he says, "...though of course not everyone can see the evidence is overwhelming - this sort of evidence-blindness is an interesting feature of religious belief."

First, I strongly urge any debate about the existence and non-existence of god to exclude any reference to religion. To be a theist one must first forget everything they ever heard about religion. I will explain in a moment.

Second, the evidence is not overwhelming. Incredibly thoughtful philosophers and scientists (often non religious, including Einstein) take the same evidence atheists use for the non-existence of god and believe there is “something” greater. So the same evidence is reasonable for one person and completely unreasonable for another.

Third, not accepting an atheist conclusion of a piece of evidence is not sufficient to call it "blindness." A child who believes in fairies is blind, an education, non religious scientist who ponders the creation of the cosmos is a philosopher, and no more or less blind than an atheist.

My second point about the same evidence being reasonable for one person and completely unreasonable for another is as follows: By Stephen Laws analogy of a scale, atheism is a faith. Obviously this does not mean that anyone can believe whatever they want and still be called reasonable – Japan exists and that is the only reasonable conclusion. But Stephen says that accepting the non-existence of god is very reasonable – and so one can place it (near) the top of the scale. Therefore, it is not a "faith.” By that definition, I can place the existence of god at the top of the scale and say it isn't a faith, too. In other words, Stephen Law says atheism is not a faith because it is reasonable. Theism is therefore not a faith, too, because it is reasonable.

So let’s talk reason, or more precisely, what constitutes reasonable evidence.

I believe in the Big Bang. I also believe in evolution. I believe there is evil. Religion has been used as oppression and is intrinsically political. I will not defend religion any more than I will defend the Soviet Army. It is an organization like a hospital or a bank (in the sense that it establishes systems for people to follow). So yes, arguments against the existence of god referring to Islam or Christianity etc. are strong, but cheap.

In my estimation, the Big Bang and Evolution are reasonable evidence for the existence of God. If god so chose to create the universe over billions of years using an explosion of gases, why not?

Evil, too is reasonable evidence for god. To put it another way, the presence of evil is not enough to discard god’s existence. A child trapped in an earthquake in Pakistan is a terrible reality that we experience on earth, but it does not eliminate the existence of god. Does it eliminate the existence of a good god? Of Allah? Of Thor? Perhaps. But taken back to its raw, non-religious foundation - does god exist or does god not exist - we take the same evidence and ponder it both ways.

Einstein, if I recall, was a theist. He felt there was a "non personal" god, a first mover, something that started it all then went to sleep and is unconscious of us or itself.

(part 2 to follow)
Its.Cold.Outside said…
(part 2 of 2)

Einstein, if I recall, was a theist. He felt there was a "non personal" god, a first mover, something that started it all then went to sleep and is unconscious of us or itself.

Let's start from there. Let’s get to the basic core of whether there is something greater than us or not, with no characteristics attached. This is not the same as asking, “how do we know if anything exists?” “We” exist. On the scale, our personal existence is at the top – we exist. We can also say that this flower exists. It does not require faith. But does a “first mover” exist? That requires faith to believe or not to believe. Major, significant assumptions must also be made to believe in the big bang - another “first mover” of sorts.
That is where the atheism debate must start, and thus will remain a faith. Instead, atheism attempts to argue against characteristics about god, which is something else entirely.

Quickly, I will address that. Can we place any characteristics on this "first mover?" Sure we can. It is something that established patterns and laws (evolution and gravity, for example). It is also big (the universe is expanding). It allows for suffering and for good (I enjoyed a happy meal the other day but the cow didn't). We both could go on and on. Questions about whether god is good / bad / neutral or knows us personally are for another time. However, I will say this: instead of taking a preconceived notion of god, based on religion or what you've been told, and then tearing it apart or placing limits on this god, why not go the other way?

Anyways that's all I had to say on the matter, all the best and thank you Stephen Law for your sincere appreciation for varied opinions.
Thank you for being reasonable and clear, and I have noticed that you do not make philosophical debate personal, and I respect that. I respect that you are truly a philosopher of the greek tradition. Often atheism sites are cruel and hateful, but not yours. Cheers.

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