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Posted by on Feb 26, 2007 in atheism, atheism a faith position?, McGrath, religion | 13 comments

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.


  1. 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).

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. Tea,right. so you can never know anything. not one single thingDepends 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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?

  10. Thanks to author! I like articles like this, very interesting.

  11. Oh Stephen, I do love you. See you in lectures babes.

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