“I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.” I’m sure we’re all familiar with this line.
Faith is a term that is hard to define, and I won’t attempt that here. We use the word in quite a few ways. You can talk about having faith that someone will be true to their word, that an old building is structurally sound, that your GPS map is accurate. Some religious folk like to point to these kinds of “faith”, and conclude that it is just as reasonable to have faith in their God; that long ago a man walked on water, fed thousands with a few loaves and fish, and rose bodily from the dead; that people once lived to nearly a thousand years old, that a donkey once talked to a man, that another man lived for several days in the belly of a giant fish; that their God loves them; that after their death, they will rise again to a new and better life.
But if you really think about it, if the first kind of faith really deserves the label ”faith” at all, it is a very different kind of faith to the second. When I visit an ancient cathedral, I often ponder the fact that the weight of material above me measures in the hundreds of tonnes, and there is a chance that the structure could come crashing down on top of me. But I still go in. Do I have faith that the mighty building will survive my visit? I don’t. Do I expect the building to survive the hour I risk inside it? I do. I know it will crumble one day, but I have no reason to expect it to happen while I am inside. I don’t know that the cathedral will still be standing when I leave, but I live my life as if I was certain of my safety.
In making such a decision, I have a wealth of observational evidence to draw upon. In my life, I have walked into many ancient buildings – and driven under many bridges, parked in many underground car parks – and have never had one collapse on me. Does this mean I can be completely certain that the next cathedral I visit will be just as kind to me? No. I know buildings fall down from time to time. But it does mean that I have plenty of experiences of buildings standing firm, so I have no a priori reason to expect the next one will bury me. My experiences of buildings not collapsing far outnumber my experiences of them collapsing. If this equation were reversed, I would stay outside!
So I would argue that the word “faith” is not appropriate to describe scenarios like the above. Other such examples abound: flying on a plane, entering your credit card number on a webpage, riding in a taxi, relying on the accuracy of a map. In each of these situations, decisions are informed by evidence-based reasoning, yet such actions are often described as “faith-based” by those that want to find grounds to justify a very different kind of faith.
Contrast this with a religious faith. Does a Christian believe Jesus turned water into wine because she has seen numerous people do this, and so concludes that Jesus probably did too? Does a Muslim expect to be rewarded with 72 virgins after he dies because he has the testimony of thousands of others who have already received this blessing? Does a Mormon believe Joseph Smith’s golden tablets were real because there are numerous tablets surviving from similar encounters? The Bible teaches that Christians will be saved through faith (Ephesians 2:8). Does this refer to an evidence-based reasoning process? Does the believer expect to gain entrance to heaven for having the kind of faith a tourist walking into Westminster Abbey has? I don’t think so. Religious faith is in an entirely different category.
But what about the kind of “faith” an atheist1 has? Some atheists like to say they simply believe in one less god. “You believe that all the other religions are false, but I believe that all religions are false; there’s not that much difference between you and I,” one atheist might say to a believer. But to a religious person, the reason they believe those other religions are false is that they believe theirs is true. By way of analogy, if I believe that 1+1 is equal to 2, I don’t have to wonder if in fact 1+1 is really equal to 1, or 3, or 4, or pi, or…….. The falsity of these equations is implied by the truth of 1+1=2. So doesn’t it take more faith to disbelieve all religions? The answer might be Yes if you rejected all religions with as little thought as the typical believer has directly given all the religions he does not adhere to. But it would be No if you had good reasons for rejecting these religions.
I haven’t personally checked the truth claims of all religions, and I doubt that anybody ever could. Many religions have gone extinct, and many more evolve every day. But I do have excellent reasons to disbelieve the religions I have checked, and I have certainly done this for the major world religions, and a few minor ones. I therefore have good reason to expect that the next religion I investigate will also be found lacking, even though I don’t know for certain it will. Further, since the religions I have not yet checked have attracted far fewer adherents, it seems probable that the true religion (if there is one) is unlikely to be one of these smaller ones. Most religions claim that their deity is omnibenevolent, but that characteristic seems unlikely to properly describe a god that only chooses a tiny fraction of his creatures to reveal himself to.
For about twenty years, I was a Christian. I was certain my religion was right and all the others were false. When I eventually rejected the Christian faith, I didn’t automatically become a Hindu or Muslim or Scientologist. I became an atheist: a person without any theistic belief. I didn’t increase my faith; I lost it altogether. And now I’m reasonably faithless.
- Here I’m talking about “weak atheism” (aka “agnostic atheism”). Some might argue that “strong atheists” do have some kind of faith, though I don’t agree with this per se.