Friday, February 7, 2014

Atheistic Faith

I often hear the assertion that atheism is a faith, just like Christianity. A friend of mine, Theo, told me that during his period of deep doubt, he ultimately perceived that it was either a step of faith toward God or a step of faith toward atheism. The former promised him everything, the latter nothing. He chose to continue in Christian belief. If I were in that situation, I'd do the same.

But the difference between Theo and I is that during my period of deep doubt, I had a totally different perception of my predicament. I wasn't choosing between two equally sized steps. It was not a step of faith toward God or a step of faith toward atheism. It was a step of faith toward the Christian claims, or not. I was very sure that the Christian claims were untrue, so rejecting those claims never seemed to involve the slightest bit of faith. Quite the opposite, faith became something to avoid, a quality promoted by countless groups selling false ideas.

But did I unwittingly replace my Christian faith with a new faith?

To conclude that I indeed have a new faith, we only need determine what my new faith is in. The answers I commonly hear are, David has faith in:
  1. There is no god / higher power
  2. Jesus was not God, despite all the evidence
My responses:

Regarding item #1, I actually don't strongly agree with that statement. I am confident that the Christian God is a fictitious character, but for all I know our world may indeed be the result of some higher intelligence, call it God or whatever you will. I don't have faith in item #1.

Regarding item #2, again I indeed reject the claim that Jesus was God, but find it oxymoronic to describe this rejection as a faith. To describe both belief and disbelief in Jesus as a faith is to strip the term faith of significance. The Bible defines faith as "confidence in what we hope for, assurance in things not seen". That doesn't describe the atheistic worldview at all. Atheism is not a hope-based worldview like Christianity. Atheism's goal is truth, whether or not that truth is comforting.

If disbelief in Jesus can be considered a faith, it must be classified as a negative faith rather than a positive faith. It is faith that some proposition isn't true, rather than faith that some proposition is true. These two types of faith are extremely different. A person is very well defined by the few positive faiths they possess. However, every person possesses a countless number of negative faiths. If I tell you "there's a colony of talking rabbits inhabiting the earth's core", you now have a new negative faith. Negative faith is rather insignificant to a persons identity. Consider which statement tells you more about Joe:
  • Meet Joe, he is a Mormon
  • Meet Joe, he is not a Muslim
The first statement tells us something significant and meaningful about Joe, while the second statement tells us nearly nothing. Negative faith is essentially nothing. Which brings me to my point: a step of negative faith is essentially nothing! Not all steps of faith are equal. Negative faith is so opposite to positive faith, and so distant from the normal usage of the term faith that it doesn't make sense to label it a faith of any sort. Negative faith is better labeled non-faith! Believing and disbelieving in Joseph Smith's writings are not equal steps of faith. One is faith, one is non-faith.

So, I don't consider disbelief in Jesus to be a faith, and I don't think there's a genuine answer to "what does the atheist have faith in?".

As another angle to this, consider the term faith as it's commonly used to refer more broadly to a lifestyle. The Christian walk of faith normally consists of:
  • Reading and submitting to a specific collection of writings believed to be supernaturally borne and ever-authoritative.
  • Weekly meeting at church and home to strengthen belief in an invisible/theoretical leader, singing songs to that leader, symbolically consuming that leaders flesh and blood, etc.
  • Daily one-way conversations with that leader both privately and corporately.
  • Holding on through periods of doubt in that leader.
Atheism doesn't have such a list. There just aren't any specific lifestyle requirements for an atheist, and the atheist community is not plagued with doubt like the Christian community. Atheism is not a "walk of faith" in the sense that Christianity is. Even if the term "faith" can be thinly stretched to describe both Christianity and atheism, the faiths are not analogous whatsoever.

I feel that by accusing atheists of faith, Christians are implicitly knocking the concept of faith, trying to show that atheists are guilty of the same fault. Well, atheists don't want atheism labeled as a faith, and certainly Christians don't want the concept of faith belittled. We can resolve both issues by ceasing to call atheism a faith.