On “Athiesm as a matter of faith”
“The Big Questions” is admittedly not the best place to go to watch intelligent theological debate. Asking resident layman Joe from Sussex “Is there life after death?” or “Is there a God?” is hardly going to produce any answer of worth. Not that I have anything against Sussex. Nor Joe. It’s all love, Joe.
But I was particularly disappointed when I came across an episode in which a pastor screamed at an atheist scientist: ”you are exercising faith”. The scientist attempted to defend his position, only to be interrupted by the self-same pastor with the well-thought rebuke: “Be honest, you are exercising faith”. Suffice to say, persistence does not supersede logic; had the scientist been given the chance to respond, “oh you’ve got me, I thought I could pretend atheism was not a matter of faith, and I would’ve gotten away with it to if it hadn’t been for that meddling pastor” would have been fairly unlikely.
Here’s how I assume he would have responded:
Faith is belief without evidence. Believing that Jesus trumped the laws of physics to walk across water is faith. Believing Elvis Presley is still alive is faith. Believing that Guns ‘N Roses really did spend 14 years making the at-best underwhelming Chinese Democracy is faith.
Deciding that, until concrete evidence to the contrary is presented, there is no solid argument for the existence of an anthropomorphic, human-sympathetic and intrinsically moral God (in short, theism), however, is not. It is in fact the opposite of faith. It is a belief system (or lack-of-belief system, you pedantic bastards) that refuses to believe in anything for which there is no sufficient evidence.
Perhaps a quote from Bill O’Reilly, one of America’s best loved TV personalities and general wise-men will help elucidate the situation. (For those from whom biting sarcasm has thus far been cloaked by masterful subtlety, I am indeed speaking ironically):
“I can’t prove to you that Jesus is God, so that truth is mine, and mine alone. But you can’t prove to me that Jesus is not.” O’Reilly implies that this means atheism takes more of a ‘leap of faith’ than theism.
But the same can be said about any belief, no matter how preposterous it is, because, in reality, it is impossible to prove that anything doesn’t exist; how could one even go about trying to do that? At best, one could find a list of conditions that must be met for something to exist, as we have done for the “life on other planets” debate, but if we found that life somewhere where those conditions weren’t met, all we would know is that our original set of criteria were flawed. If a theory is formed, and then a piece of evidence is found that disregards that theory, it is the theory that is disregarded, not the evidence. So when someone argues that something does not exist, they really argue that there is no evidence to prove that that something exists for now so its existence is highly improbable.
Similarly, consider the Flying Spaghetti Monster religion that set religious folk in outrage: you cannot prove that the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists, but you equally cannot prove that, somewhere in the stratosphere, undetectable to the human senses, there does not float a huge ball of spaghetti. Does that make Pastafarian-scepticism more of a leap of faith than acceptance of it? No, of course it doesn’t.
To say that atheism is a matter of faith is to claim that one needs to totally disprove something in order to believe that it is probably not true, even when there is little evidence to prove it is true. If one were to propose that Elvis Presley had risen from the dead, no one would be expected to provide evidence that there was no living Elvis Presley anywhere in the world to justify their stance that Elvis Presley probably isn’t anywhere in the world, except in his grave. In fact, the analogy is even more fitting because there are in fact occasional reported sightings of the King by those fans who just won’t let the mid-20th Century go, just like believers and non-believers alike report being visited by the arch-angel Gabriel, or Jesus himself, all the time. The former does not stop non-Elvis-Presley-is-still-alive-ites escaping the ridicule that faces Elvis-Presley-is-still-alive-ites, so why should the latter mean that one has to disprove the existence of a God to be an atheist, and that one must accept that atheism is just another form of belief?
Essentially, atheism takes account of the scientific evidence that seems to suggest that an explanation of the nature of the universe does not require the inclusion of a theistic God. It follows that it is reasonable to believe there is probably no such God, at least until other evidence gives you good reason to amend such a belief. There is nothing wrong with believing that everything that science explains has been caused by an eternal, omnipotent being, as long as, in doing so, the believer accepts that this is a leap of faith: believing without evidence. Atheism is not faith: it disbelieves because there is no evidence.