Saturday, April 6, 2013

Atheists have faith too?

A common claim (and may I say, a bit strange, because I don't really know what they are trying to achieve with it) that many theists say about atheists is that they, too have faith, that they too have beliefs.

Somehow this feels such a childish argument. It seems to be saying "you think you are better than us, but you are not; you too have blind faith, you too have beliefs, so you shouldn't be criticizing us for that." Is that really the best they can come up with? A childish "well, and so are you!" argument?

Anyway, this is another example of playing with words, and an equivocation fallacy. Even the most moderate versions of this claim commit that fallacy.

You see, when an atheist or skeptic uses the words "faith" and "belief" when talking about religion, they are specifically referring to believing in something without proper evidence. They are contrasting this with science, which is fully evidence-based. This is a matter of actual practicality, a concrete measurement stick that we can use to determine the reliability of claims: If there is ample and proper evidence, and it has been tested and verified as correct, and especially if it has real, tangible applications to real life, then the claim is extremely reliable. If, on the contrary, there is no such evidence, then the claim is very unreliable.

The theists, however, want to use a rather different meaning for those words. They want to remove them from their evidence-based, practical-applications-based context, and move to a more abstract philosophical context. They want to play with the higher-level abstract meanings of the terms "belief" and "faith" in philosophical terms.

In other words, since technically speaking a person can never be 100% sure that his senses are an accurate depiction of a reality independent of his own mind (after all, in theory a person could just be a computer simulation, or a brain in a vat, running a completely nonexistent, simulated reality) then, philosophically speaking, no person can that they know with absolute certainty that things are real, and therefore, still technically speaking, they have "faith" and "belief" in everything (and I mean absolutely everything.)

However, that's just hypothetical, highly philosophical stuff. That's most certainly not what skeptics and atheists mean when they use the words "faith" and "belief."

There are levels of certainty about claims, and science has proven time and again that it produces the most reliable results. By far.

So no, when we are using the terms as they are meant to be used, atheists do not have "faith" in science, they do not have "beliefs" in what science tells them. They are based their notions on actual tangible tested evidence, not just blind faith. No amount of playing with words is going to change that.


  1. No, you have faith, sans evidence, that this is a material universe. It would seem, in this case, that agnostics are the ones who could call themselves the most scientifically minded. For they are the ones who only go as far as the evidence will take them.

    Christians and atheists, on the other hand, use inductive reasoning to take them part way, and then bring about a deductive conclusion based upon that evidence in combination with their pre-set world-view that's been formulated under primary and secondary propositions.

    1. You are demonstrating perfectly the pseudointellectual and faux-philosophical wordplay so typical of apologists.

      As I said in the blog post, even if you want to argue that every single person, technically speaking, can only believe, not know, the most fundamental aspects of reality (for example they must believe that at least some of what they perceive with their senses corresponds to a reality independent of their own minds), there are still completely different degrees of certainty. You cannot equate them all without committing a gross fallacy of equivocation.

      The fact is that not all beliefs are on equal ground in terms of their accuracy and their correspondence with reality. Some of these "beliefs" are so well supported by evidence, experimentation and tests repeatable by any independent parties, that they cannot be considered in any way the kind of belief that eg. theists have on the existence of a god. They are in no way the same thing, not even close. Calling them "beliefs" is grossly misleading. (But as said, theists love this kind of wordplay.)

      You also seem to have this concept that "atheism" is some kind of world view, a belief system. Well, it isn't. In fact, theism isn't a world view nor a belief system either because, by definition, a belief system ought to consist of a large framework of beliefs, while theism vs. atheism deals with one question, and one question only: Do you believe in the existence of a god? If you do believe, then you are a theist, and if you don't have such a belief, you are an atheist. Whatever other views, opinions and beliefs you might have in addition to that is completely inconsequential. That doesn't change anything. If you believe in the existence of a god, you are a theist, and if you don't have such a belief, you are an atheist; it's a true dichotomy.

      Thinking that there's a whole range of belief systems between the two, and that "agnostics" fall right in between, is another category error. Gnosticism and agnosticism are a completely different concept. They deal with the philosophical stance of whether things are knowable or not (or whether you personally are certain of something or not.) They have nothing to do with gods, and they are most certainly not mutually exclusive with theism and atheism.

      All four combinations are perfectly possible: A gnostic theist is sure that a god exists (and typically outright states that he or she knows it for certain.) An agnostic theist believes in the existence of a god but doesn't claim certainty. A gnostic atheist claims to know that no gods exist (this is more commonly known as "strong atheism"), while an agnostic atheist lacks belief in gods, but claims no certainty of it.