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What do atheists have against faith, anyway?

July 3, 2011

“Have you ever noticed that you can’t really prove that the gospel is true?” asks the Sunday school teacher.

“Why yes, yes I have,” I think. Do go on!

“It’s something you just need to have faith in,” he says.

Of course. It all comes down to faith, and this is the problem.

I may be wrong, but I suspect my presence in the classroom prompted these comments from the teacher. He knows I’m atheist, after all. But appealing to faith with an atheist is ineffectual, not because atheists are “stiff-necked,” “hard-hearted,” or have some kind of barrier up against the Spirit. Rather, there is a fundamental difference in the way theists and naturalists understand how we come to know what we know (epistemology). Since it would have been indelicate to reply during the lesson, I’ll reply here instead. I don’t presume to speak for all atheists; this is just my take.

Faith is the first principle of the LDS gospel, and broader Christianity teaches that faith is a virtue. There was a time when I accepted this idea (ahem) on faith, so to speak.

But my attitude toward faith began to change when I started caring about whether or not my beliefs were true. I came to understand that faith is not a pathway to truth because if faith is your pathway then you can’t distinguish between Mormonism, Judaism, Islam, Catholicism, new age spiritualism, or any other belief system. Each of them requires faith.

The better pathway to truth is evidence, but by admission of nearly all religions, belief in God relies on faith, which means suspending the requirements of logic, evidence, or proof. But evidence is the best reason to believe that something is true, whereas faith is belief without evidence.

                                   

I should probably head off a couple of objections that are likely to come up.

1. The Spirit is evidence!

Many members of the LDS church attempt to claim feelings as evidence for the truthfulness of the church or that the Book of Mormon is true. They attribute (wrongly, in my opinion) these feelings as coming from God or the Spirit, and these feelings contribute to many members’ testimonies.

But counting feelings as evidence is a gross misappropriation of the word “evidence” as it is used in secular, scientific, or legal affairs. Feelings are unequivocally not evidence. We all have feelings about things, and sometimes they turn out to be right and sometimes they don’t. Anyway, different people often have opposite feelings, so how are we to decide whose feeling is right?

Feelings must be backed up by evidence, otherwise you can’t trust them.

2. Atheism requires just as much faith as belief does. 

Sometimes I hear the rather nonsensical “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.” Being an atheist requires no more faith than my Christian friends need to be an azeusist, an ateapotist, or an adragonist. You don’t need faith to disbelieve Mohammed was a prophet, to disbelieve that the Galactic Overlord Xenu transported frozen souls to earth 75 million years ago, or to disbelieve that the souls of aborted fetuses cause diseased crops. In other words, faith deals in the realm of belief. It has nothing to do with disbelief. All that atheism means is to disbelieve in a god or gods. That’s it.

But doesn’t it require faith to believe that the universe came out of nothing with the big bang? No, because the big bang is overwhelmingly supported by mountains of mutually buttressed evidence and it is the best explanation that we have for the origins of the universe. Some suppose that something must have caused the big bang, so they call that something God. But from my perspective, it is more intellectually honest to admit that we just don’t know what caused the big bang than it is to make up an explanation.

I’ll end with some words that others have penned about faith more eloquently than I can. I’ve collected them from various sources over the past couple years.

“Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”
— Mark Twain

“The way to see by Faith is to shut the Eye of Reason.”
— Benjamin Franklin

“We [atheists] have something more than just a desire to believe: we have reason and evidence, and most importantly of all, an overriding interest in the truth.”
— P.Z. Myers

“To talk about a Superior Being is a dip in superstition, and is just as bad as to let in an Inferior Being or a Devil. When you once attribute effects to the will of a personal God, you have let in a lot of little gods and evils—then sprites, fairies, dryads, naiads, witches, ghosts and goblins, for your imagination is reeling, riotous, drunk, afloat on the flotsam of superstition. What you know then doesn’t count. You just believe, and the more you believe the more do you plume yourself that fear and faith are superior to science and seeing.”
— Elbert Hubbard

“Children have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people’s bad ideas, no matter who these people are. Parents, correspondingly, have no God-given license to inculcate their children in whatever ways they personally choose. No right to limit the horizons of their children’s knowledge to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition or to insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith. In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense and we as a society have a duty to protect them from it.”
— Dan Barker

“What is really pernicious is the practice of teaching children that faith itself is a virtue. Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument. Teaching children that unquestioned faith is a virtue primes them—given certain other ingredients that are not hard to come by—to grow up into potentially lethal weapons for future jihads or crusades….If children were taught to question and think through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior virtue of faith without question, it is a good bet that there would be no suicide bombers…. Faith can be very, very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.”
— Richard Dawkins

“I Believe,” from The Book of Mormon musical. If you haven’t heard, the musical won 9 Tony Awards.

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12 Comments
  1. When people say they don’t have the faith to be an atheist they are really saying is that they don’t have the courage to question their beliefs.

  2. Nelson Aidukaitis permalink

    Dear Kevin,

    The first principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ is faith in Jesus Christ, This faith is a gift from God to the righteous. If you are not righteous, you don’t have this gift. This explains why you don’t have it and, therefore, don’t understand it.

    Nelson

    • David permalink

      That’s an interesting comment Nelson, but I have to say, it’s not correct. The Bible says it doesn’t matter how righteous you are. Ephesians 2:8 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” See, it’s Gods grace that saves us. We can have faith if we choose, it’s a gift from God. It has nothing to do with what we have or haven’t done. It has nothing to do with our “righteousness” (which we don’t really have) Romans 3:23-24 “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” It doesn’t matter how righteous you think you are, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. “It is by grace you have been saved, and not from yourselves” See, right there! the bible says we have NOTHING to do with being saved! All we have to do is believe and have faith, and that’s far better than trying to earn our faith (which is something we could never actually do)

      • David permalink

        *I should clarify what we’re being saved from through the Lord Jesus Christ — If we have faith, we’re saved from the eternal lake of fire known as hell, that would (and should) serve as our punishment for dishonoring the one true God. But because Jesus took that punishment in our place, we no longer have to serve that sentence, and we’re saved from the lake of fire. Instead, if we have faith and confess that Jesus has saved us from that punishment, we get to live with God in the eternal paradise known as heaven.

  3. Jonathan permalink

    I am not a learned philosopher, so I will not delve too deep into this topic. However, the scientific model, while commendable for it’s means of obtaining information, is still imperfect, as much of it relies on subjectivity of interpretation and the necessity of assumptions. Scientifically speaking, I don’t have an alternate option. However, the sarcastic schematic of faith is perhaps a little, shall we say, oversimplified. Faith does not require that there be no questioning or ignoring of evidence to the contrary, at least not true faith. It does require its own subjectivity and interpretations. But I believe that truth can be found by utilizing both methods, along with honest admissions to self that there is far more that we don’t know or understand than that which we do.

    • Mr. Chris permalink

      Scientific methods are indeed subjective but the data is not. I think this is a crucial distinction. How are we to even begin to formulate a standard to distinguish authentic revelations from mere human ideas/feelings/psychotic episodes if all the data (spiritual feelings) is subjective?

      I have suggested to theists that they use their prayer method to tell me something that can be verified with an alternate method. For example, pray and tell me what I had for lunch. So far no theist is willing to take this challenge. Sounds a lot like the responses I see towards James Randi’s million dollar challenge.

  4. Jonathan permalink

    Mr. Chris, I of course agree that the data in the scientific method is not subjective, assuming the experiment has successfully eliminated all biases in the methodology. However, it is the utililzation of that data that is subjective, the interpretation of the data that is tainted by human perspective. Prayer and the response from the divine is indeed a subjective experience as well, and I have never denied it. But it never was intended to be Long before science was a thing of value, faith in God was still expected and extolled, and the belief that God answers prayers was aknknowledged to be just as subjective then as now. It has always been a personal experience, and it is not intended to please sign-seekers or give you the answers to a test. It is a gentle guide to those that listen. It is a means of asking him to grant blessings he has already intended, not to change his mind on something. God knows what you had for lunch, but I doubt he would bother telling me, as it is not relevent, and seeking a sign in such fashion actually goes contrary to his designs.

    You do ask a fair question regarding distinguishing between real revelation and other sources of ideas. Well, we could go into a lengthy discussion on scriptures, prophets, learning to distinguish on your own, etc., but believe me when I say that it is an art that can be learned.

    Let me add an additional note: Nelson, it is not our place to judge and condemn. I believe Kevin to be a good person, regardless of his philosophy. I believe there are many good people who do not accept our LDS faith, do not accept Christianity, or do not accept religion at all. Judgin a man this way is both hypocritical and strengthens his views towards us. Instead, you should give loving correction. And David, there is plenty of debate on the difference of interpretation of biblical verses and salvation by grace/faith/works. I see no point in joining the debate here, but just know that there is more to understanding the doctrine of salvation than simply those frequently misused verses. Jesus himself said, “if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:16-21). There is far more to this topic, but again, I don’t wish to debate it any further. Just do a little looking and you’ll see that LDS members believe that we are saved by Christ’s grace, but that he does expect us to do our best.

    • Mr. Chris permalink

      @Jonathan

      It is an art that can be learned?

      Wow. Where is your self-correcting mechanism? From my perspective you are attempting to practice Bach in an isolated, sound-proof room without any feedback. How do you know that what you are playing really is Bach?

  5. Jonathan permalink

    Sorry I never got back to you on this one, Mr. Chris. I won’t say much. Let’s just say that fellowship prevents isolation, guidance from others who have found what works for them prevents any sound-proof nature, and feedback comes to those who know how to recognize it. When you don’t get the feedback, you figure you’re doing something wrong. You learn how to pray, you learn how to wait, you learn how to listen, and there’s your self-correction. When you reject that anyone can ever learn to play the cello, you never bother to pick one up.

    • Mr. Chris permalink

      Fellowshipping with these people who claim to have recognized “it”, assumes that they know how to recognize authentic “its” versus man-made “its”. Additionally, fellowshipping still doesn’t solve the problem because the so-called “evidence” is internal. We can’t mutually evaluate each other’s evidence. Consensus does not imply that you are headed in the correct direction. History attests to this very fact.

      I don’t reject that people can never learn to play the cello. I reject the idea that people claim to know how to play Bach when it’s impossible for others to hear what you are playing.

  6. Jonathan permalink

    Let’s look at it this way. Someone performs an experiment. They alone come up with the hypothesis, test it, draw their conclusions, and submit their report to a scientific journal. No one was there to observe the experiment. The only way to prove its validity is to duplicate the experiment. If it is successfully duplicated multiple times, it is presumed to be a valid experiment with sound theories following. Are the results identical each time. Often no. There are usually a range of results, sometimes surprisingly large, but the general conclusions are still considered worthwhile. Is this not like prayer? Not necessarily like every “response,” but it allows for the possibility of someone listening.

    It’s true that consensus does not imply correctness, as there are many, many religions. However, you must admit that in the scientific realm, our knowledge of the universe is truly very limited, and only through further experimentation will we ultimately come to know everything. Could the same not be said of religious understanding? Could we ultimately come to a common understanding through experimentation by faith? I, myself, believe so.

    Let’s add one additional point about “internal evidence.” Do you discount the value of self-reporting, which is essentially internal evidence? Valuable statistics, experiments, and even medical diagnoses are based on self-report. The author of this blog is a psychology major, and he must understand quite well how heavily psychologists rely on this very method. You cannot state that a man is not depressed simply because you are unable to observe his feelings.

    I can understand why a person might be agnostic, but a full-blown atheist to me is making a claim without any valid evidence. You can claim that you don’t believe in UFOs because you don’t find the evidence of its existence compelling, but unless you can actually provide evidence that UFOs DON’T exist, there isn’t much of a leg to stand on when saying flying saucers are a bunch of hooey.

  7. Jonathan permalink

    I had one clarification I wish to add to this topic. The purpose of my original comment was not to invalidate the scientific method, but rather to show that it is fallible. Likewise, I want to be clear that the process of faith is not intended to be scientific, though I drew some parallels. I believe that they are do separate, legitimate means to ascertaining truth, and neither has led to all truth. It’s like driving towards Oklahoma City from Los Angeles and Boston. As you approach the same city, you will get a different perspective. If you tried to compare notes from the separate approaches, you may even come to believe that you are looking at a different city off in the distance. Only in a future day, long after this life is over, will our minds be ready to understand that it’s all the same truth, even though our limited perception of it may seem incompatible during our mortality.

    I am reminded of an article by Warren Weaver, a scientist and believer. He makes the comparison of science and religion to two scientific principles, that of complementarity, and that of uncertainty.

    To be brief, Mr. Weaver points out that photons, electrons, and other particles at times behave like waves (which are nothing more than disruptions in a medium), and at other times like particles (actual self-contained objects). The fact that they do this is seemingly incomprehensible, as they cannot truly be both. And yet they are, and all our scientific evidence indicates that they are. We are forced to accept two different conflicting views. When it suits our purpose, we treat light, etc. as a wave, and when it is convenient, we treat it as a particle. Perhaps one day we will understand this strange dichotomy, but at the present, we just allow these two separate principles to complement each other.

    With respect to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, we learn as we observe electrons in orbit that the more accurately we gauge their trajectory, the less accurately we ascertain its position, and vice versa. We cannot accurately determine both simultaneously.

    This leads to the author’s conclusions which I largely share as well. When I am teaching Sunday school, I will appeal to what I know from the scriptures. When I am studying for a biology exam, I will refer instead to what I know from the textbook. Are both books inerrant? While some would argue with me in favor of one or the other, I feel quite comfortable stating that both are flawed and/or limited. I understand that I am relying on mutually exclusive understandings of truth at times, and that the more closely I examine the truth in one field, the more I may part from truth in the other. I believe that one day it will all be clear and there will be no exclusivity. I don’t understand how Adam can be the first man, and yet humans evolved from lower species. But I believe that my understanding will be reconciled one day. Meanwhile, I continue to seek truth from every possible avenue, accepting their limitations and the limitations of my finite mind.

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