In conversations with believers, atheists’ positions are often labeled as being just as much faith-based as those of believers. Common assertions I’ve heard include:
- “It takes just as much faith to believe God doesn’t exist as it does to believe he does.”
- “Science never really proves anything for certain. So you must have faith to believe in science.”
- “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.”
- “Atheism (or science) is as much a religion as Christianity is.”
Statements of this type seem to place an inherent limit on knowledge, and then assume that the only possible response to that uncertainty is faith. Such statements also seem to be a denial from theists of an atheistic assertion that there is a qualitative difference between how religion approaches understanding the world and how science approaches understanding the world. And interestingly, some of these types of statements, such as the third of the ones that I listed, seem to implicitly acknowledge that there might be a problem with faith.
In order to try to tackle statements such as these, it is important to have a clear definition of what we mean in this discussion by the word faith. I have written a separate essay on the belief versus faith, and I will be using the definitions that I developed in that essay throughout the present essay. While I certainly acknowledge that some believers use the word faith in a different sense from the one that I have defined, I think it is relatively clear that statements of the type I listed above use faith in the same way that I do, as a way of holding a belief that spans a gap in evidence, or, as I put it in the prior essay, faith is a way of holding a belief where that belief is held without regards to whether evidence for it or against it exists.
While my prior essay argued that faith itself is a bad thing, it left open the question of whether or not it is nonetheless a necessary thing. A necessary evil, as it were. The current essay tackles this last point, by describing a way in which one can live one’s life without any faith at all. Combining the prior essay with this essay, I am left with the conclusion that what I describe here is an example of a healthy way to live one’s life.
When considering any given belief, for this discussion, I think it is useful to think about two parameters. The first is the degree to which one is confident in the belief. The second is the extent to which one is willing to act upon that belief. These two parameters are very often related, as they probably should be, but as we will see in this discussion they are not always in sync with one another.
Many people approach these questions as though they were binary choices. Either you believe or you don’t. Either you’re willing to act on that belief or you’re not. It is either black or white. This is a horrible oversimplification. If instead you think of these parameters as percentages, you can start to see some of the nuance that is central to belief. And since it is in most cases impossible to assign specific percentages to beliefs, I will instead be labeling ranges of percentages to discuss, as shown in figure 1 for the first of these parameters. The specific cutoffs between the ranges are certainly flexible, especially since we are not really in the business of assigning specific numbers to these parameters.
In that figure, only the white line and black line at the ends of the scale represent absolute certainty, and those are the areas where faith is most apparent. If I hold a belief with 100% certainty, then there is, by definition, no chance of changing my mind. That is another way of saying that I hold the belief without regard for evidence, even if evidence was what led me to that belief in the first place. For example, as a scientist you might think that I would believe in gravity with absolute certainty. However, I can imagine observations that would lead me to doubt gravity. If every object in my room started floating, for example, I would have to start reevaluating some fundamental assumptions.
There may even be some beliefs where a specific level of certainty can be calculated. I believe that if I get into my car today, I will not be involved in an auto accident. We can estimate my level of certainty in the following manner. I would estimate that I have been in a motorized vehicle something over 95% of days in my life (obviously, I wasn’t the driver at an early age). At 43 years old, that puts the number of days I have been in a car at 14,553. Roughly. In my life I have been involved in probably a dozen accidents, or 0.08% of the days I have been in the car. I am therefore approximately 99.92% confident, based on historical data, that if I get in my car today I will not be involved in an auto accident. I am practically certain, but not absolutely certain.
This auto accident example is instructive as well concerning the difference between confidence in a belief and willingness to act on that belief. While my certainty that I will not have an accident is high enough that I am not going to avoid my car out of fear, I will nonetheless wear a seatbelt because doing so (a) costs me little and (b) acts as insurance against the small chance that I do get into an accident. So my willingness to act on my belief is significantly lower than my confidence in that belief.
This seatbelt argument appears strikingly similar to the famous argument for belief in God known as Pascal’s Wager. I plan to write an essay discussing Pascal’s Wager in detail sometime soon.
My belief in gravity is much higher than my belief that I will not have an auto accident today. Gravity, even though formally it is a theory in science (there will be a future essay on scientific terminology), has been confirmed experimentally to such a degree that a seatbelt in a standard chair to prevent accidentally floating away would be nothing short of silly. My willingness to act on my belief in gravity is practically complete.
Now that we have a workable pair of parameters with which to discuss degrees of belief, let’s look at the main types of beliefs that theists often claim atheists hold in a faith-based manner. If I have overlooked any key types of beliefs, please let me know in the comments and I will add a section.
Atheism itself is a faith
I would agree that what I have termed “strong atheism” involves faith (see my separate essay concerning definitions of atheism and agnosticism). Absolute certainty that god(s) of any kind don’t exist requires faith. However, contrary to assertions by many theists, strong atheists are actually rather rare. I am a weak atheist. I have come to the conclusion that, based on the evidence I have seen so far, it is most likely that god(s) don’t exist. This is not a faith-based position because I am wide open to new evidence and reasoning.
The belief in intangibles is a faith
There are many nouns in our language that don’t refer to physical objects. Love. Democracy. Beauty. Justice. Evil. A common tactic among theists is to ask for “proof” that the atheist loves someone, or that someone loves the atheist, and then, lacking hard physical proof, to claim that clearly the atheist has faith in the concept of love or in the specific love of one person for another.
I’ll leave aside the argument that love is an ill-defined concept (i.e., different people have different, conflicting understandings of the term), because while I think that would be an important issue to address if I were to actually attempt to demonstrate why I believe that someone loves me or vice versa, it’s not that central to the issue of whether this is a faith-based concept.
Love is, I hope you will agree, a mental state. It is a particular way that the mind categorizes emotional responses to someone else. We are certainly privy to our own mental states, and so it is quite reasonable for us to apply a label, such as love, to one or more of these mental states. This isn’t an issue of faith, but an issue of naming.
A more interesting question is whether it is reasonable to believe that someone else loves me. While I am privy to my own mental states, I am not able to access anyone else’s. The best I can do is look at behavior and try my best to evaluate whether that behavior is best explained by that person having mental states similar to mine. That behavior is evidence. It can’t prove love, but it can support it. And believing based on such evidence is not employing faith, particularly if you consider that people can easily become persuaded that someone has fallen out of love.
The belief that everything has a naturalistic explanation is a faith
As I have discussed in another essay, it is not even clear to me what a non-naturalistic explanation would even look like. It isn’t faith to exclude the logically incoherent. I am definitely open to explanations of how a non-naturalistic explanation is logically coherent, but haven’t found one that holds up to scrutiny yet. Therefore, a belief that everything has a naturalistic explanation, as long as belief is subject to revision if provided good explanations and evidence, is not faith-based.
Belief that Science always works is a faith
Such a belief would almost certainly have to be faith-based. However, I don’t believe any such thing, nor do most atheists or even scientists. What I do believe is that science is a systematic way to go about investigating the world around us. Furthermore, science has built in to its structure error-correcting mechanisms. Every scientific hypothesis, theory, and law is continually put to the test by experiment. As soon as a scientific idea stops being accurately predictive, the idea itself gets called into question, and is only retained if ways can be found to reconcile it with the new data. Other human endeavors, such as religion, certainly do change with time. But science, unlike most other human endeavors, has change built into its very structure. The incredible historical success of the scientific enterprise at not just explaining phenomena, but predicting them quantitatively, far exceed any alternate method of explaining the universe. I don’t believe that science always works. I do, however, believe that if something requires an explanation, science likely has the best shot at providing that explanation.
Belief in a particular scientific conclusion is a faith, particularly in authority figures (experts) within the field
There was a time, more than a century ago, when it was conceivably possible for a scientist to be passably conversant in pretty much all of science, and expert in several. These were the so-called Renaissance men, or polymaths, like Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, and Francis Bacon. At such a time, it might be possible for someone to have genuinely considered the evidence for and against nearly all major scientific conclusions and to have formed opinions on those conclusions based on that evidence. It certainly would have been asking too much to expect a nonscientist to have done so, but it was possible that some scientists had. The amount of scientific knowledge currently available has exceeded human capability to do this, however. The number of scientific abstracts (which correlates with the number of journal articles published) recorded in databases has grown exponentially from about a hundred thousand in 1910 to over ten million in 2010. (Incidentally, I mean exponentially in the literal sense; a semi-log plot over that period gives a straight line.) Given the current state of scientific advancement, therefore, it is not reasonable to hold the general public or scientists to the standard of having considered in detail the evidence in favor of and against all major scientific conclusions. There’s just too much science out there. A natural conclusion from this would be that people, even scientists, have to have faith in scientific conclusions that are not within their areas of expertise if they are to believe them.
Such a conclusion, however, lacks nuance. I am an expert in physics and chemistry, for example. I have, in order to become such an expert, carefully considered the evidence for and against quantum mechanics, and can reliably state that I have formed a considered opinion that is quite strong (because the evidence is strong), but which is open to reinterpretation in light of new evidence. I am not, however, an expert in neurology; I have probably done more reading in that area than an average nonscientist, but I am by no accounts an expert in the field. So if I claim a belief that neuroscience has an good descriptive explanation for the stages of Alzheimer’s disease, an area of study I have little-to-no direct experience with, am I making that claim based on faith?
I would say no. This is where we need to bring in the separate ideas of holding beliefs and being willing to act on them. I have enough experiences with the scientific enterprise to know that while incorrect scientific conclusions are certainly possible, those ideas that get tested frequently are much more likely to have been exposed if they are incorrect. Scientists are in the business of contradicting each other, because it is novel ideas, when backed by evidence, that drive tenure, funding, and status within the scientific community. When scientific conclusions have been tested to the point that there is no one that has been able to poke holes in them for a very long time, scientists then move on to those details of the fields where there can be new ideas and disagreements. So believing the current status of a field based on finding out what the experts in that field agree on is a perfectly natural and perfectly reasonable starting point. Yes, I may not have examined all of the evidence. But if I am to make a pronouncement on the field at all, I will have looked enough at it to have determined at least what the areas of general agreement are and what the areas of controversy are.
When the stakes get higher, say a relative gets Alzheimer’s or I start exploring a possible research collaboration with someone who is themselves researching Alzheimer’s, the need for me to understand the evidence within the field grows as well. And so I become an expert in the field by doing the legwork to find and evaluate the evidence and reasoning. I read the key scientific journal articles that have passed peer review, usually starting with “review” articles that themselves summarize a large number of individual papers. As I need to start making decisions that affect my life that relate to a scientific field, I do the amount of research that is required to give me direct confidence in the conclusions I am using.
The key point here is the inherent tentativeness of science. That last sentence is likely to be jarring to theists who have argued against strawmen scientists, so let’s unpack that a little. Scientists are often seen as arrogant know-it-alls who exhibit unjustified certainty. In fact, scientists are among the most tentative people around. The following are typical phrases used by scientists among themselves and when interacting with the public:
- “The evidence suggests that…”
- “The currently accepted view in the field is…”
- “The most reasonable explanation for the data is…”
- “While there is general agreement within the field on the main point, there are several unresolved issues such as…”
It is, frankly, ingrained habit for scientists to make claims tentatively, and to talk about not the way things are or must be, but the way things appear based on the evidence. Scientists seldom talk of “proof,” because strictly speaking “proof” is a meaningless concept outside of pure logic or mathematics. Instead, scientists talk about evidentiary support. An experiment can support a claim, but it cannot prove it. And scientists know this, and tend to speak consistently with this tentative nature of science.
And that’s really the key. Holding an openness to evidence that runs contrary to the accepted viewpoint is intrinsic to the process of science. Such openness is the antithesis of faith.
Statements of logic and pure mathematics are 100% certain, so that’s faith
Once someone understands the range of certainties that are possible (figure 1), it is tempting to assert that anything that is at a 100% level or a 0% level must be faith-based, since there is no possibility of changing one’s mind. This is not so, however, in cases of pure logic or mathematics. 1+1=2 is a definition, not a conclusion, so we can be 100% certain of it. The statement that A and not-A cannot both be true simultaneously is also 100% certain. Such statements are not, however, statements about the world around us. They are statements about the properties of a self-consistent logical system (either pure logic or mathematics). Applying such statements to the real world makes some assumptions (see the next section for some examples), and so even though the statements may be 100% certain (without faith), the application is less than 100% certain.
The belief that we can trust our senses is a faith
This may be the most interesting type of faith assertion, from a philosophical standpoint. How, for example, can we tell that we are not living in The Matrix (as in the movie)? All of our sensory perceptions are mediated by nerves that transmit signals to the brain. Even if the brain itself exists, there is no way to prove that our senses are reliable. There could be artificially-induced signals being sent to our brains, and we would have no way to distinguish those signals from real sensory perceptions. This is a very old argument, known as the “brain-in-a-vat” scenario. Similarly, our minds could be software programs running on some kind of supercomputer and our sensory perceptions could be inputs to that program. Surely believing that these scenarios are false must be faith-based, since there is no way that evidence can bear on the situation at all, right?
Actually, no. And here is where the distinction between confidence in a conclusion and willingness to act upon that conclusion really come into play. I have no way to rule out a brain-in-a-vat or computer-program scenario, and don’t even have a way to assign confidence levels to such scenarios. However, when it comes to making choices about how to act based on the sensory input that I receive, the brain-in-a-vat and computer-program scenarios provide no guidance whatsoever about appropriate choices. The sensory-input-corresponds-to-reality scenario does. So, until there is evidence of some kind, perhaps “glitches in the Matrix,” that my sensory perceptions do not actually correspond to reality, the only scenario that makes any sense in terms of guiding my actions is to assume that they do. This is not a faith-based conclusion… it is a pragmatic one.
Where does that leave us?
So, I have gone through the major examples I can think of that theists have historically used to illustrate the necessity of faith. I think that I have convincingly demonstrated that none of those examples are genuine illustrations of such a necessity. It is, as far as I can tell, possible to live a life where every belief is open to question and revision. It is possible to live a life where decisions are based in a reasonable way on evidence at every turn, where the degree of evidence required is proportionate to the severity of the consequences of that decision. Once this is recognized, it is baffling to consider living any other way.