Sunday, November 21, 2010

Do Atheists Have Faith?

One often hears the argument that atheists have just as much faith as believers.  Sometimes the person saying this is referring to his assumption that we have "faith" that the universe "just happened".  When that is the case, the argument is simply a variation of the "Atheism is a religion" argument, which I have already discussed--twice, at least.

Other times, however, the person is simply trying to defend the idea of faith as an intellectual step.  In those cases, what he means is that atheists have faith in science because we are willing to get on airplanes, take vaccines, ride in cars, etc.  This is an old dodge that the religious have been using again with renewed fervor in response to the attacks from Hitchens, Harris, Dennett and Dawkins.

This whole argument is based on semantic confusion, which I think is sometimes deliberate. "Faith" like many words has more than one definition and the definitions don't even necessarily overlap.  They certainly aren't all the same.  If they were, there would be no need to have more than one.

The religious are confusing 1. "faith" defined as confidence based on extensive evidence with 2. "faith" defined as belief without evidence. So what they are saying is that since you have the first type of faith in science you should have (or, at least, respect) the second kind of faith.

The problem with this reasoning, of course, is that confidence based on experience is not the same as religious faith.  In fact, they are nearly diametrically opposed.  Confidence based on experience is an archetypal example of inductive reasoning, which is based on experience, i.e., facts. 

For example:  The first time I rode on a bus, I could have reasoned that since I knew people who had done it and they had been taken to their destination, as well as what I knew of commercial enterprises and their success or failure based on delivering what they promise, that the bus would take me to the promised destination.  Having now ridden on buses many times, I know they are going where they say they are going because that is what always happened. My experiences have induced me to have confidence in an expected outcome.

So, when you hear this one, you can pull the believer up short by saying: 

"No, I don't have faith.  I rely on inductive reasoning."


"That's not faith, that's inductive reasoning."

I have found that this works very well.  Not only is it absolutely true, it sounds true even to someone who, until that moment, has never heard of inductive reasoning.  You can also say something like:

"You are confusing 'faith' in the sense of having confidence with 'faith' in the sense of believing without evidence.  They are very different things.  Everyone has confidence in things on occasion, but not everyone believes without evidence."

You can illustrate with:

"If I met god today, then I might have faith that he would be there tomorrow; but I didn't, so I don't."

Sometimes even atheists want to say that they have faith simply because they have been taught to believe that faith is a positive quality.  Our opponents will try to back us into a corner by accusing us of not believing in anything.  (Deliberately adding another level of confusion by confusing atheism with nihilism--which I dealt with before.)  I think we are letting our opponents define the game and get away with gross intellectual dishonesty when we let them do this. 

That is why I prefer to use words like confidence, experience, and inductive reasoning when referring to scientists' attitudes toward their work and our confidence in it.  I reserve "faith" for those situations where I am referring to belief without proof, which I think is its proper meaning and, for that reason, I find it highly objectionable.  I like to maintain that faith, because it stands for the rejection of reason, is the single most obscene word in the English language. 

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