Does Atheism Require Faith?

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In discussions about belief in God, there is a lot of confusion about the word ‘faith’. Atheists sometimes take faith to mean belief without evidence; Christians reject this notion of faith because biblical faith is never ‘blind’. Rather confusingly, though, sometimes you’ll hear Christians say that it takes more faith to be an atheist than it does to believe in God. Of course, what they mean is that atheism requires a blind, uncritical belief, but setting this issue aside, does the atheist need to have faith in a similar way to the Christian?

Faith in the Christian perspective is trust in a person. This can be expressed in terms of the difference between belief that and belief in. Belief that there is a God does not constitute faith in the Christian sense: someone can believe that there is a God without believing in God. It is this belief or trust in God that constitutes faith. Atheists believe that there is no God, but they have nothing corresponding to faith. That’s the whole point – they think there is no God for them to believe in. So atheism doesn’t require faith.

But is there still some sense in which atheism requires faith? Doesn’t everyone have to take some things on faith? Don’t atheists, for example, have to take it on faith that reason and evidence are reliable ways to get at truth, that we can trust our senses, that the universe is intelligible, etc.? There’s a problems with this, though. What does it mean to take something on faith in this context? It looks like it means believing something for which you have no evidence. Now, it might well be true that atheists have beliefs like that (as does everyone else), but the point is that this isn’t anything like faith in the Christian sense.[1]

Sometimes Christians will claim that atheism is a kind of faith, by which they mean that it is like a religion. After all, aren’t atheists committed to certain beliefs about the universe, about humans, about what happens when we die, etc.? Indeed, aren’t some forms of atheism just as dogmatic as any (other) religion? And there are even atheist churches these days. In response, atheists will often say that atheism is simply the belief that there is no God; beyond that atheists can disagree about everything else. In a narrow sense of the word ‘atheism’, this response seems right; believing that there is no God hardly constitutes a religion.

However, in a broader sense of the term atheism does seem to involve various commitments. Atheists, after all, are human beings and like the rest of us have to try to make sense of the world in which we live. Each of us has a worldview, a framework within which we try to make sense of the nature and origin of the universe and human beings, of the nature of morality, of the purpose of life, of what happens when we die, etc. Different religions address these fundamental questions in different ways, but what about atheism? In the western world, the vast majority of atheists embrace a worldview known as naturalism, which is basically the view that the physical universe is all there is. As Carl Sagan put it, “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be”.

Atheists often claim that we should be sceptical about religious beliefs;  yet, even if naturalism isn’t a religion, shouldn’t we be just as sceptical about it? Shouldn’t we be sceptical about common naturalistic views such as the view that the ultimate explanation for the existence of the universe must be given in terms of the universe itself (or else that there is no explanation), that the human mind is to be explained purely in terms of physical processes in the brain or that an adequate account of morality can be given in a universe where everything has come about as the result of nothing more than physical, unguided processes? And if this is how we came about, how can there be any ultimate purpose to our lives? And if there isn’t, is it possible to live consistently with this belief? Atheists have a lot of explaining to do.

So, atheism isn’t a religion and it doesn’t involve faith as Christians understand that term. But atheists typically embrace a naturalistic worldview and there are many reasons to be sceptical about such a worldview. Arguably, the atheist’s worldview is at least as problematic as leading alternative worldviews. Indeed, I would argue that there is good evidence against the atheist’s worldview and so embracing it requires a certain amount of unjustified blind belief (which of course is not the same as faith). Furthermore, as many atheists themselves have recognized, given the difficulties of accounting for morality and the meaning and purpose of life, it is difficult (if not impossible) to live as a truly consistent atheist.

[1] Just because this isn’t faith, it doesn’t mean there is no problem for atheism here. Some such as C. S. Lewis and Alvin Plantinga have argued that there is a particular problem for atheism on these issues since there is no good reason to trust our senses and reasoning processes if atheism is true

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