Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Atheism as a faith position

One common challenge made to atheists is that it is as much a faith position to believe in no God as it is to believe in God. There would be some justification for this except that there are a multiplicity of possible Gods, and even within a single religion such as Christianity people have radically conflicting understandings of God. I don't think that the God of (say) Pat Robertson and Rowan Williams are in any way compatible with each other. On what basis should one be chosen over another?

Some atheists get themselves in a terrible tangle over this, as can be seen in the comments over on Richard Dawkins' site when a copy of part of I'm an atheist, OK? was put up there. In order to claim that they are not making a faith position, they try to distinguish between believing in no God and not believing in any God. In both cases, the number of Gods in whose existence they believe in is zero, but they are trying by grammatical prestidigitation to claim that the first formulation isn't a faith position (as it is a lack of belief in a presence) even if the second arguably is (because it is a belief in an absence).

This is completely unnecessary. A belief isn't a faith position unless you hold it with a strength unjustified by the balance of the evidence. If you conclude that you are an atheist because the preponderance of the evidence points that way, then that isn't a faith position, whatever grammatical construction you use in order to express it.

My response to the claim that atheism is a faith position is that I will believe anything for which there is credible evidence, and I don’t award an exemption from this principle to God. As I’ve described in my CiF articles, I haven’t found any convincing evidence for God, though some people mistakenly think of many things as evidence which really aren’t.

Show me the evidence and I’ll change my mind.


  1. Hi Jonathan, I was one who did get in a tangle over this, but now you have clarified things for me no end, thank you!
    You will be missed on Cif, but I understand why you feel as you do. I find AB's position suspect as he claims to be an atheist, but all the evidence would suggest otherwise and I find his obfuscation on the matter less than honest.

    On the errors of an old atheist thread there was a post by bluejewel (14 Jul 09, 12:19pm) which I thought described the situation well.
    I hope you or they don't mind me reproducing it here. bluejewel said:
    @Mister Brown

    AB-"The whole point of the article was that intelligent educated and brave believers do not in fact believe in a personal God that requires worship and appeasement and would happily agree that this would be absurd, self-centred and childish."

    BJ-The thing is, we all know and observe that, on balance, the absurd, childish and self-centered notion of a personal god that requires worship and appeasement is the common currency (and it is not at all the invention of non-believers).

    So it could be said that for all practical purposes, it is that notion which needs addressing because it is not a good thing that so many people operate from the basis of absurd, self-centered and childish beliefs. The result is absurd, self-centered and childish actions.

    I can see the objection of suggesting that the educated intelligensia (a minority) hold to the same absurd views as the great unwashed (although they are happy for the great unwashed to continue in their ignorance and mostly do what they can to ensure it). But since that objection relies on a retreat into god is 'something else' never seen, heard, operating or in any way known in the universe we live, apart from inside the heads of the intelligensia, it becomes utterly irrelevant.

    So for all practical purposes, Freud was right. In addressing the problems of religion in the world, the absurd, childish version is all we need to know about.

    On the other hand, the reality is that the wellspring of the absurd chilldish version is the people who claim belief in 'something else. The 'something else' practically always moves onto having requirements of other human beings. Requirements that are satisfied without knowledge of the 'something else' but by worship and appeasement. Plus, of course, absurd and childish promises for fulfilling those requirements: eternal life, heaven, salvation and the like. Therefore, the real culprits are let off the hook in Freud's viewpoint. So, on that basis, I agree with you. They should not be ignored. They are the real menace.

    Now AB supports those who believe in 'something else' very strongly, at the expense of the opposing view, and I am finding it increasingly difficult participate on these threads now too.

  2. Hi GeneralX

    Glad to have been of service. I hope to get to meet you at the CiF Believers get-together in London in August!

    There's a very simple way to address Andrew's suggestion. If these Christian believers are all so brave and clever and numerous, could he recruit a couple of them to the dangerous assignment of writing an article or two for CiF Belief to describe in more detail what they are about? And why hasn't he done so already?

    As for a God who acts in such a subtle way that he can't be detected, the only thing that can be said about such a God is that if he is as undetectable as all that, everything believed about him must have been made up, since God (being undetectable) would have provided no evidence as to his nature. If the beliefs aren't made up, but are based on evidence, then God is more detectable than claimed, and that evidence ought in principle to be amenable to scientific investigation, in which case let's know what the evidence is.

  3. Hi Jonathan, I won't be able to make it to the pub unfortunately, wrong side of the Atlantic but, I hope you all have a great time and I look forward to hearing about it.

  4. @JW

    I am extremely glad to hear that you will be there at savvymum's get-together. Best thing I've heard all week.

    The Myrmidons over at CiF Belief are still milling around anxiously outside your tent. I mean - do we need a Patrocles to die before you storm back? Just keep that armour in a safe place.


    Hello! Fancy seeing you here. I hope you're not going to disappear again.

  5. Hi Beor,
    I don't know if I'm going to be around or not. The "you can't say there isn't a god" type of debates on Cif are just getting to be a bit of a drag, I guess you have to be a bit of a woolly type to get all fired up about the bible discussions, and I'm not that kind of atheist.
    I suppose one would need to have some kind of element of doubt about the issue, which is something I can't quite seem to muster.
    As Jonathan has pointed out it's not a faith position it's an evidence position and there won't ever be any evidence forth coming because the whole thing is a lot of BS, I know that, Jonathan knows that (although probably wouldn't admit it) and I would suggest you know it too, and to have to keep debating the possibility of the existence of god, AB style, just serves gives the idiots oxygen that they do not deserve, in my opinion anyway.
    I know what Andrews agenda is, he's a Templeton fellow, and there's nothing impartial about his position, it's obfuscation all the way (a so called atheist with an agenda like that? It seems kinda distasteful to me) and so as a result of knowing that, I just don't feel comfortable commenting on his blogs anymore.
    I know we had a bit of fun larking about on those threads but sometimes moving on just feels like the right thing to do.
    I might change my mind, but I doubt it.

  6. Hi General

    Your correct my position isn't a faith position. I believe in neither belief nor unbelief. Having said that, I don't expect to read any clinching arguments to appear on CiFBelief and as you say it can be fun at times. I suppose the fact that I have an amateur interest in mythology is one reason I intend to stick around a bit longer. Not that CiF is a substitute for reading more serious works - but it can be enlightening as to certain attitudes.

    Everyone has to make their own decisions so I won't try talking you out of yours. I'll miss your contributions - stay safe.