It Takes More Faith to Be an Atheist Than to Believe in God?

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Taylor Carr republished on The Secular Outpost with permission. The original post may be found on his blog, The Godless Skeptic.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere, you’ve probably heard someone, somewhere, say at some point: “I think it takes more faith to be an atheist than to believe in god.” Maybe you’ve even said it yourself. I’ve seen this amusing little remark bandied about in too many contexts to recount here, but most recently it’s been said to me on my last YouTube video, and said in person by my girlfriend’s sister. What does it mean?There’s an image that’s drifted around the internet for quite some time now that seems to sum up exactly what people intend when they say that it takes more faith to disbelieve than it does to believe. It describes atheism as, “The belief that there was nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself for no reason what so ever into self-replicating bits which then turned into dinosaurs.” This is not just a gross over-simplification of the views of many atheists, it’s also riddled with strawman fallacies and confuses abiogenesis with atheism. One can easily, without inconsistency, reject the idea of a god and yet assent to the fact that we don’t know how everything came into being. Sometimes having no explanation is indeed better than clinging to a wrong one.

The general point behind the ‘more-faith-to-be-an-atheist’ remark is that atheists believe more fantastical things on less evidence than theists do; we make more and bigger assumptions. Is this true, though? To really address the issue, one would have to unpack the particular assumptions each believer thinks atheists rely upon, but we’ve already seen some indication that not all of these assumptions are fairly derived from the atheist position. Atheists of the ancient world knew nothing of the Big Bang or evolution by natural selection, yet still counted themselves non-believers for other reasons like suffering, divine hiddenness, and the various objections to the so-called arguments for god. By itself, atheism says nothing about the origin of the universe, the nature of morality, and so forth. To be an atheist is simply to not believe in gods.

Now, you might ask, ‘If you don’t know how the universe began, why are you an atheist instead of an agnostic?’ It seems to me that there is a long-running misunderstanding about these two terms. A theist is one who believes god exists. An agnostic is one who doesn’t know if god exists. An atheist is one who does not believe god exists. Here the agnostic might seem like a middle ground, but it becomes clear that this is not the case when we recognize the difference between belief and knowledge. For centuries, philosophers have understood knowledge as justified true belief, which would make knowledge a very special kind of belief. Although there are some problems with the justified true belief definition, they do not impact this distinction between knowledge and belief. You can believe something and not be justified in believing it, and you can also believe something which is not actually true. Thus, agnostic is more like a subset of theism and atheism, where an agnostic theist is someone who doesn’t know if god exists, but believes anyway, and an agnostic atheist is someone who doesn’t know if god exists, and so does not believe. Hence, I’d technically call myself an agnostic atheist.

‘But,’ you say, ‘god explains how the universe began. It takes less faith to believe that then it does to believe we came from nothing without a god.’ Recall what has just been said about belief and knowledge, though. I don’t know how the universe came about, but I do believe the god explanation is not a good explanation, largely because the concept of god has its own share of philosophical challenges and problems. This is no more an inconsistency than it is to believe in god even when you don’t know for sure if he exists. This is where the ‘more-faith-to-be-an-atheist’ charge is really stretched thin to the point of breaking, too.

Theists may see god, the Big Bang, moral values, and similar things as inextricably bound together, but these are assumptions which the atheist has no reason to grant. History has seen plenty of gods that are not creators or moral law-givers, so why assume that things like origins and moral values are even in the same ball park with theism and atheism? I make no assumptions about how the universe began, or about the nature of morality, nor do I need to in order to consistently be an atheist. My atheism is not directed at some abstract cause of the cosmos, or some vague ground of moral value; it’s directed at the concept of god, which is so much more, and has been understood as much more by many theists throughout the centuries. Who has faith in just a cause of the cosmos, or just the ground of morality?

The charge that atheism takes more faith than theism rests on a fallacy of equivocation. The faith that the Christian has in his god – faith that impels him to repent, to forgive, to love, to praise, to worship – is by no means the same as the faith that atheists are accused of having with respect to a creatorless origin, eternal matter, life from non-life, or moral value. If faith is belief based on evidence, then saying the atheist has more of it should mean the atheist has more evidence! If faith is belief in spite of evidence, is that really all that Christians mean when they say their faith gives them strength – believing in spite of the evidence gives you strength? If faith by itself is a virtue, then those who decry atheism for requiring too much faith are quite confused. If faith is only virtuous insofar as it is focused in the right direction (and god presumably lies at the end of that direction), then the equivocation is made readily apparent.

Individual atheists may have faith in many things. A scientist may take it on faith that our universe is just one among many. A philosopher may take it on faith that Leibniz’s theory of the monads accurately describes the fundamental constitution of the universe. But in what sense are these uses of “faith” at all like the theistic use of faith? I would say there is very little, if any, commonality. Multiverses and monads (according to some conceptions) would not be a new kind of thing to our experience in the way that god is a new kind of thing, existing eternally and outside of our space-time universe. If all our beliefs rest on faith, if everything is faith, as Greg Boyd suggested in a recent episode of the Unbelievable podcast, we reduce the religious concept of faith to a mere act of inference, and we muddle the concept of inference with a term that defies clarity and fecundity. This I take to be a lose-lose scenario.

On the one hand it’s tempting to respond to the more-faith-to-be-an-atheist remark with a ‘who cares’. Atheism is a claim about belief in god(s), not the beginning of the cosmos, the source of moral value, or anything else, and so the accusation of faith playing a part in other areas seems inconsequential and hardly relevant. Just because the theist endows his god with responsibility for such things does not mean they arede facto the domain of deity. On the other hand, it’s not difficult to tell that there are often ulterior motives behind the remark. It is sometimes said with a smug and mocking tone, suggesting hypocrisy and short-sightedness on the side of the non-theist. Any concession to faith, even noting the equivocation, sounds like an admission of guilt to many who simply want to pigeon-hole others and confirm their own biases.
It takes no faith to doubt the invisible, to question the intangible, to challenge the ineffable. I’m not even sure how one could begin to make sense of an argument aiming to show something so backwards. As I see it, these debates over who is burdened with the most faith in their worldview are as fruitless and conceited as debates over who is the more rational human being. If we can manage to get past such petty and unhelpful gesturing, we will find it easier to understand one another, to consider evidence and arguments in a less partial manner, and to learn a greater appreciation for our world as the complex, nuanced, and multi-layered world that it is. And this is the real sin of the more-faith-to-be-an-atheist remark: it masks its lack of substance by perpetuating the age-old us vs. them mindset. As beckoning as that may seem to our reptile brains, isn’t it about time we start to recognize that it’s only us?