Is Atheism a Faith?

I’ve had dialogue with many atheists over the years and most of them label their disbelief in God as a stance rather than a belief.  Surprisingly, this same stance is taken by prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Peter Atkins, Michael Shermer, and Christopher Hitchens. They claim that their atheistic stance carries no faith along with it.  I’ve even been told that atheism isn’t a worldview.  Many atheists simply chalk up their non-belief in God as a certainty not up for debate.  This certainty is because they believe that all the scientific evidence is in their favor while also believing that theists have nothing but blind faith in the face of all evidence to the contrary.  However, are they justified in thinking that atheism isn’t a belief system? 

Below, I’ve listed three different definitions from respected sources:

Oxford Dictionary:
Atheism: Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods1

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Atheism: The negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God2

Encyclopedia Britannica:
Atheism: The critique and denial of metaphysicalbeliefsin God or spiritual beings3

 Given the three definitions I’ve listed, it is accurate to say that an atheist denies the existence of God.  However, to deny God’s existence would logically follow that an atheist believesthere is no God.    In the above video, Dr. William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens discuss the topic of atheism vs. agnosticism vs. verificationism.  Hitchens makes the statement, “there is no claim that I know how to make that says, “atheism is true” because atheism is the statement that a certain proposition isn’t true” but then Hitchens states a couple seconds later that atheism “is not in itself a belief or a system”.  The late Hitchens, one of the four horsemen of the new atheism movement, states that atheism isn’t a belief system however he cannot provide substantive evidence to support his atheistic claim during his exchange with Dr. Craig.

 Atheism is a belief system despite what the atheists might believe.  Hitchens makes an extremely valid and revealing point, if he cannot justify the claim that “atheism is true”, wouldn’t that infer that there must be faith involved in being an atheist?  Maybe this confidence in the claim that there is no God is being propagated by the atheistic worldview.  That’s to say, interpreting all knowledge and data that is personally gathered through an atheist filter so that all considerations that include God sound completely absurd.  The atheist finds the universe to be a closed system that is void of a transcendent Creator while the theist values the Genesis 1:1 account and appreciates the universe through the paradigm of God while observing Him in His creation4.  Both worldviews generally result in an interpretation of science that reflects their worldview, however both cannot be true. 

 In conclusion, we find that the facts more plausibly reinforce the theists’ worldview.  We find atheistic scientists jumping through hoops in an attempt to justify how our universe came into being ex nihiloby saying that the universe came from nothing, the universe created itself, the multiverse theory, and many others.  In addition, people have gone great lengths to disprove the historicity of Jesus by coming up with absurd conspiracy theories that don’t have enough plausibility, explanatory power, or explanatory scope to outweigh the resurrection hypothesis.  The fact is, it is perfectly reasonable to place your faith and trust in God given the evidence at hand.  That is what makes atheism a faith rather than a fact.

Notes

1 Definition of Atheism (Oxford Dictionaries). http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/atheism

2 Atheism and agnosticism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheism-agnosticism/#1

3 Atheism (Encyclopedia Britannica). http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/40634/atheism

4 John Lennox, God’s Undertaker – Has Science Buried God?(Oxford, England: Lion Hudson plc) Chapter 1

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11 responses to “Is Atheism a Faith?

  1. Why would you choose to go to the dictionary, which reflects common usage and is updated as usage changes, instead of the self-descriptions of actual atheists?It's not a difficult concept; atheism is the privative category, the "none of the above" answer to "what is your religion?" or "what god or gods do you believe in?". There are many negatively-defined categories, and an examination of some of them might open your eyes. Non-christians (the proper term once was "heathens"), for instance, could be atheists, or muslims, or jews, or buddhists, or hindus, or Greek or Norse polytheists, or anything at all but christians. What do non-christians have in common? Only what they are not. Non-muslims (Kafir, or infidels) may be christian, jewish, atheist, polytheist… you get the picture. What do non-muslims have in common? Continuing, what do non-jews have in common, or non-Greek-polytheists? When you define a group by what it is not, there need be no commonalities among that negatively-defined group.Atheists are defined by what they are not; they are not religious believers. Do they believe in nothing? Not so–they just hold no systematic beliefs that positively define them. Some are humanists, but not all. Some are rationalists, but not all. Some actively deny the existence of one or more gods; I doubt that many, if any, could even name all the gods that some other people believe in, or have believed in over the centuries. If "not believing in a god" is a religion, then Christians must practice several religions–they do believe in Yahweh, but they also do not believe in Zeus, or Aphrodite, or Ra, or Thor, or a thousand others. Clearly this makes no sense; one must treat negative categories differently from positive categories. Christians need not actively reject all other gods; they don't even have to think about them. They are defined by their own belief. Non-christians (or non-muslims, non-jews, or any other negative category, including atheists) cannot be defined that way, as shown above.By the way, the privative definition I have described is also completely consistent with your chosen dictionary definitions; the parts of the definitions which you ignore are completely descriptive of this usage.You criticize Hitchens for being unable to substantiate an atheist claim; your criticism is, of course, absurd. With no positive claim being made, there is nothing to defend; the burden of proof is always on the positive claim. There is no need to prove the absence of a god (any more than we need to prove the absence of fairies, gnomes, unicorns, dragons, or Australians); the burden of proof is on those who claim these things exist. One of them has plenty of evidence that any observer can agree on (hint: it's Australians, not gods).It makes perfect sense when you use and understand the proper definitions. It is when you try to treat atheism as a belief that you get in definitional trouble.Hope this helps!

  2. Cuttlefish,I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to respond to my post so thoroughly. I’m going to do my best to reply to your remarks in the order in which you made them.I choose respected and reliable dictionaries to provide a definition of an atheist because I wanted to illustrate what an atheist generally believes. I simply don’t have the time or resources to identify how each and every atheist describes their own atheism. However, based upon my research, these definitions for atheism are satisfactory in illustrating what an atheist generally believes. Next, you label “atheism” as a privative category defined by what it doesn’t believe rather than what it does belief. You make examples illustrating your point that people are identified by commonalities associated with what they believe (for theists) or don’t believe (for atheists). For example, Christians aren’t identified for the lack of belief in every other religion outside of Christianity. I hope you noticed that I worded the title of the blog post, “Is Atheism a Faith?”. I didn’t associate atheism with being a religion or a believer of any systematic doctrine. Faith is associated with placing your trust in someone or something. Therefore, I find that atheism is a faith because an atheist places his or her trust and confidence in the fact that there is no God or gods. Now, regarding Hitchens. I think you may have misunderstood the context of the video. The video was of a cross-examination being performed by Dr. Craig to Hitchens. Hitchens is asked why he believes that atheism is true after being asked to label whether he was an atheist, agnostic, or a verificationist. Under this setting of cross-examination, Hitchens would have the duty to justify his stance for believing in atheism versus believing in agnosticism or verificationism. At this level of debate and academic scholarship, there should be substantial reasoning for a firm stance in whatever he believed. I found that Hitchens failed to justify his stance adequately. However, the affirmative does typically have the burden of proof during a debate but during a cross-examination you are able to place the other in the hot seat and have him or her defend their views. Given the context of the debate, I feel that my critique of Hitchens is still valid as Hitchens was unable to firmly establish a case against theism nor build a case for atheism. Lastly, people are identified by their commonalities as you say. However, this isn’t a post regarding how people are labeled. It was a post about people who sincerely have faith that there isn’t a God. I would think that an atheist should warmly welcome this claim as he or she affirms it when he or she says, “there is no God”. When they make a claim like this, they do so confidently and with the faith that it is true. I hope you understand that I’m not attempting to say that atheism is a religion. That isn’t my goal. However, my goal is to communicate that I personally believe that in holding to the atheistic worldview, you do so in faith. I believe in Jesus Christ because I feel that it is the most rational decision to make based upon the evidence. However, it is clear that not everybody is going to agree with my stance. That is ok. We are all different. However, there are no absolutes in life from an evidential standpoint. Therefore, we all take the stance that we do because we have faith that it is true.Somehow, I think we may end up agreeing to disagree. I am fine with that. However, I hope that I have given you a clarifying note on what I my intention was for this post.God Bless,Alan Anderson

  3. Wait… you say "For example, Christians aren’t identified for the lack of belief in every other religion outside of Christianity"… you are really stretching here. Christians are, I hope you realize, positively defined. In truth, hundreds of Christian sects are positively defined. Christians are not defined by not being non-christians, but by a particular set (several, actually) of beliefs. Various Catholic sects, Orthodox sects, Protestant sects, all are Christian (yes, I know some will claim that others are not) because of particular characteristics that define them as Christian. No christians are defined as christians "because they are not non-christians".This misunderstanding is carried through in your misunderstanding of Hitchens' statement. Your assertion, that atheism is a faith, is plainly untrue; Hitchens understands this and speaks accordingly. Your failure to understand is not Hitchens' problem.You say that this was a post about "people who sincerely have faith that there isn’t a God." No, it was not; it was, according to the title and according to the content, a post about atheists. Your improper definition (I do not blame you for this; these are not your people) led you to a misunderstanding. You are defined by your belief; it is perfectly understandable that you would think that other people are defined by theirs. Many are, of course. The privative category is an exception, and an important one, but you continue to miss the distinction.You are making a positive claim when you say you personally believe, and say that you believe because of specific evidence. I've seen that evidence, and do not share your belief, but that is a separate point. An atheist need not affirm "there is no God"; you, of course, need not affirm "there is no Zeus", or "there is no Thor" or "there is no Ra". There are thousands of claimed gods; have you specifically denied each of them? Atheists, by definition, make no positive claim. (Some atheists do, but it is not at all a prerequisite for atheism, and it is not what makes them atheists.) If you are addressing your post only to the few who make a positive claim, then your argument does not address the vast majority of atheists (including those whom you mention in your post).I do not care whether you say atheism is a religion or not. I agree, that is a separate question (much easier to answer–it is not). Your claim was that atheism is a faith-based position, and your claim is clearly wrong. I had hoped that your post was a sincere attempt at understanding. I still have some hope that this is the case, though I have been in similar situations before and have been disappointed. It takes no faith whatsoever to say "I do not believe in X", when one has no evidence for X. I do agree that if you do have evidence for X, it would take faith to say "X does not exist". Do you have such evidence, that has no other explanation? After many years of this sort of thing… I doubt it, very much.

  4. My mistake–I read "aren't" as "are" in my first paragraph. It does not change my stance at all, but does change what I thought *you* were saying. Perhaps you are more in agreement with me than I thought.

  5. Cuttlefish,Once again, I appreciate your input. As I concluded with my last response, I thought we’d likely end up agreeing to disagree. However, I’d be happy to expound my position a little further.I’m not going to partake in the trivialities of semantics concerning the word “faith”, which is what I think it largely is at this point. By saying that your privative category of atheism is exempt to the rule of faith, you are mistaken because you still believe there isn’t God. To stake the claim, “atheist”, in order to attain a privative stance simply because it releases you from the burden of faith is simply incoherent. This was a post about atheists, I agree. It was even titled, “Is Atheism a Faith?”. I haven’t led to you believe otherwise. Even from the quote you included from my response, “people who sincerely have faith that there isn’t a God", is an indirect reference to atheists. While atheists don’t need to affirm a God just as I don’t need to affirm the existence of Thor or other mythological creatures, I can affirm the faith I have in their non-existence exist based upon evidence that they are not real. As I said, this dialogue is now revolving around semantics. Whether claims are made positively or negatively, both still require faith in their beliefs otherwise they wouldn’t have believed in them to begin with. I hope we can respect the stances we both hold and hope we can gather insight from the opposition. God Bless,Alan Anderson

  6. " While atheists don’t need to affirm a God just as I don’t need to affirm the existence of Thor or other mythological creatures, I can affirm the faith I have in their non-existence exist based upon evidence that they are not real. " Could you please point me to this evidence? I know I said you have no obligation to have this evidence, but you do claim to have it, so I ask you for it.Do you also have evidence that the thousand other gods I have not named are not real? How many gods have you examined? Have you put your own god to the same test as all these others? I must say, that is quite a burden you have put for yourself; I am glad I don't have to disprove anything in order to believe as I believe.The vast majority of believers I have spoken with have not examined the smallest fraction of competing gods; I am so glad to have met someone who has. I look forward to your evidence. I will probably have to reconsider everything I think about my definitions, if what you claim is true.Ok, in truth (I respect you enough not to lie to you) I suspect that you do not have any evidence that is sufficient to both A) prove other gods wrong, and B) by the same standard, prove your god right. This is not at all a matter of semantics; this is a matter of evidence. I invite you to prove me wrong; I invite you to, god by god, disprove the other gods, with evidence that does not disprove your own. For your ease, I'd suggest starting with wikipedia's "list of deities". In fact, I'll make your task easier and be perfectly content with that list alone (with links, of course).Please know, I have no expectation at all that you will be able to do this. No one should have to. Belief does not work that way. You believe for the positively-defined reasons that you believe, not because you have actively rejected every other god, of the thousands of other gods that people believe in. I just want to open your eyes to the notion of positive and negative definitions. You claim to be open to examination; you clearly do not (thus far) understand or accept my definition of atheism. I want you to know… your definition of atheism is wrong. It is unfair. It leads to misunderstandings. I would not ask you to defend your belief against every possible belief. That is not how you came to your belief (no matter what you claim). Please, do not ask atheists to disprove every other possible god–not even yours. It's silly. It's unnecessary. It's not our job. The burden of proof is yours. Hey, the good news is, you don't have to disprove Zeus, or Thor, or Odin, or Ra. It is their believers' burden of proof to demonstrate to you that they exist. If they can't convince you, that's their problem, not yours. If you can't convince me…Yup–your problem, not mine.

  7. Cuttlefish, Once again, I appreciate your feedback. Obviously, as you deliberately intended, these requests you are making are unreasonable. Please visit some of the other posts on this site for some stances that I find compelling for the existence of God based upon evidence. I don’t have to investigate every god anyone has ever worshipped in order to know mine is the God I find evidentially compelling enough to place my faith in. Just as you find it to be compelling to be an atheist without viewing the evidence for every single god that has ever been worshiped, I find that the Christian God to be the most compelling based upon the evidence.I’ll remind you that we’re not discussing issues related to the evidence provided by the other arguments. These red herrings you’re placing up to distract from the matter that faith is required in being an atheist isn’t accomplishing much. However, you’re right; I don’t agree with your stance on atheism. As you said, that’s my stance and it isn’t your problem. As I’ve said in the previous two posts, I hope we can agree to disagree.God Bless,Alan Anerson

  8. I am perhaps rather late to the party, but I read your post and found it interesting and thought I might add a few remarks.

    There are many common misconceptions about what being an atheist is, the thesis of your post being chief amongst them. Perhaps I am able to clarify a few things from the stand point of an atheist. First, I would submit to you that arguing from definition typically does not make a strong case, and so it would seem in this respect. It appears that you only selected a portion of the three definitions provided that support one of the most common misconceptions.

    It would appear that you have negated the bit about atheists “lacking belief.” I consider myself an empiricist and as such, rely on the best information available from which I am able to draw reasonable conclusions. That being said, there exists not a single compelling, well-reasoned argument for the existence of god. But, with respect, that is not the same thing as believing there is no god. To say that there is no god and lacking belief in the existence of god are two very different things.

    I am inclined to agree with your assertion only insofar as it applies to atheists who argue that god does not exist. You mentioned Richard Dawkins as being of this type but that assertion is false. He has, on numerous occasions that it is improbable that god exists based on the information available.

    The notion that a person assumes x to be false on the basis that it lacks support is a fallacy commonly referred to as affirming the consequent. I do not deny that there are atheists who think this way, however I would submit to you that, on the basis of a few exceptions, it cannot be argued that atheism is a faith. That would be the same as assuming that all religions are evil as a consequence of 9/11.

    Thank you very much for your post, and for allowing me to participate.

    • I appreciate your cordial and kind tone of your response. It is genuinely welcome.

      You’re arguing that I didn’t use an EXHAUSTIVE list of all possible definitions associated with ‘atheism’ and that this fact has weakened my thesis because I “negated the bit about atheists ‘lacking belief'” However, the first definition I included in the article was from the Oxford dictionary that read, “Atheism: Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.” However, it strongly appears that the most philosophically accurate definition of atheist is the ‘denial of the existence of a god or gods’, which would necessarily require the belief that God must not exist in order to stay loyal to its definition. If one falls into the category of ‘lacking belief’ to avoid positive belief in the non-existence of God, then they are some form of agnostic. For example, I believe that unicorns do not exist on the planet Earth. Have I checked every piece of empirical data to validate this conclusion? Obviously not. So, would I be considered an ‘atheist’ for ‘believing there are no unicorns’ or an agnostic for ‘withholding believe until further evidence arrives so that I can make the most reasonable conclusion’ as far as the existence of the unicorn is concerned? In my opinion, I’m perfectly reasonable for believing that unicorns don’t exist rather than merely ‘withholding belief’ in them. Sometimes, it feels like the empiricist, like yourself, will speak as a self-proclaimed atheist while aligning more with a philosophical agnostic.

      As an empiricist, it would seem that you would need some empirical evidence in support of atheism before reasonably making the judgement to become an atheist. As far as empiricism is concerned, it sounds more reasonable to reside in the agnosticism camp rather than positively define yourself as an atheist. You said, “To say that there is no god and lacking belief in the existence of god are two very different things”, which sounds like, “I shall withhold belief in God until such a time as I find the evidence compelling enough to extend the needed belief to become a theist.” This sounds like agnosticism, not atheism. Atheism requires that one be invested in the belief that God does not exist just like theism requires the theist to believe in a God. By definition, you cannot truly qualify as a theist by saying, “I lack belief in the non-existence of gods” because theism is more than a lack of belief. By the same toke, atheism is also more than just a ‘lack of belief.’ By definition, “atheism” and “theism” are definitions that extend truth claims to God…one for and one against.

      As far as Richard Dawkins is concerned, I’ll concede that you’re quite right and I would have written this section of the article differently back in 2012 if I were to re-write it. While you’ve corrected me in this regard, he’s not too far from flatly saying that he wholeheartedly believes that God does not exist. Check out the video below…

      Again, I appreciate your post along with the kind tone and quality of your material.
      God bless,
      Alan

      • Thank you for your reply.

        According to the Oxford Dictionary definition you provided to substantiate your argument it clearly states, “Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.” While I understand what you are saying, the disjunct here indicates that an atheist may either be defined as a person who lacks belief in God or gods, or (“or” being the key here) believe there is no god at all. Furthermore, while the three definitions in question contain similar language, they do not all contain the same language. This reveals a lack of consensus amongst experts, and speaks to my original point that arguing on definition alone does not make for a strong thesis. I therefore respectfully deny your claim that I cannot be an atheist.

        On your argument that “it strongly appears that the most philosophically accurate definition of an atheist is the ‘denial of the existence of a god or gods’,” I am compelled to inquire as to why you think it is the strongest? I would argue that, simply based on a feeling, simply does not make it so. There is no language in the definitions you provide that indicate this claim is true.

        I will explain to you what I do in fact believe. I believe that it is has become the business of religion as of late, to even the playing field, so to speak, between secular-minded and religious-minded people. I believe that doing so is a blatant attempt to redefine science and reason as a faith. We see this with evolution, climate change, the age of the earth, etc.

        Having had a bit of time since your response to formulate my own I would like to offer you something else to think about: While I do not deny that some atheists do in fact rely on faith to claim that god does not exist, I would argue that the extent to which they do, is disproportionate in comparison to the amount of faith that religious people exercise. I do not think they hold this belief blindly – they do so with justifiable reason. To put it another way, they are inclined to believe that god does not exist in light of the evidence which, time and again, suggests that a deity is not needed to explain the origins of the universe. Does that mean that god does not exist? Absolutely not. I would submit to you however, that it makes a stronger case than blind faith.

      • I truly appreciate your thoughtful reply. Thank you for putting so much thought into your response.

        To address the somewhat varied definitions that are provided for atheism, it strongly appears that many people have assumed that since there are varying interpretations for what most accurately describes atheism then that necessarily means that atheism does not have any qualifiers that an individual must meet to accurately be defined as an atheist. I used an example in my previous response regarding the qualifiers that a theist and atheist must meet in order to be classified as such. No such argument is made that theism is the ‘lack of belief’ in the non-existence of Gods. The fact is that theism is positively defined in the ‘belief in a God or gods’ in the same manner that atheism is defined in the ‘belief in the non-existence of a God or gods’. Those are the primary qualifiers that individuals must meet in order to classify themselves into one of those categories. While the definitions may be slightly varied among experts, the various definitions ultimately corroborate the conclusion that I addressed in this paragraph concerning qualifiers.

        Next, you inquired as to why I feel this definition of atheism is the most ‘philosophically accurate’. I would agree that arguing from ‘feeling’ is not the basis for reliable conclusions to truth claims, however I made the conclusion on the fact that it ‘strongly appears’ that the experts agree that atheism is defined most strongly by someone having a positive belief in the non-existence of a God or gods. In my experience in my interactions with atheists, ‘faith’ is the atheists’ kryptonite and many seem to semantically juggle words and phrases in a manner that will provide themselves enough philosophical distance from the theist to feel safe and secure. For the reasons listed in the above paragraphs, the atheist is philosophically committed to much more than a ‘lack of belief’ but to a positive belief in something other than theism. Whether this belief is in the non-existence of a God or the belief that we will never know, self-proclaimed atheists have a belief.
        You mentioned that you believe the church is the blame for redefining ‘faith and science’ to ‘even the playing field.’ Respectfully, how did you reach this conclusion? I’d like examples of this activity taking place that would establish a clear motive on behalf of the church to ‘even the playing field.’ What do you mean by ‘evening the playing field’?

        Lastly, I’ll address your final comments. You argue that the atheists who subscribes to a positive belief in the non-existence of God are more firmly rooted in evidence and are more reasonable in their belief than the theist because of the disproportionate amount of evidence in the atheists’ favor. You believe that the atheist does not have ‘blind faith’ in this regard because ‘time and again’ the evidence suggests that a deity is ‘not needed.’ In one paragraph, you claimed that atheism is true and theism is false without provide a single bit of supportive evidence for your claims. Honestly, this topic has been debated for millennia and a couple of bloggers are not going to resolve it in this comment thread. If there is a particular topic that you’d like to discuss, look for it on my blog elsewhere and we can dialogue about it there so that we can actually have a pointed discussion on a specific topic. Since your statement was vastly broad, it’s hard to know where to begin.

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