Part of an occasional series addressing popular misconceptions about atheism. You can access this and future articles by clicking on the “Atheists wish Christians knew” tag above this post’s headline.
Atheism is an absence of faith. It is not “faith” itself.
Spend any time on Twitter or on Quora, and you’re sure to find examples of believers who try to equate atheism with religion in one regard: both, they say, require faith.
This is not true. Atheism does not require faith. Similarly, having nothing to drink does not require a glass and being bald does not require a hairbrush.
What’s happening here is, everyone believes something. But “faith” and “believing,” in the English language, have distinct definitions. And when someone says “atheism requires faith,” they’re really confusing those definitions.
In common usage, believing means “accepting something as true or valid.” Faith, on the other hand, means “accepting something as true with or without conclusive proof of its veracity.”
These are my definitions, so if you want to quibble over them to iron them out, be my guest.
Using this framework, it can be said that all faith is believing, but not all believing is faith. If you believe the sun will “rise” tomorrow, that’s not faith. The sun comes up every day. Sure, clouds may obscure it, but it’s always come up, whether you see it or not. It does not take “faith” to believe there will be a sunrise tomorrow. It does not take faith to believe Barack Obama was elected to the presidency in 2008 and again in 2012. It does not take faith to believe the earth revolves around the sun.
It does take faith to believe in Sasquatch. It takes place to believe in fairies. It takes faith to believe in the Loch Ness Monster. It takes faith to believe in space aliens who have visited Earth from other planets. People who believe in those things may feel they have evidence, but they have no proof, and certainly no conclusive proof.
It doesn’t take faith not to believe in Sasquatch or fairies or the Loch Ness Monster or UFOs.
And, sorry, God, Satan, spirits, and other supernatural entities fall into the same category. It’s real simple: If it takes faith to believe in something, then not believing in it does not take faith.
Here’s where believers like to get tricky, though. They expand the definition of atheism to include beliefs that are statistically correlated with atheism, but have nothing to do with atheism itself.
I don’t believe in gods. That’s it. That’s what makes me an atheist.
“Well, if you don’t believe in God, then you must believe in the Big Bang and Evolution, and those take faith.”
Well, first of all, let’s be clear about something: Not believing in God does not mean someone believes in the Big Bang OR Evolution. It can. And no doubt, statistically, people who don’t believe in God are probably more inclined to accept the Big Bang and Evolution as true. But that is about evaluating and accepting the evidence FOR the Big Bang and Evolution. It has nothing to do with atheism. You can be a theist and accept the Big Bang and Evolution. In fact, millions of theists fall into that category.
Second, proof of Evolution and the Big Bang is conclusive. Overwhelmingly so. Therefore, it does not take “faith” to accept them as true. It takes education.
What some believers like to do is place the Big Bang and Evolution on the same tier as their religious beliefs, and claim that it takes as much faith to believe in one as it does to believe in the others. They’re simply wrong about that. Coming to a conclusion based on the facts and evidence, testing that conclusion against new facts and evidence, and constantly seeing your conclusion hold up in the face of new evidence is the opposite of faith.
Look, in order to accept a proposition in the absence of conclusive proof, you need faith. “Hey, a few thousand years ago, this guy talked to a burning bush that wasn’t consumed by the fire, and a few years later the voice behind that bush gave him 10 commandments that we still honor today.” That’s a claim. It takes faith to believe that. If you don’t have faith, you don’t believe the claim.
It does not take faith to be an atheist. It takes faith to be a believer.
That doesn’t mean I have no faith in my life. Sure I do. Everyone does. But that faith doesn’t fuel my atheism. I have faith that I’m still going to be in the same job at this time next year. I have no conclusive proof. I could be wrong. But I believe it.
Penn Jillette, the magician/comedian/atheist, had a brilliant response to the worn out cliche, “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.” Since it takes zero faith to be an atheist, Penn responds: “If you don’t have enough faith to be an atheist, you sure as hell don’t have enough faith to be a theist.”
That’s my memory of the quote. It may be off a word or two. But I have faith I got the gist of it right.