Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Do Atheists Exercise Faith in Unbelief?

One of the most popular apologetic responses theists direct towards atheists, especially when they have been painted into a corner and have exhausted all arguments from reason and logic, is the assertion that everyone is religious, even atheists. They argue that we atheists evangelize often, and that we even have our own “prophets,” such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Robert M. Price. The argument is often hinged on the assertion that because one cannot prove there is no god, and because faith is belief without evidence (which they have at this point admitted if they are making this argument), then atheists therefore must have faith and are therefore religious. I have even heard several Christian apologists declare that “I could only be an atheist if I had more faith than I already do.” In 2004, Crossway Books published a book by Christian apologists Norman Geisler and Frank Turek entitled I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be An Atheist. This line of reasoning follows a grander theme that is usually pushed by the mainstream and prominent apologists, such as pastor Douglas Wilson of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. Wilson, who embarked on a debate tour with Christopher Hitchens in 2008 (excerpts of which became the 2009 documentary film Collision), actually confronted Hitchens with the following arguments:
There’s no such thing as a standard-less worldview. Every worldview has standards, express or implied, and you can’t function without appealing to those standards constantly. I want to base everything on the Bible. And if you were to say, “Why do you do that?” and I said, “Well, as it says here in Romans . . .” right? You’d say, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, I’m challenging, I’m challenging your authority; you can’t just flip to a verse,” right? Because you’d say I’m begging the question, reasoning in a circle. Well, I would say the same thing here. If a person says, “I’m going to base everything, my whole worldview, on reason,” and I would say, “Why do you want to, why do you do that,” when he turns to give me a reason, what’s he doing? He’s flipping open his Bible.

Every finite creature has to start somewhere. All of us have certain fixed axioms, and we reason from those axioms. My axioms are Christian.

This is a bizarre argument, but the motivation of those putting it forth is easily understandable. If the definition of “religious” applies equally well to believer and unbeliever alike, then who can criticize the faithful without taking on equal damage? According to Douglas Wilson, the foundations of all belief systems are chosen arbitrarily, without exception. But then we must ask: If we are all religious no matter what we believe or do not believe, then what is the designation of “religious” really supposed to mean? It would seem that, in their last-ditch effort to deflect criticism, advocates of this argument have effectively diluted their own position to the point of being meaningless. After all, if I can choose my axioms arbitrarily, then all I need do is simply choose whatever conclusion I want to arrive at, and then subsequently select the specific axioms that will get me to that desired conclusion. A case can therefore be made that such postmodern arguments are not even proposing anything of substance at all.

Apologists with this kind of postmodern bent have thus saved the village by destroying it. They are in essence admitting that their worldview is completely arbitrary. When this thinly-veiled concession is exposed, one is obliged to ask them why they are even debating atheists and agnostics in the first place. The line that “atheists exercise religious faith too” is the apologists’ way of saying: “Do not bother me. Every belief is an arbitrary positing, and every worldview grows out of that arbitrary starting point. All ideas contain their own criteria of plausibility.” This of course means that, according to them, a so-called “explanation” can be made available for everything that derives from any relative standpoint, explanations that seem plausible and probable insofar as they accord well with a given premise and reinforce it. But again, if there is in fact no objective criterion for both sides to appeal to, why are the two sides even debating? Religious apologists who take this approach (e.g., “You atheists are just doing the same thing we are, so get off our case”) only demonstrate that they rejoice to live in a bubble reality that is self-contained.

I find this apologetic approach very suicidal. Are religious believers really willing to say, “Yes, I am standing in mid-air”? Shouldn’t this concession alarm believers at least a little? Perhaps the reason alarm or caution is rarely expressed by such apologists is because most of the time they do not fully realize just what they are saying, which is: “I have made up my mind; do not confuse me with the facts. You do not have any right to try to confuse me with the facts, because you have just made up your mind arbitrarily as well.”

I hope to show clearly in this essay that this charge against atheists (and unbelievers generally) is not true. To begin, let us take as a concrete example the debate between those who criticize the authenticity and reliability of the Bible and those who affirm it as authentic and reliable. The fact of the matter is that both sides have only one thing in common, namely the spoken, working hypothesis that in order to understand the Bible, we must interpret its contents with the aid of historical background, cultural background, ancient grammar conventions, etc. Apologists for the reliability and truth of the Bible generally do not resort to allegorizing (except when they attempt to harmonize discordant and contradictory texts in the Bible). They claim to be restricting themselves to the evidence presented by the text, just as the critics are doing. There, I would contend, we do have legitimate grounds for debate. But what do the apologists actually do when we go beyond claims and examine their practice? They very often attempt to short-circuit the entire critical process and, by dragging their presuppositions into the discussion, fail to appeal to any real historical method. It is my contention that it is merely a pretense on the apologists’ part when they express interest in studying biblical texts with controllable and objective methods.

It must be emphasized that this is not what us critics of Christianity and religious theism in general are doing. This issue almost never fails to surface in debates surrounding Thomas Kuhn’s great book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962, rev. eds. 1970, 1996), in which Kuhn makes the point that all revolutions in scientific thinking are not so much matters of discovering new data (though, of course, this does happen), as they are matters of creating new paradigms, new heuristic hypotheses that are imposed upon the data to see what sense these hypotheses can make of the data, to see if they will render hitherto anomalous and puzzling data newly intelligible. This is very similar to the concept of the hermeneutical circle which was developed and formulated by philosopher Martin Heidegger and which the prominent German theologian Rudolf Bultmann adopted in his interpretations of the Bible. The “hermeneutical circle” describes a process by which a text is approached with a series of questions that the one studying it wants the text to answer. As one reads and interacts with the text, the questions may have to be adjusted. The student of the text may realize that she is barking up the wrong tree, that the author was not interested in what she is asking of the text. What is the author writing about? Once expectations are adjusted, that which the author is actually saying starts to make much more sense.

This is the way historical texts are always approached by scholars who know what they are doing. The late philosopher-historian R.G. Collingwood argued that this must be the precedent in all historical methods [1]. A fact is only a fact given a particular frame of reference, and this frame of reference is defined as an initial sketch of what is historically plausible in the situation that is being studied, whether we are studying the Civil War, Genghis Khan or Jesus Christ. The historian develops a tentative sketch to see what sense it will make out of the data at hand. If the tentative sketch makes no sense of the data, then the historian must go back to the drawing board. This method is always being applied at all steps in the study of history.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn eventually begins to compare paradigm shifts to religious conversion, since the data that occasions paradigm shifts is construed from within:
The man who embraces a new paradigm at an early stage must often do so in defiance of the evidence provided by problem-solving. He must, that is, have faith that the new paradigm will succeed with the many large problems that confront it, knowing only that the older paradigm has failed with a few. A decision of that kind can only be made on faith.

. . . But crisis alone is not enough. There must also be a basis, though it need be neither rational nor ultimately correct, for faith in the particular candidate chosen. Something must make at least a few scientists feel that the new proposal is on the right track, and sometimes it is only personal and inarticulate aesthetic considerations that can do that. Men have been converted by them at times when most of the articulable technical arguments pointed the other way. When first introduced, neither Copernicus’ astronomical theory nor De Broglie’s theory of matter had many other significant grounds of appeal. Even today Einstein’s general theory attracts men principally on aesthetic grounds, an appeal that few people outside of mathematics have been able to feel [2].

But Kuhn is jumping to unwarranted conclusions on this point; his own argument implies that paradigm-switching involves much more than what can be reduced to the concept of religious conversion. Paradigms are in fact preferable if we can show that a paradigm interprets the data in question in a more economical manner, without adding unnecessary epicycles (a term drawn from Ptolemaic astronomy). We should not cringe in embarrassment to embrace a given paradigm, if that paradigm involves less multiplying of ancillary hypotheses and reduces the addition of ad-hoc factors, e.g., My interpretation would work if x was true or if y was true. What reason is there to think that x is true or y is true? Answering that “The reason for thinking they are true is the help they would be to my paradigm” is unacceptable. A good paradigm must make simple and economical sense of the data, and as much sense as possible without reading in hidden assumptions and variables. Whoever supplies such a paradigm is the current winner, and the hope of the current winner should be that if there exists any data that does not fit within it, someone will revise or replace his paradigm. Thus, the point of bringing into focus a successful new paradigm is not to claim credit for it and copyright it. The point is to advance the discussion. Competent historians and scientists cannot have hobbyhorse favorites. Some do, but they are being bad scientists, bad historians, bad literary critics, etc. Favoritism towards particular paradigms does not even help anybody’s agenda. It cannot be emphasized enough that the correct question to ask is “What would make most sense of the data?

This is precisely why Creationism, for example, is not science. From the very get-go, it cannot be science, because Creationists are not simply looking at the data and inductively trying to construe it in such a way that it makes sense. Rather, they are insisting that the data be forced to fit within an alien paradigm, namely Biblical Cosmology. The late independent scholar Immanuel Velikovsky is famous for committing this fallacy with other ancient writings [3].

Thus, there is an objective and over-arching criterion to attain to; there is no point whatsoever in simply believing anything arbitrarily, because the criteria do exist. Of course, all these criteria are probabilistic. The ultimate truth might possibly be something that is wildly improbable, as well as something that cannot be arrived at by any means. But this possibility should lead us to agnosticism, not fideism. The probabilistic nature of all objective criteria does not entitle us to assert that since we cannot really ascertain deep questions empirically, we are justified in just choosing to believe x.

The approach of the religious apologist who is committed to defending the texts of the New Testament as a reliable record of truth can usually be summed up as follows: “We cannot really be sure that the original New Testament manuscripts, the autographs, read the same way then as we read them now, because there is no real evidence that goes back that early. Therefore, let us just assume that our copies are accurate and proceed from there.” The fact that this apologetic approach is widely used is indication that religious faith has replaced a proper agnosticism, which is understandable from a psychological point of view. After all, nothing can be done with agnosticism in the picture. The jig is up, and we cannot play the game anymore.

And if the game cannot be played anymore for certain issues, it is time the apologists concede that we just cannot play it. Apologists have been abusing postmodernism for far too long, using it as an excuse to say, “Do not confuse me with the facts” in a way that is disguised by what might seem to be clever and sophisticated language.

Faith as Ultimate Concern

Having established all this, I will say that there is a point to the claim that atheists can be religious, but only within a very specific context that evades traditional definitions of “faith.” I refer especially to faith as defined by the late Paul Tillich, the Christian existentialist philosopher who is considered one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. In his book Dynamics of Faith (1957), Tillich argues that “faith” should not be understood as meaning belief in a certain list of items, such as historical claims that cannot be corroborated. Credulity, says Tillich, should be distinguished from faith, as should the attempt to force oneself to believe something. Deep down, the one forcing belief in uncorroborated claims knows at some level that they are acting arbitrarily. Besides this, such people are brainwashing themselves whether they realize it or not at any subconscious level. Tillich insists that this is not faith.

Faith, according to Tillich, is being grasped at the deepest level by a particular question or concern:
Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern. Man, like every living being, is concerned about many things, above all about those which condition his very existence, such as food and shelter. But man, in contrast to other living beings, has spiritual concerns – cognitive, aesthetic, social, political. Some of them are urgent, often extremely urgent, and each of them as well as the vital concerns can claim ultimacy for a human life or the life of a social group. If it claims ultimacy it demands the total surrender of him who accepts this claim, and it promises total fulfillment even if all other claims have to be subjected to it or rejected in its name [4].

This ultimate concern can be the historical Jesus, for example. Having ultimate concern for the subject of Jesus’ historicity does not necessitate having a positive opinion on the matter (i.e., that Jesus was a real historical figure). This ultimate concern can also be concentrated on the question of the existence of God. It is difficult to think of anyone who was more exercised over the question of God than Madalyn Murray O’Hair. That was her ultimate concern, yet she did not believe God exists. Her ultimate concern, her Tillichian faith object, was to combat the delusion that God is real, a concern that I personally applaud.

Tillich is claiming that only the apathetic hedonist (whose sole response to the question of God’s existence is a shrug and a “whatever”) has no ultimate concern. Such a person is an atheist, if only implicitly, and really does lack faith of any kind. But if one is concerned about anything, even if it is unworthy of concern, that state of being ultimately concerned with it is faith. Tillich was not trying to get away with anything by sly apologetic maneuvers with this argument. He is simply interested in cutting the pie differently. He has often been accused of being an atheist himself! He is not attempting to claim that unbelievers are or have the potential to become some sort of Anonymous Christian, as the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner argued [5]. Rahner’s point was a very different sort of claim, one that is liable to be confused as being similar or identical to Tillich’s points.

On the other hand, there is at least some justification in saying that militant atheists who are overzealous to deconvert religious people are displaying a kind of quasi-religious zeal. I concede this point with some reservation and a few caveats, since “militant atheism” can only be designated as such if the militant atheist is interested in much more than simply provoking religious believers to question their worldview, which is all I as an atheist am “militantly” interested in. Still, there are atheists who heavily politicize their unbelief, and it is this camp that can arguably be said to be playing the same game as the devoutly religious, and that they have merely switched teams. There is an irony in that which I personally would like to avoid, as much as I would love to see people reject the delusion that is theistic religion.

Do Atheists Exercise Faith?

Finally, let us address directly the question of whether “faith” in the conventional, traditional sense of the word is required in order to be an atheist (e.g., Bertrand Russell said it, I believe it, that settles it!). I do not doubt that there are indeed nuts like this out there. But atheism, properly construed and understood, cannot accurately be caricatured in this way. Atheists such as myself generally approach the God debate by saying that, on a strictly theoretical basis, there could be a God. But we also understand that on the same theoretical basis, there could be four-armed Tharks living on Mars outside the range of our telescopes. Having granted this, I do not see any reason to take that possibility seriously.

I approach the question of God in the same way. My working hypothesis is that no god exists. Likewise, I do not see any reason to take the existence of Zeus seriously, either. Why should I? This is what atheism properly defined implies. Technically, what I am describing is agnosticism. But when the term “agnostic” is used as a qualifier by us atheists, we almost always use it to mean, as the late 19th century philosopher William James put it, that belief in God remains a live option:
Let us give the name of hypothesis to anything that may be proposed to our belief; and just as the electricians speak of live and dead wires, let us speak of any hypothesis as either live or dead. A live hypothesis is one which appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed . . .

A living option [the decision between two hypotheses] is one in which both hypotheses are live ones. If I say to you: “Be a theosophist or be a Mohammedan,” it is probably a dead option, because for you neither hypothesis is likely to be alive. But if I say: “Be an agnostic or be a Christian,” it is otherwise: trained as you are, each hypothesis makes some appeal, however small, to your belief [6].

In the case of the God Hypothesis, the rational appeal is very small, but it remains a live option nevertheless. If there is indeed any reason to believe in God, it simply has not been made definitive, and we are therefore stuck where we are. As an atheist, I do not claim to know what the case is, only that there is currently insufficient evidence to suggest that any god exists.

The 19th century English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (who is credited with first coining the term “agnostic”) understood agnosticism in much the same way:
Agnosticism . . . is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle . . . Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable [7].

This is a principle that gives much credit to the possibility of God, nothing more. The atheist therefore does not exercise faith. Speaking for myself, I find that I simply cannot take the concept of god seriously; again, I have not been able to find any reason to believe that any god exists. Technically, a god may really exist. But on a theoretical level, who really knows? We are all agnostic whether we admit it or not, whether we be agnostic atheists or agnostic theists. Nobody can sanely claim to know everything about the universe, but does this mean that I as an atheist have any reason, pragmatic or otherwise, to think a god exists? The answer is no, and I am currently in no position to be able to give any credit to the God hypothesis.

This is not a faith posture on my part. Any apologist who tries to construe it as such is just a spin doctor. Not only that, but once again they will find themselves cutting off the limb they are sitting on by their implication that all beliefs are equally and completely arbitrary. In fact, I am indebted to the apologist who wants to move forward with that argument, because he or she will only win the debate for me.


1. R.G. Collingwood. The Idea of History. Revised Edition. Ed. Jan Van Der Dussen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

2. Thomas S. Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Third Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 158.

3. Immanuel Velikovsky. Worlds in Collision. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1950.

4. Paul Tillich. Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1957, p. 1.

5. “Anonymous Christianity means that a person lives in the grace of God and attains salvation outside of explicitly constituted Christianity . . . Let us say, a Buddhist monk . . . who, because he follows his conscience, attains salvation and lives in the grace of God; of him I must say that he is an anonymous Christian; if not, I would have to presuppose that there is a genuine path to salvation that really attains that goal, but that simply has nothing to do with Jesus Christ. But I cannot do that. And so, if I hold if everyone depends upon Jesus Christ for salvation, and if at the same time I hold that many live in the world who have not expressly recognized Jesus Christ, then there remains in my opinion nothing else but to take up this postulate of an anonymous Christianity” (Karl Rahner, Karl Rahner in Dialogue: Conversations and Interviews 1965 – 1982. Eds. Paul Imhof and Hubert Biallowons. Trans. Harvey D. Egans. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1986, p. 135).

6. William James (1896). “The Will to Believe.” Essays on Faith and Morals. Ed. Ralph Barton Perry. Cleveland, OH: The World Publishing Company, 1962, pp. 33-34.

7. Thomas H. Huxley, F.R.S. (1889). “Agnosticism.” Essays Upon Some Controverted Questions. London: Macmillan and Co., 1892, p. 362. The complete text of this essay is also available online at http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/thomas_huxley/huxley_wace/part_02.html.

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