All religions depend on a particular kind of faith, the belief in something in the absence of, and in fact counter to, credible evidence for its existence. Such an effort necessarily involves the suppression of doubt. When a person of one religion encounters someone from another, it is relatively easy to think that yours is the ‘right’ faith and the other person’s is the ‘wrong’ one. The other person is not challenging the very act of faith, but just the details of your faith, and people in religiously plural societies are used to fending off such challenges.
This is why religious people often try to suggest that since atheists cannot prove that there is no god, believing that there is no god is as much an act of faith as believing in a god. They are trying to make it once again a contest of dueling faiths, comfortable terrain for religious people. Atheists should not fall for that rhetorical gambit.
When atheists use the words ‘believe’ and ‘faith’, they use them in the scientific sense of the word. Scientists realize that almost all knowledge is tentative and that one knows very few things for certain. But based on credible evidence and logical reasoning, one can arrive at firm conclusions about, and hence ‘believe’, many things, such as that the universe is billions of years old. Or one can have ‘faith’ in the laws of science that keep airplanes aloft.
The words faith and belief used in the scientific context merely represent an implicit acknowledgment of our lack of absolute certainty. Even though we cannot be 100% sure that the current laws of science are true, we have sufficient evidence to commit to certainty and thus have ‘faith’ (in the scientific sense) that they will not let us down. Otherwise we would be paralyzed, frozen into inaction, afraid to drive a car or step into a building or go by plane, fearful that everything would collapse around us.
This is in stark contrast to the way the same words are used by religious people. They not only have to have faith in the existence of things for which there is little or no evidence or reason, but even in spite of much evidence to the contrary, and defying reason.
As a consequence, the greatest challenge to faith is not a competing faith, but doubt. When persons of faith encounter an atheist, the calm assurance of the latter that god does not exists brings them face to face with their own suppressed doubts in a way that can be much more disconcerting than meeting an agnostic.
Philosopher David Hume said in his work On Miracles: “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish…” Astronomer Carl Sagan put it more succinctly: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
The claim that there exists an all-powerful, all-knowing entity that exists everywhere in space and time, can even read everyone’s mind simultaneously, and yet is undetectable, is about as extraordinary a claim as one can imagine. Yet most people who believe in god do not have any evidence at all for this belief, let alone extraordinary evidence.
Believing in the existence of such a god requires faith in the religious sense, committing to certainty in spite of having no credible evidence or reason in support of that conclusion. Such a commitment is hard which is why religious people are always plagued by doubts. To try and overcome this problem, this deficiency is exalted into a noble virtue: the greater the lack of evidence or even reason for belief, the more the faith is lauded. This enables people suppress their ever-present doubts.
Believing that god does not exist requires faith in the scientific sense, committing to certainty based on overwhelming evidence and reason in support of that conclusion. Such a commitment is easy to make and we make such commitments all the time in our everyday life.
This is why religious people find atheists so disconcerting. Atheists are relaxed and confident about their commitment to disbelief in god in ways that religious people can never be about their own commitment to belief in god.
In Obama’s inaugural speech he said that he wanted to “restore science to its rightful place.” Applying scientific scrutiny and standards to all beliefs, including religious ones, might be a good place to start.
POST SCRIPT: Atheism on the move
The campaign to put ads on buses in London that said “There’s probably no god so stop worrying and enjoy life” generated some publicity and spurred a similar campaign in Washington DC with a more muted message that said “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness sake.” This also has generated some publicity.
These ads were relatively mild in their skeptical message but made me realize that it is not easy to come up with a simple slogan that expresses full-blown atheism in a pointed way that would also be eye-catching and thought-provoking and yet humorous. Any ideas, readers?