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What is Faith? (and do atheists have it?) September 25, 2007

Posted by Joe in agnosticism, atheism, belief, Christianity, evidence, faith, freethought, god, logic, religion, skepticism, theism.
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Atheists often define the word ‘faith’ as “belief in something without evidence or int he face of contradictory evidence”. I don’t believe this is really what theists mean when they use the word, but I cannot come up with a reasonable meaning that fits their usage. They seem to use it as a justification for their religious beliefs and as a way to buttress their belief in the face of doubts.

Faith is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as follows:

Main Entry: 1faith
[snip]
1 a : allegiance to duty or a person : LOYALTY b (1) : fidelity to one’s promises (2) : sincerity of intentions
2 a (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust
3 : something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs <the Protestant faith>
synonym see BELIEF
on faith : without question <took everything he said on faith>


I think definition 1 can be dismissed. Though both atheists and theists talk about faith in others. This is more used as a synonym for trust and is not what theists mean when they use faith as a reason to believe. Theists certainly have faith(1) in god, but it is not the meaning they use when they claim it is what erases their doubts and gives them reason to believe.

Faith(2) is absolutely the way many believers use the word faith. It seems very useless however, because it is simply a restating of belief. For example, “belief and trust in and loyalty to God” can hardly be given as a valid reason for believing in god. It would be completely circular.

Faith(3) again is a definition that is synonymous with a strongly held belief. But again holding a belief strongly is certainly not reason at all to support its being true, or to validate said belief.

This is why atheists have difficulty understanding what a theist means when they tell him that they have faith. They seem to be using a nonstandard definition.

So my best guess at what they mean is “belief in something despite the impossibility of comprehending it.” God they tell us cannot be comprehended by our limited minds, therefore one requires faith to believe what one cannot make sense of. One “trusts in god”. (Please if I have gotten this wrong and a theist is reading correct and or explain where I have run astray.) This way they explain in the face of a difficult conundrum presented by the non-believer why they persist in their belief.

Do atheists have faith?

Obviously atheists do not believe that there is a god to trust in that comprehends the stuff that we cannot. He cannot trust in a higher intelligence to arrange things that he cannot understand. The atheist must decide what to believe based on what he can understand and simply do his best with the subjects that he cannot. (Excuse my sexist language, but I am lazy.)

But this comes after he doesn’t believe in god. What does he base his non belief on to begin with? It can’t be said enough, but it is the simple lack of evidence that there is a god. Looked at objectively there is no compelling reason to accept any god claim. Lacking a compelling reason to believe is what leads one to atheism. There need be no positive reason to disbelieve.

Atheists come to believe in materialism because when you look around that is all they see. Materialism is simply the belief in what is. The stuff that exists is the called material. It is matter and energy and we know it exists because we can interact with it. No faith is required to believe in something that can be repeatedly interacted with and objectively verified.

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Comments»

1. Human-01 - September 29, 2007

feels like I am the technology human-01, and you are the humanity human lol .
From a human to human, how are you ?

2. Gabriel Somoza - September 29, 2007

Hey! I’m christian, and I sincerely have to say I really like this post. Out of all the posts I have seen so far (that talk about christians), this has been one of the most balanced and less biased.

What better to define “faith” than, for example, the Bible? Of course there are “other” faiths, but let’s discuss the “faith” christians talk about (or, at least, should, because still many don’t). “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Hebrews 11:1, NIV. Let me explain this:

Faith is being CERTAIN of what we do not see. How can you be certain? There’s many ways. God lives in my life. I see it in many things that a know wouldn’t happen if He wasn’t there. I talk to him everyday. Many times I can feel him in me (though I must be sincere and that is not ALWAYS, but yet IT IS many times, or at least some times). A famous writer said “Who has seen the wind? Neither I nor you; but when the leaves hang trembling, the wind is passing thru”. God is like the wind, only in the sense that I cannot actually SEE him, but I can FEEL him. The bad part: you can start to FEEL him IN you, only after you believe and He comes to live in you. If everybody could feel God, then there would not be any atheists! Every sane person would believe He exists, the same way every sane person knows the wind.

Faith is being SURE of what we hope for. My hope is put in God, that He rescued me from the natural consecuences of my own faults, and that I will be in His very presence after I die. If I am CERTAIN that He exists, then I can also be SURE that I’ll be with Him in heaven, as He promised me.

But I have found also that this definition is quite global. It applies to every-day life and also to people that don’t believe in God. Everybody is SURE of something he just “hopes” for. How can this be? Imagine I asked many people when did the universe come to existance. I would get all kind of answers. But what if the universe, regardless of any answer, came to exist just 5 minutes ago? What if it just popped out into existance with everything that is in it, including the evidence of millions of years of fossiles, including the Bible, including our memory, our beliefs, this blog, my alarm clock already set at a certain hour? What if everything just started to exist 5 minutes ago, with the evidence an even memories from our past being false? Extremely few people would believe that. Why? Because it couldn’t happen? No. Rather, because it’s not practical to think like that. People just have “faith” that the universe didn’t pop into existance 5 minutes ago. When you say goodbye to someone, you say “Bye! See you tomorrow”. Then you implicitely show “faith” in that a tomorrow will exist. How can you say the sun will even come up tomorrow?? “Because it has always has come up” is not an excuse. Maybe tomorrow it just doesn’t. Anyway, the sun doesn’t actually “come up”. So everyday people show faith in something. They hope there will be a tomorrow, they hope their memories about their loved ones are true, they hope the universe existed at least more that 5 minutes, they hope they are alive, but all these they do naturally and they usually don’t stop to think about it. That is because they have “faith”. They are SURE the sun will come out tomorrow, so why discuss it??

Atheists, and I mean those that say “There is no God”, have a lot of faith. By asserting that, they are proposing an active statement of faith, similar to “There is a God”. And I would say they have MORE faith that theists, because they cannot possible sure that there is NO god, unless they are a god themselves or have searched through every corner of the universe.

Atheists that say “I don’t believe on this or that god”, or that say “I just don think about God”, or say “I don’t have a religion”, they also have faith. They have faith in the sense that they hope their position is the better (and they are really SURE about it!), because if it is not, and there IS a god, then they have EVERYTHING to lose (eternety). While the theist needs less faith in his position, because if he is wrong and there actually is NO god, then he has NOTHING to lose.

As what the Bible says about atheists: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no god'”. As you said, nobody needs a good argument to believe there is no God, because there is no evidence that says otherwise (to which I disagree, but I grant). But then I can also say that nobody needs a good argument to believe there IS a God, because there is no evidence that says otherwise. Unless you have some, in which case I BEG you to share it with me. I mean, not evidence against the “christian” God. Whan I want is evidence against the existance of ANY god. If there is none, then whoever says “There is NO god” is INDEED a fool, and the Bible proves right.

Thanks for your patience, and again: awesome post (and please be sure of my compliments). Bye!

3. Joe - October 1, 2007

“Hey! I’m christian, and I sincerely have to say I really like this post. Out of all the posts I have seen so far (that talk about christians), this has been one of the most balanced and less biased.”Thanks Gabriel! I am doing my best to maintain balance and reduce bias. Since I truly don’t understand the meaning of faith, I suppose it was easy in this case.
“What better to define “faith” than, for example, the Bible? Of course there are “other” faiths, but let’s discuss the “faith” christians talk about (or, at least, should, because still many don’t). “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Hebrews 11:1, NIV.”
Cool, I didn’t know that was in there. That seems to dangerously parallel the atheists straw man version though. Why should one be sure of what they hope for? That seems incorrect to me. Likewise being certain of what we cannot see is wrong. We should only be certain at the level of which we have evidence.

A famous writer said “Who has seen the wind? Neither I nor you; but when the leaves hang trembling, the wind is passing thru”.
This seems to take the “see” quite literally in the biblical quote. Atheists don’t only believe in what they can “see.” They believe in what can be detected and measured in any way. I don’t think that is what faith means, does it?

“God is like the wind, only in the sense that I cannot actually SEE him, but I can FEEL him.”
So what about those that can’t?

“The bad part: you can start to FEEL him IN you, only after you believe and He comes to live in you.”
This is where the problem occurs. I cannot choose to believe in something without reason. I can’t believe first and find evidence later. Not only does that set me up for confirmation bias, but many religions make a competing claim that requires belief before evidence. I cannot sincerely pursue all of them? How do I decide between them if they all offer no evidence up front?

“If everybody could feel God, then there would not be any atheists! Every sane person would believe He exists, the same way every sane person knows the wind.”
True. So if this is the case why would god require you to believe in him before he gave you any good reason to?

“Faith is being SURE of what we hope for. My hope is put in God, that He rescued me from the natural consecuences of my own faults, and that I will be in His very presence after I die. If I am CERTAIN that He
exists, then I can also be SURE that I’ll be with Him in heaven, as He promised me.”
Being sure of what you hope for doesn’t make sense to me. Does that mean that I will get what I “hope for”

if I am sure of it? This seems to be an odd use of the word sure. How can I be sure in what I hope for when I see some things that I have hoped for do not occur?

“Imagine I asked many people when did the universe come to existence. I would get all kind of answers. But what if the universe, regardless of any answer, came to exist just 5 minutes ago? What if it just popped out into existence with everything that is in it, including the evidence of millions of years of fossiles, including the Bible, including our memory, our beliefs, this blog, my alarm clock already set at a certain hour? What if everything just started to exist 5 minutes ago, with the evidence an even memories from our past being false? Extremely few people would believe that. Why? Because it couldn’t happen? No. Rather, because it’s not practical to think like that. People just have “faith” that the universe didn’t pop into existance 5 minutes ago.”
The universe very well could have popped into existence 5 minutes ago. It is not faith or hope that leads me to believe otherwise. I believe otherwise simply because there is no reason to believe that the world just popped into existence. Absent evidence to the contrary there is no reason not to accept the existing evidence at face value. I could be a brain in a jar (a la The Matrix) but I have no reason to believe that I am, so walking around being two minds about it is simply a waste of time. This is why one shouldn’t go around believing in things without positive evidence.

“When you say goodbye to someone, you say “Bye! See you tomorrow”. Then you implicitely show “faith” in that a tomorrow will exist. How can you say the sun will even come up tomorrow??”
We have much evidence to lead us to believe that the sun will continue to come up. I don’t understand why you would need anything extra to believe this.

““Because it has always has come up” is not an excuse.”
Not it is not an excuse, it is evidence. Also knowing the science behind the Solar System is evidence. The only thing that could stop the sun from “coming up” tomorrow would be a catastrophic event. There is no reason to believe that such an event will happen tonight.

“They hope there will be a tomorrow, they hope their memories about their loved ones are true, they hope the universe existed at least more that 5 minutes, they hope they are alive, but all these they do naturally and they usually don’t stop to think about it.”
I don’t believe I hope for any of these. I think I believe them based on reason and evidence.

“Atheists, and I mean those that say “There is no God”, have a lot of faith. By asserting that, they are proposing an active statement of faith, similar to “There is a God”. And I would say they have MORE faith that theists, because they cannot possible sure that there is NO god, unless they are a god themselves or have searched through every corner of the universe.”
That is not the definition of atheist though. I atheist is simply someone who does not believe in god. They do not assert that god doesn’t exist. They don’t believe there is a god, because there is no convincing positive evidence. Where is the faith involved in admitting there is no compelling reason to hold a believe in god?

“But then I can also say that nobody needs a good argument to believe there IS a God, because there is no evidence that says otherwise.”
So you believe in Vishnu, Allah, and Zeus on the same basis? Since there is no evidence either way we should just make up our minds to believe whatever we want willy-nilly? Without positive evidence to support the existence of a god, the best position is to withhold belief. Sort of like the legal system. Nonexistent until proven existent. The atheist position should be the default and theists should have to support their god claims with evidence.

“Unless you have some, in which case I BEG you to share it with me. I mean, not evidence against the

“christian” God. Whan I want is evidence against the existance of ANY god. If there is none, then whoever says “There is NO god” is INDEED a fool, and the Bible proves right.”
Equally anyone who says “There IS a god” could be considered a fool. I say neither. I say I withhold belief in a god unless there is compelling evidence to support such a belief.

Thanks for the comment.

4. robert - October 16, 2007

I think “faith”, in this context, means believing something without any evidence or logic for doing so, because if you have either of those things, then it is no longer “faith”. Theists can, however, produce evidence for their belief in the existence of a creator and that evidence is as strong as any that atheists can produce in the other direction. Most of the arguments against theists are really arguments against the dogmas and practices of organised religion.

5. Travis - October 25, 2007

Been a long time since there were any post here.

6. Jordan - October 26, 2007

Hi Joe, just stopped back and thought I’d add my 2cents… or maybe 1.5 🙂

I would say it is more than this, but here’s an analogy (like all analogies, don’t take it too far):

Take a situation were in a room is you and a chair. You know what a chair is and what it is made for. You are going to sit in the chair. You have faith that the chair is going to hold you up (a reasonable belief). But faith is not merely an act of the mind but of will also and so you sit.

So I suppose I would define faith has a reasoned belief carried out. The act of the mind (believing the chair will hold you up) and the act of the will (sitting in the chair) are intertwined and inseparable.
But, I must add the disclaimer that we do not gain faith by works (which is why the analogy falls short).

Faith that brings about salvation, as Biblically understood, is a gift from God. This being known as God being the First-Cause. Like a father giving a child money so they can in turn buy a gift for their father.

Again, this probably isn’t the best explanation; just a simple one.

7. Bobby Goat GRUFF! - November 14, 2007

Hey! I’m a brain in a vat.

Even so, I believe in the material world. I do this as an act of faith. It’s OK to do that because I’m only acting. If I really had faith in the material world, the omnipotent (at least as far as I’m concerned) programmers of the feed into my vat would realize it and think that we weren’t playing a fun game. They’d have to take things seriously and make no errors in representing this fictitious world to me.

Of course, they’re quite nice entities. I can’t exactly call them people. They aren’t in vats like me and calling some being that isn’t like me a person is difficult. It isn’t like they have souls or anything. But, as nice entities, they behave in a moral fashion. And since I have deduced that about them, I can’t possibly bring myself to actually have faith in reality because that would in turn force their hands and that wouldn’t be really nice of me. Forcing the hand of someone who makes such pretty pictures and flavours is rude. Plus, how do I know they have hands? They might just have toes. They might be expert toe programmers.

On a less absurd note, I quite enjoyed your post. I also enjoyed your post about the fence.


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