Faith in Atheism

Nov • 22 • 2014

By Anton Drake

On the Bill Maher show last week comedian Martin Short asked what I thought was a very interesting question: “Don’t atheists have a kind of faith?”

My simple answer to this question is yes. And I’m not talking about faith in the atheist’s “who knows what we may not know about” sense of the word. I’m talking about an actual faith in atheism, which I also think is how the question was intended. That is “don’t atheists also have a kind of faith in the idea that God does not exist?”

Again, yes… and why not?

Leave aside for a moment the irony that the converse seems to be true, that there always appears to be an element of atheism in any subject of strenuous religious faith: if this element of “unbelief” were not present in some form, then what obstacle would there be for the positive force of religious faith to overcome?

Of course, most religions explicitly bolster their claims or demands on faith with historical evidence and with stories of miracles; it’s unnecessary for me to mention here that all the best and most charismatic arguments in favor of religion are invariably in the realm of the miraculous: transubstantiation, resurrection, immateriality, infinite power and omnipresence, etc. And as we all know, science effectively counters such evidence-based claims with its own empirically-minded and logically-coherent view of reality.

However we could go further and say that atheism must, unavoidably, also assume the form of “faith” whenever an individual decides that “I have enough evidence to (not) believe.” That is, “I no longer have to think about this anymore, I have sufficient faith that there is no God and so therefore I am now an atheist.” Which we might also equate to: “I place my faith in atheism.” Note that every additional piece of rational evidence that subsequently comes along, every “miracle” of scientific discovery that directly refutes ancient scriptural worldviews and truth claims (or merely towers over them in complexity of context at a distance of millennia) can of course always add to the foundation of this atheistic faith. And while atheism is, it must be admitted, a singularly easy faith to maintain, the satisfaction offered by such fresh nuggets of scientific validation are undeniably comforting and enjoyable, and can also spice up the occasional friendly debate.

But I would ask you to consider the possibility that atheism’s most intractable component, its most decided and committed “ism,” if you will, is actually its most interesting. Most atheists have neither the time nor the inclination for a continual and uncompromising scientific quest for truth, and we might in any case wonder if atheism really requires a scientific basis at all… much less a rigorously self-critical and scientifically “pure” one. We could, in fact, wonder if the insistence on arraying the vast Space Age armada of scientific reasoning against the tiny paddleboats of ancient desert religions might even betray a need for self-justification that is itself rooted in religious faith: the unconscious notion that religion is so formidable that every tool of science and reason must be deployed in order to refute it.

Meanwhile, in point of fact, anywhere it comes to “spreading the good news” of atheism to those who do not yet quite (un)believe, it is surely the excitement of being freed from religious reasoning and logic that is the most powerful of atheism’s attractants. And make no mistake, one is always free to un-believe, no questions asked; no bedrock of certainty is required for this, no logic, no reason, no evidence, no miracles, no community, no priestly oaths or holy books: ours is always a pure faith. And certainly, if someday you feel you need more evidence, if you want to dig deeper and study further to support your atheism, that is always there for you, the treasure-trove of secular literature, science and philosophy. But today, RIGHT NOW, if you feel it, and if you believe… I ask you, have you made your DECISION for atheism? [Silence]…. [Wait for it]…. “YES!!!! You are healed!!!! Welcome brother [or sister]!” Cheers. Hugs. Water. Wine. Whatever.

Interestingly, what is often seen in debates between the respective proponents of faith and un-faith is a comparison of opposites: the unfaithful are routinely held to strict account for every scientific supposition that exceeds the strictly empirical or requires cross-reference across the dimension of time, while the faithful assert that their own truth claims lie along a separate continuum, one that transcends earthly human knowledge and reason altogether. So it would be interesting if, just as we routinely pull religion into the sphere of science in order to measure it on the scale of rationality, we would also allow atheism to enter naked into the garden of unreason and irrationality, utterly unashamed of itself, existing like nature without requiring any logical justification for itself. And in such a place we might wonder if the meeting between faith and unfaith would perhaps appear to us as the collision between coercive force and the freedom of innocence.