Diversity in Atheism.

I wrote the following to Andrew Sullivan, who is the author of my favorite political blog, The Daily Dish. I’m not expecting a response, but I thought it would be worth sharing with you all:

Hi Andrew,

I am writing in response to your reader who argued that atheism rests squarely on faith:

What the atheists are avoiding is that their position, no less than that of theists, rests squarely on faith. There is no way to reach by reason the proposition that there is or is not a god. The only position compatible with reason is that we do not know. That doesn’t satisfy the atheists, though — they must deny the existence of what they cannot know does not exist.

As a somewhat vocal atheist, I hear this argument far too often and find it dismissive and demeaning. Just as many Christians vary in their views of God (as tolerant or strict, distant or deeply personal, for example), atheists have a variety of approaches to their unbelief. Your reader zeros in on the strong atheist, who is explicit in his/her denial of the existence of gods.

Though I am not fond of the modifier, I am what is sometimes known as a “weak atheist.” I am open to the possibility that a God of some type exists; my skepticism varies according to the definition of God that is proposed.

For now, I see no reliable evidence for the existence of the Gods imagined by most adherents of the Abrahamic religions. There is no need to look beyond humanity to answer for the good and evil that exist in the world today. My layperson’s understanding of scientific theories is sufficient explanation for the creation of life on Earth and the existence of the universe as it is today.

Until I see solid proof of God’s existence, I will take the view that there is no God. Ultimately, my position is as rational as saying, “I’ll believe that I’m getting paid when the check is in my hands.” This is reason, not faith, at work.

Thanks for hearing me out. I love your blog and follow it daily. I’m a Green Party liberal who wishes that more conservatives could be as rational as you are.


John Remy

  1. rusch

    I consider myself one or two steps away from atheism. That is probably why I enjoy this website :-) I would probably be an atheist but continue to have experiences that lead me to believe there is something beyond what I can readily experience which brings back to being I guess am what you could call a weak theist in some senses. Evil is a real big problem for anyone who chooses to believe in an all powerful god.

    Just some random thoughts,


  2. xJane

    I agree, and like your comparison of your faith to that of someone holding a check. The argument I always heard is that, if you ask someone on the street what time it is, and believe them, then you’re no better than someone who believes that the world is flat, lying on the backs of giant elephants, who are standing on the back of a turtle. Yes, we take things for granted every day (that your paycheck will not bounce, that a stranger on the street has no reason to lie) and operate on faith-based-upon-experience that things that have happened will continue to happen. If you are used to getting paychecks that do not bounce, when you are employed (as I was, briefly) by someone whose paychecks do bounce, you are forced to rexamine your “faith” in light of the new evidence. This is what I find to be missing from this argument. The theist (or devil’s advocate) claims that your faith in the word of a human is just as strong and unlikely to change as another’s faith in the word of a book. But you will change your mind about checks, or about asking strangers for the time, when you find an anomoly.

  3. chanson

    The interesting thing isnt the commenter’s opinion of atheism. The thing thats striking is the commenters opinion of faith.

    Every time I see this “atheism is just faith too!” chestnut, I skip the B.S. about atheism and just cut straight to the speaker’s underlying assumption: “faith” is not a good reason to believe something, evidence is. Getting him to admit that to himself is 90% of the battle — I’m far more interested in spreading critical thinking skills than I am in spreading atheism.

    Fortunately, my post on does belief atheism/evolution require more faith than belief in God? has excellent googlability — I get click throughs on related queries all the time. I always hope they’re from theists looking for confirming arguments and finding encouragement to think about what they’re saying instead. 😉

  4. JohnR

    Hi chanson!

    As I got towards the end of the letter, I realized that the reader was probably playing fast and loose with the definition of faith, and applying a broader definition with the atheist than might be acceptable when discussing faith among Christians. I didn’t put that in, because I wanted to emphasize my main point, which was to break stereotypes of atheists.

    But I like your approach. Like you, I do want to spread critical thinking, but I do also want to be a marketing agent for godlessness. It’s good thing that between you and me and others out there, we’ve got all the bases covered. 😀

  5. johnr

    xJane, you’ve hit upon a great point. It seems to me that skeptics change/abandon their faith based on experience and evidence, while among believers it is considered a virtue to hold on to their most cherished conclusions even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

    When I was struggling to hold on to my LDS beliefs in the face of overwhelming doubt, I often read the following quote from C.S.Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, in which a senior demon advises a younger one (the “Enemy” here is God):

    Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do the Enemys will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

    This reassured me that my continued obedience was virtuous, and my LDS leaders and friends, though worried for my sake, agreed.

  6. Jonathan

    A good post John!
    I love reading this kind of thing – what people who loosely describe themselves as atheists feel about criticisms from conservatives. I’ve heard the criticisms about the “faith” of atheism, and was curious what the response was. I can see why this criticism is annoying – the atheist (loose or strict) relies on evidence and rationality for their worldview, and to be told their fundamental beliefs are (surprise!) just based on blind faith, will see this as an insult.

    As their are many different versions of atheists, there are probably many versions of theists. To use Sam Harris’ argument – just because a theist believes in God does not mean he will by blind faith believe a person who tells him his wife is cheating on him – he will quite naturally require proof. My guess is that most theists try run their lives by the same principles as atheists – by upholding logic and reason as ideals. But Harris would argue that although the theist is quite rational, they are not consistently so. They separate an area of their life called “religion” from these standards, and believe all kinds of unprovable and irrational ideas that if held to the same scrutiny they would in most other everyday matters, would fall apart. A good argument, especially in the light of how badly religion seems to have treated humanity since the dawn of time.

    However, a closer study of God in the OT and the meaning of the Hebrew word “faith” needs to be done. I have this nagging feeling that the biblical concept of faith (I don’t care about any other concept) and the atheist ideals of rationality and proof are synonymous. I see the word “faith” (as used in pop-Christianity) as just another religious buzzword that has no clear meaning when used, like “holy” or “worship” or “glorify.” Many Christians may take it to mean “belief in what cannot be known” but this isn’t biblical. It probably means something more like “trust in what has already been proven to be true.” In a biblical sense, trust or “faith” in God was something that was built up over time – built upon proof after proof that he was who he said he was. Any other concept of faith proposed by Christians in non-biblical, and deserves to be criticized by those within and outside as nonsensical.

    The rational/biblical Christian and the atheist at this point are in agreement, but will not be so for long. How a truth is “proven” will become the permanent arena of disagreement. The Christian will see the reality of God’s existence backed up by daily interaction on a spiritual level. The atheist will see these “intuitions” and “feelings” as either something chemical or as simply unexplainable with current scientific knowledge.

    As a Christian, I do not know why God does not make a physical or aural appearance to doubting people, but I have a feeling that if it was effective, he would do it all the time, for everyone. Setting aside the gigantic problems that behavior like that would have on man’s free-will, proving to people that he (God) exists is more difficult than simply appearing, which can easily be dismissed as a hallucination. The proof must be cemented on a deeper level and with the right timing – Seeing an image of a person does not mean they are alive, or even real at all – some additional form of proof is needed – something deeper. If my wife died, and I started seeing her walking around but no one else did, would I not think myself insane?

  7. johnr

    Jonathan, thank you for pointing out the rationality of many believers.

    Until I hit serious challenges to my convictions, my religiosity had a powerful rational basis to it. Jehovah’s Witnesses come to mind as a religion that relies heavily on logic and rational proof, though they work hard to limit truth sources and the questioning of those within the religion.

    And I agree completely that ‘faith’ like ‘God’, ‘religion’ and many other words need to be used more carefully, especially when being tossed around by people arguing with one another! :)

  8. Jonathan

    I know I am guilty of being irrational – which is why I am trying to listen to others who aren’t Christian about topics of religion and world views. They usually have some great insights and thoughts that I can benefit from. You learn more about something when you encounter a bad side of it. I’ve done a lot of thinking about religious authority because I’ve been burned by it. People who have had fallouts with religion have done some good thinking about it, and their insights are valuable to the rational theist, someone that I am trying to be.

    I am also terrible at biblical exegesis, and have often got in arguments with Christians and non alike over a Hebrew word translated into English that I really didn’t know the meaning of. I’ve done whole Bible studies and missed what the Hebrew meaning of a passage was talking about. I’ve become more careful in the last couple of years, and now rely on great books (some by atheists believe it or not!) on explaining the meanings of biblical passages and the Hebrew words involved.

    Thanks again for the post! I hope that the author of the blog you wrote to sees value in your insight. I always enjoying reading about the complexity of your beliefs and the rationality and thinking that goes into them.

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