One of the stronger arguments against Atheism is not made by religious folks at all, but often times by our friends, the Agnostics; who claim Atheism requires just as much faith as religion. The basis of their argument is that the separation of Atheism and Agnosticism basically comes down to Atheists having faith that there is no god, while Agnostics stand firm on the notion that Atheists and theists alike are attempting to resolve the unattainable. To further this argument, during a religious debate, a Christian once said to me, “I don’t have enough faith to be an Atheist!” This claim comes from the many religious folks that assert being an Atheist requires persons to have all knowledge of the universe in order to firmly state that there are no gods. Of course, being that we all lack that knowledge, the claim is sometimes made that Atheists must have a tremendous amount of faith – even more so than theists. These postulations come from both ends of our debate spectrum, so I feel it's necessary to address them here.
First of all, as with any good discussion, we must speak the same language. I will not accept ‘faith’ as only a religious term. The word actually derives from the Latin fidere, meaning ‘to trust’ which is akin to fides, also meaning ‘promise, loyal, and assurance.’ This is how we adopted the phrase ‘bona fide’ meaning ‘real’ or ‘factual,’ and ‘fidelity’ meaning ‘loyalty’ and ‘sincerity.’ Webster has three English definitions for faith; the first being ‘an allegiance to a duty or person, and sincerity of intentions.’ This is used when stating a person is ‘faithful’ to their spouse. The second version of the word is wholly dedicated to belief in a god, so we can quickly rule that one out for Atheists. The final definition simply states ‘complete trust, especially with strong conviction.’ Well Agnostics, you have us there! We do trust evidence and science. It is impossible to say Atheists have no faith at all, in the literal sense.
A preacher once told me, “You would be a great Christian if you ever started to believe; we could use your level of conviction in our church!” He followed by saying “I have to say, I respect you for having so much determination to stand up for what you believe in.” I responded with “Correction – I stand up for what I don’t believe in.” That statement set the tone that we Atheists do not profess a system of beliefs that requires the burden of proof. It is the duty of the accuser to prove the existence of their god, and we only stand up to them when they use their religious undertones to infringe on the civil liberties of others, or assert their beliefs as fact or common knowledge without absolute proof. This is where the problem comes in. What may be proof to one may not be proof to another; so what is the meaning of proof?
Imagine for a moment that faith is measured in a single tube (such as a thermometer) in which the actual fluid represents evidence percentage, and as it rises, people become closer to a full confirmation (proof). Any remaining space in the tube is a lack of evidence, also known as faith. Of course, upon discovering all possible evidence, the tube is full because faith is no longer needed. I call this the Faithometer Theory; and it concludes that the greatest assumption, with the least amount of evidence, must have the largest amount of faith.
In the simplest form of examining this theory, let’s set the scenario that Beth is standing in front of a closed door. By stating that she believes a dog is behind the door, she is making that statement on 100% faith, because she has no evidence to support that claim (her Faithometer is empty). Once she hears a dog barking, her evidence rises to approximately 50%, because she must concede that while she’s fairly certain the barking is coming from behind the door, the audio she hears could be a recording, or the dog could be in an adjacent room. Her statement is then made up of 50% evidence, and 50% faith. If she were to open the door and find a dog, her evidence would rise to 100% because she would have effectively proven her faith, and confirmed the existence of the dog. This would be the ultimate proof. However, with only partial evidence, and the possibilities of fallacies lingering, she must rely on a great deal of faith to make the claim that a dog is behind the door.
In a slightly more ambiguous form, you may have faith that your mother gave birth to you – so you go to the hospital where you were allegedly born, and check the records. Sure enough, your mother’s name is next to yours, and the documents provide you with a substantial amount of evidence for your Faithometer. But is that really absolute proof? Should your Faithometer be at 100%? The documents could have been mistyped or you could have been unintentionally switched at birth, and given the name of the child that was set to go home with your mother. Even with this document as evidence, there is a slight chance of error. Therefore, while you may wholeheartedly believe your mother gave birth to you, 100% of the evidence has not been obtained; therefore, even though your Faithometer has a substantial amount of evidence, say 98%, you are still relying on a small percentage of faith – but still, it is faith.
With a full understanding of both aforementioned scenarios, do you think it is fair to make the claim that you and Beth have just as much faith? When she hears the dog barking, is that just as much evidence as your birth certificate? Of course not – simply because you personally deem proof to be only that which satisfies your particular doubts. Therefore, if you do not have enough information, or even a problem complicated enough to form more detailed inquisitions, your doubts will be limited, and therefore require less evidence before you consider it proof (your knowledge on the topic determines the size of your Faithometer which needs filling).
We must remember that all seas are at the same level, regardless of depth. On the surface, they appear to be the same – but once you’re in the water, the bottom can mean all the difference in the world! Simply because two people have faith, it doesn’t make them equally blind to facts. Faith can be both justifiable and unjustifiable. We find a great comparison with the deep-sea fisherman and scientists whom prior to 2004, recovered the bodies of giant squid, but had neither filmed nor captured one living. These people had justifiable faith that giant squid existed due to the probable evidence they had found. It would completely discount their records and evidence to say they had the same faith as the believers of Demeter, the Greek Goddess of Agriculture! This worship and faith was obviously unjustified.
Since we Atheists do not have all the answers, some level of justifiable faith is required, in the literal sense – just as the scientists looking for the giant squid trusted there was one living before it was proven. But pointing back to the Faithometer Theory, when a greater amount of knowledge is discovered, a smaller amount of faith is required. In addition, it is a much greater assumption to say a magical god exists and is intervening in human lives on earth, than it is to state no such magic is possible. In fact, one statement is sensible and rational, and the other is a far-fetched claim that requires proof. Perhaps it is fair to say the theist must have all knowledge of the universe in order to claim their god is the only god! Most Christians would probably argue that as fact, but biblically, Yahweh even mentions ‘showing off’ for other gods in the Old Testament. It’s reasons like this, that a theist has the burden of proof with such an outstanding accusation of faith that their religion is the only true one, with so much evident contradiction. The other type of faith simply lies in the falsehoods of others. The Atheist has not made a single claim, accept that all supernatural claims are without proof.
If I were to try to be an Agnostic, and say, “I just don’t know if there is a god,” I would feel just as silly as saying “I just don’t know if there is a Tooth Fairy.” It’s not so much that we Atheists have ‘faith’ in the lack of gods, but we do have faith that theists accept fallacies as proof, most likely out of fear. This may be the same reason Agnostics will not profess true Atheism (the fear of being wrong). In the literal sense of trusting in evidence, I’m okay with being a faithful Atheist, but my faith is nowhere near the amount of unjustifiable faith required to believe in magical spirits helping us with daily activities.