Monday, January 08, 2007

Faitheism: Does Atheism Require Faith?

pm asked,

Does atheism rely on faith? Additionally, if it does, is atheism then a religion?
Two fascinating questions, but not necessarily connected the way that the question seems to assume.

Does atheism require some sort of faith? The right answer is the philosophers’ depends. If atheism is the belief in the non-existence of God, then we before we can answer the question, we need to clearly define what we mean by faith and what we mean by God.

There were some interesting assertions about the nature of faith in the original comment thread and I think that even those that seemed to be competing claims all got part of the story right. Faith does involve belief, but Kerry is correct that it is not an epistemological concept (that’s fancy philosophy speak for a concept related to the nature of knowledge, which we can think of as true justified belief). The notion of justification or good reason to believe is not operative when you talk about faith. To have faith in x is to accept the truth of x regardless of evidence for or against it. The claim that you can only have faith in propositions that are unlikely is half right. You may certainly have faith in a proposition for which there is very strong evidence, it’s just that it isn’t generally necessary because you could lean on the evidence as the foundation for your belief. But one could have faith in a proposition that is well supported, so that even if suddenly we discovered extremely strong evidence against it, you’d still believe it. This is what happened when Einstein’s special theory of relativity came along. there had been unbelievably good reason to believe that Newton had it right, then suddenly, there wasn’t. Yet, some very good, very smart scientists – Mach, Weber, Arrhenius – refused to surrender the classical theory, clinging instead to their faith in it. It is only in cases where the proposition is unsupported or has significance evidence against it that faith suddenly seems to become important because it is only in these cases in which it becomes obvious or necessary.

Notice that we are not saying that any belief for which we do not have absolute proof requires faith. We have proof for a very, very small number of things for which we have good reason to believe (pretty much only mathematical theorems and logical propositions which are largely uninteresting for daily life). A good inductively supported claim, say, that tomorrow the sun will rise, that bread will nourish, and arsenic will poison are not guaranteed true because of past experience and our best current scientific theories. It is not logically impossible that they might all turn out that they all will be false, but nonetheless, because of our best theories and our observations, we have good reason to believe them even if they aren’t certain and thus may have but do not need faith for belief in these propositions.

We also have to figure out what we mean by God, what precisely is being denied here. I think this is one place where many atheists and sophisticated theists talk past one another. The way atheists and non-sophisticated theists think of it is a being whose physical presence or some of whose willed actions have physical effects – that there are marks of the supernatural in the workings of nature. Let us call the God who has a hand in the material world a “physical God.” The existence of a physical God means that it is impossible to give a complete, naturalistic account of the working of the universe. Another sense of God is a being unnecessary as a basis for factual beliefs, but thought necessary to provide a foundation for ethical truths. We can call this the “moral God.” A third concept of God is that which neither has a hand in determining how the physical world works nor in grounding moral right and wrong, but is a purely spiritual concept, an experienced sense of the Divine in the way one lives one’s life and aspires to live it. We can call this the “phenomenological God.”

So, when we ask whether one needs faith to be an atheist, we have several cases to consider. Start with the physical God. Does one need faith to believe that the physical God does not exist? Is there any good reason to believe that for any given observable phenomenon, there will not be a need to give supernatural explanation? Here the unrelenting successes of science in explaining phenomenon after phenomenon, predicting new, bizarre and counter-intuitive results which are then confirmed, and allowing us to create workable solutions to real-life challenges in engineering and medicine do give grounds to think that appeals to the supernatural are superfluous. If what we mean by God is a being outside of nature necessary to explain some or all physical, chemical, biological, or psychological occurrences, then it certainly seems that one does not need faith to be an atheist of this sort.

Again, this does not mean that there are not atheists who take it as a matter of faith that all phenomena can be naturally explained. Maybe they can, maybe they can’t. Atheists with faith would take it as axiomatic that no matter what happens in the world a move to supernatural explanation is wrongheaded come hell or high water (although it may be particular tough come hell), atheists without faith could be convinced by evidence that certain events are singular enough to require positing some physical God. They don’t think it will happen and it would be a very high threshold to cross, but the question is whether that threshold is there or not.

As for a moral God, there is good reason to think that ethics can be perfectly well grounded without an appeal to the will of a Divine being. There are two parts to acting morally: (1) figuring out the right thing to do in your given situation, and (2) doing it. The question that Gwydion poses about being a moral atheist then has two components. first, is it possible to form meaningful ought sentences without having an ethical dictator to declare them by fiat. Of course. Here is where ethical theory comes in with duty, virtue, utility, care, justice, and rights. These of course conflict and that was the question Jeff Maynes asked and I’ll answer later in the week, but suffice it here to say that none of these systems require understanding the Divine will. The second part of the question is, “if you aren’t going to be punished by being sent to your room with no dessert for all of eternity, why bother being moral?” The answers range from empathy as The Wife discussed to Hobbesian fear and social contractual obligation. As such, one does not need faith to deny the existence of a moral God.

The third concept is the God of personal experiences of the Divine. Here, we are not talking about something for which there is observable evidence or normative rational discourse in play at all. It is more a stance towards life, an experienced sense of connectedness or of there being “something bigger,” or an abstract notion of perfection, rather than an anthropomorphic entity. Since this phenomenological God is one that is experienced, if you don’t have such experiences or no such orientation towards living, then you don’t have it. I suppose one may or may not have faith that one will never have a religious experience, but if it is not experienced, there is no faith involved in saying, “that’s not part of my experience or orientation towards living.” I also don’t think that those of us who don’t have it are missing anything or have impoverished lives because of it.

So, does atheism require faith? No, but that’s not to say there aren’t orthodox atheists with faith.

Is atheism a religion? It depends upon what you mean by religion, of course. If you mean an organized social structure with a doctrine and rituals, then no. If you mean a view about the way the universe works, then yes.