Atheists and Faith

      4 Comments on Atheists and Faith

Lately, I’ve been thinking about atheism and faith. There seems to be a common sentiment that atheists don’t have faith, that they lack the ability to take something on faith.

Speaking only for myself, this is not true. I do have faith. I have a great deal of faith. It’s just that my faith is not in a higher power or some deity or another.

I have faith in the scientific method. I believe in a way of looking at the world that takes into account observable results and updates hypothesis and theories to accommodate them.

I have faith in the repeatability of experiments, and the learning that happens when one team of researchers attempts to replicate the results of another.

I have faith in a process that is willing to overturn centuries of accepted dogma when evidence is revealed that contradicts it.

I have faith in people of considerable intelligence, education and/or experience, and their ability to delve deeply into very complex topics and reveal underlying patterns and behaviors that can be tested, used and expanded upon by others.

I have to have faith in these things! The universe is too large and too complex for me (or any person) to question, test and validate first-hand every theory that has been proposed. Every time I step on an airplane, I show faith in the scientists and engineers who have contributed to its design and maintenance. Every time I take a medicine I’m exercising faith in the doctor who investigate diseases and the unknowns of the human body, and the teams that develop treatments for them.

It’s not a blind faith. I know there are scientists who knowingly submit flawed data. I know there are researchers who will let personal prejudices override cold, hard facts. But I have faith that those are the exception rather than the rule, and that over time such problems are identified and corrected.

I also accept that there are an extraordinary number of things about our existence that we don’t understand yet, don’t even have a theory about. I’m even willing to consider that there may be things that humans will never know. But I don’t have any need to ascribe supernatural explanations to the unknown. I’m content simply to say “We don’t know yet. Maybe we will someday.” I have faith that scientists, from the tinkerers in a garage to the folks in white lab coats, will continue to provide new answers and even newer questions.

4 thoughts on “Atheists and Faith

  1. steph

    Hmm. I tend to think of faith as meaning belief without empirical evidence or proof, but what I’m hearing is that you have faith *in* empirical evidence. Am I hearing something other than what you’re meaning to convey? Are you using faith with a different meaning in mind? I’m curious–tell me more, please! 🙂

  2. browse Post author

    I was considering it in more simple terms; faith is what you believe without _knowing_. But accepting your terms, if I haven’t collected the evidence myself, don’t I have to take on faith the results reported (and interpreted and then utilized) by others?

  3. steph

    I want to say that I make a distinction between “taking results reported on faith” and “trusting results reported”. But in truth, I’m not sure that I consistently conform to those usages of “faith” and “trust” in my everyday language. If I did, though, I think the distinction would be that the constraining factor of trust is time, whereas the constraining factor of faith is information/evidence.

    I think that I’m also quite biased in my thinking, because whenever I hear the phrase “taking something on faith” I’m reminded of my parents telling me they’d pray for me to have more faith when I told them I didn’t believe in transubstantiation. I’m pretty sure that I have some knee-jerk reactions going on here. 🙂

  4. bledsoe

    At the risk of oversimplifying greatly (or just misunderstanding your post), isn’t this just a particular instance of people looking at the same data and interpreting it in different ways? I had a friend who believed very strongly in astrology; she thought that the relative position of the planets provided useful information about people’s personalities, human affairs, etc. This never made any sense to me, as I thought there were plenty of other more relevant ways to explain personalities, but she clung strongly to her belief in astrology. And though I don’t recall ever having any discussions about it, I suspect she felt similarly about the fact that I call myself a Christian. I suspect she looked at my “belief” in Christianity and concluded that there wasn’t anything particularly useful about it as a way of understanding the world, supporting the idea of the existence of a higher power, etc.

    But people behave the same way in just about every other area of interest, don’t they? Two different people look at election results or poll data and come to vastly different conclusions (“See, Obama ran the economy into the ground!” “What are you talking about, he saved us from another Great Depression!”), or they see an education system with problems and have completely different ideas about how to solve them. That’s not to say that I think all truth is relative, just that disagreements about religious truth are not that different than disagreements about other truths.

    FWIW, and not to get all Hallmarky, as interesting as such disagreements/debates may be on an intellectual basis, I think what we believe is not nearly as important as what we do. There are people in the world who die because they don’t have clean water to drink, and kids who are sold to grown men as sex slaves, not to mention the people we live with every day who are just garden variety depressed and lonely. I suspect they couldn’t care less what we believe about God or faith or transubstantiation, they’d just like to live lives that aren’t filled to overflowing with pain and death.


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