Is atheism characterized by faith in the absence of God or by the absence of faith in God? Regardless of which option is selected, it seems that faith is requisite in something (or someone), and that no faith-free option even exists. I choose faith in Jesus, but I understand that others don’t. What follows is a reflection about the faith atheists necessarily include in their worldview, often without their even knowing it.
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Perhaps the resurgence of declaring oneself to be a faith-free atheist can be credited to one of the many recent books written by Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris etc. Either way, it seems to be in vogue to be what has traditionally been called “weak” atheism. For those of us who are new to this trend, so-called “weak” atheism is not a pejorative term meant as an insult, but rather as a distinguishing mark intended to separate it from the other main branch of atheism (“strong”), which actually makes a palpable truth claim, namely, that God (or gods) do not exist. So-called “strong” atheism is also oftentimes married to “humanism” or “materialism,” which is the philosophical faith-commitment that the material universe is all that exists, and nothing else.
This so-called “strong” form of atheism or materialism is traditionally what people refer to when they say “atheism.” For terms of this discussion, we might also characterize it as “FAITH that God does NOT exist.” But this is exceedingly troublesome for atheists who want to convince themselves that they have no faith whatsoever. In several discussions that I have had, it has become somewhat obvious that atheists (weak or strong) react rather negatively to the suggestion that they have faith, even if it is in someone or something other than the God of the biblical text. They tend to perceive “faith” as some sort of weakness, perhaps because that is what they find so distasteful about Christianity. So to point out to them that their own philosophical (dare I say “religious” dogma) system incorporates a huge amount of faith is troubling indeed.
It is common knowledge that a negative cannot be proved. What this means is that we might come up with any crazy thesis, like that there is a gold-carrying leprechaun at the end of rainbows for example, and then place faith in this because nobody can prove that there isn’t one (at least not all the time anyway). Atheists (of either persuasion) claim that this is just like Christians who think that Jesus is really who he said he was and then ask atheists to prove otherwise. While we can agree that it is indeed impossible to PROVE a negative (that something does not exist), this is quite different from placing FAITH in the idea that something does or does not exist. For example, I have no reason to place faith in the wealth-bestowing leprechaun because there are simply no credible sources in support of them. We might not rule out the idea of its own accord, but in the absence of quality evidence to believe, there is no reason why we should. An atheist might say the same thing of Christianity, but then it becomes an issue of faith about the evidence, for there is evidence for Jesus indeed.
Christians have no a-priori reason to rule out the idea of God’s existence nor the idea that he might love his creation enough to interact with it. But this is not like gold at the end of the rainbow at all, for there are many credible sources that indicate that this God indeed has made himself known through the real person in real time and space in real history of Jesus of Nazareth. This linkage to actual people and events separates Christianity from most of the world’s other religions, even if not Islam, Judaism and Mormonism, but that is somewhat of a secondary issue at the moment. To be direct, the point of citing the impossibility of proving a negative is to highlight the need for atheists to pull their philosophical system from the fire, for “strong” atheism makes the assertion that God or gods do not exist. This “negative” is indeed impossible to prove, so even if we never say anything FOR Jesus, this form of atheism relies on a significant amount of faith on its own accord. As such, most “strong” atheists recognize that the faith-game is up if this is the track that they take, and it has become completely untenable for that very reason. Strong atheism is on the way out it would seem.
But what’s an atheist to do? The answer comes in the form of “weak” atheism which maintains that the label connotes the complete “absence of faith in God (or gods)”, rather than “faith in the absence of God.” The difference here is subtle but important nonetheless, or so atheists would have us believe. This absence of faith in God removes the unsightly and embarrassing faith-nature of “strong” atheism’s claim that God doesn’t exist.
But does it work? Does “weak” atheism (absence-of-belief in God) pull atheism from the fire? I contend that it does not, and here’s why: Believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior is never a question of “faith vs. no-faith,” but rather an issue of “faith in Jesus vs. faith in something or someone else.” What I mean is that if I were to remove Christianity from the top of my faith system, it would by necessity leave a vacuum or emptiness, but not for long, for I would have to put something else in its place. The only time we can completely cease thinking and functioning is when we are dead. Even the absolute skeptic claims to know at least one thing, namely, that they cannot know ANYthing. As living people, we automatically incorporate some sort of world-view, even if not Christianity. So to dismiss faith in Christ means that (short of proof) I would have to admit faith in something else. Proof itself is an elusive thing, for how can we prove the reliability of our (or others’) senses in a way that does not depend on those same senses? There is much more to say on that issue, but in terms of the immediate discussion, “weak” atheism simply cannot stand for long on the notion that it has no faith in anything.
While it may be true that weak atheism places no faith in God per se, it is unavoidable that the person who subscribes to this form of atheism places faith in something else. He or she does not exist in a vacuum either, and when confronted with evidence for the biblical narrative, particularly about Jesus of Nazareth, the atheist (of either persuasion) must make a few judgments. They might still maintain that they have no faith in God, but this conclusion must be connected to their dismissal or rejection of the biblical narratives and all the evidence in support of them. As such, they are confronted with the same problem that weak atheism tried so desperately to avoid in the first place: a faith claim, namely that the evidence for Christianity is inadequate or that at the very least, that Christians have gotten it “wrong.” This is not altogether different than a Christian’s own faith that Zeus, or Mohammed’s “Allah” etc. are false gods. They can’t prove it, but they can critically evaluate the evidence for and against them and then make a judgment call. It is faith and reflective thinkers should not troubled by this at all.
Of course a person might even set out to “disprove” all of Christianity’s faith claims and then assert that they no longer have “faith” that the evidence for Jesus is laking, but proof. But historically speaking, this has never been done. Quite to the contrary, oftentimes those who set out to do just that come home as faithful Jesus followers. Alternatively, it seems that much of what is penned in the biblical documents is categorically rejected by atheists merely because it relates events that are not open to scientific inquiry. No matter how much evidence might be marshaled to support accounts of the miraculous, if a person has a prior faith commitment dictating that no such “miracles” are possible, then no evidence will be taken seriously. I can accept such a position, but it rests on nothing more than faith (that miracles cannot occur), and it should be recognized for what it is.
Conversely, if a person is open-minded about what is possible, then some accounts of scientifically inexplicable events (like a crucified man springing back to life) are not automatically ruled out. Once again, even if we ultimately reject the witnesses that reported such events, it is still faith (that the witnesses / documents are unreliable). The only way around this is to prove that biblical documents are completely unreliable, and if that can be done, I freely invite anyone to do so.
Unlike leprechauns and spaghetti monsters, there are several independent accounts of some rather unusual events occurring in 1st century Palestine. I can’t rule them out just because I personally have never witnessed similar events. I’ve never witnessed, heard or seen George Washington either. But if these people actually saw and heard what they say they did, I have to at least consider how they might have gone about relating it to the world. They didn’t have video cameras or audio-recording equipment. They had their 5 senses (the same senses that scientists use in their labs, I might add) and they had language. Unlike later so-called “gnostic” texts like the “Gospel of Thomas,” the New Testament narratives read like eye-witness accounts and secondary sources of those events.
All things considered, I have to ask myself, could these women and men have actually seen and heard the events that we read about in the New Testament? Without a pre-existing faith commitment to a closed universe, I have to answer, “Yes, these stories might actually be true.” Do I “know” that they are true in the same way that I know I’m typing on a computer right now? No, of course not, but I believe both positions nonetheless and have good reasons for doing so. Christians have faith and so does everybody else, even if not it is not invested in the same things, ideas or people. “Weak” atheists might not have faith in God, but they’ve got faith in their conclusions about God, and in that sense, their philosophy is open to the same vulnerabilities of strong atheism and materialism.
What does it all mean? I find this situation immensely encouraging, for oftentimes Christians find themselves fighting against a deceptive tactic which attempts to ridicule them by characterizing the discussion as a fight between fact and faith, or even fact and fiction. Secular Humanists/ atheists will construct the argument not as if they have faith, but knowledge on their side, while their Christian counterparts are caricatured as possessing little more than fairy tales and superstition for their part. The truth, however, is that nothing could be further from reality. Atheism of all persuasions is not a position that one casually arrives at after simply being exposed to “the facts,” but rather it is a dogmatic tradition that requires its followers to incorporate huge amounts of faith. While these beliefs might be as varied as any we might find across the aisle in the broader Christian community, the fact remains that atheists incorporate all kinds of faith about history, how the universe operates (or doesn’t operate), about humans’ senses and the reliability of oral and written testimonies etc.
Christians can take some solace once they realize the true nature of atheistic arguments: those arguments rest on faith, and in some cases, faith without even a shred of evidence. In discussions and even debates between Christians and atheists, it is never faith vs. fact, but faith vs. faith. As for me, I find the historical character of Jesus of Nazareth to be rather compelling, and I believe that I have interacted with him in my own historical setting. Can I “prove” his reality or my experience with him via the scientific method? No, of course not, but I don’t need to. I believe and have good reasons for doing so.
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