Monday, 3 April 2017

Keep the Faith - a thought on atheism and belief

Atheists, or many of them, have an issue with the idea of faith. Much of this stems from a misunderstanding, from the belief that faith and religion are, if not the same thing, close enough so as to be used interchangeably. The approach of public agencies doesn't help here either as they universally use faith as a convenient cipher for religion - 'Faith Organisation', 'Faith Group' and 'Faith Leaders' are, in public policy speak, simply ciphers for religions, churches and priests of one sort of another. The problem is that this misrepresents the idea of faith.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Heb. 11:1)
That's how St Paul defines faith in his Letter to the Hebrews. It doesn't talk directly of god or religion or worship merely that faith is our evidence for things we cannot sense. It is the riposte to that sceptical urge for evidence - Thomas thrusting his hand into Christ's spear wound. A rejection of the empiricist idea that things without evidence, without Christ's blood on your hand, are not true or unreal - myths, fairy tales, trite stories. We are serious people for heaven's sake!

"Keep the Faith" is the joyous cry of Northern Soul fans:
Singing and playing sax is still my main occupation these days, but whilst I still possess the same enthusiasm for 60s soul tunes and making people smile - I will continue to try and "Keep The Faith" !

Now some youngsters of today's generation may read this and laugh their heads off - and that's OK - because now is your time. But when you reach 50 I hope you are still as passionate about your music and that you too have lots of genuine friends who like you have also remained resolute throughout in their beliefs.
That faith's an intangible thing, hard to explain to those who don't have it, who aren't Northern Soul people. But it's real and important - as that quote above makes clear it really matters, it's part of identity and belief. A feeling familiar to football supporters loyally slogging through the rain week after week to see their club - dreaming that one day greatness will arrive but knowing differently: sharing this with others among the faithful.

In her "Bourgeois Virtues", Deidre McCloskey quotes philosopher J. Budziszewski:
No argument can be so completely drawn as to eliminate its dependence, conscious or unconscious, on undemonstrable first principles.
On faith.

McCloskey continues later:
The Faith, in other words, need not be a faith in God. Many secular folk believe in a transcendent without God, though approaching him.
The way in which we live, the communities we build, the exploring of our world, the speculation about the universe and the hope for the future we hold - all these things in part depend on us taking things in faith. Without trust our society works poorly and to trust someone, in business or in our personal lives, is an act of faith. For sure we can apply rules to enforce that contract implicit in trust but wouldn't relying on enforcement make for a dreadful world? Isn't it better to have faith in our fellows and act accordingly?

Without first principles we are speculating in a fog. So we take some things as axiomatic and construct argument accordingly. And we are able to appreciate that one person's axiom is another's nonsense - my Dad used to end political arguments proclaiming that 'the dialectic is axiomatic'. Without faith, without acceptance of the unprovable, it is difficult to sustain argument and to promote speculation - to get closer to that thing of faith be it god or non-god.

So when atheists construct an argument from the assumption that there is no god they start with that undemonstrable first principle (no god) of Budziszewski's. It is an act of faith to make this argument. And none the worse an argument for being so.



Mark said...

The way in which we live, the communities we build, the exploring of our world, the speculation about the universe and the hope for the future we hold - all these things in part depend on us taking things in faith.

But different types of faith are not transferable. That I have faith in the Catholic God does not mean I will have faith in the communities we build. That I have faith in the Islamic God does not mean I trust people in business.

Far from religious faith inspiring people in society, the very religious are notorious for withdrawing from society. Others become Crusaders and Jihadis precisely because their faith in God completely over-rides any faith in man.

Meanwhile many people have no faith in a God, yet manage to have faith in their fellow man.

So I think you have a long road to show that religious faith is good for human society.

(In any case, most "atheists" are actually agnostics, which is a very different philosophical positions. And quite a lot of believers don't actually have much faith under pressure.)

Dermot said...

Mark is spot on here. Religious faith is a very different thing from the trust we have in social institutions and general humanity. One is based on the sum of our years of experience - a type of evidence, the other is based on stories, books and individual personal experiences and perceptions. The football analogy is interesting, but that's as much about tribal loyalty, identity and belonging as it is faith. This is often the case with religion too of course. So yes I agree we should have faith (trust) in our fellows and that is a good thing, but it does not then follow that religious faith per se is inherently good as it is a very different beast.

To come to your last point, to assert that not having a belief in god is an act of faith is of course absurd. If you were to grow up with no experience of religion how could that be described as having faith? Without any evidence for the existence of something we rely on our imaginations to conceive of things (and they are fertile). If we then believe in them that is a type of faith, which is just fine provided it doesn't harm or oppress others.

Mark is also right that most atheists are actually agnostics, provided they give it a little thought. They just tend to be towards the non-believing end of the agnostic spectrum rather than the believing end - or the 'CofE' middle.

Jackart said...

There is no evidence for the existence of God, therefore my working hypothesis is that there isn't one. This hypothesis explains all available data. I give god no further thought.

Bertrand Russell called this "Teapot agnosticism". There may be a teapot orbiting between Venus and Earth. I'm not looking for it, and it's reasonable to assume it isn't there. If someone proves its existence, I shall shrug and move on. God, in this metaphor is an orbiting teapot.

Anyone who starts with the assumption there is a god, and then goes looking for evidence to support it, is a knob. These people have "faith". Faith is stupid.

Tim Cooke said...

Let's not start down the "atheists are really agnostics" road because it is blatantly untrue. Atheists are atheists they proclaim a faith in the non-existence of God for which they have no more proof than does a theist. This is further illustrated by the five schools of agnosticism; hard, soft, theist, atheist and apathetic. Someone claiming that they are "agnostic" without defining the path of agnosticism they follow is basically ignorant of the subject and should desist.

Anonymous said...

Whilst I agree with you that science and religion are ultimately both based upon unprovable assumptions I think there is a big difference in the type and quality of the underlying assumptions. Scientific assumptions are based on direct observation of our reality which makes them consistent and predictive of our physical world where as religious assumptions are statements with nothing to observe or verify.

Dermot said...

Really anonymous? You think that science is based on 'unprovable assumptions'? I guess we can infer from that that you are neither a scientist, nor understand what science is.

Leg-iron said...

I'm an apathist, not an atheist. Atheism has become a religion in itself, proselytizing it's belief that there is no God and insisting others believe the same. They even have meetings! To me, that's like forming a non-knitting circle where you declare knitting a nonsense and snap knitting needles and burn wool.

It all seems rather pointless.

Like Jackart, I see no evidence to suggest any kind of intelligent control over this world and I feel no need for the comfort of believing someone is 'up there' looking over me. I simply don't care.

However, a lot of people get comfort from their belief and that's okay. The world is crazy, so if people feel happier and safer believing there's a reason behind it all, good for them.

There might or might not be a God. I don't care.

Anonymous said...


The assumptions I was referring to are:

1. The consistency of the natural laws over time and space
2. That there is an objective reality shared by all rational observers
3. That this objective reality is governed by natural laws
4. That these laws can be discovered by means of systematic observation and experimentation.