Christians are used to arguing that atheism is faith-based. We rightly reject this as a spurious argument. But is it really?
First, let me dispel the simplistic kind of argument which holds that atheists must have faith in the Sun rising tomorrow, or in science, or in God not existing, etc. No faith is required to believe in any of these things, because we make no claim beyond what we empirically observe and conceptualize… it’s just simple logical thinking, based on induction, deduction, and using basic epistemic principles.
However, this reply misses one important point: what is faith? In this regard, atheists seem to fail miserably at awareness of what faith is all about. Ex-Christians seem to singularly lack awareness of how they used to think, and say things like “faith just means being gullible.” Even if that is so, it is obvious that Christians reject a great deal as well. How does one accept certain belief or belief systems on faith and not others? Therefore, “gullible” is not an adequate definition, by a long shot, and faith cannot just mean “being gullible.”
The Christian definitions are not much better, like faith being “the conviction of things not seen.” Obviously no one believes in everything “not seen.” Again, there must be some kind of method by which one believes some things but not others. So this is not a good definition either, as it doesn’t tell us how one chooses to believe in one thing or another. It seems strange to have to say something so basic, but defining an epistemology kinda implies that you’re going to tell people how to distinguish what is true from what is false, what should be believed and what should not be believed! Otherwise you are not defining it at all.
So I have never read or heard any valid definition of “faith” to this day. Given this conceptual vacuum, I came to believe that I had to step up to the challenge and try to figure this one out. What I’ve come up with is an attempt at explaining the basic facts about faith using known human impulses and cognitive biases. I admit this is purely hypothetical, and I might be wrong, but I look forward to being debunked if that is the case.
As far as I can figure out, faith is the result of our need to be part of groups that support us psychologically, spiritually and physically, the need to belong. Our family is the first group we seek to belong to, because we are forced to submit to it in order to survive. No consent or thinking is involved, we must have faith in our family’s imposed values in order to belong, or die.
The family is therefore the beginning of the development of faith. Whatever groups the family forces the child to belong to will determine eir initial religious faith, political faith, and so on.
Now, you might point out that people do change their beliefs from those they had in childhood. That’s absolutely true. There is a counter-tendancy to that of belonging, which is cognitive dissonance, forcing people to separate from groups when their cognitive distance from the group beliefs is too great, or when they find a group that follow their own personal beliefs more closely. For the sake of clarity, let me call the belonging tendancy “stability” and the tendancy of cognitive dissonance to counter it “mutability.”
Mutability I think is pretty obvious. It’s mentally uncomfortable for people to be in a group where they have constant disagreements. Stability in a group can only be achieved by enforcing group conformity (groupthink) against the multitude of personal beliefs. It seems obvious to me, looking at the actual variety of personal beliefs within any group, that if people simply sought to find people who they agree with completely, no groups would survive and the need for belonging would never be fulfilled. It is necessary for groups to maintain conformity and to ostracize those who persist in criticizing the shared beliefs of the group.
There are various degrees to mutability. There are people who go out and form new groups (new religions, new sects, new political parties, etc). That’s extreme. Now, some of those people are sociopaths who are trying to control more people, I don’t deny that, but I don’t doubt some of them are honest. Think of how many sects of Christianity exist, let alone all other forms of faith. But there is also a lesser degree of mutability wherein a person will simply change groups.
Although it is the main factor, there’s probably a lot more than just cognitive dissonance at work. A person who has weaker stability will be willing to change groups or form a new group on the basis of far less mutability than the average person. Think of it as two forces, with one pushing one way and the other pushing against it. The weaker one is, the less you need of the other to overcome it. Most of the time, stability is far stronger than mutability, especially since groups have thought-stopping mechanisms (“stop doubting/we’re always right and they’re always wrong”), fear-inducing mechanisms (“if you join the enemy, your life/society/humanity is in jeopardy”) and status-enhancing mechanisms (“you’re better than they are”) that prevent deconversions.
So where does that put atheism? For the sake of discussion, let’s separate atheism into New Atheism (the movement spearheaded by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett) and Old Atheism as being everything that came before, a more philosophical kind of ideology which laid the groundwork for New Atheism. Old Atheism only attracts rationalists because its stability is close to zero. Only people who experience extreme levels of cognitive dissonance will leave religion altogether and become atheists, and it’s a long and painful process.
With New Atheism seems to come the desire to have more focused groups attacking political and social issues. Such groups have existed for a long time, but there seems to be a shifting of beliefs about what the word “atheism” itself means, from a negative position (atheism is a lack of belief about…) to a positive position (atheism is a belief about…). This implies the existence of articles of faith, positive beliefs around which these groups are articulated. This means that, yes, faith is involved, because atheists hold certain beliefs on the basis of being accepted by their group.
I know a lot of atheists are going to be angry at me for saying they have faith, so let me be a little more specific. It is not holding some kind of faith that is in itself dangerous, but the combination of faith with the denial that one is acting on faith. And this applies to everyone, of all religion, political views, and so on. The pig-headed refusal to make a clear distinction between what one believes in order to belong to a group, and what one believes on the basis of observed evidence, is a necessary prerequisite for using one’s group allegiance to do evil.
One may argue against me that faith is arational by definition and that atheistic beliefs are rational. But this is a pretty poor standard, as everyone believes they are rational. I daresay that few people would continue belonging to a group which they saw as irrational. Certainly it is far more rational to believe, say, that humanity evolved from ancestors it has in common with all life, rather than to believe that some strange being magically and instantly (in geological terms, anyway) brought about every species or “kind” on the planet. I don’t think the latter could even in principle be proven… it’s just gibberish. But if, hypothetically, you would hold on to that belief even if it was disproven just so you can stay in the group, then that would prove that you had faith in evolution as well.
Although I will always have a strong antipathy to all group and groupthink, I am not advocating that groups are always bad. Obviously they are not. But this desire to belong, this faith impulse, is always contrary to the truth. That’s just how I see it. If you disagree, give me your alternate theories in the comments (but don’t repeat the ones I’ve already debunked, please).