In a comment on the matter of atheists needing faith, Edward Silha gives one of the better responses with the following points:
There is no need to use the terms “faith” or “belief” when discussing the existence or nonexistence of a god or gods. As a scientist, I draw conclusions based on evidence and logic. That leads me to the following conclusions.
1. I cannot prove there are no gods; therefore I am not an atheist.
2. I cannot prove there is a god; therefore I am not a theist.
3. Therefore, I am an agnostic.
The trouble is that the three points are really logical, not evidential points. And this is part of the problem when discussing atheism and agnosticism: while Edward starts talking about both evidence and logic, the three points are entirely logic based; they are reason, argument, and contain no mention of evidence. So, let me provide a variation on this theme:
1. I cannot prove there is a god; therefore I am not a theist.
2. I cannot find any evidence for gods.
3. Therefore, I am an atheist.
When there is such a lack of positive evidence for something like theism then to be an atheist really is that denial of positive evidence. It’s acting ‘as if’ there is no God, and so coming to believe there is no God.
With regard to the terms ‘faith’ and ‘belief’, there is a distinction that makes ‘belief’ a term we do use and should use, but ‘faith’ a term we should be wary of.
I take it Edward ‘believes’ that powered flight using aeroplanes is possible; and further, I take it, he ‘believes’ such assisted flight is an actuality. It’s worth noting that when using ‘belief’ in the context of religion, believers believe in the actuality of their god, and so it seems reasonable to not believe in that actuality and call oneself an atheist in that context.
But ‘faith’ is quite different, especially in this context of religion and theism. It’s that route to cognitive satisfaction one relies on when faced with the lack of evidence and the strong arguments against one’s religion. It’s the ‘faith’ that many intellectual believers resort to even while admitting the empty claims of their own religions.
The original post on which Edward was commenting was headed: It Takes More Faith to Be an Atheist Than to Believe in God? A similar remark is often used by theists to point out our ‘faith’ in science. It’s a false equivalence. One requires ‘faith’ in religion to overcome lack of evidence, but I suggest most supporters of science learn to have ‘trust’ in it from the evidence of its utility, and as such ‘believe’ that science is useful. Though one could have faith in science or anything if one was so minded, that would not be the typical position of atheists. Similarly one could have ‘faith’ in one’s atheistic position, but I would suggest that those of us that call ourselves atheists trust the lack of positive evidence in the wake of millennia of religious claims to be good enough have learned to ‘trust’ our disbelief in gods.
Faith is given unquestioningly, and often more forcefully after many questions asked of religions have come back negative.
Trust is earned by science, and, yes, sometimes lost for specific claims that turn out not to stand up to greater scrutiny. But that’s the value of trust over faith – trust doesn’t demand you have to keep flogging a dead horse.
Atheism doesn’t require 100% certainty – and indeed, taking up Edward’s point, probabilities aren’t appropriate when one has zero data.
In such cases it’s difficult to distinguish between the degrees of disbelief. Philosophically, epistemically, we have no knowledge and ought to say “don’t know”, but psychologically and sociologically that translates into “no evidence” and “it might as well not exist”. And atheism better describes that than does agnosticism.
Do fairies exist? There’s so little evidence for them (i.e. the same amount as for gods – none) that we act as if they don’t exist. We don’t go down to the bottom of the garden and talk to them … and certainly not five times a day, as some religion might require. Oddly, many believers act as if there’s no god too … until a tragedy occurs, when they pray for survival, or are thankful for survival … and always, god seems strangely choosey about which prayers he supposedly answers. Fairies are the same – so fickle in answering requests.
The psychological disposition is clearer with regard to fairies and a-fairyism, a-unicornism and so on, and for the specific claims of the major religions.
I don’t believe that astrology works, so I would be an a-astrologist (non-believer as opposed to non-practitioner, though both). But the moon does affect life on earth, and so too, to some degree, do planets, even if imperceptibly to humans because earthly, lunar and solar dynamics swamp such effects. My a-astrologism is to do with the specific claims of astrology with regard to birth signs and other crazy stuff. Being agnostic about astrology on such grounds would seem to be a pointless position to hold.
Being agnostic about theism seems vacuous in a similar way. We don’t know a lot about extra-universal matters, origins of the universe, extra-universal ‘physics’. Such a “don’t know” is a serious statement of our ignorance. But translating the “don’t know” into agnosticism with regard to religion, as Edward does, seems to be an empty agnosticism.
It seems far more reasonable to be agnostic about the existence of intelligent biological aliens, for example, since we have at least one example of a planet that has produced intelligent life. So the mechanics, the chemistry and physics is at least doable. And what makes us agnostic in this case is both the lack of evidence that such results of evolution are inevitable, and the lack of any sign of alien life so far, let alone intelligent life. The latter isn’t positive evidence against, given the potential for missed coincidental evolutions, and given the vastness of the universe. So agnosticism seems appropriate in this case, for an expression of “don’t know”.
But theistic agnosticism has too many associations with particular religions. And many of the agnostics of history seem to be agnostic about the religion of their birth/culture more than general theism. Being an agnostic about the divinity of Jesus already contains a great number of accepted presuppositions. And, so does agnosticism about ‘God’, your particular deity you want to be agnostic about.
It seems to me that claiming to be agnostic has greater religious social connotations than the pedantic meaning of the term Edward ascribes to it with his three points.
If you want to be agnostic about some teleological entity that created our universe with some intent, then you really should be more open in your agnosticism: multiple gods; committees of gods; hierarchies of gods where our creators have their own creators; … and of course, no gods at all; … and, for good measure, fairies. Agnosticism is such a pathetic doffing of the cap to the hopeless claims of theologians it lacks all intellectual credibility.
I’m an atheist because I can’t see any positive data supporting theism. I don’t believe there is a god as I don’t believe in many things one might dream up. And gods seem to have been dreamt up since some time after humans were able to communicate ideas. Agnosticism gives too much weight to a fanciful idea for my liking.
My atheism is:
1 – An a-theism: not being a theist, for lack of positive evidence for theism – strictly a “don’t know” position, but applied to all god claims.
2 – Psychological atheism for the futility of thinking of the endless possibilities with regard to gods (monotheistic supernatural god, good and evil gods competing, committee of gods, hypernatural gods creating supernatural gods, …)
3 – Sociological atheism that opposes religion – anti-theism, anti-religion – for the shear stupidity of taking a fancy and imagining it to be real enough to allow the divisive prescriptions and proscriptions that believers get into and demand of others.
I’m an atheist. I am not an intellectually piss poor agnostic.
There is yet another distinction to be made, regarding belief, and that’s the matter of believing IN something.
Here are some posts on Atheism.