Atheism Does NOT Equal “No Faith”

NOTE #1: This article is not in any way meant to be taken as the end-all apologetic for the existence/non-existence of God. Frankly, I think God does a good enough job showing that He exists all by Himself and He doesn’t need my feeble defense. All that I intend to illustrate in this post is that it takes faith to be an atheist; faith of the exact definition that is applied to the theist in his belief of God’s existence.

NOTE #2: I started this article a year ago and happened to stumble on it as I was writing what will be the next Deus Vincit post (titled The God Atheists Worship). I believe that this is a perfect segue into that post and therefore think that they ought to be read in tandem.

Deroy Murdock wrote an article which was posted on National Review 1 April 2015, in which he made a statement that really bothered me … and no, I don’t think it was an April Fool’s Day joke. The statement is certainly something which I have heard others say before, so it should not reflect too poorly on Mr. Murdock personally (he may have never given the thought much consideration). In fact, I normally enjoy Deroy Murdock’s articles and cannot think of a time where I have disagreed with his conclusions before this. However, amidst his admirable defense of the First Amendment’s Freedom of Association clause, Murdock makes a very strange comment, “It never helps that laws like [Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)] focus solely on the rights of religious people. As vital as religious liberty is, what about the rights of the 25 percent of Americans who have no faith? The safe harbors that these laws attempt to dredge should not, themselves, discriminate against nonbelievers.”

First of all, the Freedom of Association clause is not a clause in the normal sense of the term – Constitutionally speaking. Freedom of Association is not explicitly stated within the First Amendment and is instead an idea that the Supreme Court has determined requisite to the other freedoms that ARE explicit (i.e. Freedom of Assembly, Free Exercise of Religion, Freedom of Speech). So the idea is certainly present in the First Amendment, but it is not as black and white as the other ideas. Primarily, the idea has been used to prevent undue repression of association (in other words, discrimination); which might, on first glance support Mr. Murdock’s statement about those with “no faith” – as if they are being prevented from association based on their non-belief. However the real issue is not whether there is any sort of repression of association based on non-belief (especially in Indiana’s RFRA bill). The real problem is in the couching of atheism or agnosticism as “no faith.”

Initially, many people might balk at the fact that I would want to split hairs in this way. After all, aren’t the definitions of both atheism and agnosticism expressed in terms of exclusion? Essentially that an atheist does not believe in any god, therefore what defines the atheist is non-belief (or “no faith”) and an agnostic “doesn’t know whether he believes in anything or not” (see my post Charlie Hebdo and Monty Python). But upon scrutiny, this idea doesn’t hold water and it is exceedingly important to the dialog between atheist and theist, not to mention the idea of “laws … focus[ing] solely on the rights of religious people,” to properly understand the terms we use.

Now, I hate it when people in a speech or essay go to the dictionary for the definition of a word – it seems like a Michael Scott thing to do (“Webster’s dictionary describes ‘wedding’ as ‘the fusing of two metals …’”) – but here goes anyway … Merriam-Webster defines “Religious” as: “(1) relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity; (2) of, relating to, or devoted to religious beliefs or observances; (3) scrupulously and conscientiously faithful.” Now please tell me what words, aside from “deity”, used in that definition exclude either atheism or agnosticism? And, since “ultimate reality” is used as an alternative, even “deity” doesn’t matter in that definition.

When you speak with an atheist about their atheism they themselves tend to utilize negative terms in description of their philosophy, saying things like, “I don’t believe that there is a god” or “I don’t think that any of the religions have anything more than incidental truth” or “I don’t see how any religion aligns with reality.” However, these statements – regardless of their level of negativity – are still beliefs, are they not? They are still observances to which they are devoted, and even to which they might be described as ‘scrupulously and conscientiously faithful.’ All of this means that religion or faith in its most basic sense has nothing to do with whether you attend First Church of the Sacred Harp or the house church on the corner of Lincoln and Sixteenth Streets each Sunday. Religion and faith is about devotion to a lifestyle and its indispensable philosophies; which means that the atheist is as much an adherent to a belief system as any Catholic, Mormon, Jew or Lutheran.

Now suppose we wanted to address the issue from a different perspective and we decide to look into the idea of faith being a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof,” which is Merriam-Webster’s 2b definition and one which I’m sure the atheist or agnostic would state is their biggest reason for their own state of “no faith.” And let us, for a moment, subscribe to the idea that the atheist is not “religious” in the dictionary’s definition of the word. At this point someone who is an atheist might say to a theist, “Well, since I cannot prove a negative, you must prove, beyond a doubt, that God exists.” Which seems like a fairly adequate way forward in a debate of this nature initially: essentially, since the theist believes in a god and posits that one exists while the atheist does not, the theist should prove the positive as the atheist lacks the logical beginning point.

At this point the theist would probably turn to something like the logic of Thomas Aquinas’ Five Proofs:

1) The Unmoved Mover – since observable things are in motion and must be put into motion by a force outside of itself, and since an infinite number of movers is impossible, there must be an unmoved mover at the beginning.

2) The First Cause – some things cause other things. This regression cannot go on infinitely. Therefore there must be a first cause which gave reason and impetus to all other causes.

3) Contingency – finite beings (who at one point exist and at another point do not exist) acquire their existence through other finite beings and are therefore contingent upon them for their existence. There must be a non-contingent being to set this chain in motion or else time is violated by having all things exist and not exist simultaneously.

4) Degree – all things are compared by degree to a perfect ideal. In order to have an idea of perfection, there must be something which exists in that perfect state, otherwise the idea of degree itself is faulty and there is no truth.

5) Teleology – if there are natural laws which govern the actions of natural, unintelligent bodies to natural, intelligent ends, there must be an intelligent governor who guides them. In other words, natural order itself indicates an inherent intelligence governing it.

The theist might then sum things up by stating that these proofs might possibly be refuted individually (though I doubt they could be refuted fully), but together they are unassailable without first describing the world as non-physical and existing outside of time itself.

In response, the atheist might attempt a refutation of the Five Points by saying (as Richard Dawkins did in The God Delusion, p. 102) that the theist applies ‘special pleading’ (an unjustified exception) to the existence of God as “The Unmoved Mover”, “The First Cause”, or the “Non-contingent Being.” But this response is akin to a kid getting mad and going home because the other kids won’t play basketball with his Frisbee. When talking about an eternal problem, it doesn’t make sense to cry foul because someone posited an eternal answer.

After this, the atheist may continue to refute the conclusions of the Five Proofs by citing a lack of evidence in a specific god or of any personal evidence of a god’s existence (this often happens because theists include in their apologetic how their god has changed their lives). But in so doing, the atheist unknowingly jumps across a philosophical divide into agnosticism. In other words, atheism is staunch in its refusal of God – any god – while any philosophical waffling from that staunch refusal automatically brings about a gray level of agnosticism. Logically this makes sense to the atheist cum agnostic because if no substantial proof can be offered to establish either the negative or the positive, an honest person must suspend themselves from belief in either. But most atheists aren’t that honest, are they?

The first reason for their dishonesty is that they don’t want to acknowledge that the road they never intended to traverse is the one they’ve been barreling down the whole time philosophically. After all, Faith Street/Belief Boulevard/Religion Road/Interstate 777 or 666 (whatever you want to call it) heads in two directions. A person can only do one of three things at its one T-intersection; they can turn right toward theism, turn left toward atheism or stand still in an agnostic state of petrified cognitive motionlessness. The point is that it takes faith to be an atheist. It takes faith to disregard the physical limits of even the most time-heavy explanations of the origins of the universe – and most atheists hate the idea of faith.

The second reason for their dishonesty is that they cannot admit that they are angry at God and therefore will grasp at anything philosophically which might stop them from falling into His hands of grace. Something in their past often leads to this anger; whether it be a poor example of religion early in life, a traumatic experience that leads to anger about life’s injustice, or a simple decision made to never subscribe to an outside code of behavior (there may be other things that lead to atheism, but these seem most frequent).

The agnostic therefore, while a bit of an intellectual coward, at least has the honesty to say that they have not been persuaded to travel either direction on Faith Street, and they presumably will move at some point when the evidence sways them. However the atheist is in a different position entirely. He must, at some point either admit that his belief in there being no god is actually faith or he must revert back to an agnostic immobility, but he cannot subscribe to some silly idea of atheism accompanied by “no faith!”

All of which brings me back to Deroy Murdock’s statement that somehow laws addressing Freedom of Association by framing their language in religious terms necessarily exclude atheists. They simply do not! Because both faith and religiosity must be present to adhere to either atheism or theism the concern about couching Freedom of Association laws in religious terms simply makes no sense. In fact, it seems silly NOT to use the positive language of established religion affirming Freedom of Association rather than either the language of the faith of negative adherence (atheism) or the non-committal language of hesitation (agnosticism).

But of first importance – infinitely more important than Indiana’s RFRA or similar laws – is correcting people who make the mistake of thinking that atheism equates to “no faith.” It does no one a service to continue in that assumption. Neither the atheist, the agnostic nor the religious person gain anything from thinking that there is somehow any less faith or religiosity required for the journey away from God. The atheist may consider himself somehow superior because he, like Esqueleto on Nacho Libre, “only [believes] in science” and is therefore on firmer ground intellectually. But that supposed superiority evaporates into a horrible depression for the atheist who, when confronted by the storms of life, finds himself conflicted in the faith he never knew he had. The agnostic may lean toward atheism on the grounds that it requires less of a leap intellectually. However they may find the concrete, scientifically-tested facade of atheism gives way easily to the metaphysical when they follow their questions deeper. And the religious person can stop asking the important questions in life – remaining in a state of shallow faith – for fear that diving any deeper will dislodge them from the faith of their fathers.

This is already a fairly long post already, but I simply have to address one more, short topic within this context; specifically the huge amount of communicative dissonance between the atheist and theist. I’ve addressed this fact a few times on this blog (for an example, check out the post called Behind Enemy Lines) and I stand behind it. We – as Christians specifically (I’m not talking about theists generally anymore) – are aliens in this world. When Peter used the term “aliens” in 1 Peter 2:11, he was talking about the chosen people of God as being completely foreign to this world, and it fits perfectly with the responses we get from the so-called “enlightened people” (those most “in tune” with culture) of this world. Other translations use the term “exiles” and, though there are sometimes negative connotations with that word, it makes perfect sense; we have been exiled, by our own sin, from the glory of the world we were created to inhabit. Therefore, if we have somehow escaped the eternal consequences of our sin through the blood and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and have subsequently been made into a new creature – pure and innocent – why would we be surprised that our worldview, or even our very language, would be foreign or alien to that of those around us? If we have followed Paul’s instruction to the Romans (12:2) to not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, instead being transformed by the renewing of our minds, why would we think that any language, beyond the good works we do in the name of Jesus, would translate to those who are lost?

This communicative dissonance does not mean that apologetics or evangelism is a waste of our time (certainly not!). But it is a matter of extreme importance to the Christian to realize that a lot of our words and concepts will go unappreciated by the atheist or agnostic because those words and concepts are alien to them. Similarly, it’s not that our language or concepts somehow lack logic or truth, it’s that they are lost on those who are dead spiritually (“And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.” 2 Cor 4:3). But this principle leads us to better understand exactly what it is which we are up against in our apologetics and evangelism. Furthermore, it better illustrates to us the importance of moving the focus of our evangelism from strict verbal and written communication into the realm of action. After all, in both Romans 12 and 2 Corinthians 4, Paul talks about how this transforming of the mind and the veiled nature of our gospel can only be appreciated by the unbeliever through the good works we do in the name of Jesus. In Romans 12 Paul talks about exercising our gifts and being sincere, devoted and selfless in our love, while in 2 Corinthians 4 he talks about our light shining out through the darkness by our response to suffering. Either action is much more poignant and receivable to the veiled mind than a Bible-thumping condemnation of sin or a theological treatise nuancing the steps of salvation.

Even more significantly is the fact that loving action from a Christian disarms the atheist in their two ways of dishonesty; first, in their discounting of the value of faith and second, in their anger against God. Who can condemn the works of service performed by the loving believer and who can be angry at the God who inspires them?

To summarize, I have a very difficult time accepting any sort of argument that says faith is only needed in some rote religiosity confined within some human organization. Faith is manifested in trust and action. We must trust our worldview in order to act on it … and, in that way, an atheist has just as much faith (if not more) than a Christian (or any other theist). After all, we must act on something. And, for the Christian, that action must be true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, and praiseworthy (Php 4:8) in order to communicate the love of God to those with veiled minds. Let us pray that God will help us along that path of manifested faith in action.

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