In my time as a christian, I often heard the line, “It takes more faith to be an atheist than to be a christian.” I used to simply take the saying at face-value, blindly accepting that it was true without critically analyzing it. It was merely a platitude to me, a string of words that didn’t really mean anything; rather, they were a shield. A shield against unbelievers. Against people who has heard the “truth,” but chosen not to hear it. The words themselves meant nothing. It just seemed so true. Of course it took more faith not to believe, the world is so full of evidence for god. So full of his “fingerprints” that one could not passively lack belief, they must be actively denying god. Having faith that what they thought was true.
I understand now how much of a fool I was.
That “evidence,” which I was so quick to tout in favor of god’s existence, wasn’t actually there. I honestly and truly thought that it was, but my mind couldn’t see past the image of Jesus that shrouded my every thought. Confirmation bias; the act of picking only the evidence which supports the belief or assumption that you already hold. As a scientist, I should have been at least keenly aware of confirmation bias in my own life. After all, I spent nearly every day of my schooling and my work afterwards actively combating it. Science itself is predicated on the idea that all human understanding and observation is inevitably tainted by the beliefs or ideas that we already hold, thus, when attempting to uncover the truth, we must identify and circumvent our biases. I had honed my toolkit for this over the years, but there was always one area that I refused to use it, that it didn’t even occur to me to use it, and that was my faith.
I regularly have the argument of confirmation bias with my wife, particularly when discussing the topic of prayer. I try to point out how seeing agency in prayer is inherently a form of confirmation bias. It is like shooting an arrow and then drawing the target around it, there is no way you won’t hit a bulls-eye every time. This idea does not only apply to prayer, of course. Christians daily commit the fallacy of confirmation bias every time they attribute anything to supernatural agency while ignoring all of the situations which perfectly reflect the opposite. I quickly lost my taste for such an argument as I understand where such a mindset comes from. As I said before, I, one who should be largely attuned to such fallacies, lived a life blindly ignoring them for many years. I was trained to detect them, and somehow remained blind, intentionally, unconsciously, or otherwise, of their existence.
Primarily, this assertion is absurd because it obviously does not take faith to continue not believing something you have no reason to believe in. Be it ghosts, aliens, Sasquatch, god or conspiracy theories, not living your life in fear of them is not faith, it is merely conducting one’s life by virtue of evidence provided. If a serial killer had been reported to be stalking your neighborhood and some of your friends or family had been killed or maimed by such an entity, then it would take faith to conduct one’s life as though no serial killer was currently roaming. In short, Mark Twain was bang on:
One of the issues on this subject is that the unbeliever and the believer are talking past one another. They are using the same word, but meaning different things. To the believer, faith is, as the bible says
“the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 1:1 (NASB)
In other words, it is “belief not based on proof” (Dictionary.com, definition #2). Atheists, on the other hand, use faith to mean “confidence or trust in a person or thing” (Dictionary.com, definition #1). In other words, faith is experiential and evidential. One has faith in something or someone because that person or thing has proven to be trustworthy. The classic example is that of a chair: if a chair has held you up every time you have sat on it, you can be reasonably assured that it would do so again, or have “faith” that it will. Conversely, if a chair continually falls apart when you try to sit on it, particularly at random, you would be inclined to either chose a different chair, or at the very least test it before sitting each time. You would lack faith in the chair, because it has not proven to be trustworthy.
I cannot help but point out that these two definitions, while being the first and second entries in Dictionary.com for the word “faith” are actually complete opposites. Technically they do refer to the same general type of action, putting ones trust in someone or something, but the means at which a person arrives at that trust is polar opposite. One definition claims to attain such confidence by simply believing and rejecting any past experience; the other relies solely on such experience for the acquiring of such trust. The dichotomy of the same concept having nearly opposite states of meaning is fascinating to me, and I think it highlights how far the religious will go to preserve their ideas.
Back to the original statement though: “It takes more faith to be an atheist than to be a christian.”
There are two more observations I want to make about this statement. First, I think in a way I do understand where someone is coming from when they make this statement. Not in the way I mentioned before about understanding how one could not be able to see blatant confirmation bias, but rather, what the image in one’s mind is when one says this. Because our minds are, at their very core, self-focused, I would suggest that any statement made is inevitably casting ourselves as the center, especially generalized statements such as this. Unless we have a clear and focused object, one will project him or herself as the object. In this case, the statement would read “It would take more faith for me to be an atheist than to be a christian” and in this case, I would assert that they are correct – at least partially so.
I say “partially” because, as I stated before, it really doesn’t take any faith to be an atheist. That is not the only reason, however. Because the statement is inevitably being made by a religious person – and for the sake of brevity I will assume christian, seeing as though that is my background – it isn’t so much that it would take more faith to sustain being an atheist, but rather it would take more faith to make that initial leap of doubt. And that I would not disagree with. In many ways, it takes an incredible amount of “faith” to doubt something that you have always been told was true. To even begin to think about challenging those ideas, one must rely on faith that the conclusions and questions that have come up are not the devil.
Once that leap of doubt is taken, however, and one’s eyes have been unveiled to the reality of the world – that religion does not, and never did, make sense – it takes no faith to sustain it. As soon as faith has been used to lose faith, faith is no longer required. At least faith in the way christians use it. Instead, one’s understanding of the word will morph into the other. An assertion of trust or confidence based on evidence and experience. That is something god cannot give you. To assert the opposite is merely affirming one’s confirmation bias and not facing the cold, hard facts: god doesn’t show up in a way that inspires confidence or trust. His track record is 50-50 at best, and that is just not good enough.