One common tactic of Christians in debates with atheists is to turn over the tables and say something like “it takes far more faith to be an atheist” or something similar. This line of thinking, or arguing, is increasingly common in atheism vs theism debates. What generally happens is that the atheist accuses the Christian (or theist in general) of believing in God based on faith which is not evidence based. The atheist says that we should not believe in God for the same reasons we should not believe in sky fairies or Santa Claus. Now despite how obviously absurd and insulting the comparisons are, the point is that here the atheist is saying belief in God is equivalent to belief in something irrational precisely because it is belief in something despite evidence. Some theists have responded saying “well sure it takes faith, but it takes more faith to be an atheist.” So this is our question for today: Does it take more faith to be an atheist?
Although many Christians might think otherwise, the answer is a resounding no, and absolutely not, at that. Now, in order to understand why, we have to distinguish between two groups however in order to do that, we have to review the relationship between faith and reason which we have written on in a number of places, most directly HERE and HERE . To summarize, we can know things either because we discover it on our own or because we are told it. If the source is trustworthy, we ought to believe what we are told. Now, whenever we discover something on our own, it is through our power to reason. Whenever we are told something from someone else and believe it on their word, this too is ultimately a truth of reason because (1) it is accessible to us in that we have the capacity in principle to discover the truth on our own, and (2) the knowledge is had by the person who reveals it to us either from their own reasoning or someone else’s hence even if we personally do not know it through our reasoning powers, humanity does. However, God can reveal truths to us as well. If we believe something because it is told to us by God, we believe it on faith. This is distinguished between pure reason because (1) the truth is not something which we could’ve known on our own (although it does happen that God reveals things to reinforce what we already know e.g. the 10 Commandments) and thus beyond the scope of our reasoning ability and (2) the truth was never discovered by man, it has its origin in the revelation of God who knows all things.
Building on this, we know there are certain truths that we can know through reason about God, man and his soul, our destiny, and morality. We know these things through reason alone and hence we can study them in philosophy. There is a body of truths in this area that make up what is called “natural religion” because we can know it through our natural powers. Natural religion takes no faith because it involves no belief on God’s word, for we do not even know on the grounds of natural religion whether God has revealed anything at all. We do however know of the possibility of revelation. As Catholics, we are believers in natural religion which was perfected by supernatural religion, or revelation. We have faith precisely because we believe in truths which are known to us only because God has told us these truths. Natural religion is not sufficient for man to reach his supernatural end and therefore Christ came to establish the Church. In THIS blog post, we have a helpful chart on the differences between natural and supernatural religion.
Now back to our discussion on whether or not it takes more faith to be an atheist: we must distinguish between theists in general and specifically Christians. Theism in general takes no faith because natural religion is theistic. Christianity however does take faith because it is based on the supernatural teachings of Jesus. Religions like Islam take something like faith as well because they involve belief in truths on the word of God (in the Koran) yet we have to be careful because God did not actually reveal anything in the Koran and therefore it isn’t true faith to believe in the doctrines of Islam, rather, it is a false faith. So in that sense, it is not really the virtue of faith but that’s another issue altogether. Back to the main point: what kind of faith does atheism take? Obviously, it takes no faith at all. Atheists lack belief in God. This is not based on faith but based on reason, or more accurately, a failure of reason. Theism is based on reason and the success of reason at that. Christianity builds on the truths of reason but fills it in with the truths of faith. But this raises the question: why does it matter?
Yes, I understand the point of these statements. The point is that the theist is trying to say that the lack of belief in God is more irrational and involves greater leaps when there is lack of certainty. I agree with this point but it is still a harmful point to make. The reason is that it plays right into the hands of the atheists, it reinforces the idea that faith is at some level irrational and “close your eyes let’s hope there is something on the other side” like thinking. The reason is that when Christians say “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist” they are trying to say “I don’t have enough ability to believe in things without evidence to be an atheist” or something of that sort. But if this is the case, faith is the same as belief in something without evidence (or something along those lines, the essential point I’m getting at is that the definition of faith necessarily involves a negative and more specifically irrational connotation).
This definition of faith turns faith into something to be avoided, harmful, and yes even sinful. Reasonable people truly want to be rational and seek the truth based on evidence. Now, many people are not led by evidence but are led by emotion alone and are not entirely reasonable, however they too want to say they are reasonable and to some degree recognize reasonable as positive. Therefore, it follows that faith would be something to be avoided as it is belief in something without solid grounds. Some believers might attempt to make faith sound reasonable, or in this case they make “theistic faith” sound more reasonable than “atheist faith” (read: theist belief without evidence is less irrational than atheist belief without evidence). This definition of faith makes it into something harmful because false beliefs are inevitably harmful. Finally, it makes faith into something immoral because according to natural law ethics, we ought to use our faculties in a manner that they are most suited for given their natures. The intellect ought to be used to pursue truth because that is precisely what the intellect does and therefore a good intellect by definition pursues truth. Therefore, since faith is belief in something with some irrationality (or whatever) it follows that faith is at least somewhat immoral. I hope no Christian would characterize faith by any of these qualities.
My second major problem with the statement “it takes more faith to be an atheist” implies that it takes some faith to be a theist in general (before being a Christian). In other words, belief in God takes faith. According to traditional Christianity, faith is belief in something on the word of God who reveals it. If this definition is true, belief in God cannot really be based on faith lest you be believing in a circle. So in order to prevent an obvious logical fallacy, we have to redefine faith so as to make belief in God under its scope. There are two options here, either we collapse faith into one form of reasoning or we admit that it is still above reason. Assuming we accept option one, we strip faith of its supernatural character and thus undermine many of the doctrines of the Church. First, we undermine the entire idea that faith is an infused virtue. Second, we necessarily throw out the idea that “faith makes us pleasing to God.” Third, if we do not draw a distinction between faith and reason, what can we say of the actual truths of faith that are beyond reason? If faith is just another form of reason (say reason about truths that are “religious” in flavor), then under what category of knowledge does belief in the incarnation fall? In other words, by collapsing faith into reason, we make the possibility for supernatural knowledge and revelation dubious. We turn Christianity into natural religion which is to undermine what it is at its very essence.
Hopefully no Christian wants to turn faith into reason and undermine the entire religion so they will take option two and say that faith is something supernatural. Yet still, there is a major problem, if faith is simultaneously something supernatural and something that encompasses belief in God (or is the primary way in which we know God exists) then it follows that belief in God is a supernatural belief not accessible to pure reason. The theist arguing with the atheist should not want to admit this. A Catholic cannot admit this because it is heretical. A rational person should not admit this because there are good arguments for God’s existence based on reason alone (we have a series of posts on this starting HERE ). In conclusion, each option is an affront to Christianity.
Judging by the above, it seems clear to me that we should never use the argument “it takes more faith to be an atheist” as an argument against atheism. Christ said “If you have faith you will move mountains” and St. Paul says “you are saved by faith” and “faith makes us pleasing to God.” Every week at Mass we profess our faith in the Creed. The Athanasius creed says “If anyone wishes to be saved he must hold the Catholic faith whole and entire.” Faith is a good thing, a virtue, and a gift that God gives us.