The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

Please stop saying “Faith is belief without evidence”


Is Atheism a belief?

Last week, my post, entitled “Please stop saying ‘Atheism is not a belief’” generated a lot of discussion on various online discussion groups. A number of atheists took issue with me telling them what they believe and (sometimes kindly) suggested that I stop saying that.

Fair enough. If you, the atheist, really do not have beliefs about God (broadly construed as the greatest conceivable being with all perfection who exists outside of and has created the universe) and his existence, then so be it. I wasn’t trying to shift the burden of proof or otherwise trick anyone. I really just think a dialogue where both sides lay out the case for their respective views is far more fruitful.

Also, I honestly think there is evidence for atheism (as a belief). Those evidences are at least:

  • the problem of evil
  • the problem of divine hiddenness
  • the specific ways in which the atheist thinks the many theistic arguments fail

Again, I of course don’t find this case persuasive. I think there are good responses to the problem of evil and divine hiddenness, and I think there are many theistic arguments that are sound. But really intelligent (professional philosopher) atheists disagree. They, with reason, believe that God does not exist.

And this seems to me to be a stronger position than merely lacking belief. That is, it is stronger to say, on the basis of evidence, there is (or is likely) no God. It seems weaker to say the theist hasn’t YET made her case and therefore we lack theistic belief.

After all, don’t you, the atheist, think the argument from evil is a good argument? Here’s one version of that argument:

  1. If an all powerful, all good God exists, then there is no pointless evil.
  2. There is pointless evil.
  3. Therefore, there is no God.

Be careful what you say here because the conclusion is that there is no God. If you say it is a good argument, then this is to say that the premises rationally support the conclusion/claim that there is no God. That’s going to suggest you affirm the conclusion (which makes it a belief). But if you merely lack a belief, then what do you say about this argument?

Let’s make a deal

But okay, if it is just a lack of belief, so be it. I think it would make for a better dialogue for us both to present evidence for our views. If you don’t think so, okay. But let’s make a deal. If you would like for theists to stop saying atheism is a belief, then please stop saying faith is belief without evidence.

In the discussion boards last week, many atheists got very upset that I would define for them what atheism is, but felt perfectly free (sometimes in the same post) to say Christian faith is belief without evidence.

Have you ever noticed there is not one Christian who has defined faith that way? Doesn’t it strike you as a little strange that you are building a case against Christianity using your own definitions of faith rather than what the scholars of the faith say. Shouldn’t that suggest that perhaps you are building a wee bit of a straw man?

Now I’m perfectly willing to grant that Christians have talked about faith this way before. We have A LOT of work to do in the Christian community. But this is using what lay people say in order to critique Christianity as a whole.  Wouldn’t it be more charitable and rational to critique the claims of its scholars?

Faith as an act of trust

On most views, faith is seen as an act of trust. It is not, in this sense, a belief at all. Evidence then is very important to faith since it guides us to those things that are trustworthy. I like to use the example of an airplane. None of us really know how an airplane works. Now we might know a thing or two about flight, but most of us really don’t know how an airplane can cruise 6 miles off the ground. But we know enough about the reliability of an airplane and flight as a mode of travel to entrust ourselves to it. We have good evidence from statistics to testimony to past experiences, etc., to get on board and literally place our faith in the airplane.

Likewise, (rational) Christians have considered the evidence, find the case for Christianity persuasive, and have, consequently, entrusted themselves to the Christian way of life. That’s Christian faith. There are plenty of things we don’t know about how all this works (just like the airplane), but we trust on the basis of evidence. We have faith. We have given our lives to the truth of Christianity. (I say more about this here)

As a side note, when you define faith as belief without evidence this also shuts down dialogue. The reason for this is, first, because this just isn’t true for most Christians. Second, if you think faith is belief without evidence, then the debate is over. Evidence has been defined out of the discussion and so we are no longer discussing the rationality of our respective positions. Mine has defined as a position of belief without evidence.

So we do we have a deal? I won’t say you believe that God does not exist and you don’t say faith is belief without evidence.


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6 Replies

  1. I’ll comment here, as I commented in a forum where your article was reposted:

    Here’s the problem: “I like to use the example of an airplane. None of us really know how an airplane works. Now we might know a thing or two about flight, but most of us really don’t know how an airplane can cruise 6 miles off the ground.”

    Bollocks. We know a great deal about flight, and arguing that we “don’t know how an airplane works” is foolish. We may not know *everything* about how airplanes work — that is not the same thing. We know enough to make airplanes incredibly powerful, reliable, and effective at the many and varied uses to which they are put.

    Since that is the grounding point of your entire argument, your entire argument has a major problem, to put it mildly.

    Now, I don’t happen to believe that “faith is belief without evidence” — rather, that faith is what bridges the gap between demonstrable evidence and “Well, I guess that’s good enough for me!” evidence. However, making the argument that our understanding of flight is like our understanding of the Divine is simply wrong.

    If nothing else, if theology were like aeronautical engineering, we’d see a *lot* more consistency among our gods.

    1. Travis Dickinson

      I thought the responses you received on that facebook forum were thoughtful and clarified that I’m not saying we (as in collective humanity) know nothing about flight and how airplanes work. The point is we (the typical person) knows very little about the mechanics of flight, airplanes, and aeronautics. And yet we have good reason (i.e., we have evidence) to trust the airplane.

      1. To continue that discussion (somewhat) here, trying to explain things more clearly: The difference is that the airplane example *converges* as we experiment more and learn more — the principles of aeronautical engineering, the way we fly on a day-to-day basis. While on religious questions, the answers have *diverged* to a tremendous degree.

        We can learn more about the airplane, and have very good reason to think that we are learning the right thing. The same is not true of most religious questions, since there is no way to put them to the same kind of rigorous testing — or at least none that I have ever seen a religion person accept.

  2. Jennifer Jestley

    Hi Travis – I just discovered your site by way of this article, uploaded today on ‘The Poached Egg.” I love apologetics and hoard a lot of it. Here are a couple of posts I’m sure you’ll appreciate. May God richly bless you as you do the work to which He has called us. Jennifer Jestley, PhD (Vancouver BC Canada)

    Are Theists the Only People Who Have the “Burden of Proof”?

    ‘New Atheism’ Is A Joke Among Academics & Scholars

  3. “Have you ever noticed there is not one Christian who has defined faith that way?”

    Let me give you an example. Geisler and Turek wrote a book titled, “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.”

    How is faith used in *that* example?

    “Wouldn’t it be more charitable and rational to critique the claims of its scholars?”

    That’s one approach, but one needn’t limit oneself to scholars.

    Religious ideas don’t work like ideas in science, where sufficient evidence will gradually sway almost anyone to a new idea. But look at the map of world religions and tell me that it works that way in religion.

    “None of us really know how an airplane works.”

    We have overwhelming evidence that planes can fly.

    Now give me overwhelming evidence for God.

    1. Travis Dickinson

      If you think Frank Turek and Norm Geisler *define* faith as belief without evidence, then you don’t know their views. Let’s not be silly. It’s a catchy title.

      I agree that science and religious claims are different domains. But it certainly doesn’t follow that we should ignore the scholarship and only focus on popular and uninformed usage of terms. I would think rational and thoughtful atheists would want to take on the strongest presentations of the arguments and not the weakest forms.

      I wasn’t making the point that we don’t know that planes can fly. I’d suggest reading that section a bit more slowly since you missed the point entirely. The point is that we have nonconclusive reasons to trust the airplane’s reliability. I’m not sure I can give you evidence for God that will be overwhelming to you. My point is that there is evidence and it is upon this evidence we base our faith. I find the evidence compelling. You may not. That’s okay but I think atheists should stop talking as if faith is necessarily belief without evidence.

      Thanks for reading and thanks for commenting.