Atheist or Not, You Already Have More Faith Than You Realize

One day back in the 1970s a nihilist came to visit Francis Schaeffer at L'Abri. Like so many skeptics Schaeffer had encountered, this young man insisted that God did not exist. But as an extreme nihilist, he went much further, maintaining that even the physical world is an illusion. Schaeffer listened intently as the man expounded on the unreality of it all, then he issued the man a challenge, essentially noting that if he were so convinced of the truth of nihilism, then he should behave accordingly. No worldview is worth its salt if it cannot be lived out in a practical way. So he told him to "go live like the nihilist you say you are." After just a few hours the man returned to Schaeffer and reported that he had given up his nihilism. When Schaeffer asked him why, the man's explanation was short and simple: "There are too many bumps on my head."

This story illustrates some important truths. For one thing, worldviews are not merely theoretical games, systems of abstract beliefs that have no bearing on reality. A worldview aims to give us a true picture of the way things are. But on this basis a worldview also motivates a certain way of living. One way of putting this is to say that worldviews have existential implications. In other words, worldviews are not just about beliefs but also concern conduct. Because we affirm particular truths, we recognize that we must behave in accordance with them.

The story also reminds us that it is wise to affirm some truths, even though we cannot prove them. In this case, the young nihilist had stubbornly refused to acknowledge the reliability of his own senses to give him accurate data about the material world. Yet the man did not realize that he was living as if he believed in both the reliability of his senses and the reality of the physical world. It took Schaeffer's direct challenge to get him to see this. And, of course, it didn't take long for him to realize the impracticality, to say the least, of denying these things.

Unprovable but Trustworthy

Belief in the general reliability of one's senses is just one of many critical convictions shared by all (sane) people. Yet it is not something that any of us can prove. This is because there is no way even to make the attempt without relying upon your senses to do so. Whether you ask a friend to confirm the accuracy of your perceptions or consult a physiologist to do a careful study of your sense organs, you must first assume that your senses have reliably informed you about the existence of your friend or the physiologist! So it goes with any method you might use to check your senses. You must assume from the outset the very thing you are trying to prove.

You might say that your belief in the reliability of your senses is an article of faith. After all, it is something that you hold to be true without conclusive proof. Moreover, it is a conviction that has practical consequences for every moment of your waking life. Wherever you go and whatever you do, you conduct yourself according to this conviction that your senses are reliable. In short, you devoutly trust your senses.

This is just one of the ways that all of us live by faith, regardless of what our particular worldviews happen to be. There are many other unprovable beliefs that we all share. Faith, it seems, is not really an option but is fundamental to the human condition.

What Is Faith?

Mark Twain once defined faith as "believing what you know ain't so." Unfortunately, this mocking misconception of faith has a firm foothold in some cultural quarters. Many atheists and agnostics would dismiss faith in just these terms. But, as dictionary definitions of the term confirm, faith has more to do with allegiance, loyalty, or devotion. And an object of faith may include persons, things, or ideas. For example, it is appropriate to say that you have faith in your spouse, your physician, your automobile, your favorite football team, or the capitalist ideal of free markets. This is because the essence of faith is trust.

Although there are many contexts in which we display faith, there seem to be some features common to all cases. First, our trust or commitment exceeds what we can rationally demonstrate. That is, we cannot prove that the person or thing will never fail us. It is always possible that your spouse will forsake you or that your physician will misdiagnose your illness or that your car will break down the next time you drive it. Faith is unavoidably a venture, a sort of gamble, however good the odds might appear to be.

Another common element in all cases of faith is that our trust concerns what lies beyond direct experience. While you may have experienced the reliability of your wife, physician, or automobile in the past, you have not experienced their reliability in the future. This is precisely why we cannot prove the complete reliability of the people and things we trust. The specific object of our trust—how they will behave—lies beyond our present experience.

Some faith commitments are more reasonable than others. If your spouse has had several sexual affairs or your physician has misdiagnosed you repeatedly in the past, then trusting them is irrational. It would also be irrational to put significant trust in someone about whom you know very little. Thus, for a man to propose to a woman after just meeting her or for a cancer patient to opt for a treatment that has never been tried before would be to act in "blind faith." In order to have a justified faith in a person or thing, your trust must be grounded in some objectively good reasons. So if your spouse has been faithful to you through many hard times in a decade of marriage, your faith in him or her is warranted. And this is true even though such reasons do not provide complete proof of your spouse's future reliability.

Reasonable Religious Faith

Now let's consider these aspects of faith in the religious context, with regard to belief in God. First, we cannot prove to others or ourselves that God will never fail us. Perhaps we can prove this via the truth of special revelation—what Scripture tells us about the nature of God—but the authority of Scripture is something that lies beyond our ability to prove. Second, we don't know how God will behave in the future, however much we might know about his actions in the past. In both of these respects, we must trust God, just as we must trust other people and things.

What about the reasonableness of faith in God? The distinction noted above applies here as well. One may have reasonable or unreasonable faith in God, depending on whether one has good grounds for trusting him. A person who is unaware of any good reason to trust God may be said to have "blind faith." But even those who have plenty of grounds for trusting God cannot prove that he will act in certain predictable ways in the future. So the need to trust God is unavoidable.

The main point here is that trust in God is really just one instance of faith among many kinds of faith that all of us display on a daily basis. However, some will object that there is a big difference between faith in God and faith in other people and things, since we can see and otherwise experience the latter, but not the former.

The first problem with this objection is that it begs the question against religious experience. Millions of people all over the world have reported experiences of God, whether in daily life or in the context of near-death experiences. So to say that God lies beyond experience is misleading, to say the least. Admittedly, we cannot perceive God in the same way that we perceive a tree, a sunset or a fellow human being. But this does not mean that people don't have direct encounters with God.

Second, there are many things that we quite reasonably believe in even though we cannot directly sense them—from gravity and quarks to courage and love. All we really experience in such cases are the effects of the real thing. And as we'll see in the next section, many of our fundamental beliefs regard things that lie beyond any possible human experience. These are no less matters of faith than belief in God.

Philosophical Faith Commitments

Earlier we noted how even a radical nihilist believes in the general reliability of his senses. Although it seems to be an irresistible psychological impulse, our trust in our senses is nevertheless an article of faith. And it is no trivial faith commitment, since most of our other beliefs about the world ultimately hinge on this belief. As it turns out, there are many other philosophical articles of faith to which any sane person is committed. Let's look at some of them.

Thought Reflects Reality

One universal faith commitment concerns the belief that thought reflects reality. Whether we realize it or not, we all use logic in every one of our activities, as we make inferences, assess data, weigh options, and solve problems of all kinds. The field of logic involves the formal study of the principles of inference involved in human reasoning. One of the foundational principles or "laws" of logic is known as the law of non-contradiction, which says that no contradiction can be true. Otherwise put, something cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. So if I declared to you that I just found a round square in my backyard, you would know immediately that I was kidding (or nuts). Why? Because a round square is a self-contradiction, and no contradiction can be true. The very idea of an object being simultaneously round and square is absurd.

Notice that we are assuming here that not only the thought of a round square is impossible, but so is the actual existence of such an object. But why must we believe that? From the fact that some phenomenon cannot be imagined it does not follow that it cannot be so in reality, right? Yet we all make this assumption—that thought reflects reality—every living moment. We take it for granted that our reasoning about various states of affairs will give us further information about them. This intuition about thought reflecting reality cannot be proven. It is an article of faith.

The Law of Causality

Another basic faith commitment concerns the universal belief in the law of cause and effect. When an event occurs, we naturally assume that it had some sort of cause. If one of your tires goes flat or you start to feel nauseated, you wonder, "What caused that?" The search for causes not only prompts inquiry about such mundane matters as these, but it also constitutes the better part of academic inquiry, from history to science. And the assumption in every case is that there are no phenomena without sufficient causes. Things don't "just happen." But why do we believe this?

Back in the eighteenth century the Scottish philosopher David Hume analyzed the concept of causality and arrived at a surprising conclusion: We have no good reason to believe that effects are necessarily connected to their causes. While it is obvious that we observe causes and effects every minute of every day, Hume noted that we never observe a necessary connection between them. We only observe one event (e.g., the cue-ball contacting the 8-ball) followed by others (e.g., a high-pitched sound and the sudden movement of the 8-ball). Even though we may repeatedly observe similar patterns of events, we never perceive a necessary connection between them. The fact that we can imagine just about any sequence of events (e.g., lamps turning into chickens, mirror balls spontaneously appearing suspended from the ceiling, etc.) shows that there is nothing contradictory in them.

So our belief that all events must have causes, although psychologically irresistible, is not something we can prove. Rather, we can only assume its truth. Hume concluded that this belief is simply the result of psychological habit, rather than careful reasoning. So shall we surrender our belief in the law of causality? Of course not. The point is that our persistent commitment to this principle is a fundamental act of faith. In fact, American philosopher George Santayana would later call this tendency "animal faith" to emphasize its primal, non-rational nature. This is a humbling observation about the human intellectual condition, to be sure.

The Uniformity of Nature

Another article of philosophical faith addressed by Hume is our belief that the laws of nature will continue to hold in the future as they have in the past. Consider the law of gravity. You rely on this law every waking moment. And you have probably never considered, or at least never worried about, the possibility that when you wake up in the morning you and every other object in your room will be floating in mid-air. You assume that gravity will continue tomorrow as it has in the past. Similarly, you assume that the other laws of nature (everything from the laws of thermodynamics to the ideal gas law) will continue to hold as well. But why believe this?

Hume showed that it is impossible to prove that the future will resemble the past when it comes to the laws of nature. If you try to prove it based on the fact that the laws have always held before, then you beg the question (i.e., it is circular to argue that the future will resemble the past because in the past the future resembled the past). The only alternative would be to somehow show that exceptions to the laws of nature are -inherently contradictory. But this is clearly not so, as we can all imagine such exceptions (e.g., from miraculous events to silly occurrences such as those mentioned earlier about mirror balls appearing out of nowhere and lamps turning into chickens).

So why do we persist in this belief in the uniformity of nature? Again, says Hume, it is a habit of the mind. We believe the laws of nature will hold in the future, not because of rational argument but because of custom. While it is a perfectly natural and, again, psychologically irresistible faith commitment, it is an article of faith no less.

The Existence of the External World

Most of us have had dreams in which we were completely convinced that what we were experiencing was real. How do you know you are not in such a dream state right now? Trifling though it may seem, this is actually a serious philosophical question, famously posed by the early modern philosopher Rene Descartes. Descartes appealed to the fact that conscious life is more clear and distinct than dream experiences. Although this reasoning may work to reassure us that we are awake and not dreaming, there are more troubling thought experiments to undermine our belief in the external world.

Consider the film The Matrix. The premise of the film is that what appears to be the physical world is actually an artificial reality constructed by a super-powerful computer system. For every person hooked into the system, their sensory experiences, from biting an apple to running on the beach, are mere simulations of the real thing, as the central computer constantly feeds data to them through their brain stems. While watching the film for the first time, many viewers find themselves considering the possibility that the Matrix scenario is actually true. But then they laugh it off as preposterous, perhaps reassuring themselves with the thought that, if it ever did happen, the deceptive computer would not allow us to watch a film that prompts us to consider that very scenario.

But how do you know that the Matrix scenario, or something like it, is not true? How do you know that you are not really just a brain in a laboratory vat somewhere, being fed stimuli that perfectly mimic those you would receive if you had a physical body? There is no way to prove this isn't your present predicament. In fact, we all take it for granted that we are not in the Matrix or isolated brains floating in vats. We not only take it for granted that there is an external world, that our experience is not just a product of our own dream state, but, as we saw earlier, we also assume that the external world is roughly as we experience it, that our senses are generally reliable. And, of course, these are philosophical faith commitments.

Regarding these beliefs, David Hume concluded, "It seems evident, that men are carried, by a natural instinct or prepossession, to repose faith in their senses; and that, without any reasoning, or even almost before the use of reason, we always suppose an external universe." Hume goes on to add that "even the animal creation are governed by a like opinion, and preserve this belief of external objects, in all their thoughts, designs, and actions." This passage is the apparent inspiration of Santayana's famous phrase, "animal faith."

As an atheist, Hume was content to recognize this fact about the human (and even non-human animal) condition. So why aren't contemporary atheists more willing to do so? My guess is that it is because branding theists with the "faith" label is such a tempting rhetorical tool. If one can claim the side of "reason" for himself and tag his opponent as irrational (which the "faith" tag conveniently and not-so-subtly does), then he can dismiss his opponent without any argument. It's hard not to see this ploy as anything but intellectual laziness.

The Existence of Other Minds

Granting that there is a world out there external to one's own mind, what about our belief that other people have minds? Have you ever considered the possibility that all of the people around you are mere automatons, programmed to respond to you in ways that only make you think they have minds of their own? What if you are the only person who has actual thoughts and feelings? Yes, it's a Twilight Zone kind of suggestion, but notice that there is no way to prove that it's not so. Well, at least most philosophers today seem to be convinced that there is no way to prove the existence of other minds.

The most famous argument for other minds reasons as follows: I experience my own inner thoughts and feelings, and I observe that these private mental states are associated with particular behaviors. When I feel pain, I wince. When I feel happy, I smile. And so on. Next, I observe that other people behave similarly in the same sorts of circumstances. So I conclude that they must have the same sorts of private psychological states as I do.

This is called the analogical argument for other minds. Impressive? Not at all. Notice that the argument asks you to reason from one case—namely yours—to that of everyone else. In other words, the only private thoughts you've experienced directly are your own. So on this basis you are supposed to infer that all other people have the same mental experiences. That's reasoning from one case to seven billion cases. As inductive arguments go, that's about as poor as it gets.

There are plenty of other arguments for the existence of other minds, but I concur with most philosophers these days in thinking they don't work. So what does this suggest about the nearly universal belief in other minds? That's right—it is another philosophical article of faith. We hold this belief despite our inability to prove it.

Numbers & Moral Values

The philosophical faith commitments that we've considered thus far are both incapable of proof and transcend human experience. Some other common beliefs might be regarded as faith commitments even though they can be supported with evidence. One of these is the belief in the existence of numbers. And here I don't mean the token symbols that we write, type, or observe on speed-limit signs. Rather, I mean the unchanging reality that is represented by a symbol such as "7" or "a2 + b2 = c2." Although this is somewhat controversial, many people believe that mathematical and geometrical truths such as these did not come into existence with the physical world but rather transcend the cosmos. They are displayed in the physical realm, but they are not dependent upon it. That this is so seems evident from the facts that such truths are: (1) unchanging, (2) known with certainty, and (3) discoverable without consulting the physical world. These points also reveal that numbers are not mere human conventions. They exist independently of our minds.

Now since numbers exist independently of the physical world and human minds, it may be said that they are supernatural. To be "supernatural," after all, is to be a real thing that transcends the physical realm. So those who would insist that believing in the supernatural is essentially an act of faith must grant that even our belief in numbers is a faith commitment.

A similar observation can be made about moral values. If there are ethical standards that transcend individuals and cultures—moral ideals such as justice, courage, honesty, kindness, and compassion—then these things are not dependent on human beings. Nor are such values material things. They transcend the physical realm. But if this is so, then moral values, too, are essentially supernatural.

Now, granted, numbers and moral values are not supernatural in the same sense that God, angels, and human souls are said to be supernatural. (The latter are sometimes called spiritual or mental substances, while numbers and values could not be so characterized.) Still, if they are real, then they do all seem to belong to the same category of things that transcend the physical world. And if believing in God, angels, or human souls must be regarded as faith for this reason, then our belief in numbers and moral values must also be so regarded for the same reason.

Sane Faith Commitments

We have seen that there are many articles of philosophical faith to which all sane people are committed, namely: that the senses are generally reliable; that rational thought reflects reality; that effects are related to their causes; that the laws of nature are uniform; that the external world really exists; and that other minds exist. And we've also noted that, given a certain construal of faith, belief in the reality of numbers and in moral values may also qualify as faith commitments.

So it is plain to see that faith, in the broad sense of belief in what cannot be proven and what lies beyond experience, is unavoidable and fundamental to the human condition. It is thus quite mistaken to suggest that only religious people have faith. We all have faith commitments, and we all act on faith every waking moment.

The Atheist's Ultimate Faith Commitment

This is not to say that religious people don't exhibit certain forms of faith that non-religious people do not. Clearly, we theists trust in God, while atheists do not. And Christians consciously trust in the person of Christ, while non-Christians do not. But we should not conclude from this that atheists exhibit less faith overall than religious folks. In fact, there are some faith commitments that an atheist must make precisely because of his rejection of God and all things supernatural. (Here I assume, for simplicity's sake, that atheists are also naturalists.)

One of these is belief in the "naturalist explainability thesis"—the notion that all of reality can be explained in terms of matter. Atheists often complain that theists constantly fall back on God as the ultimate explanation for everything. Though they present their rejection of this as a point of intellectual scrupulousness, they overlook the fact that their own belief—that all the fundamental facts of the universe have a materialist explanation—is left completely without foundation. And their commitment to the naturalist explainability thesis emerges as a major article of faith, particularly since the more we learn about the cosmos, the more hopeless a materialist explanation appears to be.

Cosmic Fine-Tuning

Consider, for instance, the so-called fine-tuning of the cosmos. Dozens of physical constants had to be set precisely as they are in order for life to be possible anywhere in the cosmos. Just one example is the Big Bang expansion rate, which needed to be accurate to within one part in 1060 for life to be possible. Given this narrow parameter, combined with numerous others, the odds of a coincidental fine-tuning are so remote as to be impossible.

The Emergence of Life

Another fact that defies a purely natural explanation is the emergence of life. Even granting that cosmic fine-tuning for the possibility of life could be accounted for naturally, the actual emergence of living things from inert matter is another step that is so improbable as to be impossible. Sir Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe once calculated the odds of life evolving from non-life to be one in 1040,000. Considering that any chance event more remote than one in 1050 is typically considered statistically impossible, it's easy to see why these esteemed scientists became staunch critics of chemical evolution.

The Emergence of Consciousness

Finally, the emergence of consciousness has no material explanation. Even granting the chance fine-tuning of the cosmos and chemical evolution, there remains the intractable problem of the origin of mind. How and why did mental capacities—especially self-awareness—arise in living organisms? Increasingly, philosophers of mind are tossing their hands up in despair over this one, abandoning their naturalist dogmas for mysterianism (which surrenders the problem to inherent mystery) and even panpsychism (which proposes that most material things, even inanimate objects, are conscious to some degree).

The Bigger Leap

These inexplicable facts of the cosmos reveal just how radical the atheist's commitment to the naturalist explainability thesis is. Belief in the notion that inert matter and blind chance can account for all of these things is a stout act of faith indeed.

Now it is true that the theist also believes by faith that divine intelligence created life, consciousness, and the laws of nature. But considering the attributes of an almighty, all-wise God and his infinite capacity for creativity, this actually seems much less of a leap of faith than the atheist makes in holding to the naturalist explainability thesis. It is for this reason that some have claimed that it is not the theist but the atheist who exhibits more faith.

In the Same Waters

What all of this seems to show is that faith is not an option for a human being. Regardless of your worldview, you must make a number of belief commitments that cannot be evidentially justified, such as the reliability of the senses, that thought reflects reality, the law of causality, the uniformity of nature, and the existence of the external world, numbers, values, and other minds. These are things that, as important as they are, we all assume without proof. Moreover, we have seen that while theism requires faith, to reject God as an object of faith is to commit oneself to another significant article of faith—the naturalist explainability thesis. And given the dim prospects for explaining all of reality in material terms, this brand of faith must be the most demanding of all.

It appears, then, that when it comes to faith, the theist and the atheist are, if not in the same boat, at least in the same waters. We all must venture to believe in causality, the reliability of the senses, and so on, despite our inability to prove these things. And in most cases, if we reject them, we will, like Schaeffer's nihilist friend, be subject to more than a few bumps on the head. 

is a Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. He has published over 70 articles and ten books, including the new, two-volume Idealism and Christianity series (Bloomsbury Press).

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #37, Summer 2016 Copyright © 2019 Salvo |