A Man of No Faith

In dialogues with atheists, I regularly see theists pose the following inquiry:

If you don't have faith in God, then what do you have faith in?
The most typical answers include rationality, science and humanity. While I find nothing truly objectionable in these responses, it's my opinion that the most appopriate response is in fact, “Nothing. I have no faith.”

The problem is that a believer's faith and an unbeliever's faith are completely different. When a believer says they have faith in God, they mean that they believe in his existence without sufficient evidence, that they trust God to always do what's right, or both. When a nonbeliever says they have faith in rationality or science, they mean they think that's the best method to discover the truth about the universe, and when they say they have faith in humanity, they mean that humans must solve their own problems and that they have hope they in fact will, but it's never unbounded confidence like believers put in their deity. These two religious and two secular varieties of faith just don't truly overlap. Support for the scientific method and recognition that we must address our problems without divine assistance are not at all equivalent to belief without evidence and absolute trust in an invisible being, even though we often call them all by the same name of faith.

So in the sense that theists probably mean when they ask the question, most atheists simply have no faith whatsoever, but I don't really fault them for providing a seemingly more positive and optimistic answer than what I recommend. For my own part, however, I prefer to answer as honestly as possible and to challenge the assumption of the believer that I must have faith like they do.



vjack said...

I generally answer this one by defining faith (i.e., belief in something for which no evidence exists and for which contradictory evidence may even exist) and then going on to explain that faith is not a valid way of acquiring knowledge because it leaves us without any basis for evaluating the veracity of truth claims. That is, faith fails to give us any way of differentiating between truth and falsehood.

I agree with you that it is is mistake to claim faith in reason, science, humanity, etc. As you point out, we may have some level of confidence in these things, but we reject faith as useful here.

As you point out, theists and atheists sometimes have different definitions of faith. This is why it is so important to use a shared definition when communicating our position.

Neithan said...

There is a tendency to employ a very specific definition of faith (such as in the above post) for the purposes of argument; however, this applies only to a certain usage of faith, and in fact would exclude many religious believers.

The simplest and broadest definition of faith is: belief in something based on authority.

Whenever we believe what someone tells us, we are exercising faith to some degree.

For example, if I trust my doctor, I will believe his diagnosis, and take the medication he prescribes. This is faith.

Some people will also believe the doctrines taught by a Church, and live accordingly. This is also faith, and involves the same subjective mental process.

Zatarra said...


I understand your point, but believers do have a very specific query in mind when they pose that question. They don't seem to be asking, "What authorities do you recognize and trust?", but rather something more like, "What gives your life meaning? What will help you in time of need?" Your definition of faith seems to exclude moral confidence that someone will do the right thing; faith is not always about the truthfulness of propositions about reality. I don't think it can really be reduced to a single aspect. In addition, the difference between the conditional faith that people have in science is so distinct from the unconditional faith that other people have in their deities that I think I'm justified in distinguishing them here.