Faith, Thesim and Atheism

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Faith, Thesim and Atheism

I would appreciate peoples input on this essay wot I wrote the other day.... 



Knowledge, belief, faith and absolute certainty.

This essay is a response to the theist argument that “atheism requires faith”. The conclusion from this is that as atheism and theism both require faith they are equally valid positions. The claim that atheism is based on faith as much as is Theism is simply false. The claim stems from a semantic trick utilising two different meanings of the word faith. I will show that theism and atheism are not epistemologically equal, they are not equally valid positions and the attempt to argue that they are is simply wrong. I will outline how this erroneous argument is made by mixing and then unfairly equating different meanings assigned to the words faith and knowledge. In essence, as will be seen, a false dichotomy is created by the theist when they attempt to equate the “faith” of atheism and the faith of theism. In the last section of the essay I wish to look at whether we can say we know that God does not exist or can be certain that God does not exist. Contrary to even popular atheist opinion I think that in certain circumstances we actually can make these claims.

Firstly I wish to out line some terms. Throughout this essay we will be using the terms belief, knowledge, justified belief, certainty and faith. But what do we mean by these terms? It is important to understand these terms because misunderstanding of these terms is what lies at the heart of the theists erroneous comparisons. Let us first consider belief. Well this ones fairly easy to define its just some thing about the world that we hold to be true. I don’t think that there is much contention on this. We hold all sorts of beliefs about the world some are better than others.

Next we I want to define a justified belief. Well again this subsection of beliefs should be fairly self explanatory. If we have a good reason or evidence to believe something then it is justified. This evidence can come in many forms but typically will fall under two broad categories, inductive justification (from past experience) or deductive justification (we deduce X from previous justified beliefs). It is important to note at this stage that justified beliefs can only be deduced from other justified beliefs they can not rest on unjustified beliefs. So what kinds of beliefs are justified or unjustified? Well for justified beliefs I would give examples as:

I believe that I am good at my job – I am successful and hit my targets
I believe that John respects me as a person – I have known John for years
I believe that vitamin C helps me fight colds – there is some evidence for this.

All of these are not known to be true but I would say I am still justified in holding them to be true this is because there is evidence to support all of these claims. They are not known, as the evidence is not conclusive, but the evidence still supports the belief it is just not strong enough to say we “know X”. If we then compare this to the following unjustified beliefs

I’ve just lost 5 times at black jack so I should win next time – no evidence
I believe that fairies exist – no evidence
I believe that aliens have visited earth – no evidence
I believe that homeopathic medicine works – conflicting or no evidence

All of these belief lack evidence they are unjustified or there is conflicting evidence on the mater in hand. In the absence of any evidence or if the presence of conflicting evidence we may well form an opinion on the matter and this opinion would be an unjustified belief. We form these all the time every day but generally will revise them with no problem if new evidence presents itself. These beliefs are generally unreliable and we often label them as irrational.

Now let us turn to the rather tricky subject of knowledge. What is knowledge? Well I’m not going to attempt to answer that question fully because I can’t! But I do want to make an important distinction on how we use the word “knowledge” from this I hope to show what knowledge is not rather than what it is. So let us consider some of the things we claim to know.

I know that there is a car outside my window because I can see it.
I know that the earth is the third planet out from the sun.
I know that if I drop a stone it will fall
I know how to get to Kings Cross station from Camden Town on foot.

If anyone asked me if I knew these things I would say yes without hesitation “I know all of these things”. But, and this is the real point, I do not know with absolute certainty ANY of these things. We could think of sceptical arguments that would throw some doubt onto all of these. The ultimate example is that of the brain in the vat whereby none of the things in question even exist outside the super computer that is stimulating my brain to have and experience of a real world. There is no certainty in any of the above statements DESPITE me knowing them. So I want make this clear

Important point 1
Knowledge DOES NOT REQUIRE absolute certainty.

In order to say “I know X” we do not need to be absolutely certain of X. X could in fact be wrong! There can be doubt in X despite our claim to knowing X. At first this may seem counter intuitive but the alternative is admitting that we do not know any of the mundane examples given above. We would have to admit that we are simply wrong to use the word “know” pretty much every time we use it! This to me seems silly, clearly the word “know” is applied correctly in these instances the confusion is that because the doubt is so small we assume that it is non existent and we then have a confused notion as to what we mean by “know”. We mistakenly assume that there must be absolute certainty in X in order for us to say we know X.
Now one could take the sceptical stance and say that I don’t actually know any of these things but that, as I hope will be clear, is not actually important to the argument I wish to present. What is important to note is that our every day use of the word “know” does not mean absolute certainty. Know means something different, knowledge is a some what weaker concept than absolute certainty. We could argue the toss as to whether this is really knowledge but this will not actually be important to the argument below we just need to note that the every day usage of the word knowledge does not require absolute certainty.

So what does “know” mean? Well I would say that it at least means having very strong justification for that belief. In the examples above we make a claim to knowing these things because we are strongly justified in doing so. It’s not a mere belief on a whim we have hard evidence that the belief is true. Whilst this evidence is not 100% absolute it has gone beyond a critical threshold of strength in order for us to say we “know X” rather than we merely believe X. What this threshold is and how we come to this justification is a tricky subject but its is not important for the purposes of the argument I wish to present all we need to agree is that a sate of knowledge requires at the very least some strong evidence for X before we can make the claim “I know X”. I do not think that many would disagree that at the very least we need strong evidence before we can make claims to knowledge.

Important point 2
In order to claim we know X we must at least have strong evidence for X

  Now let us turn to faith. What do we mean by faith? Well I would say the word is used to mean different things. There is the everyday usage of the word where we might say I have faith in my friends, or faith in my relationship, or faith in my abilities. So what is meant when we make these types of everyday faith claims? I think that what we actually mean is that we have a justified belief in each of these things but we don’t know for certain. So if I have faith in my friends then I have learnt from past experience that they will be there for me when I need them and I reasonably can expect them to be there for me in the future, hence my “faith” in them. This is one every day usage of the word “faith”. Basically it means a justified but not certain belief. Let call this “type 1 faith”.

There is a second usage of the word faith. This usage of the word is when we believe something to be truth in the absence of any evidence or in the presence of contradictory evidence. This faith I will call “type 2 faith”. It is very different to type one faith and means something completely different.

Important point 3
Type 1 faith is not equivalent to type 2 faith.

So now let us turn our attention to the claim atheism requires faith in the same way as theism. Well right off the bat we need to dismiss any such claims about weak atheism. Weak atheism is the “lack of belief in a God” it makes no positive claims about the world and is not even a belief its merely the lack of one! The only way this could be even considered a faith position (of either type) would be if there was some hard concrete evidence FOR god’s existence. If there where hard evidence for God then denying the belief, refusing to accept the hard evidence in God could be considered a faith position I guess. But I really don’t know of any theist who has ever come up with this hard evidence so I think we can pretty much dismiss any claim about weak atheism being a position of faith.

The point of this essay is actually to discuss the claims that strong atheism requires faith. I think there is something of interest to discuss here so from now one the term atheism should be taken to mean “the belief that God does not exist” rather than “the lack of belief in God”. With that noted let us proceed to the meat of this essay.

 The theist claim is as follows

You can’t know for certain that God does not exist therefore atheism requires faith.

P1 – You do not know for certain that God does not exist
P2 – Any belief you are not certain about requires faith.

C- Atheism requires faith

I think it should be obvious why this is wrong but let’s spell it out clearly. For most Gods I would agree that we can not know for certain whether they exist. So I would agree that premise 1 is fine. Premise 2 however is full of issues. Most of the things we claim to know about the word are not known with absolute certainty so do we hold these on faith? Is my knowledge of how to get from Kings Cross Station to Holborn Station a position of faith just because there may be some small chance that I could be wrong? I think not. This is simply not what we mean by faith UNLESS we are talking about type 1 faith. If we are talking about type 1 faith then I really don’t have a problem with atheism having this type of faith. Many of the cast iron facts about the world could be argued to require at least some type 1 faith. My knowledge of London’s streets that enable me to know how to get from kings cross to Holborn COULD be misremembered, there is a small chance of error and so I guess it could be argued a small amount of type 1 faith is required. This, to me, is not really what we mean by faith. It renders the term somewhat useless.

Type 1 faith is not really what the theist needs to demonstrate. In order to equate theism and atheism they need to show that atheism requires type 2 faith. So the theist may now modify their argument. If they want to level the charge of type 2 faith against atheism then they need to attack the justification for atheism. This is because type 2 faith boils down to a lack of justification rather than a lack of certainty. The argument would be as follows

P1- Any belief that you can’t justify requires type 2 faith
P2- The belief “god does not exist” can not be justified

C- Atheism require type 2 faith

Again P1 I am fine with this just defines what type 2 faith is. It is P2 that I have a problem with. I think that the belief “god does not exist” is justifiable in many ways. In fact depending on the God in question I would say that it ranges from being so strongly justified as to be classed as knowledge too a justified belief of the same strength as the belief that unicorns do not exist. The strength of justification depends very much on which flavour of God we are discussing. We could at this stage get into a lengthy discussion about the justifications for atheism but I won’t do that here. What is important to note is that the argument has now moved form an argument about “knowledge” to one about justification. In order to level the charge of type 2 faith against atheism the theist must be able to show that it’s a completely unjustified belief. This they simply can’t do!

So what about theism? Does this require faith? Well in word yes. It requires faith but most importantly it requires type 2 faith. As yet I have seen no evidence to back up the belief that God exists. There is no justification for the belief in such an entity, in fact there is considerable justification for the idea that God does not exist. As theism has no evidence for it and considerable evidence against theism quit defiantly does require type 2 faith.

I hope it is now clear why the claims that atheism requires faith are wrong. The type 1 faith that atheism requires is at best trivial and at worst down right misleading. The type 2 faith of theism is important because it basically separates rationally held beliefs from irrational beliefs. Type 2 faith denotes an irrationally held belief. So theism is not equivalent to atheism and any attempt to equate the two in this way basically stems from mixing up the two meanings of the word faith.

Now one can argue about the justifications for the belief “god does not exist”. One can also argue about the lack of justification for the belief “god does exist”. But we should now focus on the justification, or that lack there of, for these two beliefs. If a theist thinks they can justify their God belief then they must present their evidence. The atheist must also present his evidence to back up the belief God does not exist. This is what we should discuss and asses. We should not, for the reasons above, get caught up in worrying about certainty or even knowledge when comparing the two beliefs. This is the point I really wish to make here. I hope it is clear why.

Next I want to briefly discus knowledge claims about God. Can we claim to know that God does not exist? Firstly we need to establish which God we are talking about. The omnipotent God of Christianity I think we can unequivocally say we know does not exist. Why? Simply omnipotence is a logically self contradictory term. Any omnipotent thing is logically inconsistent it is equivalent to a 4 sided triangle such a thing is impossible in any conceivable universe and so defines itself out of existence.

But what about logically consistent Gods? Ones that don’t contain any self contradictory definitions? I still thing we can make some strong claims to knowing that they don’t exist. Remember:
Important point 1 – knowledge does not require absolute certainty
Important point 2 - In order to claim we know X we must at least have strong evidence for X

In order to make the claim “I know God does not exist” we do not need to be absolutely certain of its no existence but we do need to pass a certain threshold of evidence that it does not. Once the weight of evidence is so great then we can make claims to knowledge. So the weight of evidence must be of the same order as the evidence that gives me the confince to claim that

I know that there is a car outside my window because I can see it.
I know that the earth is the third planet out from the sun.
I know that if I drop a stone it will fall
I know how to get to Kings Cross station from Camden Town on foot.

As we have seen none of these are absolutely certain but I still claim to know them. Can we justify the belief “God does not exist” as strongly as these beliefs and hence make a claim to knowledge? I’m not sure. On some days I think the justification for the belief “God does not exist” is sufficiently high to warrant a knowledge claim on other days I think that it perhaps falls short. But what is important to not is that in either case the claim is “god does not exist” is still justified and hence it is still rational to hold the belief
“God does not exist”. I really does not matter if we can say “I know God does not exist” strong atheism ain’t about knowledge it’s about belief. I hope I have convinced enough weak atheists here that strong atheism is an entirely justifiable belief.