The belief that there is no God is just as much a matter of faith as the belief that there is a God. If 'faith' is defined as 'belief lying beyond proof’' both Christianity and atheism are faiths.
According to McGrath, any philosophical or scientific argument about the existence, or non-existence, of God leads to a stalemate (page 182); the matter lies beyond rational proof, and is ultimately a matter of faith (page 179). In other words, discussing the philosophical merits of atheism is a fruitless exercise.
I will, in a number of posts, unpack my reasons for why I disagree with McGrath on this point, but in this post I want to focus on the claim that atheism is simply a form of faith. I agree with McGrath that one cannot prove with absolute certainty that God doesn't or does exist, but does this mean that atheists make their choice based on faith alone? I offer two comments in response.
There is a lot of faith going around
Firstly, one can argue that there are many things of which we can conceive, but for which we don't have ultimate proof. Invisible trolls, ESP, UFOs, the Loch Ness monster, to name a few. Can we prove or disprove each of these things with absolute certainty? I would think that we can't. The list of improvable things is endless; does it make sense then to claim that I'm exercising faith when I decide to not believe in all these conceivable things? Would it make sense for a friend of mine to argue that I'm using faith when I don't believe in his claim that he recently witnessed a stray cat talking Spanish? After all, I can’t prove, with ultimate certainty, that the cat in question did not speak.
Is faith involved here? When I come across a claim as incredible as a speaking cat, I ponder the following questions: (1) are the characteristics of the claim logically co-herent, (2) does the claim agree, more or less, with our current knowledge of the universe, and (3) does the claim correspond with our experience of how things work?
If the general answer to these questions is no, then I would think it rational to not believe in said claim, unless evidence, more than the usual amount, is presented to me.
The Bible is full of events and claims that seem incredibly improbable. It is only rational, in my own mind at least, to not believe in these claims until good evidence is forthcoming. I'm not making a decision that lies beyond the proof, but rather making a decision based on what I currently know. No faith seems to be involved in this process.
Does lack of belief = faith?
Secondly, I guess if every atheist declared “I believe that there is no God”, then McGrath would have a point, but as I’ve explained before on this blog, my own position is somewhat different. I would not claim that “I believe that God doesn't exist”; rather my position would be best described by the statement: “I don't believe in the existence of God”. The first statement denotes belief, while the second statement denotes lack of belief. If faith is about having belief, without sufficient evidence, about the existence or non-existence of an entity, then the position of lack of belief cannot, by definition, be a product of faith.
Atheism thus has very little to defend. McGrath, on the other hand, believes that the creator or the universe has entered time and history in order to communicate with us, and he claims to have a personal relationship with this creator. It is true that we cannot prove, or disprove, the existence of God with absolute certainty, but surely the burden of proof is more heavily placed on those who claim, or even believe, that such a god exists.
To summerise: I don’t agree with McGrath’s claim that atheists in general use faith to reject the existence of God. Firstly, most atheists would claim to have used a rational process of thinking when evaluating, and eventually rejecting, the claims of Christianity, Secondly, most atheists do not make a positive claim of belief regarding the non-existence of God. Their very lack of belief rules out faith by default.
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