(3/14/11) When I was writing this article, I was in the midst of what you might call a faith remission -- after having been Christian for quite a number of years, it takes a very long time to really change your mindset to an atheistic worldview. I felt that I was still on the right track, following the evidence away, but nevertheless, it seemed so much more necessary then to justify my position than it does to me now. Nevertheless, this is the primary reason I maintain the worldview that I do, and so I've posted it here just in case it is useful for someone else.
Of all the things we encounter in our societies, modern and ancient, one of the most entrenched is faith. Faith lays the foundations upon which both religion and politics are founded. The word itself has so many connotations and subtleties that even speaking of the word "faith" conjures a different image to everybody. But those who really say they need faith, thrive on faith, and live faithfully, are the religious -- of the many religions of the world, I can think of only a handful that don't use some concept of faith.
But what is "faith", exactly, and how can I reconcile it with my position of atheism? Can it be reconciled, or is it a concept so religious that to be an atheist necessitates its demise? Faith is a very large topic, one of which many people throughout history have spent their entire lives pondering. I certainly can't hope to have the same depth and breadth of knowledge and insight as those preceding me. But I believe that very much less than depth and breadth is required to make some sense of it.
I began writing this essay after something reminded me of an ever-common argument in favor of religion. It goes something like this: It takes more faith to be an atheist than to be a Christian, because, after all, you have to believe what scientists say, you have to believe in evolution (which we cannot see, they say), and of course even in everyday life, you have to have faith that your taxi driver isn't going to run off a bridge. So, they say, it takes much less faith to simply believe in a deity and brush the rest under the cover of "God did it". Certainly, the words used by religionists to convey this argument aren't the same. And it seems intuitively to be wrong somehow. But actually refuting it turns out to be a much more challenging problem.
Right now, I'll point out an obvious nit that I'm certain any skeptic would love to pick about this argument: Nothing about being an atheist requires me to believe what any scientist says. I could be an atheist but believe that the universe is made of green cheese. There is nothing inconsistent about that. But certainly, skeptics tend to trust what a scientist says. What that tells me is that there is something fundamentally different between faith in a scientist and faith in a deity. In fact, that difference, to me, seems to be the very heart of this argument.
Here's the key to resolving the conflict: There are two meanings of "faith".
This whole thing really cuts to what it is that I base my worldview on. What sort of faith do I value? Do I need? Do I have? So let's go back to absolute basics. I believe, by default, almost nothing (as a skeptic, doubt is my default position, until evidence presents itself). But I consider three things to be axiomatic: 1. That evidence, deductive reasoning, and inductive reasoning are valid forms of inference, and 2. That the world behaves in a predictable manner, subject to laws of nature that can be discovered. 3. That extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (OR: That evidence is necessary commensurate with the claim proposed).
Given these axioms, I believe that the rest of my beliefs can be derived, or justified if not derived. Take, for example, trivial events. Today I heard from someone, who heard from someone, who heard from someone, that tiger woods ran his car into a tree. Fine. I believe that tiger woods ran his car into a tree. But why should I believe this? I haven't met him, seen pictures, or even heard a news report of it. It's trivial. That's why. Anecdotal evidence is perfectly acceptable for things that simply don't matter. The evidence is commensurate with the claim, and I know of no contradictory evidence.
Another example: I, generally speaking, believe what a scientist has to say. In chemistry, for example, I believe that 6.022e23 Oxygen atoms weighs 16.00g. This is a fundamental statistic about our universe, and many things, from scuba diving, to airplanes flying, depends on it. I have never weiged it. But I believe the numerous periodic tables around because scientists have what is called the scientific method, a self-correcting mechanism by which "true" can be filtered from "false". It's not perfect, but the experiments have been done, and re-done, and done again so many times that, unless you doubt the veracity of an incredible amount of consistent data, you must accept that it is probably correct. Tentatively, to be sure, but as of yet, no evidence has come forth that it is not true, and much evidence has come forth that it is.
Therefore, I do not believe in a deity. The claim that a deity exists is of cosmic importance, because if a deity (especially as described by the major abrahamic religions) does exist, then my eternal soul is at stake. Conversely, the costs are equally high should there be no deity. If there is no deity, and I choose to behave as if there is one, then I waste a lifetime, the only lifetime I will ever have. And, furthermore, I could find that the deity isn't there to help me after all, when I'm in a soul-threatening bind. Given that a deity's (non-)existence is so utterly critical, I can accept nothing less than the best of evidence to support its existence. While no evidence at all has come forth that there is a deity, there *is* logical and physical evidence that there is *no* deity. Even lacking this evidence, however, absent commensurate evidence, doubt must be the default position, because otherwise the wheat of truth could not so easily be separated from the chaff of falsehood.