Artist Focus: Rory Hinshelwood
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Artist Focus: Rory Hinshelwood

Louisa Hunt - April 25, 2018
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Why atheism is not a position of faith

The argument that it takes as much faith to be an atheist as it does to be religious is one that has been debunked many times over the years, and yet, like a whack-a-mole machine that does not know when to quit, it still often pops up in discussions on the subject.

But before once more wearily picking up the mallet to knock it back down again, it’s important to define what exactly we mean by ‘faith’.

Faith in the religious sense of the word is defined by Google firstly as “a strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof”, and secondly as “a complete trust or confidence in someone or something”.

What the above definitions helpfully make clear is that, if atheists have faith, it is necessarily different to the religious kind; plainly no one is going to argue that an atheist’s faith is based on the ‘doctrines of religion’ and ‘spiritual conviction’.

Atheists faith must be the second definition, which really if you think about it is just a synonym for ‘belief’, atheists ‘believe’ things.

But we all believe things, this isn’t contentious at all, I believe the Earth is round, 2+2=4 and getting up tomorrow for my 9am will be a struggle.

We also believe lots of negative statements. I don’t believe that the royal family are our secret reptilian overlords, I don’t believe in fairies and I don’t believe that Tottenham will win the league this year, much as I might like them to.

Now no one can actually prove a non-belief, but this is not a problem, because no one ever asks us to.

The absurdity of proving universal negatives was famously argued by the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Russell gave the example of a celestial teapot in orbit around the sun; the existence of such a teapot can never be disproven so long as it’s stipulated it is too small to ever be detected by human technology.

If someone however argued that just because we can’t disprove the existence of the teapot it is as likely there as not, we would think they were mad.

Furthermore, if they claimed that it was a position of ‘faith’ to believe that the teapot was not there, we’d probably be quite bemused.

Yes well of course if by faith you mean a belief that the teapot doesn’t exist then yes, you can call it ‘faith’, but this does not make the teapot naysayers any less likely to be correct.

The reason that we wouldn’t expect people to rush to the nearest telescope if someone made the claim about this teapot is that the burden of proof is always on the person who makes the assertion to prove it.

Think for example of our legal system: if I accused the next guy I see of stealing £500 from me without any evidence, a jury is unlikely to be impressed. They are also unlikely to be swayed by my follow up argument of “well prove he didn’t!”

There is only one course of debate using the above argument that wouldn’t get you thrown out of court for being legally insane, and that is of course religion.

So consider the following assertion: there is an invisible sky being that created the universe with billions of galaxies and trillions of stars, but whose only interest is in a single insignificant planet.

Particularly of interest to this magnificent creator are the antics of a highly developed species of ape. It listens to all this animal’s thoughts and likes it when they pray to him on Sundays, and will sometimes grant them favours if they’ve been good.

The being is also extremely concerned with the animal’s sex lives and reserves the right to send them to a fiery place of eternal suffering if they so much as love the wrong person.

If anyone can look at the above and think that just because we can’t prove there is no such being it’s as likely as not there is one, perhaps think of it like this: we all have ‘faith’ that Zeus, Thor and the sun god Ra don’t exist, some of us just decide to go one god further.

 

Cosmo Element

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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