Do Atheists Have Faith?

September 11, 2013 | 5 comments

If you want to pique your atheist friends, tell them that their atheism is just a “matter of faith.” They will probably respond that they have the same faith in the non-existence of God as theists have in the non-existence of Santa Claus. So what do atheists mean by the word "faith?"

New atheist Sam Harris writes in his book The End of Faith that “religious faith is simply unjustified belief in matters of ultimate concern.” Other atheists more charitably define faith as “belief in the absence of evidence.” 

The Virtue of Faith

According to most traditional Christians, faith is not a belief in spite of or in the absence of evidence. Instead it is, as the Catechism defines it, “the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us” (CCC 1814). Although we live in a culture that equates faith with “blindly accepting something as true,” it may be more helpful to think of faith instead as a kind of “trust” that is based on good reasons.

Most of what we believe is taken on this kind of trusting faith, because as limited human beings we cannot directly research the truth about everything. We need to have confidence (or “faith”) in the authority of teachers, textbooks, maps, schedules, parents, and internet websites, among many other things.

Sometimes this faith is misplaced and we end up believing false things. But if that happens, and if we are presented with good evidence that our beliefs are not true, we simply give up those false beliefs. An atheist might complain that there is a difference in having faith in people and having faith in God. We know people exist because we can experience them with our five senses and can investigate to see if what they say is true. But the same is not true for God whose very existence is disputed.

Faith in Things Unseen

But who says that the only way we can know if something exists is through the use of our five senses? If God existed then he could reveal himself to a human being by causing that person to have an internal awareness of God. If that person does not doubt their sanity, then why shouldn’t they trust this personal experience

Along with this personal, subjective knowledge, the First Vatican Council taught that God can also be known objectively, by reasons accessible to everyone. It said that God “can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason.” Now, this doesn’t mean that everyone will come to know God by reason, but only that it is possible for anyone to come to know God with certainty in this way.

Faith and Reason

The diagram at the top of this page should help clarify what I mean so far (the inspiration for this came from Peter Kreeft and Fr. Ronald Tacelli’s Handbook of Christian Apologetics).

On the far left, we see that there are some truths (like mathematical truths) that are only known through reason. On the far right, there are other truths that can only be known if they are revealed by God and accepted through faith (like the Christian belief that God is a Trinity). But some truths, those in between the overlapping circles, can be known by either faith or reason. These include the truth that God exists or the truth that some actions are objectively right or wrong.

Both atheists and theists have “faith” in the sense that they believe statements that cannot be proven with absolute certainty. For example, almost everyone believes that the world is not a computer simulation like the Matrix or that the laws of nature that operate today will operate the same way tomorrow.

We don’t carefully reason our way to these truths. They are merely assumptions we think are true because they just appear to be true. But calling belief in these basic truths “faith” would stretch the meaning of the word beyond recognition. Theists have religious faith while atheists have confidence in truths that cannot be absolutely proven.

This blog post is an excerpt from my new book Answering Atheism, arriving this month. To learn more about how to talk to your atheist friends, pre-order your copy today from Catholic Answers Press.


After his conversion to the Catholic faith, Trent Horn pursued an undergraduate degree in history from Arizona State University.  He then earned a graduate degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy from Holy Apostles College....

Answering Atheism
Today’s popular champions of atheism are often called New Atheists, because they don’t just deny God’s existence (as the old atheists did)—they consider it their duty to scorn and ridicule religious belief. But there’s nothing really “new” about their arguments. They’re the same basic objections to theism that mankind has wrestled with for centuries. We don’t need new answers for this aggressive modern strain of unbelief: We need a new approach. In Answering Atheism, Trent Horn responds to that need with a fresh and useful resource for the God debate, combining a thorough refutation of atheist claims with a skillfully constructed case for theism based on reason and common sense. Just as important, he advocates a charitable approach that respects atheists’ sincerity and good will—making this book suitable not just for believers but for skeptics and seekers too.

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Michael Lindner - Colts Neck, New Jersey

One could argue that 2+2=4 belongs in the middle group. All mathematics relies on postulates that are not provable.

September 11, 2013 at 5:49 pm PST
#2  Betty Conklin - Goshen, Kentucky

What I cannot understand is how many atheists claim morality. In a world without God, what practical purpose could morality have? I mean, isn't that an implicit acknowledgement of his existence? Reason would suggest that without God, the prime directive is successfully passing on one's dna. Self-interest a la Machiavelli or Nietzsche should rule the day - survival of the fittest, right? Of course, there are some strange neo-Malthusians who want to perpetuate eugenics, which goes directly against evolution/natural selection. Atheists don't seem very reasonable at all, when you think about it.

September 11, 2013 at 6:07 pm PST
#3  Darth Continent - Nope, Florida

Agnosticism is in my opinion the wisest approach.

Sure, there are virtues outlined in religious doctrine that may be truly good to live by, but the fact that we're only human and haven't landed on the moon since the 60s let alone, say, colonized Mars or gone outside our solar system or discovered life on other worlds means atheists cannot deny beyond a shadow of a doubt that some higher power does not exist. We simply don't yet know ALL there is to know about everything, and cannot conclude so confidently that things absolutely, positively cannot exist that we can't prove with science.

By the same token, while the religious may embrace their faith, it does not pass similar tests for hard evidence. Internal to the believer faith may be all-encompassing and convincing, but the rest of us need either hard evidence or personal experience of the power of a God to nudge us toward belief rather than keep us at arm's length from it.

With agnosticism I keep an open mind, for I don't possess the faith necessary to suspend my disbelief and incredulity about the relatively fanciful claims made by religion. I lean more toward the Catholic notion of the "mystery", for life and our existence to me is indeed the greatest mystery of all in my experience.

September 12, 2013 at 7:45 am PST
#4  Reuben Herrle - Oxford, Ohio

Darth,

Wise agnosticism will lead to theism if the agnostic continually seeks the truth. I suspect that you will not be an exception, considering the fact that you seem to be a regular visitor to www.catholic.com

September 12, 2013 at 12:15 pm PST
#5  Non Prophet - Little Rock, Arkansas

Betty,

> "In a world without God, what practical purpose could morality have?"

Survival and promotion of happiness and well-being and the minimizing of suffering. It is a biological fact that humans prefer pleasure over pain. If we are to all live in this world, we have to recognize there to be limits if we want to live in a happy and flourishing society. We are social animals. We depend on cooperation to survive. Implied in cooperation is "you don't harm me, and I won't harm you."

I would suggest doing some research on moral philosophy. Sam Harris writes "The Moral Landscape", Matt Dillahunty does a lecture on "The Superiority of a Secular Morality" and my particular favorite is this philosopher, Scott Clifton, who sums up morality quiet nicely: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dWNW-NXEudk

February 5, 2014 at 4:27 pm PST

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