Atheism in 2012: The Faithful Deniers of Faith

This is the second post in my series on Atheism, a series of observations with the goal of leading to a hypothesis as to why atheism has yet to become the dominant belief structure of society, particularly among technologically wealthy cultures. 

Deniers of Faith
In my interactions with Atheists of late, there seems to be a vocal subset that not only does not believe in a God or gods, but also finds any assertion of similarity between themselves and the religious to be personally insulting. They present themselves in such a way that indicates they view a person having 'faith' or 'a religion' as worthy of disdain, and seem insist they do not possess such contemptible qualities.

This vocal subset will readily make itself known, simply imply that 'Atheists have faith' or that 'Atheism is a religion'. They will quickly self-identify in response. A concentration of this behavior can be found where I encountered it, a Logos group discussion resulting from the question: Is faith a good thing? 

My good friend Larry has grown weary of correcting misinterpretations of what he claims New Atheists criticize about faith. He'll absolutely loathe this then. However, many of my interactions with the vocal subset mentioned above have been with those who refer to themselves as New Atheists.

New Atheists and Occupy 
The New Atheism movement bears some similarity to the Occupy movement in this way. There is no 'official line' to tow (as far as I'm aware, maybe Dawkins or Hitchens are ambassador enough of the movement that their take is the official line - but unless someone donates an e-book of their work or quotes the 'official line' to me, I'm sticking with there is no 'official line').

Both movements seem to be essentially leaderless, or at least lacking representatives unanimously endorsed to speak for the movement. While everyone in the movement may agree that 'there is no God or gods,' like everyone in the Occupy movement seems to agree 'shit is fucked up and stuff' - the actual details of what's wrong and how to fix it will vary widely within each movement.

This post is directed at those who would react to the phrase "you have just as much faith as the religious" as if you had just said "you have herpes." However, the argument within is worth your consideration - even if you're just interested in telling me how wrong I am.

Redefining Faith
A core tactic this subgroup employs is to very carefully define 'faith' in a way to limit the application of the term to faith in certain situations. Specifically, if a person has faith in a belief based on science, reason, or common knowledge, that isn't faith, it's something else: knowledge, reason, etc. However, if a person has a faith in a belief based solely on acceptance of that belief or on religious texts, etc. that is faith.

A clear example of this behavior can be found on Robert Paul Fischer's blog post on faith:
Faith is a noun. It means a belief that was formed in the absence of evidence and/or experience, or that is held despite evidence and/or experience to the contrary, regardless of whether that evidence and/or experience was available at the time the belief was formed.
and another from the Logos discussion linked above:
"What happening here is a very typical rhetorical device which the faithful use in an attempt to discredit the rational. They claim that our understanding of science is just as faith based as their supernatural beliefs and that somehow makes their beliefs more legitimate; it somehow puts us on an equal platform. But it's only a rhetorical device, there is no actual equivalency between 'believing' in gravity and 'believing' in fairies."
Dictionary.com defines faith as:
  1. Confidence or trust in a person or thing.
  2. Belief that is not based on proof.
This subset of atheists fails to see or fails to admit that both definitions are simultaneously correct and focus solely on the second. I posit that both are simultaneously correct and that the second definition is merely a subset of the first, a specific variant of faith.

While the dictionary.com definitions generally work for me, I believe them to be woefully incomplete. Faith is a function of the brain, just as imagination is a function of a brain. Lesser developed brains have a limited ability to imagine, and similarly have a limited ability to exercise faith.

The simplest way for me to explain faith is through the following equation:

Faith is the human ability to act as if an idea is a truth. Apply faith to an idea and it becomes a belief. Remove faith from a belief and it becomes an idea.

Imagination allows us to create and see things in our mind that may exist and may not. We can imagine a how a living T-Rex might look despite never seeing one, we can even imagine one with feathers. If a person were to apply enough faith to the idea that the T-Rex had feathers, it's existence can become a belief.

The Nature of Faith
Just as the human mind is capable of advanced imagination, it is capable of advanced faith. Faith is what allows us to behave as if the data we use to make behavioral choices is accurate. 

As a function of the human mind, it is subject to disease and chemical reaction. Take the acid example for instance. Someone on acid might interpret skin tingling as spiders crawling inside their skin. Misapplication of faith can turn this interpretation into a belief, and the user could end up scratching open their skin to get the spiders out.

Measuring Faith
Though I am unaware of a formal methodology for measuring faith, there are enough visible variations of faith to indicate that one could be developed. Faith can increase and decrease: ideas can become beliefs and beliefs can become ideas. For the purposes of this post, I will refer to 'base faith' and 'advanced faith'. Without a formal system of measurement, it's very difficult to determine where 'base faith' ends and 'advanced faith' begins, though I will attempt to give you enough examples to form a frame of reference.

Base Faith and Robert's Chair
Though I'm open to debate on the subject, I have the idea that any creature with a brain is not only capable of base faith, but uses it on a daily basis. As Robert indicates, the chair argument is most often used to illustrate this level of faith.

In the chair example, the claim is made that faith is in evidence when a person sits in a chair. If the subject did not have faith that the chair would hold his/her weight, they would either not sit in the chair or do so very cautiously to prevent injury.

Keeping in mind that Robert is using only the second dictionary.com definition of faith (belief without proof), he argues that both faith and reason are alternative means to the same end: Belief. He claims faith is unnecessary for one to have confidence and trust that the chair will hold one's weight, because one can reason and rationalize that the chair will hold the weight.

His err is not that reason and rationalize do not factor into chair-sitting, but in that they can result in a belief. This is not the case. Reason and rationalization can result in ideas, and barring other influence (such as experience) one could come to the idea that the chair could hold one's weight - but without faith that idea would never become a belief. The subject would remain skeptical, and perhaps gingerly test the chair's stability, but certainly would not plop into the chair with confidence and trust in the chair's weight-holding ability.

What reason and rationalization do is more about justification of the application of faith. We are justified in our faith that the chair would hold us - we have reasons we can site, we can rationalize the safety of the belief.

Base Faith and Senses
Base Faith does not require language, only senses, memory, and the tiniest bit of imagination. Imagination is required for prediction, and as temporal species, prediction is necessary for directed action.

As sensory data accumulates, we begin to predict the outcome of our interactions with the world. Infants constantly conduct experiments, which is likely the reason they're always putting things in their mouths. The first faith we develop, without language or conscious analysis, is faith in our senses. This is quickly followed by the most powerful and dangerous faith, faith in the accuracy of our predictions.

When a child takes his/her first step, they have but tiny faith in the predicted outcome. They are very skeptical and cautious (not to mention clumsy). As this experiment is repeated faith in the prediction increases. With increasing confidence each step is taken, and before long you're chasing the toddler all over the house trying to pin it down and change it's diaper. 

Advanced Faith
When faith is applied on the basis of non-sensory data, it is what I consider 'Advanced Faith'. The line

of advanced faith is not drawn between human and animal, as a great multitude of animals possess advanced faith. When a lioness drops a hunk of meat in front of her cub encouraging it to eat, the cub exercises a measure of advanced faith when it bites into the meet. Advanced faith requires communication. That communication can be through body language, such as nudging the meat toward the cub. 'This is food, it's safe to eat' is communicated - faith is applied to the idea that was what was communicated, and the cub comes to believe the meat is indeed food. Chomp, chomp - and the faith is reinforced.

When a mother warns a child that the stove is hot and dangerous to touch, the child may take it on faith or be skeptical and find out the hard way. When the data communicated by the mother proves to be accurate, faith in the accuracy of data from that particular source (the mother) is increased.

As the child grows and matures, data communicated by other humans is proven to be accurate on many occasions. Faith in the accuracy of data communicated grows, and gullibility results. This is why I recommend lying to your children, to instill a healthy level of skepticism - though I also recommend to come clean and be honest once they've demonstrated their gullibility. 

The Justification of Faith
"Mama said that alligators are ornery because they got all them teeth and no toothbrush."
As beliefs are collected by the rational mind, they begin to form a world view. This world view becomes a filter by which all future data is interpreted. If the data presented fits into the established world view, the idea represented is much more likely to have faith applied and become a belief. Think "Santa Claus" and "Tooth Fairy."

When data is acquired that is contradictory to this world view, faith in that belief can be reduced to the point of skepticism and the belief can return to the idea-state. If the data acquired is of significant enough caliber or enough contradictory data is amassed, the idea can be rejected as outright falsehood and no longer helps comprise the child's world view. Not getting the presents from the Letter to Santa, recognition of the handwriting on the gifts supposedly from Santa, and an inconvenient potty break late on Christmas Eve could all individually or collectively dispel the belief in Santa Claus.

First-hand data, generally from the senses, rightly has greater influence on the faith applied to an idea/belief. For data from external sources, the influence of the data on the idea/belief depends greatly on the source of the data. By this point, parents are likely to have proven to be fairly reliable sources of accurate external data. Memories of a burnt hand reinforce the credibility of the parent who warned of the hot stove, and that credibility lends greater influence to more abstract data, such as the existence of God.

When the data is commonly held as truth within the society in which the child exists, credibility as to the accuracy of that data is increased. In an integrated society, conflicting beliefs of other members of society have the opposite effect. For example, it seems reasonable that a child from a Jewish family in America living in a society of mostly Christian families would be more skeptical about the accuracy of the beliefs espoused by his/her parents.

Commonly held beliefs can have the application of faith revoked when convincing credible contradictory data is introduced, but as such data is ingrained into the world view of the believer, the bar for convincing can be set pretty high. I suspect there are many who reject the idea that Pluto is actually just an ordinary slab of ice, having held on to the belief of its planet status for so long.

Faith, Religion, and Atheism
The faith utilized by atheists and the religious is no different in its core nature. It performs the same function of allowing an idea to become a belief. The difference between the atheists and the religious is not their faith, but the justification of how they apply that faith.

In both cases, new data that supports and reinforces the current world view is given preference. When new data is presented, existing beliefs from the world view are applied to that data so that it can be incorporated into that world view. If I walked into a room containing an atheist and a Christian with gaping wounds in my hands, it might be considered an unfortunate accident by the atheist and a miracle by the Christian.

At some point in the development of the mind, atheists become much more selective about the justification of their faith. A belief being held by a great number of people becomes insufficient to justify faith. The persistence of a set of beliefs over centuries of human existence becomes insufficient to justify faith. 

In general, a stricter criteria for the application of faith is a good thing. In fact, I would consider it a great benefit to society if this stricter criteria was applied to all beliefs (particularly in regard to politics and politicians).

The Denial of Faith
The problem with the denial of faith, particularly among this vocal subset of atheists, is that in their haste to disassociate themselves with 'faith' and 'religion,' they force themselves into an adversarial approach that does nothing to increase the credibility of the data they present.

Rather than accepting the nature of faith, they choose to reserve the term for the second definition. They deny that they have faith because their criteria for applying their own faith requires a certain standard of evidence. They insist the justification required for them to apply faith qualifies the ideas to which they apply their faith as 'knowledge' rather than ideas. They've accepted the idea that the term faith only applies to beliefs not properly justified by their standards. They apply faith to that idea, turning it into a belief and part of their world view.

The reason this becomes a problem is that it almost invariably results in a semantic, time-wasting derailment of the conversation. This (rather unjustified) belief must be defended. In its defense, the conversation generally results in neither side budging, locked in the quagmire of belief.

This adversarial position, regardless of the eloquence of the argument, is not conducive to the goal of having the other party examine their own justifications for how they apply faith. It's far more reasonable to find common ground with those holding an opposing viewpoint from which to explain your position.

If the goal of the vocal atheist entering such a conversation is to demonstrate the merits of stricter rationalization requirements of belief, it's difficult not to see it as tragically ironic that their faith in their definition of faith undermining that goal.