Of all the phrases theists use to lull themselves to sleep each night, “atheists have faith just like we do” might be the most obnoxious.
“Faith” is one of several word games believers play with nonbelievers when they’re feeling dishonest, alongside “spirituality” and, beautifully, “belief.” These games bank on how deviously slippery those words are, as they can mean more-or-less whatever the person using them wants them to mean. While all of these games are infuriating, “faith” gets under my skin more than the others, because it is somehow more dishonest.
“Faith” can mean a lot of things. People have faith in their partners. People have faith in democracy. People have faith in their heroes. Most uses of “faith” are roughly synonymous with “trust,” often with a hint of “hope.” People trust their partners to be supportive and to not scheme behind their backs. People trust and hope that democracy will lead to good governance. People trust and hope that someone they’re counting on will come through for them. Most of the time, there is a history of success behind that trust and hope, a set of established reasons why it makes sense to regard one’s partners, institutions, principles, or heroes as trustworthy and likely to do as they promise. More importantly, the process for verifying whether the objects of this trust deserve it is utterly transparent.
“Faith” in deities and supernatural realms is a very different process. These are claims, not about particular people or institutions with which one interacts, but about the very existence of wildly improbable facets of reality. When someone says, “I have faith in God,” there are many meanings to extract—that they trust this God to make good on perceived pacts, but also that they hope or are convinced that this God exists at all. Modern gods need to “hide” in order to mask their inactivity in our world, after all, creating a world that looks like it contains no gods (because it doesn’t), so believers must have “faith” that the world is not as godless as it appears. Likewise, many religions push moral dictates that would be plainly, obviously wrong without religious backing, which believers must have “faith” will lead to greater good. This “faith,” unlike faith in one’s lovers, is in spite of the evidence, not because of it, an idea bluntly acknowledged by many religious leaders.
Those who arrive by their worldview scientifically have the first kind of “faith” in spades. We trust scientists to bring us closer to a complete understanding of how the world works. We trust that the world operates according to fixed and knowable rules, making its behavior predictable and understandable. We trust that scientific ideas that have withstood rigorous examination for decades will continue to have predictive value. We trust that human reasoning, within the limits of its own well-understood biases, is powerful enough to make sense of the world at a far deeper level than ordinary experience usually provides. Every one of these ideas has not only withstood millions of tests over the span of human history, but also can be re-derived from human experience at the drop of a hat…or shown to be false in particular instances. Scientific rigor lives by the cynical axiom trust, but verify. Or perhaps, mistrust until verified. Contrast that with religious “faith,” in which the very desire to subject religious notions to a test, or abandoning a religious tenet after it fails, is almost always seen as a sign that one does not have sufficient “faith,” regardless of the outcome.
The two kinds of faith have one important attribute in common: a twinge of uncertainty. Democracy might be a generally good idea, but it still produces the occasional Rick Santorum. One’s spouse might show no signs of infidelity, but unless they are under constant surveillance the possibility remains that they are just very good at keeping secrets. Religious faith comes with the inherent challenge of maintaining such an idea in a world that steadfastly refuses to prove religious notions correct.
The key dishonesty of the “atheists have faith just like religious people” trope is that scientists embrace that uncertainty and build it directly into their definitions of knowledge and truth, whereas believers vociferously deny it, preferring to present a face of utter confidence in their half-baked conclusions. What the theist wants to impute on the scientist with this accusation of “faith” is the idea that the scientific process and conclusions drawn therefrom are as arbitrary as religious doctrine, and therefore that fellow believers can dismiss them out of hand. It is vital to their cause that the word “faith” remain slippery, sliding easily from “trust” to “believe without evidence” and back again. Pin the word in place, preferably somewhere outside of consideration, and the gambit collapses, because a scientist’s “faith” and a theist’s “faith” are polar opposites, and they know it.
The only way to lose this particular word game is to let them play it. I refuse.