Do Atheists Believe in their Non-Belief

Recently I was poking around in my old computer files and found the text of a speech called “One Humanist’s Faith”, by my late friend Eric Stockton. Eric, one of my favorite pen pals, was an English contrarian and atheist who had retired to a small island in the Orkneys; I actually visited him there once. (In case you’re interested, Eric’s text is copied at the end of this post.)

I tried his speech out on some of my humanist friends. It didn’t work. The responses ranged from an embarrassed silence to explicitly negative; here’s the most explicit reply:

“Personally, I had a hard time reading this. For the past few years the word ‘faith’ has become more and more a negative word for me. For me ‘faith’ is unwarranted belief. It’s belief that something is true, when in fact it’s either false, unknown, or unknowable. I often refer to faith as a ‘mental virus’. Whenever I hear a non-theist use the word ‘faith’ there’s almost always a less ambiguous word like ‘hope’ or ‘trust’ that should be used instead. Ever since the rise of the ‘new atheists’, and since atheists have taken up the fight to gain our rightful place in society, words like ‘faith’ have had to be debated, and in my view, ‘faith’ is a word that we are better off purging from our vocabulary.”

(This from Kevin Starkey, of Shenandoah Area Secular Humanists, a branch of the Washington Area secular Humanists).

Maybe “belief system” is a better term than faith. The English language abounds with euphemisms. And this one bypasses the logical contradiction in holding to a firm belief that you do not believe in anything. If you really believe that, then you do believe in something. But if you don’t really believe it then it follows that you do believe in something or other. In which case…spare me, logic is not my strong suit, I guess.

A better resolution of this problem is to find some proposition or happening or process which we can all believe in, as the foundational element of a humanist belief system that can be solid right down to its roots. Perhaps we can agree that that foundational element although unknowable is all-important. That is, after all, a better start point than nothing at all.

Life itself, biological life on earth as we know it, can serve us all well as the basis for such a humanist world view. After all, life began here billions of years ago through processes we are only beginning to understand. We can never expect to know exactly how when and where that happened, and what happened next. And once life got started on our planet, the number of quite extraordinary happenings that occurred to bring about the biosphere we inhabit is so large that for us it is infinite. We don’t believe in miracles, but for us calling life itself a miracle requires a minimum of poetic license.

This is not really an original idea. Perhaps I sound like a humanist version of the Dalai Lama. Never mind. We humanists are the prime champions of reason and science as the mechanisms for establishing facts. If we make sense to followers of other belief systems, and get them more interested in our ways, why not?

Much good can flow from agreeing on this concept, including a sense of direction and clarity of purpose that humanism needs. I shall try to demonstrate this in future thoughts.

Carl Coon

(A lecture by Eric Stockton to the Aberdeen Inter-Faith Group, APRIL 1997)

The title of this paper has been chosen carefully. “ONE Humanist’s Faith”
carries with it the implication that any given humanist does not
necessarily think quite like another. Members of humanist organisations
make no binding affirmation of adherence to an explicit, definitive and
wide ranging creed. We have no use for ‘tablets of stone’ which can, at
most, be subject to varying interpretation and application.

So the use of the word ONE in my title is not a mere disclaimer; it is an
affirmation of the autonomy that we humanists accord one another and which
we believe should be accorded by, and to, all people as far as the
necessary minimum of decent social cohesion permits.

Modern liberal secular humanism is a minimalist ideology and one of my
objects this evening is to try to focus upon that minimal position – not
with legalistic precision but so as to make it recognisable. After all, an
elephant is not easily defined but it is easily recognised once one has
been pointed out to you.

The other key idea in my title – FAITH – is one of the areas in which I
sometimes fall foul of fellow humanists. They tend to associate faith
exclusively with religion; they are not religious; ergo faith is not an OK
word. I think they are wrong tacitly to assume that faith coincides with
religious faith; it does not. There is, I claim, a valid use of the word
faith in contexts that need go no farther than this life lived in this
world. We can, after all, express ‘faith in human nature’. But admittedly,
I use the word sparingly, mainly on such occasions as this…

The key to understanding the mental furniture of this actual humanist is to
relate meaningfully the two main pieces – minimalism and faith.

By minimalism I mean such notions as: never lose sight of the data and
never abandon elementary logic; I mean respect for the doctrine attributed
to a great churchman, William of Occam, the doctrine of economy of
hypothesis, the doctrine that urges us not to multiply entities beyond

I used to teach my chemistry students that a good theory is both as simple
as possible, and as complex as necessary to account for the data.
This is not to say that speculation beyond the data is to be ruled ‘out of
order’; in thought, as in investment, if you don’t speculate you can’t accumulate; but
speculation, in both areas, ought to be informed, disciplined,
mindful of likely risks, mindful of likely results and mindful of the
possible need for damage limitation if it all goes wrong. It is one thing
to build a house of cards; it is quite another to try to live in it.

We all make assumptions; we might call them first principles, axioms,
truths held to be self-evident, dogma, articles of faith. One of the
reasons for ‘doing philosophy’ is to unpack our assumptions and to evaluate
them critically. Even relentless minimalism can, if we dare to unpack it,
be seen to rest upon strictly unverifiable assumptions – and that admission
is the point at which, I claim, the word faith has to enter the humanist

I identify my assumptions as including that there is a real material world
independent of our consciousness of it, both that our senses give us
sufficiently dependable data, and that our brains are sufficiently able to
process that data, to provide us with the means of knowing something
significant about that world both in the sense of knowhow (how to act
effectually in the world) and in the sense of knowthat (that such and such
is indeed true of the world). I assume that by using our senses and our
brains we can achieve sufficiently and we can comprehend sufficiently.
These assumptions are those that we all, whatever else we may believe,
actually make in the practical conduct of daily life. So the special
feature of my humanist assumptions is that they are not special at all;
they are held, in practice, by almost all other people. It is on this basis
that a major figure in contemporary secular humanism – H J Blackham -
characterised his humanism as “The Plain View”.

Moreover I assume that we do not need, and perhaps cannot aspire to,
absolutes either in achievement or in comprehension. To quote from the retired
Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood: “the lust for certainty may be a sin”…

My assumptions could be termed dogmas or articles of faith. They are
strictly unverifiable and attempts to verify them lead almost inevitably to
circularity. How can sensed data validate sensed data; how can logic
validate logic?

We can acquire faith in the reliability of data and the validity of logic
by the works we do but, as I may be right in saying in other connections,
works do not always entail faith and faith does not always guarantee works.
So we cannot authenticate absolutely the dependability of observation and
logic merely by citing the spectacular success that science has made so
quickly, so recently, in the million or so years of the career of our

Our experience of processing data with logic might lead us to an article of
humanist faith – that all problems we encounter have solutions within our
reach – but that is an article to which we should subscribe only with great
caution. Is it not equally a summary of experience that generally
solutions beget new problems?


So much for the philosophical background. Now for a minimum statement of
contemporary humanism as I see and accept it: People like me are people
who claim:

1) that we human beings, individually and democratically-collectively, can
sufficiently identify, and sufficiently solve, empirically and logically,
the problems facing us all in this life, lived in this world, without any
inescapable need to postulate anything that can properly be termed

2) that the human species is by its very nature a social species rather
than a socially contracting species. We are social as surely as we are
vertebrate. We have no choice in the matter. The two essential things about
a human being are inescapable individual uniqueness and inescapable
membership of common humanity. Distinctions – such as those of race, creed,
nationality, colour, sexuality … which preoccupy so many people so much
… ought to be regarded as unimportant compared with the supreme values of
unique individuality and common humanity.

3) that the continued functioning of the global society, in which each of
us is necessarily a participant, depends upon the normal adherence to
certain forms of behaviour and the normal avoidance of other forms of
behaviour BUT it is the case that our untutored instincts do not match,
with sufficient precision, what is required for society to function
satisfactorily . Thus there is a natural ‘discipline deficit’ and it is
the function of moral teaching and example to try to make good that
deficit. Humanists think that the morality that is actually needed can be
identified sufficiently within human life precisely because that need
arises sufficiently from what we are – unique individuals in a necessary

The 14th Dalai Lama (who has been in the news recently as trying to broker
peace between Tibet and China), said in 1988 :-

“We must conduct research and then accept the results. If they don’t
stand up to experimentation, Buddha’s own words must be rejected.”

“I believe that at every level of society … familial, tribal, national
and international … the key to a happier and more successful world is the
growth of compassion. We do not need to become religious, nor do we need
to believe in an ideology. All that is necessary is for each of us to
develop our good human qualities.”

This statement, emphasising as it does, both the need to be disciplined by
the data and the need to resist ideological extravagance, makes the Dali
Lama’s brand of Buddhism very like my brand of humanism.

* * * * * * *

Where does all this lead to in the area of humanism vis a vis religion?

There is nothing in the statement of humanism that I made a few moments ago
that REQUIRES atheism. It is perfectly coherent to believe that there is
a creator-god who made us capable of being effectual humanists and who
wills us to be just that and, what is more, is not necessarily a mere
creator-spectator god – not necessarily a ‘light-the-blue-paper-and-retire-i
mmediately’ god. It is coherent humanism to believe not only in a creator
but to believe that the creator is active in helping us to be humanists and
is ready to be more active if we seek his help. There is, in short, such a
thing as religious humanism and there are people who describe themselves
quite coherently in those terms. In the USA there is indeed considerable
overlap between humanism and unitarianism.

I, it happens, am not a religious humanist. I am an atheist humanist but
I am not one who says dogmatically “I pin my faith on the certainty that
there is no god”. To do that would be to fall into the path of possible sin
that John Habgood has drawn attention to. I prefer (with respect to the
memory of a notable Christian) to be an Occamite atheist – to think that
the god-idea is none other than one of our old foes the ‘multiplication of
entities beyond necessity’. (One can value the Occam principle without
agreeing with William as to its application). I consider the God-idea to
raise more problems than it solves so I do not embrace that idea. I am
strictly a-theistic.

But I am not just a philosophical Occamite atheist; I am a political
atheist – and this is where my deepest suspicion of perceived certainty
comes in.

Operationally, religions cater for people’s “lust for certainty” in a
manifestly uncertain world and, offering plausible certainty, religious
leaders of the totalitarian tendency manipulate that need in the interest
of furthering their own power. The claim that such power may seem, to its
possessors, to be used for the good is unfortunately not always credible
but is, anyhow, irrelevant. Stendahl is supposed to have said to the
effect that ‘God perhaps exists but god certainly is used.’ Armed with
alleged certainties about god, all sorts of people all over the place are
sanctimoniously intimidating, killing, maiming and bereaving as hard as
they can go. Admittedly belief in god is not necessary as a route to
harming one’s fellows but, empirically speaking, it does seem to help bring
out the worst in people.

That is something of what I mean by saying that I am a political atheist.
All too often the god-idea is a template for tyranny, a blue-print for
brutalty, an excuse for excesses.

Of course there is a vast difference between insufferable religious
totalitarians and valued religious liberals but the more the liberals seem
to doubt the less do they cater for the insatiable demand for the
reassurance of certainty. The totalitarian believes at the expense of
thinking; the liberal thinks at the expense of believing. You can’t do
business with the one; you can do business with the other and the business
in question is the business of survival in a world equipped with the ready
means of global destruction.

(reprinted in the Progressive Humanism website with the author’s permission). CSC

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5 Responses to Do Atheists Believe in their Non-Belief

  1. James says:

    There seems to be a conflict in what you state as fact, which in truth is based on faith. The only tangible facts are those that you, personally, have observed or studied. If you presume, have faith, that a ‘fact’ authored by another is indeed a fact it conflicts with the information that you have determined for yourslelf. You agree with the person by having faith in their analysis. You state, unequivocally as fact, that the earth is billions of years old but there are no reliable data sets to support that. I assume, therefore, that you accept (on faith) other theories that have not been proven but are generally accepted as fact. Data has and is contiuously manipulated to espouse ones views and when it does to quite fit, than you must take it on faith that it is correct. I would then contend that humanist are simply another religion.

  2. Carl Coon says:

    Much of what you say involves arguing about how you define certain words. You say “humanism is simply another religion.” You might also say “humans are just another animal”. Technically correct but it leaves a great deal out.

  3. Ron Bell says:

    I have no personal problem with those who harbor religious faith and those who claim that the notion of God is a delusion if both factions admit their lack of comprehensive knowledge. Both are surely entitled to their own takes on existence. I have always felt, however, that since neither theists nor atheists can offer surefire “proof” of their contentions–unless they are privy to the full knowledge of the observable universe as well as possible parallel universes–that they all are stepping out on precarious limbs, so to speak. Probably the most logical and reasonable view would be that of the agnostic, claiming that it is all beyond one’s knowledge. But theist and atheistic outlooks seem to both be surrounded by sureness, which is nothing more than “faith” in the unknown, be it in God’s presence or non-existence.

  4. Carl Coon says:

    The number of things a person can have faith in extend over such a large spectrum that the word loses all meaning. How about switching to the notion that faith is not a “something” you believe in, but a process. If you make the eminently practical assumption that you can base your world view on life itself. Without life what’s left? And with that for starters one can have faith in the process of evolution, as a base point for an explanation of just about everything. That’s a reasonable beginning. I continue with the assertion that for me faith rests in all humanity. That’s the basis of my humanism.

    Have at me.

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