The Atheistic Leap of Faith

In the course of having thousands of conversations about the ultimate issues of life, I’ve encountered many skeptics who, out of a deep respect for their religious friends, are reluctant to explain their objections to faith. These skeptics have noticed that, for their friends, the practice of religion is fundamental to filling their lives with meaning, purpose, joy, and service to others. Out of a gracious and loving spirit they decide, “Hey, if that works for you, that’s great. I don’t want to mess with something that’s so beautiful to you.” Also to their credit, when sincerely invited to be open and direct about their perspective, these skeptics have been excellent conversation partners, and we’ve had rigorous, intriguing conversations about our respective beliefs.

In preparing this article, I’ve felt a similar kind of restraint and respect. If we see something working really well for someone else, it seems a bit unkind to criticize them. Life is hard enough. Don’t hate. Don’t be jealous. Just be glad that someone else has found a good path that works for them.

So: if you’re an atheist, and atheism is working for you, then this article may not be for you. Let me be clear: I’m not saying that truth is relative, and I’m not suggesting that atheism is true. What I am trying to do, in the relatively impersonal medium of the internet, is communicate an interpersonal respect for you and your journey. This post argues that atheism requires numerous leaps of faith to keep the whole system together, and so if that sounds more like a slap in the face than an interesting and mind-expanding perspective, I totally understand if you choose to move on and do something else with your time!

To illustrate what I mean by the atheistic leap of faith, let me tell you the story of a recent conversation with a student I’ll call Drew. Drew sees himself as an agnostic or at least is generally disinclined to think that any God or gods exist. He affirms a scientifically verifiable, naturalistic picture of reality, and sees no need to add in belief in an invisible god. He therefore rejects the idea that there is any Divine Being who sustains life after death, legislates an objective morality, or provides a transcendent purpose and meaning to our lives.

Nevertheless, he said, this actually makes the life I do have all the more valuable. As he put it, ‘Because this is the only life I have, and because my existence is limited, each day becomes even more meaningful to me.’

I pressed him – so, is there any objectivity to morality? He responded, ‘Well, no, but as long as I start with a few basic axioms, like ‘treat people how you want to be treated’ and ‘don’t harm others,’ the resulting morality works pretty well. It makes for a good society. It leads to my own happiness. Isn’t that good enough? And isn’t that the point of morality anyways?’

I asked him how he found purpose and meaning in his life. ‘I do what seems meaningful to me. My life is full with getting a good education, spending time with great friends, and enjoying very fulfilling hobbies. Overall, I’m pretty satisfied with my lifestyle and excited about my future.’

And on it went, as we continued to have a very open and transparent conversation about our respective worldviews.

I hope the interpersonal tension is clear: my friend has a really great life. Why critique that? Likewise, if you consider yourself an atheist or an agnostic, think about it this way: when happy, peaceful, do-gooder Christians make fuzzy faith claims, you might feel the same tension. When they are side by side, the contradiction seems obvious. For instance:

1: There’s no evidence for the Bible being true.
2: The Bible is inerrant, reliable, and inspired by God.

But still, why bring up statement 1 when statement 2 seems to make someone else so happy?

Looking at it relationally, one of the main reasons to do so is out of a shared love for truth, a desire to live in reality, and because we prefer honesty in our friendships. Socrates said it well, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In that spirit, I want to point out some of the contradictions that I see in Drew’s worldview. My point in the following is to be loving by clearly presenting the truth as I see it. I recognize this style is a bit abrupt and can come across as harsh, but I assure you, that’s not my intention.

Here are the clashing statements, right next to each other:
1: There are no objective moral truths.
2: I’ve decided to accept some moral axioms as true, because I think it is important to have a moral system to live by.

1: There is no ultimate moral accountability for my actions.
2: Even when I know no one can catch me doing things that we would both consider to be “bad”, but are still incredibly fun things to do, I try to do what I think is right.

1: In the long run, all life will be extinguished.
2: I’m pretty hopeful about the future.

1: Anyone you help will die shortly afterwards.
2: I’m willing to make sacrifices so that others can have a better life.

1: Looking at it scientifically, we are specks of cosmic dust.
2: I think my life has a lot of meaning.

1: Everything happens in accordance with the laws of physics and biochemistry.
2: I have free will.

1: Everything happens in accordance with the laws of physics and biochemistry.
2: My mind rationally assess propositions in order to make logical conclusions.

1: We are biochemical reproducing machines.
2: I truly love my family and friends.

1: Our particular existence is the result of a colossal series of random events and the process of natural selection.
2: I’m trying to figure out the purpose of my life.

1: Everything about us can be explained by evolutionary pressures.
2: My own beliefs about reality are explainable in terms of what is most reasonable.

There’s no need to belabor the point any further. Here’s the bottom line: I find it fascinating that Drew, and others like him, are so personally and even stubbornly invested in doing the right thing, making a difference, and constructing a meaningful life. These are values he is very strongly attached to and wants to maintain. “Look, it works for me: what’s wrong with that?”

The problem is the clear and stark contrast between what he affirms as ultimate truth and the values he depends upon for a good and meaningful life.

These are atheistic leaps of faith.

By the same standards that many atheists use to critique Christians as illogical faith-heads, atheism faces a similar problem.

Instead of digging in and finding a way to maintain transcendent values like meaning, purpose and love, atheists should be far more open-minded and flexible about dropping these values if they don’t turn out to fit their big picture of reality. But one way or another, the tension needs to be resolved.

There are two primary ways to bring about logical coherence. On the one hand, they can fully explain away these drives for love, hope and meaning as instinctual, biological urges. Some people are wired for monogamy, others for polygamy, some for celibacy, others for rape. We find ourselves as a species with a wide array of instinctual responses to our environment, nothing more, and ultimately, whoever has the most power gets to determine what’s approved and what’s rejected.

The other alternative, as I’ve developed elsewhere on the site, is to recognize that the longing for love, hope and meaning are actually very important clues. Together, these are hints that we are made in the image of a loving God who made us for a reason and has a beautiful dream for the future.

But wait a second: isn’t that just pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking? If God doesn’t exist, it sure is. That’s the point.

But if God really does exist, that changes everything.