Why I’m Faithless at OnFaith

An atheist considers what it means to be a part of a conversation on faith.

This is my 184th article for OnFaith since I started writing for the publication back in November of 2008. OnFaith was founded by Sally Quinn and remained at the Washington Post until late 2013, when it moved to FaithStreet. What I liked about writing for OnFaith at the Post, aside from it being part of a prestigious newspaper, was that it featured contributors who covered the full spectrum of religious and nonreligious views. On the other hand, FaithStreet is not a street on which I live. Its work is primarily about connecting people to faith communities, but I’m more interested in disconnecting people from faith communities and connecting them with atheist and humanist communities.

Out of the approximately 150,000 words that I’ve written for OnFaith a few have involved positive comments about religious leaders and issues they’ve espoused, but I’ve not had one positive word about “faith.”

Initially, I didn’t think I’d be contributing very often — if at all — to the newest iteration of OnFaith, nor did I think the new editors would be interested in my contributions. The first piece I pitched for the new OnFaith, entitled “A Dangerously Incurious Pope,” was rejected, and later published here. I assumed my relationship with OnFaith was over, and so I published with Huffington Post and elsewhere. Then a “miracle” occurred when I was invited by OnFaith to give an atheist’s perspective of Lent.

What you’re reading now is my tenth piece for OnFaith at FaithStreet. I prefer “preaching” to religious believers on FaithStreet rather than to those whose views are similar to mine. Jesus purportedly went where the sinners are, and I like to go where the “faith-ers” are. I also think OnFaith’s Patton Dodd is an excellent editor. He improves my articles but doesn’t try to soften my criticisms of religion. (That’s what my spouse does).

Speaking of my wife Sharon, she is “unfaithful” like me — in the sense that she lacks faith in supernatural beings. We have a faithless, honest, and monogamous relationship. “Faith,” unfortunately, is usually thought to be a virtue. Why should we automatically show reverence to someone of great faith, which only indicates a conviction that can’t be shaken by contrary evidence? Respect for religious faith, whatever that faith might be, plays an important role in perpetuating human conflict.

Atheists and humanists are divided on whether to participate in interfaith coalitions and alliances on those rare occasions when we are invited or allowed to join. Mostly, the controversy is about the label “interfaith.” While atheists give no credibility to religious faith, we would like to be part of a wider community that works together on worthwhile projects, have a place at the table of public opinion, and have an opportunity to change stereotypes about people of no faith. Atheists often engage with progressive religious allies on important causes, which has the added bonus of showing that we can be good neighbors in a diverse country of religious and nonreligious individuals. Perhaps it is time for a more inclusive name, like “Interfaith and Faithless Alliance.”

Some atheists are comfortable with “faith,” at least in a restricted way. When our local secular humanist group discussed which specialized license tag to request from the state, one candidate was “Faith in Reason.” (We eventually decided on “In Reason We Trust” because South Carolina had already approved “In God We Trust” license tags.)

The 2006 word of the year was truthiness, defined by Stephen Colbert as “the quality of preferring concepts or facts that one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.” With that in mind, I define “faithiness” as “the quality of preferring concepts or facts for which there is evidence, rather than concepts or facts that one wishes to believe on faith alone.”

I’m happy to write for OnFaith while living on Faithiness Street. I’d like to think that “faithiness” will become the 2014 word of the year, but I know that’s just “truthiness.”

Herb Silverman
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  • Sheila Kennedy

    The term “faith” is often used as shorthand for “religion,” but that use betrays a very Protestant bias. When former President Bush and his Congressional allies were touting their “faith-based initiative,” it was obvious they chose the term “faith-based”because they (mistakenly) believed it was inclusive. But not only did it exclude humanists, freethinkers, atheists and other nontheists, it also excluded “works based” religions, most notably Catholicism and Judaism. “FaithStreet” likewise excludes nonbelievers and adherents of non-faith-based religions.

  • Ed Buckner

    As with so much else, I’m with Dr. Silverman on this one. I try to avoid even mild colloquial uses of the word “faith” (as in “I have faith in the FDA” meaning “I’m reasonably confident that the Food and Drug Administration will act appropriately to keep our food and drugs safe”). While such uses don’t really imply accepting things without evidence, uses of the word often do imply just that. If “Faith Street” implies, as it certainly seems to, that it is a place where people think believing in things without evidence or other good reasons is wise, then neither Herb nor I really belong there. Well written, Herb.

    • Breath of Fresh Science

      You’ve brought up a point that confounds and confuses a lot of people. The words ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ are used in both the religious and scientific communities, but they mean vastly different things. In religious discussions faith and belief form the basis for all other discussions and understanding. They are the foundation upon which all other thoughts are built. In science, faith and belief come at the END of thought processes. Science believes in something because it has been shown to be true time-and-time again. We have faith in a process because the process has worked well every time we have used it. I don’t believe the average person understands how different faith and belief are between the two fields. When they hear scientists say they believe something, the average person assumes the scientists are stating a religious form of belief, not a belief that has come after a long period of study.

      • Ed Buckner

        I certainly hold no animosity towards those who, like the late and much missed Stephen Jay Gould, consider science and religion as operating in what he called Non-Overlapping Magesteria, with each having its own ways of reaching its own truths. But i see not a shred of evidence or other good reason to accept that religion, using techniques based at least in part on faith, has in fact given us any truths whatever. I don’t insist that science has led to all we know or value, especially not in any formal sense of science, but it seems likely, at least to me, that science, biological evolution, and cultural evolution (or growth/development) explain all. Breath of Fresh Science may, of course, agree with me or with Gould–or see it some other way.

  • http://skepticink.com/dangeroustalk Dangerous Talk

    I prefer the term Intervalues.

  • James J Lundy Jr

    I do wonder how much of what I know is accepted on “faith.” Obviously I can read the Bible and see for myself that it’s not something I’d put any store in as a historical document. But if I read a history book about an event that predates my direct experience I have to put my trust in the research and analysis of the author because I’m not going to be able to fact-check it with my own research. That goes for science, too. We have to put ourselves in the vulnerable position of trusting experts and their peers.

    • Herb Silverman

      The issue is often how to determine “experts.” In science, we have peer-reviewed articles by those whose scientific credentials are generally accepted. Not so with religious “experts” who turn to holy books in describing the value of faith. I don’t trust those ancients who decided which writings to put in holy books as the word of an unverifiable deity.

    • nwcolorist

      I agree James. When I look honestly at my beliefs, I find that there are areas where faith is necessary to support those beliefs.

      Look at ancient history, which is mostly accepted even though only a few writers have written about it. How about Thucydides and Herodotus? And all we know about Socrates was written by a few of his followers. There’s no scientific way to verify the trustworthiness of these writings. They are essentially taken on faith.

      • Herb Silverman

        I agree with what you say about ancient beliefs. We don’t know if Plato “faithfully” transcribed what Socrates said, or if he and other followers simply wrote what they believed and attributed it to Socrates. But here’s a difference. I agree with much of what is attributed to Socrates and
        also disagree with a lot—like his misogynistic views and belief in many gods. I agree with his view that we shouldn’t simply accept on faith what authorities say. We should think things through and have reasoned dialogue. I wish we all hadthat same attitude about our “holy books.”

  • http://WWSHP.ORG William Dusenberry

    “Every true faith is infallible.

    It performs what
    the believing person hopes to find in it.

    But it does not offer the
    least support for the establishing of an objective truth.

    Here the ways
    of men divide.

    If you want to achieve peace of mind and happiness, have

    If you want to be a disciple of truth, then search.”

    Frederich Nietzsche — from a letter to his sister.

    Also from Nietzsche: “Faith, as an imperative — a veto against science; a lie at any price.”

  • Tom from North Carolina

    As usual Herb, this is a well-written, thoughtful article. I’ve noticed over the years, the number of non-faithful voices to be in sharp decline both in the articles themselves and in the comments to those articles. Maybe that’s to be expected, but the Washington Post version seemed much more open to airing all voices and not primarily those who are faithful. It’s almost like when Fox News invites a liberal onto one of their shows. It’s a rarity. I guess that’s why I enjoy your columns so much.

    The quality of the articles remains high in this new environment, but the diversity of perspective has declined. I miss Susan Jacoby and others who provided a balance to the faithful.

  • RichardSRussell

    Faith is a method of forming beliefs, of making decisions, of arriving at conclusions. While it is very much in the interests of the clergy (whose salaries depend on an unending stream of gullible suckers) to praise the very concept of faith to the (ahem) heavens — going so far as to name their church buildings, hymns, and little girls after it and to lie to everybody that “faith can move mountains” (when it’s never been shown to even wiggle a speck of dust) — faith is in fact the all-time, gold-medal, blue-ribbon, world-champion worst method ever of making decisions.

    To see how it stacks up against the other 7 major approaches to forming beliefs, I have done a quick overview of “How We Decide” at
    richardsrussell (dot) livejournal (dot) com/2008/03/08/

    The more adventuresome can page forward and backward from there to see a lengthier explication of the subject.

  • Amy

    Great article! And that’s not just truthiness. While we’re creating words, how about “interfaitheist” instead of interfaith? That could include the intersection of both the faithful and atheists for the purposes of working together on common causes for a larger community.

  • Loretta Haskell

    Believers and Non-Believers have much to celebrate in common. Our local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Charleston, SC, of which both Dr. Silverman and I are members, is composed of such a membership. Even in a state composed of many, many religious fundamentalists, we were able to work together to stand up to the state legislature in maintaining the boundaries of the separation of church and state. With Christians from different denominations, as well as atheists and agnostics, we continue to work together. There could be other such alliances across many endeavors that would make our country better, and recognizing that being religious is not a prerequisite for “doing good” or “being selfless” will only make us stronger.

  • nwcolorist

    Thank you, Herb Silverman, for your candid background on this website.

    Since discovering “On Faith” a few months ago, I’ve enjoyed the variety of approaches to the topic of faith. At a time when religious discussions can become quickly polarized and one-sided, this is refreshing. My first reaction was that the site commenters were mostly of the atheist/agnostic variety. The comments on this article reflect that also. That POV seems to be well represented here.

    I also wish to apologize for my first post on these boards. I came barging in with blunt criticism of an article, and was not well received . While my opinions on many of the issues discussed here will undoubtedly conflict with others, I will endeavor to make my points in a civilized and respectful manner, and i hope to be given the same treatment. After all, a diversity of discussion is the best way to a better understanding of opposing views.

  • Carstonio

    I’ve been asked why I comment on religious forums. I don’t know if gods exist or not, and any assertion that gods exist as irrefutable fact bears the burden of proof. But my two main objectives on forums like this one are defending individual religious freedom against dominionism and theocracy, and defending the principle of intrinsic human worth against the Calvinistic concepts of humans as utterly evil and worthless.

  • http://www.twitter.com/MaggieArdiente Maggie Ardiente

    If we don’t live on Faith Street, where do we live? Unfaith Street?

    In all seriousness, great article, Herb. I think it’s very important for atheists and humanists to have a voice in the faith community. I’d rather be part of the conversation than shut out, even if I don’t agree with the label of the community.

  • John Childs

    I thought the word belief was troublesome and weak until I ran into the book CREATING ATHEIST. Now I’m convinced that the word faith easily trumps belief as the weakest position a person can take in defending religion. So many people think that the argument can be completed by saying it’s just a matter of faith. Like magic, faith is all about illusions. People under the masterful manipulation of the illusionist delude themselves into thinking they see what is not there. Then without one iota of evidence conclude they possess a great unknowable unprovable truth. Been there, done that, and need it no more.