In an e-mail conversation I had some time ago, a Christian minister attempted to convince me that atheists, despite what they might say, live life on the basis of faith in the same way that Christians do:
The life of faith is not completely irrational, nor is the life of rationality without some degree of faith. It comes down to a fundamental question: In whom do you put your trust?
Every time you get on a plane you trust the mechanics, inspectors, manufacturers and pilots with your life. You do not know if the gauges and indicators were properly manufactured. You have no idea if the mechanics inspected the plane properly. Your pilot could be on drugs. Your sitting in the cabin is an act of faith on your part.
For some definition of “faith”, that might be true. But here’s the difference: When I fly on a plane, my trust of the mechanics is not based on blind faith, but on strong evidence – the evidence that thousands of airplane flights crisscross the world each day and land safely. Fatal accidents are extremely rare, and when they do happen, government agencies initiate a determined investigation to recover the plane’s black box, find out exactly what went wrong and prevent it from ever happening again, often resulting in new safety policies or changes in how airplanes are constructed.
Religion, on the other hand, is most definitely based on blind faith. God does not appear in any visible form or speak in an audible voice to anyone alive today, and the people who claim otherwise are widely agreed to be mentally ill, even by other believers. Every time they go to church, lay believers trust the priests, ministers, and scriptures to truthfully convey God’s will to them. Usually they have done no independent research to find out whether the teachings of those authorities are reliable, but even when they have, those efforts are bound to end in frustration, because religious beliefs ultimately do not end in facts, but in guesses, faith, and assumptions. Although religious authorities say that everything that happens unfolds according to God’s plan, this statement is untestable, because there is no clear definition of what God’s plan is. When a believer’s prayers fail to come true, there is no investigation, only pious platitudes offered in lieu of an explanation. When religious beliefs lead to discord and disaster, there is never an attempt to find out why and possibly revise those teachings, only exhortations to pray more and believe more fervently.
These two cases are not even remotely comparable. If the airlines worked like religious people say God works, there would be dozens of flights plunging out of the sky each day, killing thousands of people in fiery crashes; but there would be absolutely no effort by anyone to determine the reason, and when an outraged relative of one of the deceased demanded an explanation, they would be waved off with an excuse such as, “This is progressive airline mechanics. We’re improving our planes in multiple ways, gradually,” or, “Yes, these are tragedies, but believe us, we want to stop them just as much as you, and soon a day will come when we’ll really get to work and then there will never be another airplane crash again,” or even, “We have specialized training you don’t and know a lot of things you couldn’t hope to understand, so just trust us when we tell you that we know what we’re doing.”
No human being would accept such an explanation from an airline mechanic, of course. That most people seem perfectly happy to accept an exactly equivalent explanation from a priest just goes to show the fundamental illogic of religious belief in general and theodicy in particular.
Again from this Christian’s e-mail:
I just don’t know why individuals object so much to the POSSIBILITY of faith in God, yet operate with the same TYPE of faith all the time? In whom do you trust?
This is the crucial equivocation. If an atheist has faith, it is only in the sense of being reliant on the evidence to support important conclusions. But the religious person’s faith is utterly different, in that it specifically refers to drawing conclusions not supported by the evidence. These two things are not the same type of faith at all.
There is just no rational way to compare trust in human beings – whose existence and abilities are doubted by no one, who can be held to a rigorous and independent standard, and whose behavior in a given situation can usually be understood and explained – with faith in an invisible, silent, absent god, whose motives are inscrutable, who acts for reasons we cannot hope to understand, in ways that are indistinguishable from random chance operating under the scope of natural law. In the latter situation, there is no good reason to think there is any plan at all, much less a planner, and so far religion has given us no evidence that indicates otherwise.