A Presence of Faith in Atheism and Science

Stephen Hawking & Pope

A Presence of Faith in Atheism and Science
by Irene Shih (Faith in Action Final Paper, Completed May 2013)
[When you share, please credit my name directly. Thanks!]


Throughout this semester, our class had a series of fascinating discussions questioning whether religion possesses an “X-factor” – that is, an extraordinary credibility or charisma that overpowers tenets of secular institutions. I should confess here that I am openly agnostic, so in some ways straddle the line between constructed opposites: Science and religion. From this perch, I see many institutions at play and in competition, and have often hypothesized that atheism bears the potential to be as much a faith and as powerful a dogma as what it purports to defy. One’s certain belief in the infallibility of empiricism (science), and/or in the absence of supernatural phenomena may be mostly accurate, but accuracy is not excluded from belief. It is possible to believe something that turns out to be true (at least determinably), but in the absence of absolute proof, we cannot know that science is infallible (in fact, some evidence proves otherwise). We cannot know that something will turn out to be true when it hasn’t yet. And, given that science is a task of unfolding observations, no conclusion is ever entirely accurate or factual for long. At any given point in time, our reliance on science to determine reality stands upon a shaky platform. All knowledge, as determined by science, is really a work-in-progress. To act on a particular piece of information – knowing that future knowledge may contradict it – requires faith of some caliber.

For purposes of this paper, I will set aside the epistemological dilemma in order to privilege an analysis of how atheism might play a faith-based role in modern (or recent) societies. I will consider a post-World War II assessment of contemporary atheism, examine Soviet actualization of “scientific atheism”, and present iterations of non-belief in modern American society.

On Atheism as Faith

In the early years of the Cold War, French philosopher Jacques Maritain (1949)[1] provided a timely and fascinating response to what he termed “contemporary Atheism”. His paper sought to undo conceptions of atheism as absent of dogma, deceit and blind faith:

Which of these two, the atheist and the saint, represents the more uncompromising and revolutionary break with all the injustice and deceit of this world[?] [T]he genuine, absolute atheist, with all his sincerity and devotion – is but an abortive saint and, at the same time, a mistaken revolutionist (267).

Maritain’s assessment is evidently tinted in favor of religiosity, and in abhorrence toward Godlessness. But what makes it fascinating is that while atheists are often positioned as non-believers, Maritain argues that “absolute atheists stand committed to change their entire system of values and to destroy in themselves everything that suggests God’s name” (269), thereby assigning atheism a devotion and fervor and even discipline comparable to followers of Christian teachings. Non-believers, as defined by Maritain, are no less believing than self-proclaimed believers. This distinction is profound, because our tendency to characterize atheism as whether rather than what one believes often imagines a great degree of separation between religion and other institutions. Rhetorically or not, Maritain draws believers and non-believers closer together – perhaps to spite the atheists’ claim to higher ground, but also to reveal a different way of constructing belief: Godlessness is not the absence of belief, but the belief of absence. Maritain goes on to describe three categories of atheists: Practical atheists, who proclaim to believe in God but act in defiance (or ignorance of) His teachings; pseudo atheists, who “believe they don’t believe in God” but are in fact denying their misconception of God rather than God himself; and absolute atheists, who are veritably Godless.

What Maritain doesn’t define – for good reason – is the presence of belief in non-Christian gods. Still, his premise arrived in the early years of the Cold War, when Soviet “scientific atheism” came into direct conflict with American Christianity – politically, we may even understand Maritain’s disdain for atheism to be a political one, one that aligns the state of the Soviet regime with its socio-political dissolution of religion. For instance, Maritain’s article never explicates his Catholic position. Instead, he seems to speak broadly about religion (even as he narrowly limits it to his own conception), pitting religion against atheism rather than a particular denomination against atheism. This attitude may well be contextualized within a Cold War era, which drew from a different well of extremes – no longer polarizing among different religions, but polarizing between the presence and absence of religiosity. Had he been writing in a different era, Maritain might have argued for Roman Catholicism rather than religion at large. But the Soviet’s dogmatic destruction of religion created a common enemy among religious silos: Atheism.

When Maritain penned this paper in 1949, the Soviet Union had successfully dissolved both Islamic and Orthodox influences in most of its states. In 1918, during a period labeled “War Communism”, the new Constitution separated church and state, instituted an explicitly atheistic curriculum in its schools, confiscated vast wealth of treasures belonging to the Orthodox Church, and dissolved most monasteries and convents. Because the Russian Orthodox Church had been an “important/organic part of the Tsarist regime”[2], it by necessity offended Bolshevism (235). Lenin, in the Party’s official philosophical journal (Under the Banner of Marxism), called for

[a] careful study of atheistic literature in all languages, continual re-examination and improvement of government anti-religious work, demonstration of the connection between bourgeois class interests and religion, [and] use of the findings of natural science against religion and for materialism (235).

Lenin’s approach was a “know-thy-enemy” strategy, and it came at a time when an impressive share of the pre-Soviet population fell under Islamic, Orthodox and Roman Catholic influences. Between 1921 and 1926, different factions defended separate ways of teaching about religion – the overarching conflict was whether or not to enact “anti-religious dictatorships” that would only teach its citizenry about religion so as to “expose its corruption and to vilify the clergy and religious rites” (238). In 1926, the central Committee of the Party ruled against this limited portrayal of religion.

Perhaps this approach seemed unnecessary. By 1935, the 10,000 Islamic registered mosques in Uzbekistan (where half of Central Asia’s Muslim population was concentrated) had dwindled to just sixty. The Russian Orthodox Church suffered also, but suffered differently:

The entire infrastructure was controlled by the Soviet state. The Russian Orthodox Church, which from 1721 to 1917 had been the handmaid of the tsars, had proven capable of adapting to the service of atheist, even atheising, masters” (64)[3].

Soviets campaigned most vigorously against the “dominant religions of each region” – among Islamic, Orthodox and Roman Catholic populations, only the Roman Catholic Church managed to survive – and comparably thrive – under the banner of Soviet communism. Froese (2004) theorizes that Roman Catholicism survived and became a formidable opponent to the Communist Party because its population was not splintered like Muslim groups, and its organization was not dependent upon state and local government. The Roman Catholic Church had an established international hierarchy that bolstered its capacity to defy Soviet propaganda and foreclosure.

Froese is particularly interested in the post-Communist resurgence of religion in various Soviet states. While contemporary literature often posits a direct correlation between religious pluralism and religious growth, Froese (2004) finds that, in the waning days of the Soviet Union, “some religious groups…achieved a monopoly-like status…and currently attract the majority of new religious converts in their respective regions” (61). As such, Froese debunks the theory that religious competition should always lead to religious growth.

Why is this important to our understanding of scientific atheism? The Soviet Union, particularly in its early days, promoted atheism as the only government-sanctioned way of thinking. The Soviet government seized control of existing religious groups, neutralized them, and then re-educated the citizenry such that atheism was “vigorously taught in schools, promoted in all public areas of life, and preached by state-supported atheist proselytes” (66). Atheism was not a mere absence of belief – it became the only acceptable belief that would encourage political obedience and redefine ethics and morality in the public sphere. In fact, the government went so far as to replace traditional religious holidays with atheist events. Contrary to what we perceive about atheism, the Soviet regime simply replaced three primary faiths with one. As such, it explicitly proved Maritain’s assertion that non-belief can be socialized and politicized as a form of belief. The absence of religion has the potential to be as dogmatic and politically effective as the most powerful of religions.

So, to answer our original question about the doctrinal “X-factor” of religions that purportedly grant them greater hypnotic value, I would argue that any institutionalized set of rules and teachings could become doctrine. If Roman Catholicism had one advantage over scientific atheism, it was that both Christian doctrine and the Catholic institution had reached a point of global efficiency that it could not be easily displaced by atheistic rule. Note that not all religions have achieved a similar capacity to monopolize and organize the religious marketplace. Despite their impressive aggregate population, Muslims have not achieved a similar degree of global efficiency. But can we attribute the global efficiency of any religion (or denomination) to the fact that it is religion? I would argue that doctrinal pliability and centralized organization determine the survival, adaptability and efficiency of any institution. While the Russian Orthodox Church was certainly pliable enough to satisfy both tsarist and atheist regimes, it had been historically dependent upon the survival of existing powers that be. There wasn’t a strong, centralized organization beyond national borders that would ensure a legacy of hierarchy and tradition.

None of this affirms the theory that religion must itself contain an innate power to unify or call to action. What it does suggest is that people can be conditioned to the rightness of any institution – and in a battle between competing institutions, those that have conditioned us longer and conditioned us better are more likely to survive. Perhaps atheism’s decline in these post-Communist states points to its relative youth and vagueness in the global marketplace. In a Pavlovian world, we are still more conditioned to believing in God than we are conditioned to believe in the absence of Him. We are conditioned to respond to whatever is more familiar. The “X-factor” for any institution, it seems, is a history of symbolism and centralized power. This “X-factor” involves faith, because all institutions require from its followers a degree of faith. But faith is certainly not limited to religion.

On Faith and Science

Crimmins (1986)[4], in his critique of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian rejection of religion, believes that

At the heart of the confidence with which Bentham condemned religion was the scientific framework of his view of the world…his failure to comprehend the inner spirit which motivates the truly religious person. He never really understood the distinction between reasoning, which is based on knowledge and experience, and faith, which involves the total personality in submission to the highest ideal (99).

I am inclined to question this characterization of faith as being so utterly disparate from reasoning. In the opening paragraph of my paper, I mentioned the fragility of empiricism – that is, the fragility of a premise to which many in modern societies award the highest honor: The honor of being deemed the right tool for uncovering reality. Crimmins argues that faith is the integrity of an individual’s deference to the “highest ideal”, and suggests that scientific reasoning is an antithesis to faith. Bentham himself would have agreed with this assessment – in his life, he defined and upheld the “greatest happiness principle” of modern utilitarianism that challenged traditional, deontological theories about nature’s law and about God-given rights. Bentham’s characterization of ethics supposedly separated empirical reasoning from faith-based thinking, and asserted that a moral right must be determined in the absence of religious belief. Thus Crimmins, without scrutinizing whether Bentham really accomplished this clean separation between faith and science, takes it at face value and proceeds to simply critique Bentham for being anti-religion.

Crimmins may have skipped a step. The fascinating aspect of Bentham’s utilitarian principle is that it rests upon an unproven, normative claim about empirical and moral truth. That is, it first assumes the moral right may be determined by whether something produces the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people – and then activates the empirical research that needs to be done in order to identify actions that produce greatest amounts of good. The undiscerning eye might note the active empiricism and miss the passive normativity. In fact, Bentham has decided for us what constitutes a moral right before we have employed his principle to discover actual iterations of moral rightness. He has defined for us what should be before we have discovered what is. And anytime a normative claim goes unexamined, those who subscribe to it have basically consented to believing – rather than confirming – its veracity.

We often mistake normativity for empiricism. We believe in the scientific process, even though that process continues to evolve. We believe that certain indicators allow for conclusions to be drawn, even though these conclusions are revised, revoked and added upon nearly every day. Our belief that science delivers truths is not an empirical claim, but a normative one. We have placed a considerable degree of confidence in a discipline that changes, that produces incomplete answers, that even makes fatal mistakes. Like it or not, we have placed a great deal of faith in the superiority of science. We have, as Crimmins noted about religious faith, involved “our total personality in submission to the highest ideal.” While we may constitute science as being worlds away from religion, in fact both demand our faith in their capacity to identify what is real, and true.

Baker (2012)[5] aptly calls it “gospels of atheism”, a term ironic for the fact that atheists actively proselytize their belief in the absence of God. He hypothesizes:

[T]hat the contemporary American secularists will tend to affirm relatively scientific worldviews. I expect both non-affiliated believers and non-believers to be influenced by advocates stressing the connections between secularism and science, but with stronger effects for non-believers, as secularist advocates typically promote irreligious belief (172).

His research found significant evidence to support that “American secularists tend to place a high level of faith in science and to affirm its epistemic authority” (181). His other findings pin down the typical American non-affiliate as possessing higher levels of education. I once wondered aloud, in class, whether education – itself an institution – carries the potential to displace religion in an individual’s constitution of values and behavior. Earlier, we discussed that doctrine could come from anywhere, and that an institution’s “X-factor” for controlling populations is a matter of symbolism and centralized power. One might argue that the umbrella of academia – rather than just science alone – remains religion’s greatest competitor. When it comes to the universal credibility of a degree, few institutions come close to what academia inspires, and what academic membership cosigns. (I need only consider Mr. Jason Richwine’s presently-contested dissertation to know that an academic seal of approval goes a long way and makes a big splash.) Given that academia and religion contradict one another in so many fundamental ways, it is understandable and predictable that subscribing to one doctrine might effectively displace the other.

And, as Baker (2012) so concisely finds, our confidence in the epistemic authority of science (and academia, I would add) is faith-based. For all its purported impartiality and irrefutability, science and academia are just as in need of our faith and devotion.


David Foster Wallace once proclaimed:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

This, I submit, is the true underlying theme in my paper. We construct the things we don’t believe in as Other – so it’s easy for proselytizing atheists to feel nothing in common with Christian Evangelists, or for the academic perch to seem nothing alike a church pew. It is human to misconstrue our disagreements as fundamental dissimilarities, when in fact it is usually our similarities that make us so different.

My paper is only the beginning. But if we can debunk the myth that atheism is somehow absent of faith, that science is somehow impervious to human bias and belief, then perhaps we can move beyond these boundaries to discover what makes any institution powerful, and why it is that some religions (or just denominations) have achieved a level of global efficiency that make them resilient in the face of turning tides and changing regimes. I think the institutions that attract a crowd and hold their attention can’t be all that different at core. Regardless of our purposes for research – to understand why certain powers have their appeal, or even to learn how to dismantle propagandist regimes – we must at some point acknowledge that, by deeming religion as somehow especially symbolic or especially potent means we’ve been oblivious to all the forces, and all the controlling processes that determine our public (and private) lives.

[1] Maritain, J. “On the Meaning of Contemporary Atheism.” The Review of Politics, Vol. 11, No. 3 (1949): pp. 267-280.

[2] Beemans, P.J. “Scientific Atheism in the Soviet-Union.” Studies in Soviet Thought, Vol. 7, No. 3 (1967): pp. 234-242

[3] Froese, P. “An Analysis of Religious Monopolies in the Post-Communist World.” Sociology of Religion, Vol. 65, No. 1 (2004): pp. 57-75.

[4] Crimmins, J.E. “Bentham on Religion: Atheism and the Secular Society.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 47, No. 1 (1986): pp. 95-110.

[5] Baker, J.O. “Perceptions of Science and American Secularism.” Sociological Perspectives, Vol. 55, No. 1 (2012): pp. 167-188.


One thought on “A Presence of Faith in Atheism and Science

  1. I agree with the basic premise of the paper, that science has elements of faith in it, but I disagree with equating that faith with religious faith. The religious receive their knowledge from their holy books, their family, their religious leaders, and their private, unsharable experiences. The scientific receive their knowledge from their literature, their educators, and their publicly shared experimentation. The major difference, of course, is experiences vs experimentation – if you can do an experiment and validate the conclusions of your peers, then that is a completely different source of knowledge than indoctrination and feelings.
    Science also has the bonus of negative reinforcement. The more popular a theory grows, the greater it is challenged and the more fame can be gained from defeating the theory. We all test science every day, to some degree or another, and because of a lifetime of negative reinforcement, we get out of bed and gravity still works, and we take it for granted. We drink a glass of water, and we don’t marvel at the hydrogen bonds that cause it to stick to itself and to the glass, because the odds of this behavior changing today, of all days, after remaining constant all our life, are slim to none. We’re not surprised when what worked yesterday still works today, and while a philosopher might make the argument that this observation requires faith, it is not the same faith that is required of the religious.
    And, of course, concerning your conclusion: it sounds like you’re trying to suggest that we worship science as a god, and proselytize based on the same level of weak evidence as the religious. My preferred way of describing the faith involved in science is that the scientifically ignorant are religiously faithful of science, while the scientifically knowledgable need not be bothered with faith in their area. If you receive your knowledge from literature, an authority, or intuition, and can’t be bothered to verify it, then you are operating on faith.

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