Those who think that atheists by definition hold to no propositions in faith don’t understand either atheism or faith. It is simply a matter of where that faith is directed.
That thought was prompted by some statements of faith made by professional skeptic Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and author of the new book The Believing Brain, in the current issue of Scientific American.
[Side note: I’m not knocking (healthy) skepticism in general here, by the way, just a misunderstanding of its nature. Even when I don’t agree with his every comment, I appreciate Shermer’s work in debunking the worst abuses of Michael Drosnin’s execrable “Bible Code” books (which I debunked, myself, with an Excel spreadsheet and a little Visual Basic).]
Shermer’s article, “The Myth of the Evil Aliens,” was an interesting one, discussing his belief that contact with extraterrestrial intelligence is inevitable and his disagreement with Stephen Hawking’s position that an encounter with such beings would necessarily be bad for us.
Notable in the article are his statements of faith. For instance, the first comment: “With the Alien Telescope Array run by the SETI Institute in northern California, the time is coming when we will encounter an extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI).” Such conviction!
Yet, there is no evidence that statement is true or that such contact is truly inevitable, nor is there a chain of logic that takes one inexorably and unavoidably to such a conclusion. Considerations of God aside, there are plenty of carnal, evolutionary, worldly reasons why one would take a different position.
For instance, Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee in their book Rare Earth present numerous reasons to reasonably think that the universe – even given evolutionist assumptions – is rather empty of intelligent life. (Dr. Ward’s work, in particular, on his Medea Hypothesis argues strongly in such a direction, if I understand it correctly, though I haven’t had the chance to read his book, yet.) Their work — as firm believers in evolution, mind you — simply looks at those things needed for the development of intelligent life, modifies and evaluates the Drake Equation appropriately, and provides a rather solid argument that if mankind is not absolutely alone in the universe, it is very likely that he is as alone as one can be without being absolutely so. Their work is of a sort that one would be justified in concluding that mankind is alone in practical fact, if not in actual fact: alone in such a sense that would make any future contact by another intelligent species out there very, very, very unlikely within all the most likely timelines of mankind’s future.
That initial comment by Mr. Shermer is not the only profession of faith present in the Scientific American article (e.g., “In fact, any civilization capable of extensive space travel will have moved far beyond exploitative colonialism and unsustainable energy sources”). And I don’t hold such confident professions of faith against him. I can see someone, under various assumptions, rationally drawing the very same conclusion as to the inevitably alien contact. It’s actually a rather reasonable proposition – again, given certain assumptions (some of which I do not hold). But one cannot declare it as a certainty without adding a measure of faith into the mix.
That’s my point. Faith is not something unique to “religion.” While many atheists and “skeptics” pride themselves on being faith free, they truly aren’t. The battle of worldviews out there is not a fight between those “full of faith” and those “free from faith” – it is a struggle about whose faith is more reasonable.
The most profitable discussions, or at least the most civil, generally involve recognizing that truth, methinks.