Science has a number of core assumptions. For example, it is generally assumed that the laws of physics are the same for all observers (or at least, all observers in inertial frames). These are the sort of core assumptions atheists make. If such basic ideas are called "acts of faith", then almost everything we know must be said to be based on acts of faith, and the term loses its meaning.
Faith is more often used to refer to complete, certain belief in something. According to such a definition, atheism and science are certainly not acts of faith. Of course, individual atheists or scientists can be as dogmatic as religious followers when claiming that something is "certain". This is not a general tendency, however; there are many atheists who would be reluctant to state with certainty that the universe exists.
Faith is also used to refer to belief without supporting evidence or proof. Sceptical atheism certainly doesn't fit that definition, as sceptical atheism has no beliefs. Strong atheism is closer, but still doesn't really match, as even the most dogmatic atheist will tend to refer to experimental data (or the lack of it) when asserting that God does not exist.
"If atheism is not religious, surely it's anti-religious?"
It is an unfortunate human tendency to label everyone as either "for" or "against", "friend" or "enemy". The truth is not so clear-cut.
Atheism is the position that runs logically counter to theism; in that sense, it can be said to be "anti-religion". However, when religious believers speak of atheists being "anti-religious" they usually mean that the atheists have some sort of antipathy or hatred towards theists.
This categorization of atheists as hostile towards religion is quite unfair. Atheist attitudes towards theists in fact cover a broad spectrum.
Most atheists take a "live and let live" attitude. Unless questioned, they will not usually mention their atheism, except perhaps to close friends. Of course, this may be in part because atheism is not "socially acceptable" in many countries.
A few atheists are quite anti-religious, and may even try to "convert" others when possible. Historically, such anti-religious atheists have made little impact on society outside the Eastern Bloc countries.
(To digress slightly: the Soviet Union was originally dedicated to separation of church and state, just like the USA. Soviet citizens were legally free to worship as they wished. The institution of "state atheism" came about when Stalin took control of the Soviet Union and tried to destroy the churches in order to gain complete power over the population.)
Some atheists are quite vocal about their beliefs, but only where they see religion encroaching on matters which are not its business -- for example, the government of the USA. Such individuals are usually concerned that church and state should remain separate.
"But if you don't allow religion to have a say in the running of the state, surely that's the same as state atheism?"
The principle of the separation of church and state is that the state shall not legislate concerning matters of religious belief. In particular, it means not only that the state cannot promote one religion at the expense of another, but also that it cannot promote any belief which is religious in nature.
Religions can still have a say in discussion of purely secular matters. For example, religious believers have historically been responsible for encouraging many political reforms. Even today, many organizations campaigning for an increase in spending on foreign aid are founded as religious campaigns. So long as they campaign concerning secular matters, and so long as they do not discriminate on religious grounds, most atheists are quite happy to see them have their say.
"What about prayer in schools? If there's no God, why do you care if people pray?"
Because people who do pray are voters and lawmakers, and tend to do things that those who don't pray can't just ignore. Also, Christian prayer in schools is intimidating to non-Christians, even if they are told that they need not join in. It is particularly bad if the prayer is led by a teacher, or otherwise officially endorsed.
The diversity of religious and non-religious belief means that it is impossible to formulate a meaningful prayer that will be acceptable to all those present at any public event.
This is one reason why the public school system in the USA is not permitted to endorse particular religious beliefs through official prayer time in schools. Children are, of course, quite free to pray as they wish in their free time; there is no question of trying to prevent prayer from happening in schools.
"You mentioned Christians who campaign for increased foreign aid. What about atheists? Why aren't there any atheist charities or hospitals? Don't atheists object to the religious charities?"
There are many charities without religious purpose that atheists can contribute to. Some atheists contribute to religious charities as well, for the sake of the practical good they do. Some atheists even do voluntary work for charities founded on a theistic basis.
Most atheists seem to feel that atheism isn't worth shouting about in connection with charity. To them, atheism is just a simple, obvious everyday matter, and so is charity. Many feel that it's somewhat cheap, not to say self-righteous, to use simple charity as an excuse to plug a particular set of religious beliefs.
To "weak" atheists, building a hospital to say "I do not believe in God" is a rather strange idea; it's rather like holding a party to say "Today is not my birthday". Why the fuss? Atheism is rarely evangelistic.
"You said atheism isn't anti-religious. But is it perhaps a backlash against one's upbringing, a way of rebelling?"
Perhaps it is, for some. But many people have parents who do not attempt to force any religious (or atheist) ideas upon them, and many of those people choose to call themselves atheists.
It's also doubtless the case that some religious people chose religion as a backlash against an atheist upbringing, as a way of being different. On the other hand, many people choose religion as a way of conforming to the expectations of others.
On the whole, we can't conclude much about whether atheism or religion are backlash or conformism; although in general, people have a tendency to go along with a group rather than act or think independently.
"How do atheists differ from religious people?"
They don't believe in God. That's all there is to it.
Atheists may listen to heavy metal -- backwards, even -- or they may prefer a Verdi Requiem, even if they know the words. They may wear Hawaiian shirts, they may dress all in black, they may even wear orange robes. (Many Buddhists lack a belief in any sort of God.) Some atheists even carry a copy of the Bible around -- for arguing against, of course!
Whoever you are, the chances are you have met several atheists without realizing it. Atheists are usually unexceptional in behavior and appearance.
"Unexceptional? But aren't atheists less moral than religious people?"
That depends. If you define morality as obedience to God, then of course atheists are less moral as they don't obey any God. But usually when one talks of morality, one talks of what is acceptable ("right"
and unacceptable ("wrong"
behavior within society.
Humans are social animals, and to be maximally successful they must co-operate with each other. This is a good enough reason to discourage most atheists from "anti-social" or "immoral" behavior, purely for the purposes of self-preservation.
Many atheists behave in a "moral" or "compassionate" way simply because they feel a natural tendency to empathize with other humans. So why do they care what happens to others? They don't know, they simply are that way.
Naturally, there are some people who behave "immorally" and try to use atheism to justify their actions. However, there are equally many people who behave "immorally" and then try to use religious beliefs to justify their actions. For example:
"Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners... But for that very reason, I was shown mercy so that in me... Jesus Christ might display His unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the king eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever."
The above quote is from a statement made to the court on February 17th 1992 by Jeffrey Dahmer, the notorious cannibal serial killer of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It seems that for every atheist mass-murderer, there is a religious mass-murderer. But what of more trivial morality?
A survey conducted by the Roper Organization found that behavior deteriorated after "born again" experiences. While only 4% of respondents said they had driven intoxicated before being "born again," 12% had done so after conversion. Similarly, 5% had used illegal drugs before conversion, 9% after. Two percent admitted to engaging in illicit sex before salvation; 5% after. ["Freethought Today", September 1991, p. 12.]
So it seems that at best, religion does not have a monopoly on moral behavior.
Of course, a great many people are converted to (and from) Christianity during adolescence and their early twenties. This is also the time at which people begin to drink and become sexually active. It could be that the above figures merely indicate that Christianity has no effect on moral behavior, or insufficient effect to result in an overall fall in immoral behavior.
"Is there such a thing as atheist morality?"
To be continued...