Most of us have ways that we distinguish ourselves and our in-group from the common herd. Alas, in most instances those points of distinction either (1) do not uniquely obtain in the in-group, (2) cannot be demonstrated to obtain uniquely within the in-group, or (3) are are less significant than is initially suggested. The conclusion: the grounds we use to distinguish ourselves from others are not as strong as we tend to think.
My extensive interactions with atheists over the last decade have illustrated three common ways atheists attempt to distinguish their in-group from the out-group (i.e. the “religious”; the “faithhead”).
Faith. To begin with, the atheist says he does not have “faith.” At the outset this fails to distinguish between two distinct concepts: “faith” as religion and “faith” as a belief accepted by way of trust. It is true that the atheist doesn’t have faith in the first sense because the atheist has no religion. But that borders on being a trivial observation. (More specifically, it is trivial if one assumes that atheism encompasses a commitment to secularism. But of course, it need not since one can be an atheist and a member of a religion like Buddhism or Unitarianism.)
As for the latter concept where faith is belief accepted by trust, in this case the assertion is false. The atheist accepts some beliefs by way of trust (trust in the cognitive context by which the belief is acquired [e.g. through sense perception, memory, or testimonial witness], trust in the truth of the proposition one accepts). And if the atheist happens to be a global skeptic about everything, presumably that skepticism is itself based on intuitions about evidence and knowledge.
Believer. Second, the atheist will often say they are not a “believer.” This term is apparently shorthand for believer in some particular religion or believer in the doctrines of some particular religion. This too appears to be a borderline trivial observation. It also tendentiously limits the ascription of “belief” to religion. But the atheist presumably has her own beliefs about how best to answer various metaphysical and metaethical questions (Where do we come from?; What is the meaning of life?; What is the ultimate nature of reality?; How ought one to live their life?). The atheist may take an agnostic stance toward some of these questions. Or he may believe some of these questions are trivial or nonsensical. Or he may adopt a positive, robust answer to them. But he certainly believes something about these fundamental questions: he does have a worldview. He is a believer too.
Evidence. Finally, I will often find atheists saying that they are open to evidence, their beliefs are falsifiable, and they even welcome others to present evidence to falsify their beliefs. This contrasts with the religious person who is dismissive of — or even hostile to — evidence and who eschews disconfirming evidence to her beliefs. At this point, Antony Flew’s famous story of the invisible gardener has been very influential. In that story, the religious person is like the man who attributes a forest clearing to the actions of a gardener. When no gardener appears, he says the gardener is invisible, so a fence is erected. Then he says the invisible gardener can pass through fences. And so it goes: religious belief — and belief in God in particular — can endlessly be altered to accommodate prima facie disconfirming data.
Here too there isn’t really any grand insight. The fact is that any account of reality can always be adjusted to fit with prima facie disconfirming data. Just look at the tortured history of those who say that “nature is all that exists” and who then proceed to modify the concept of nature, world without end. (The terminus is the open-ended concept that “nature” just is whatever a hypothetically completed natural science settles on as reality, a definition that in principle could include God.)
Practically speaking, I have never found atheists to be more welcoming of counter-arguments to their beliefs than the general population. So far as I can see, they exercise the same cognitive biases as the rest of us.
To sum up, the attempt to distinguish the atheist from the rest of us by denying faith or belief or by affirming evidence is without merit