Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Faith: You're Using It Wrong

A frequent response/criticism when religious belief is questioned goes something like this:

"If you have faith, you don't need evidence." And while Dictionary.com does list faith as "belief that is not based on proof", there is a very important difference between "not based on proof" and "not based on evidence". It is true that belief based on proof cannot be called faith, because we have another word for that: knowledge.

We could easily get derailed here by philosophically discussing the nature of proof, truth, knowledge, and the subjectivity of human experience. Although I am an Atheist, I am also agnostic -- and incidentally, you're using that wrong, too.

Agnostic comes from the Greek agnosis. Agnosis means "without certain knowledge" and is the antonym of gnosis, "with certain knowledge". I will be the first to concede that there is no absolute way to be certain of anything. Descartes believed that one could only be certain of one's own existence, and all else could be a highly detailed hallucination or delusion of the mind, but Eastern philosophy takes it further and posits that individuality, the "self", is also a delusion, and that all matter is essentially the same.1

But agnostic doesn't mean "I don't know the answer and by necessity sit on the fence". It is an acknowledgement that we CANNOT know anything with 100% certainty. 99% maybe, 99.9999...99% even, but there is always that 0.0000...01% possibility that none of this actually exists at all. Calling oneself "agnostic" reveals your philosophy with regard to knowledge, but it doesn't preclude you from making a judgement based on the evidence before you.

I am agnostic. There is no way of knowing anything with 100% certainty, and that absolutely includes knowing that God does not exist.2 But man cannot live on philosophy alone, and taking agnosticism to the extreme would paralyze humanity with uncertainty. At a certain point, whether we can be absolutely sure or not, we start to act in accordance with those things of which we are mostly sure.

With the acknowledgment that absolute knowledge is impossible, there must also be an acknowledgment that there is such a thing we colloquially refer to as "knowledge", and it is that thing which we believe because it is demonstrated by evidence, and what we refer to as "evidence" is, typically, that which two or more people have observed, and which is observable and test-able objectively by others.

While there is no way of knowing that the sky is blue (or that it even exists), most people AGREE on the observation that the sky is a particular color, that the color is what we refer to as "blue", a spectral analysis of the sky reveals that it reflects light of the same wavelength as other objects that we identify as "blue", and so we say that we "know" the sky is blue, and often use the blue sky as I have done here, as an example of a generally-accepted fact.3

So, if I speak of me, or you, or science, or theologists "knowing" something, it is in this manner that I use the term.

Given that, the notion that taking something on faith means to believe something either without evidence, or worse still in the face of contradictory evidence -- and that this is to be considered a virtue -- is, to put it plainly, total horseshit.

If you were to go bungee jumping, you would more than likely research the place where you decided to do your jump. Find out if they've had an inordinate number of injuries or deaths, maybe you'd research the statistics of bungee jumping in general to make yourself feel better about it. Maybe it even takes a friend who has been bungee jumping, WITH the place you're going to jump at, to convince you.

But all of that research, and all those statistics, aren't proof that the cord won't snap when you take the plunge. Therefore when you make the leap, in the firm belief that the cord will hold, you are literally making a leap of faith.

But even though you made the leap without proof that the cord would not snap, you did not do it without compelling evidence that the cord was unlikely to snap.

Even if you didn't do a lot of research, you were convinced by the professional attitude of the bungee cord folks, by their clear attention to safety regulations and their meticulous upkeep of their equipment. And you CERTAINLY wouldn't make that leap in the face of evidence that the cord was likely to snap, such as frayed cord, rusted connectors, or the reek of alcohol on the guy who was supposed to secure the cord to the bridge.

Although it is impossible to have proof that something will happen, we make decisions constantly, every hour of every day, based on the evidence that something is likely to happen. Every action, large and small, is an act of faith based on evidence but lacking proof.

I have faith that when I put food in my microwave, and use the microwave as the manufacturer intended, the food will come out hot. I have no proof that it will do so, but I do know from experience that it has happened that way on all other occasions in the past. I have evidence informing my faith. And maybe the microwave will be broken and will not do what I expect. If that happens, I will not continue to attempt to use my microwave, insisting that I "have faith" it will work the way it is supposed to. I will call a repairman.

I have faith that when the light turns green and the WALK sign is on for my crosswalk, the cars at the intersection will obey the lights and I will be safe to cross. I have no proof that this will happen -- for all I know a drunken idiot with my name on his grille is bearing right for me at 80 MPH in a residential zone -- but my faith is informed by evidence, by the knowledge that that is what the lights are for, and that those are the laws that we agree to live by in order to have a society that is most beneficial to the most people. But if I see evidence that contradicts my faith -- if I SEE the drunken idiot swerving away down the street with no sign of slowing -- then there's no way I'm going to step into that crosswalk, and neither would you.

Every action, big and small, is an act of faith, and every act of faith is informed and, when appropriate, halted by contradictory evidence.

Yet when it comes to otherwise rational people, religious faith gets a pass. Religious faith says that you don't need any evidence at all. Religious faith says you should ignore contradictory evidence and act as though your expectations will be met.

When my microwave fails to act in a manner that agrees with my faith-based expectation, and in opposition to all available evidence to how it should behave, my microwave is at fault.

Yet when God fails to act in a manner that agrees with faith, faith is at fault. It's part of God's inconceivable plan.

Even if the causes of whatever event are perfectly conceivable and possibly even predictable on a scientific, rational level, and go against everything you are taught to expect from God, you are admonished -- or you admonish yourself -- to have faith. That everything happens for a reason.

Religious faith isn't faith at all.

With all due respect to my religious readers -- and I know that they do deserve respect and are no doubt highly intelligent to a one -- I must speak plainly: Religious faith is self-delusion.

If you must believe something without any evidence, in the face of ever-mounting contradictory evidence, then you are in a state of denial, and you are deluding yourself. Just as I would be deluding myself to insist that my microwave was fine, I just wasn't believing hard enough. Just as I would be deluding myself to believe it was safe to cross the street, even as a drunken maniac visibly bore down on the intersection.

What religious faith should be is not belief that God exists despite the lack of available evidence. Properly applied, faith should be knowing God exists (based on evidence), and trusting that he is who he says he is, and will do what he says he will do. It's not being uncertain or without evidence that he exists at all. Faith is taking a proven God at his word, and following the path and the rules he laid out for you.

But God is not proven, and you already live your life, in almost all cases, under the assumption that he does not exist at all, much less is good to his word.

This is a pretty long post already, defining knowledge and faith took a bit more space than I intended, so I'll stop for today. I'll pick up from here next time. Comments welcome as always.

  1. Given our understanding of matter as being composed of the same basic building blocks (protons, neutrons, and electrons), and even more radical developments like string theory, science is coming more and more to support this philosophy with experimental verification.

  2. Technically, if the God espoused by the major Western religions DID exist, as an omnipotent being his/her/its existence would be the SINGLE thing in the universe that could be absolutely proven with 100% certainty. An all-powerful God could, if it wanted to, shatter human philosophy with the undeniable, irrefutable knowledge of its existence.

  3. This is of course assuming that it isn't raining, overcast, or the sunrise/sunset time of day that will make the sky pink, orange, yellow, green, or purple. But we all "know" what I mean when I refer to those alternate possibilities.


Brett said...

Please keep writing. :)

Daniel Broadway said...

Arrogance, you're using it right.

Dorkman said...

Actually, "arrogance" is defined as:

offensive display of superiority or self-importance; overbearing pride.

I'll address the superiority/inferiority of certain worldviews in my next post; self-importance, well, I warned you about that in my first post on this blog.

As for pride, there's nothing prideful about stating an obvious fact. Is there?

At any rate, perhaps you would care to address the argument I am making, pointing out where my logic fails or a statement I have made is incorrect.

If all you've got is an attack on my character, that doesn't make my argument less valid.

Daniel Broadway said...

Oh, don't take it too seriously, Mike. It was just a play off your title. I suppose sarcasm (or intent of the humor) doesn't always translate across text well.

The title "Faith: You're Using it Wrong." just seems to imply a holier-than-thou presence about it. As in "I know better than you."

I wasn't attacking anything in the article itself.