"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." -- Bertrand Russell

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

"But I have faith!"

I recently came across this article by Charlie Glickman. Glickman's post is about confronting religious people vis a vis their religious views and how one should properly approach such an affair. He writes that we should engage with respect to the believer, not necessarily with respecting the beliefs of the believer. I agree with much of what Glickman wrote and this is a topic that I've frequently commented on.

However, in the comments section, a user named Dawn Fortune writes:
I like the idea of challenging ideas and of challenging beliefs, and of questioning both without ridicule or shame, but I think what is missing is an understanding that matters of faith are that: matters of faith, and not all can be measured, quantified and duplicated using scientific method. Also what must be kept in mind is that faith is enormously important for a lot of people, and some traditions have doctrine that calls questioning of those beliefs an exercise in sin to begin with.
This reminds me of a common exaltation I've heard from religious believers: "But I have faith!" There are so many things wrong with this....

First of all, it's a false dichotomy. The choices are not faith or science. There could be an additional epistemic category involving neither (mathematics comes to mind as a potential area that does not involve faith nor does it involve the usual empirical methods found in the sciences.) Glickman did not claim that science was the necessary alternative to faith, nor that science should be used instead of faith. That's an accusation of scientism -- the idea that all legitimate knowledge is scientific or that the only legitimate epistemic mode is scientific methodology (whatever that might mean.) However, I see no reason to accuse Glickman of that in this article. Nonetheless, it is an accusation often levelled at New Atheists.

Theologian Alister McGrath provides a quite succinct misinterpretation of Dawkins' view (from here):
Science has all the answers — and God isn't even on the short-list.
Unfortunately, this is a gross misapprehension both of Dawkins' book The God Delusion and of new atheist thought more generally. Consider this quote from Christopher Hitchens:
Religion ends and philosophy begins, just as alchemy ends and chemistry begins and astrology ends, and astronomy begins.
Note that for Hitchens, it's not science that replaces religion but philosophy. Similarly, Dawkins makes it very clear in his book that he does not think science is the unique source of human knowledge. As Stephen Law has pointed out, Dawkins writes:
Perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science.
Dawkins also states (again as quoted by Stephen Law):
...we can all agree that science's entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic to say the least.
Dawkins does appear to think that science has something to say about God, but what McGrath would actually need to show -- and has not shown in any of his writings -- is not that there are questions unanswerable by science (a thesis that most would not deny) but that the existence of god is either:

1. Not one of the questions answerable by science;
2. Dawkins' argument is insufficient to show that God does not exist (i.e. that it is answerable by science, but Dawkins has failed to provide a sufficient scientific response.)

At any rate, the accusation of scientism, as levelled against new atheists, is simply false. Two of the four horsemen, often considered leaders in the movement, are not even themselves scientists. Daniel Dennett would undoubtedly tell us that philosophy has important information to tell us. Christopher Hitchens would chastise those of us who thought nothing of value was to be found in literature or politics, both of which he wrote substantially about before his death. I have not seen a concerted effort by new atheists to undermine anthropology, history, mathematics,  or several other disciplines whose status as sciences is questionable in other sorts of ways (not to say that these fields are illegitimate; to the contrary, I think that all of these are legitimate fields of enquiry. What I am pointing to is that there are academic disciplines which are not clearly scientific -- in the traditional sense -- that are valued by many in the new atheist movement. Thus, accusations of scientism are simply strawmen.)

The second point to be made is that faith -- defined as non-justified belief or as suspended doubt -- is the real problem. I don't particularly have a problem with religion qua religion so I find no particularly pressing reason to argue against it; my issue is primarily with the concept of faith.

Some -- theists and atheists alike -- would try to argue that without faith, a religion isn't really a religion at all. It is worth noting that while all orthodox Abrahamic religions certainly involve the concept of faith, not all religions always have. Hunter gatherer groups, for example, will often lack the concept. At the very least, and non-controversially amongst anthropologists, not all cultural groups have a word for or an articulation of anything like the Western notion of faith. In fact, anthropologist Pascal Boyer remarks in Religion Expained that it would be extremely difficult to communicate the concept to a large number of cultures.

But why is faith dangerous?

Suppose that you go to Las Vegas and walk into a casino. You proceed to sprinkle salt over your shoes. How the salt lands determines how you bet at the Roulette table. For three games, this method works perfectly. You've won every time. Now, the fourth game comes up and you do this again. Since you've already won so much, you lay everything on the line. But this time, the Roulette wheel does not give you a win. In fact, you've now had a significant loss.

But not to worry! You have faith in your salt sprinkling method. You sprinkle the salt again, expecting that the magical salt knows what is best, and while you might have lost once, it was really for the better. After all, salt works in mysterious ways!

But, again, you lose. And again you repeat to yourself the mantra that the salt works in mysterious ways and that this loss was really for the better.

A friend of yours comes over to you. "Dude!" he exclaims, "Stop that! You're just going to keep on losing!"

"No," you say, "I have faith. You cannot question this. In fact, you're really offending me right now by trying to tell me to stop or by bringing up doubts."

"You have a wife and kid. I don't want to see you destroy their lives because of your 'magical' salt..."

"But look at how much good the salt has done for me before! Even if the salt doesn't really predict the Roulette wheel, it makes me happy and makes me do good things like win lots of money for my family!"

And on it goes. I'm sure you probably see what I'm trying to say, but allow me to indulge in unpacking this further.

Faith is non-justified belief. There is no reason to believe anything, anywhere, at any time on the basis of faith (that is, without justification.) And if you've suddenly found a reason to believe something via faith, you haven't really found faith at all (since there were justifications of some kind involved. Even badly justified belief is still not faith, because even bad justifications are still justifications.)

People who use faith in place of a justification are liable to believe absolutely anything and are likely to have destructive behaviors over the long term. For the fideist, there cannot be anything that distinguishes that which is absurd from that which is sound. As early Church father Tertullian would have put it, the religious will often believe because something is absurd ("credo quia absurdum"). Faith has been defined as a suspension of doubt, even when we have good reason to be doubtful. Thus, faith is precisely the thing that I find most dangerous about modern religions.

But this neglects a further issue. I don't think any religious person I have ever spoken to really had faith. All they really had, as far as I can tell, were really poor justifications that they defended as "faith" when you called them into question on it.

Often, religious people tell me that they believe because they had an experience of one kind or another, or continue to have some kind of experience while in prayer. If they're a Christian, then surely they'd say that Thomas did not have faith when he asked to see Jesus' wounds; he was the original "Doubting Thomas". Yet to have an experience where one feels God (whatever that might mean) is to commit the same mistake as Thomas did. It's to be justified -- however poorly -- on the basis of one's experience.

Other lay Christians believe themselves to be justified on the basis of Intelligent Design, naive forms of the cosmological argument ("if God doesn't exist, then where did all of this come from?"), or naive forms of Pascal's Wager ("aren't you afraid of going to Hell?"). Sometimes I have heard emotional responses as well ("I just couldn't believe otherwise" or "I wouldn't want to live in a world where this wasn't true".) I have yet to come across someone who simply had no answer when asked why they thought God exists, but I have come across many who had really poor answers.

Some will concede some ground here and state that they do not have blind faith. There is the Catholic notion of reason in aide of faith. For example, the Dei Filius (part of the constitution of Vatican 1) states:
And, not only can faith and reason never be at variance with one another, but they also bring mutual help to each other, since right reasoning demonstrates the basis of faith and, illumined by its light, perfects the knowledge of divine things, while faith frees and protects reason from errors and provides it with manifold knowledge.
I don't recognise the concept of faith here, or what the word is supposed to mean. As far as I have been able to tell, all faith is blind. If true, this would render the preceding quote either non-sensical, incoherent, or both. The definition I've given before -- that faith is non-rationally justified belief or suspended doubt -- does not seem to apply to the use of the phrase in the quote from Dei Filius. I'm certainly open to there being another definition, but I've yet to see a theologian give some other definition. And if the religionist is willing to make the concession that reason can make headway on this issue, why not go all the way? Why bother to keep the concept of faith around at all, if not in some futile attempt to justify the unjustifiable?

At any rate, there is a sense in which I agree with the sort of thing articulated by Martin Luther:
Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but - more frequently than not - struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.
I should immediately comment that I think it is particularly insipid that Luther said this. I think it to be particularly insidious that he thought it to be true that reason opposed faith but retained faith anyway. Of course, Luther was a devout Christian in the process of reformulating the Christian church and much of this sentiment was involved in an anti-Catholic diatribe.

A worthwhile caveat here is that Luther's characterisation of reason as contemptful of God is something I would not agree with. At least not of necessity; I certainly don't hate God. I very well might despise various sorts of depictions of that being, in the same way that one might despise a villainous character. Nonetheless, I do not find myself raging in defiance of a being whose purported existence I meet with credulity.

Luther certainly did not think highly of reason, and detested much of Catholic theology for being, shall we say, too reasonable (or too rational.) It is perhaps ironic that many educated Protestants would later abandon Luther's fideism in favor of Natural Theology (starting in the 17th century, but continuing to the Intelligent Design movement of today. One should note that Natural Theology was a largely Protestant, largely Anglophone development.) I suspect that this is because it is impossible to even maintain acknowledgeably ungrounded beliefs for too long.

To quote from the late Christopher Hitchens:
Actually, the 'leap of faith'—to give it the memorable name that Soren Kierkegaard bestowed upon it—is an imposture. As he himself pointed out, it is not a 'leap' that can be made once and for all. It is a leap that has to go on and on being performed, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary. This effort is actually too much for the human mind, and leads to delusions and manias. Religion understands perfectly well that the 'leap' is subject to sharply diminishing returns, which is why it often doesn’t in fact rely on 'faith' at all but instead corrupts faith and insults reason by offering evidence and pointing to confected 'proofs.' This evidence and these proofs include arguments from design, revelations, punishments, and miracles. Now that religion’s monopoly has been broken, it is within the compass of any human being to see these evidences and proofs as the feeble-minded inventions that they are.

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