Friday, February 16, 2007

It takes a lot of faith to believe that!!! redux!!!

By popular demand, I'm posing yesterday's question to you, the readers of this blog:

It takes a lot of faith to believe that!!!

It seems like I’ve been hearing this statement a lot lately, especially from religious people talking about atheism and/or evolution. Here are a few recent examples: here, here, here (you have to look around a bit for the relevant quote in a couple of them...)

The interesting thing isn’t what this says about the speaker’s opinion of atheism or evolution. The thing that’s striking is what it says about the speaker’s opinion of faith.

Have you heard people of faith say things like this? “Wow, you must have more faith than I do!” (thinking: because your belief is so much crazier than mine…) And if so, how do you feel about it?

To me, when someone thinks it’s absurd not to believe in God, and then says “It takes as much (or more) faith to believe God isn’t there than to believe He is,” it seems like the speaker is saying the following:

1. Your belief is no better than my belief because (like mine) yours is just faith.

2. Faith is believing in things you want to believe but are absurd and don’t follow from logic or observation. The more ridiculous the belief, the more it must be faith-based.

3. Faith is not at all trustworthy. It leads people to all sorts of wrong conclusions.

I would normally think that people of faith would see faith and/or spiritual witness as a completely different strategy for reaching a conclusion than tackling a question through analyzing objective evidence. I would guess that people who use both of these strategies (either together or to handle different types of questions) would still see them as distinct strategies, and perhaps see faith as the superior one.

On the other hand, maybe I just don’t understand how people of faith think…

Do you think faith is different from belief? Do you think that basing a conclusion on objective evidence or reasoning is different from basing a conclusion on spiritual witness? Am I right to think that that's the difference between faith and belief, or is it something else?


T Wanker said...

As I've read these posts, the thing that jumps out to me is how quickly the argument leaps into confusion.

Empirical knowledge is by definition objective, relying on evidence and empirical testing. Faith, on the other hand, is a completely subjective experience, arising out of emotion and personal experience.

Mormonism, at least ostensibly, applied objective standards to subjective experience. (Moroni 10:4-5) Ironically, it was this very objective analysis that was supposed to be the basis of my faith that was responsible for my disbelief.

The fact that so much of faith and belief arises out of subjective belief makes it difficult (if not impossible) to have a meaningful discussion about how empirical methods can be applied to subjective experience. An empirical analysis of subjective experience can't happen, unless there is a willingness to give everyone's subjective experience equal evidentiary footing -- something neither side (the believers and the non-believers) is particular keen on.

Man, this is way too philosophical for a Saturday morning.

Jonathan Blake said...

At my roots, I have become agnostic because I believe in the fallibility of human perception. I believe that there is an objective truth, but I don't see how any finite human being can be certain what exactly it is.

Empiricism is our best attempt to account for the random noise inherent in subjective human experience. It is a very valuable tool for drawing closer to the objective truth, but I don't believe that it will ever get us there perfectly. I find the distinction between public knowledge and private knowledge very useful.

I think many non-believers are willing to give equal evidentiary footing to everyone's experience. It's just that they distrust all subjective experience equally, including their own (at least in theory).

Anonymous said...

They're free to believe what they want even though they're wrong. Usually they make scientiffic errors to come up with their conclusions or logical ones like Evolution is godless. (Um, who says? The theory itself doesn't. It simply doesn't mention a higher power, which falls out of the realm of science.)

An omnipotent god could have created the world anyway he wanted. If we are to believe Mormonism's line though, God is eternally busy with his wife(ves) populating various worlds so he just might have set things up so they take care of themselves.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey T. Wanker!!!

Yep, that's a lot of philosophy ;-) but I think I get what you're saying:

Mormons present the testimony experiences as if it were an objective, reproducible scientific experiment: if you do these things under these conditions, you will get this result.

But one problem is that there's no objective way to verify that the conditions are met. The only way to be sure that the conditions were met is that you got the right result. So it's kind of circular as experiments go...

Hey Jonathan Blake!!!

Nice to see you've arrived in Outer Blogness!!! :D

Well put, that's a good way of explaining the attitude towards subjective evidence.

Hey Sinister Porpoise!!!

I agree that it's weird that evolution gets linked with atheism and other branches of science don't. I was talking about this point in the comments of the corresponding post over on fMh:

I think that religious people who push to get "Intelligent Design" taught as an "alternative theory" to evolution are doing as terrible a disservice to religion as they are to science. As fMhLisa points out, there is quite a lot of strong evidence for evolution and related sciences. So if the average Christian is saying "either you believe in an Intelligent Designer or you believe in evolution, not both," many people will likely react by saying "well, I guess it's the atheists who are right..."

Stephen said...

I wouldn't see them as saying 1, 2 or 3. Instead, they see what you believe as so far from their understanding and what they have verified that they think it must take a lot to hold onto the view in the face of evidence.

There are a lot of seemingly circular arguments. I use a weight lifting routine that builds strength but only requires one workout a week. I could be stronger, but I've hit the full weight on a number of the machines at the gym with it over a period of three or so years (moving over three hundred pounds on one).

If you get results, you are doing it right, but it often takes a little tweaking. The same for the method I used to lose 70 pounds (and have kept the weight off for the past eight months).

Needs tweaking and you can tell that you've got it from the results isn't quite the same thing as a circular experiment.

One thing that is very meaningful, and I always thought was an important part of the LDS experience, was people who had left the faith and then returned and what they learned about faith, God, and the Spirit.

Just met another on the path back a week or so ago (which got me blogging about one of the sub-themes we discussed).

Anyway, that is what they are saying "your belief seems so difficult to me, so contrary to my experience, that it must take a great deal of effort to maintain" is what the sub text of "you need a lot of faith to believe that" says.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Stephen!!!

I agree with you that what these people are trying to say is "your belief seems so difficult to me, so contrary to my experience, that it must take a great deal of effort to maintain." If they thought the atheist's position made more sense than the theist's position, they'd probably be atheists themselves. My question is just about why they specifically use the word faith when talking about beliefs they consider absurd or incorrect.

I recognize that not all people of faith would say that an atheist's position is faith-based, but some apparently do. Those are the people I'm talking about here -- I'm not just talking about all of the many people who happen to think atheists are wrong.

I can see your parallel between how much work you put into your physical workout and how much you put into your spiritual workout. But I think there's a difference in that your workout isn't meant to be an experiment. It isn't that you're asking "Will working out make me stronger?" and then working out to see whether it does or not. You're starting with the assumption that working out will make you stronger, and that's why you're doing it. If you start with the assumption that praying earnestly will build your faith, then it probably will work. But that's not the same thing as an objective experiment.

Texas said...

I know I am a little late on this one, but have been thinking about it since the original post.

Paul Tillich, an A/theistic theologian, argued that faith is not about beliefs that we have little or no evidence for. Instead he defined faith as "being grasped by an ultimate concern." This ultimate concern can be expressed in many different ways. His point is to show that doubt is part of faith and that people who reject traditional concepts of god can still have ultimate concern.

I think it is interesting because the original question seems to assume that faith is a belief held with little evidence. I wonder how such a conversation would go if people adopted Tillich's definition.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Johnny!!!

That's an interesting insight!!! It's clear that this whole question hinges on "So what do you mean by 'faith' anyway?"

Tillich's definition seems non-standard, yet it makes sense. And it frames the question in a whole new light, showing how the idea of faith might be applied in a similar way to both atheists and theists.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Stephen!!!

Thanks for the clarification. It looks like you're perhaps using a definition of faith similar to the one in Alma (in terms of hoping for things not seen). SilverRain made some good comments about that definition in response #14 to the original post on fMh.

Bull said...

I'm not sure why you find it strange that evolution and atheism are linked by many Christians. In a BYU religion class I had to read a talk by Bruce McConkie on the pillars of the gospel (or something like that). He argued that everythings depended on these things and that lack of any one would completely destroy the gospel. What were they? The Creation, The Fall, and the Atonement. If there was no creation that put all living things in an immortal state, then there could be no Fall. If there was no Fall then there was no need for a universal Atonement. If there was no need for an Atonement then there was no need for a Savior. I believe that his logic is correct and although I haven't heard Christians argue it so bluntly, this is why fundamentalists oppose evolution and treat it so differently than other scientific topics; it directly attacks the fundamental doctrines of their religious beliefs. If evolutionists are correct then the Bible is NOT literally true, there was no Adam and Eve, there was no garden of Eden, there was no Fall, and there was no divine Savior. If you've based your life on those core beliefs then you are going to have a hard time swallowing evolution. It MUST be wrong because otherwise the Bible and Christianity are wrong and they KNOW that that is NOT the case. So evolution must be wrong and can't be accepted or else people will not be able to accept Christianity.

Actually, I think a visit to a natural history museum is the best way to help people out of Mormonism; attack Christianity in general and not Mormonism in particular.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Bull!!!

That's a good point regarding the theological importance of the fall of Man. Although I think mainstream Christians see the fall a little differently so it's possible some flavors of Christianity might be compatible with evolution.

I just meant that while I can see evolution is incompatible with most existing religions, it isn't necessarily incompatible with the idea that some sort of God or higher being exists.

Also I was kind of wondering why the fundamentalists complain about evolution in particular as opposed to other fields of science that might also explain things once thought to be miracles. On the other hand, to reject evolution you basically have to reject all of modern biology and geology. Then the study of these fields is closely tied in with chemistry... Ultimately they're rejecting essentially all of science and scientific thought, but I guess they just focus on evolution so they can claim that there are not opposed to science in general just evolution. The usual deceptive branding...

Bull said...

I think it's mostly compartmentalization. They believe in science, just not science that they find directly threatening. People are very good at creating and dealing with these kinds of logical inconsistencies. Unfortunately I think that this kind of compartmentalization has leaks and is contributing to the increasing ignorance and irrationality that I perceive in American culture.

I recently read Dawkin's "The God Delusion" and he addresses the specific point you seem to be making: "Doesn't it take as much faith to not believe as to believe?" His answer is that people pose this question as if the two beliefs have equal probabilities when in reality there is very much evidence that people's beliefs about God are incorrect and very little evidence that they are correct. In other words, the probabilities are overwhelmingly in favor of disbelief than belief. But, most non-believers, as contrasted with believers, are tentative in their non-belief; if given evidence they are willing to change their minds.

In order to play on humans' poor ability to evaluate probabilities, religions raise the stakes to encourage people to at least tentatively choose deism over atheism. They do this by making the rewards and punishments extraordinary (heaven and hell) to cause people to effectively adopt Pascal's wager.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Bull!!!

I know what you mean. There's this idea floating around that if a claim isn't 100% proven false (by some impossible standard of proof) then believing the claim is as reasonable -- on equal footing -- with believing conclusions that are backed by evidence.

As you point out, there's a whole lot of evidence that people invented the idea of God and very little evidence that God might be real. The difference between my confidence in my conclusions and the theist's "sure knowledge of God's existence" is that -- even though the evidence is on my side -- I don't claim more than I can prove, and I would re-evaluate my conclusions if faced with new evidence.

Anonymous said...

When I'm hit with the "it takes more faith to be an atheist" line, I use it as an opening to attach the notion of faith itself.

"Interesting you should say that. You *accuse* me of using faith, and of using it to reach a conclusion which you think is wrong. This indicates to me that deep down, you understand *there is something wrong with using faith.* You try to justify your own use of faith by asserting that I am *more* faithful than you, but what you really have done is indicate that you think faith is worthless, just as I do. Good going. Glad we can agree on something."

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Anonymous!!!

That's definitely the same line of reasoning as I'm using here, though you've stated it a bit more confrontationally than I did. ;-)

Craig B. said...

I doubt (have little faith) that this will be read, since it’s so much later than the original post. It will undoubtedly amount to little more than a tree falling in an unpopulated forest. But for what it's worth, perhaps the effect of the fall alone is worth the would-be noise-making.
It seems to me that all of this discussion misses the point of what understanding Christian believers (and what the Bible, for that matter) call faith. And I think you're right to find frustrating the feeble attempts at apologetics that appeal to something like, "Well . . . you have faith too, because you can’t prove it." Comparing faith to logical proof is really apples and oranges. Or, more appropriately, it's like comparing the measurable (logical) differences between male and female, to all that we call romantic "love." In that light, I would affirm with you that you do not have faith . . . because faith is about relationship, not believing in a truth.
To be sure, there are many who would reduce what the greatest poets and philosophers throughout human history have called "love" to mere stimulus and response--to a mere function of evolutionary preservation of the species. (Note--I'm not dissing evolution in this discussion, because not all natural evolutionists are necessarily so mechanistic.) But for much of humanity (you may call them deluded or ignorant), there is something that transcends the logical and material world--something more to love than mere rational logic. (And I do mean more--logic is a valuable tool for understanding, but it is a means, not an end--a means of discerning truth . . . which is likewise more than logic.)
Poets proclaim it, authors tell stories of it, musicians sing of it, and most humans will agree if honest that in the end . . . it's what makes what can be an otherwise miserable existence worthwhile. It's the rationale behind, "It's better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all."
It's your best friend, your lover, your spouse, your kid . . . I'd go so far as to assert, everyone (if he or she is honest) has to agree deep down inside that it's the one thing that really matters.
Sorry to rant on there for a bit, but back to my point--truly Christian, biblical faith is synonymous with (or at least contingent upon) a loving relationship with another sentient, free-willed person.
Christianity believes the biblical premise that Jesus is God, become a human, solely because he seeks relationship (to repair such) with individual humans. When Jesus calls people to faith in him, it is consistently personal throughout all of the Bible’s Gospel narratives.
John 14:6-7 records Jesus saying, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him."
A lot of Christians like to point to that verse and argue apologetically, similar to what you see in this argument about faith, that Jesus is saying his teachings and his truth are the only way to the Father--that if you don't believe his (and their) truth, you won't get to the Father (or heaven).
But Jesus isn't that simplistic or distracted by relative argumentation. He's actually saying, "No, I am personally the way--you need to know me personally if you would know who God is." The reason Jesus is the only way is the same reason I could have the audacity to say, "If you want to know this person you call Craig, you need to know me."
All of that gets into philosophy and theological debates that have been raging for millenia. But the point I want to make is, to understand authentic Christian faith is to understand love.
Faith isn't about logical proof or the lack of it, it's about relationships between people (in the Christian belief system, one key person in the faith relationship scenario is God--because Christians do believe God is a person who loves).
In short (if only I'd said this from the start), trying to argue faith logically is the same as arguing love logically. Asking me to prove my faith is like asking me to prove my love for my wife. Does the premise that love is other than logic make it inferior or untrue? If so, then computers indeed are superior to their creators, and there is nothing more to your personhood than mechanistic chemistry and delusional self-preservation or self-promotion. The sum the parts, then, is not greater than the whole—the sum is just the sum, apparently.
Come on . . . we all know it. There is so much more to love. And there is so much more to faith. It’s the reason we exist.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Craig!!!

I completely disagree with your point that understanding how love works (in terms of brain functions) makes it less real or less wonderful. Things that are wonderful (love, rainbows, the universe, etc.) naturally inspire wonder, in other words they make you curious to understand better how they work.

As far as faith being about relationships is concerned, okay, perhaps it is. But that doesn't answer my argument at all. I'm saying that by claiming that conclusions you think are wrong are the result of "faith" you're saying that faith is not trustworthy to give you accurate information. Additionally, by insisting that atheism and/or belief in evolution is "faith" -- as opposed to being based on logic and evidence -- you are implicitly admitting that you think that logic and evidence really are more trustworthy than faith, and you want to be sure to bring those you disagree with down to that lower level.

It boils down to the following: Which do you think yields more accurate factual information: faith or real-world evidence? If it's faith, why insist that atheists conclusions are faith-based when they themselves claim they aren't? If it's real-world evidence, then why not choose to favor evidence-based conclusions?

Therese said...

I see this is an older post, but this week's outer blogness roundup led me to it ...

"Do you think faith is different from belief? Do you think that basing a conclusion on objective evidence or reasoning is different from basing a conclusion on spiritual witness? Am I right to think that that's the difference between faith and belief, or is it something else?"

I do think faith is different from belief. Belief implies mental assent to a statement. Faith is often used as if it meant the same, but also has a broader spectrum of uses. It can mean fidelity, as in "keep the faith," etc. There can be an ethical or existential dimension to it: faith can be a mode of existence, a way of life, a historical sequence of actions and choices. It can reach into the very essence of a person's identity, the choices and allegiances that make us who we are.

I actually think basing a belief on reasoning/evidence is NOT that different from basing it on spiritual witness. The "spiritual experience" is a set of sensory data. It can be treated as evidence by the believer. Like other sense-data (e.g., hearing people bear testimonies, seeing dinosaur bones, etc.), it has to be interpreted, evaluated, and judged.

That said, I think a lot of religious folks don't think too hard about all this, and your analysis of what they mean when they say "it takes a lot of faith to believe that" sounds spot on, and exposes the contradictions implicit in it. Implicitly, they have a view of faith as something arbitrary and irrational, even as they highly value their own faith.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Therese!!!

Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying.

It's one thing to say "I think spiritual witness is a valid form of evidence." We can discuss whether or not that is a useful axiom for understanding the world, but it's clear how you can use that axiom (+ logic) to reach different conclusions.

But when theists say "Sure, my God-belief is based on faith, but your atheism is just faith too!" it makes me wonder what they think faith is. It sure sounds like they think faith is just believing whatever they hell you want, without regard for reason or evidence...