Disambiguating Faith: Why Faith Is Unethical (Or “In Defense Of The Ethical Obligation To Always Proportion Belief To Evidence”)

A couple of weeks ago, I argued that there was a real distinction between “lacking a belief in any God or gods” on the one hand and “believing there is no God (or gods)” on the other hand.  Primarily I saw the heart of the distinction as resting with the difference between on the one hand being an atheist because one has epistemological reasons for lacking belief (i.e., one thinks that there is insufficient evidence for a God or gods and, therefore, opts to disbelieve as a matter of principle) and on the other hand being an atheist because one has thinks one has positive metaphysical reasons for believing that there are no gods whatsoever.

If one thinks that there is not sufficient metaphysical reason to think there is or is not a particular kind of god or gods, then one is agnostic with respect to that type of god or gods.  One can then choose by faith to nonetheless believe in that god or gods and be a religious person who admits to not actually having good reason to say he knows there is a God or gods but is opting to believe anyway.  That would make for an agnostic theist.  He does not think there is sufficient evidence for the existence of his god or gods and yet he believes.  An agnostic who abstains from belief in a particular god or gods given what he judges to be the paucity of positive evidence for that god or gods, is an agnostic atheist with respect to the god or gods in question.

Similarly, there could be gnostic theists who make knowledge claims about any particular god or gods such that they exist (claiming, for example,  “I know Yahweh exists based on evidence, not because of faith primarily” or “I know Zeus exists based on evidence, not because of faith primarily”) or be a gnostic atheist who makes knowledge claims that some particular god or gods do not exist (claiming, for example, “I know based on evidence that Yahweh does not exist” or “I know based on evidence that Zeus does not exist”.

As my examples hint, I think many people think like gnostic theists about some gods while being gnostic atheists about others.  The gnostic Jewish theist about Yahweh is usually, I imagine, simultaneously an gnostic atheist about Zeus (and probably an gnostic atheist about Vishnu and Jesus, etc., though she may be an agnostic atheist about living religions, for example).

In the context of this discussion, I made a few remarks, for which topfancy over at reddit.com has provocative challenges.  Quoting me at first, he writes:

Strong, passionate, activist adherence to this principle of epistemology and/or ethics can all take place without any dogmatic commitment

Really? You argue (in my opinion) correctly that agnostic unbelief comes from an epistemological commitment to the principle of sufficient reason.  First of all, if this commitment were merely ethical I believe it would undermine the unbelieving stance as a matter of opinion or preference: the unbeliever would have as her only resort arguing that not believing as a matter of faith to be “best” for the believer, a bare claim she better not make if she wishes to avoid being charged as an ethical dogmatist.

The problem I have with an epistemological justification for agnostic atheism is that it is not clear that the principle of sufficient reason can be properly applied outside the rather narrow realm of natural philosophy. That is, I don’t see how it can be argued without entering into the realm of ethics (and again, opening oneself to accusations of dogmatism) that rationalism should be properly exercised in all aspects of one’s life, thought and belief and not just to observation and theories about the material world.

Either way, I think that the choice is logically (daresay, rationally, inasmuch it is rational to conclude that is permissible to be irrational) free for both kinds of agnostics, as neither commitment (to faith or to reason) impinges on the other’s.

And then he quoted another portion of a line from the text and added further comment:

all without being guilty of adhering by faith to any dogmatic metaphysical attitudes or commitments of their own

Again, if this were true such a rationalist would refrain from applying epistemological heuristics as if they were universals, lest he commit in principle, dogmatically, to a particular brand of metaphysics.

I do not fully understand this objection.  I do not think that either epistemic or ethical norms are indeed matters of preference.  I do not think that the agnostic unbeliever should believe or not as a matter of taste or unjustifiable feeling.  The agnostic unbeliever, in order to have a justified position at least, should have a reason to either believe, disbelieve, or abstain from belief, or she should do none of the above.  Obviously, she must do one of the above, she must either believe, disbelieve, or abstain from believing (either permanently or temporarily).

As soon as one understands a yes or no propositional question, she either must answer affirmatively, negatively, or implicitly or explicitly refuse or delay to answer it.  But, in any of the above cases, an action must occur.  It might happen entirely passively or subconsciously and never raise to a deliberate action from principled intention, but nevertheless, a choice must be made.  Either affirm or deny, affirm partially and/or deny partially, refuse or delay to affirm or deny.  And one can do all of this either outwardly or inwardly, consciously or subconsciously, but something must be done.

And as far as I’m concerned where there are choices for rational beings there are norms of reason which operate either implicitly or explicitly, either consciously or subconsciously.  And for whatever we do, regardless of whether we did it deliberately or without thinking much about it, we can assess in rational terms whether or not it was the most rational choice for any number of reasons.

Obviously, “rational” has numerous senses.  It is strictly speaking rational to act in a formally consistent way.  Reason operates on formal consistencies and there is something that strikes us as obviously irrational in acting in self-contradictory ways.  For example, if we decided to give the second place finishers in contests higher honors than the first place finishers this would be puzzling and irrational.  The formal logic of a contest requires that winning be defined in terms of the best performance on the terms of the contest.  And it is only logical that the prizes that correlate to victory be given to those who actually won.  Formally it would be silly and irrational to hold contests in which the second or fifth place winner was honored more greatly than the first place winner.

But formal consistency in one’s actions, which of course is indispensable for both rational and moral agency on Kant’s conception, is not the only thing with which our reason concerns itself.  We use reason instrumentally as a means towards fulfilling needs and desires.  It is only rational that if I need x to fulfill my needs and that I need to do y to get x that I do y and get x.  And even if I only desire x, if I do not have any overriding reason not to get it, I should still do y if that is what it takes to fulfill my desire and I have no overriding reason not to.

I think we can take this as axiomatic, or at least as derivable transcendentally.  Say, for example, A requires x is in order to be.  Then A’s interest in x goes well beyond a mere preference and becomes a matter of existential interest.  A will not be A if there is no x.  In this way x is objectively vital to A, objectively good as a means to A’s very being.  To refuse x is to refuse to be.  This kind of stake makes x an objective good for being A, since it plays a constitutive necessary role in there being any A at all.  Just as it is objectively good, in the sense of useful, to add chocolate to milk if your end is to make chocolate milk and objectively bad, or counterproductive to add turpentine to milk if you want to make chocolate milk, so anything which contributes to our being what we are at all is objectively good for us insofar as we are that very kind of being.

So, we have reasons to act in accordance with our needs distinct from our reasons to act in accordance with formal principles, and this is the perceptive point of topfancy’s objection.  I need to stay alive in order to be me.  If I were a figure skating judge at a competition and my life were absolutely threatened lest I unfairly award the second best performer in the competition the highest score rather than the clear best performer, then I would recognize that it was both formally irrational to declare the second best person on the ice the winner and yet also realize that it was existentially irrational to put this concern for the formal consistency and practical integrity of games over attention to the preconditions of my very survival.

So, when I give the second best skater the highest score over his clearly better rival, everyone is justly outraged because what I did was formally irrational and unjustifiable as far as they know.  But when it comes out that my life was in jeopardy, my choice was clearly the only existentially valid and rational choice and everyone except the hardest line rationalists thinks I did what anyone should do in that situation.  (Of course, there are times when we think the right thing to do, which anyone should do, is actually to submit oneself to either likely or certain death and those cases create their own existential paradoxes, which I wrestle with in my post, “Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice”.)

Returning to the question at hand, we have reached what I understand to be topfancy’s problem.  Why should ethics favor strict adherence to the principle of sufficient reason in all matters in life?  The principle of sufficient reason is a type of rational formalism.  Why should it extend beyond formal philosophy into matters of existential concern like how I live my life?  We would likely think that someone who insisted that the formal rationality and integrity of skating competitions was more important than the lives of judges was adhering to a principle of rationalism dogmatically, insisting that it was a good thing even if innocents avoidably died and no greater good was served.  It strikes me as dogmatic to be a rationalist in that scenario and to insist that adherence to formal rational principles come before concern for existential needs.

It even seems dogmatic to say that adherence to rational formalism in action should always come before happiness.  Imagine I am a parent of two twin children and despite being very alike in most respects, one just has a greater knack for games than the other and is always beating the other child such that it is beginning to wreck the “loser twin’s” self-confidence entirely.  What if in this scenario I were to ask the “winner twin” to throw a game and boost the “loser twin’s” self-esteem?  What if the “winner twin” does this and everyone’s happier.  The “winner twin” learns how to put others before himself and to take joy in the happiness of his brother and “loser twin” say gains confidence that helps him break a mental block and actually perform better because he now thinks he can win? What if everything works out that everyone is happier in the long run.  It could go of course that loser twin now fails to grow because he is not actually challenged to actually win, but let’s say for argument’s sake this doesn’t happen but instead they we all live happier ever after?

You might argue that there is a principle that should still be upheld that the best player win and the worst one lose and that that’s more important than happiness.  You might even have a good argument for that case.  But you might also hold onto it more dogmatically than you should.

So if I affirm (as I do) that it is a moral necessity that we never believe anything more than our evidence warrants and that if we think we have insufficient evidence to establish a possible god’s existence that we have an ethical obligation to be agnostic default atheists and an ethical obligation not to opt to believe beyond what evidence warrants and so adopt faith beliefs by faith; how am I not a dogmatist?  How am I not like the rational formalist who would insist people die or children live lives of misery rather than allow a single violation of rationalistic principle?  What if there are other existential concerns more important than adherence to formalism?

My rough answer to this starts by conceding that, indeed, if existentially it were consistently profoundly to our benefit to act in formally inconsistent ways (either in general or even just with respect to faith beliefs), then we should not as a general principle be formalists or we should not eschew faith beliefs on principle.  I will even concede that in different eras past or future it may be conceivable that our existential interests were or would be better served with particular formally untenable practices that were existential necessities.

For example, were there a people who were truly as amoral and barbarous as many theists claim that atheism or uncivilized humanity would necessitate and were this people only capable of being ruled through irrational beliefs and myths, and that was the only way to achieve any overall gains in their abilities to actualize themselves as humans in other ways, then I would sadly concede that it would be better to achieve whatever noble gains were possible through the recourse to the noble lie.

But I think that that existentially there is a close connection between belief and action.  Our belief forming mechanisms evolved as efficiencies for being able to live in the world.  As a result, true belief is usually rather tightly connected to our abilities to meet our existential needs.  While some true beliefs might be counter-productive to our success for any of a number of reasons, in general the greater adherence to truth we have the more powerfully we can actually master ourselves and our world and thrive practically and existentially.  I think there is overwhelming evidence that strict commitment to knowledge is far more powerful for creating human thriving on all sorts of measures than shortsighted dogmatic, willfully prejudicial cognitive attachments (faith beliefs) are.

There are also serious problems for ethics and politics when people adopt their beliefs without strict principles about apportioning belief to evidence.  This is because the idiosyncratic codes they might find work for them and their own thriving conflict would actually hinder others’ thriving.  It is one thing to, non-faithfully, say, I find this set of codes just suits my life well and brings it success even though I cannot fully justify why.

I have no problem with that personalized approach to ethics.  But when your idiosyncratic way of doing things gets legislated either legally through formal laws or even only socially through informal religious codes it risks doing more harm to others than good.  If there are ways of rationally approaching one’s judgments more cautiously and less dogmatically, these are likely to serve everyone’s existential thriving best.  If as a matter of principle we take all beliefs and actions to require formal care for apportioning belief to evidence, then everyone knows nothing will be demanded of them without evidence or logic based reasons being offered as to why they should accept any particular beliefs or perform any particular actions.  This strikes me as only fair.

Exceptions might be made to this formal rigor in matters of complete indifference to any one else’s life.  But religious faith beliefs, at least in most forms of Christianity and Islam and conservative forms of Judaism (to stick with the monotheisms for now), are problematic because they encourage entire institutions which are too often more concerned with defending tradition over reasoning without prejudice and with moving ethical thought into the realm of the dogmatic and out of the realm of the rational.  Religious faith beliefs wind up affecting people’s children’s reason, encouraging habits of superstition, wishful thinking, and poor probability skills.  Religious faith beliefs harden so that they move beyond a provisional affirmation of something uncertain until new evidence comes along to becoming a commitment to the belief itself to the point of hostility towards all new evidence.  Religious faith beliefs tie people in with arbitrary and unnecessary institutional alliances and irresolvable divisions along lines unsettleable by reason.

Religion does not, of course, only lead to war and conflict and intractable disagreement, but when religions conflict the presence of absolute commitments to hopelessly inadequately supported beliefs is their special problem.  Faith is why religious conflicts in principle and for principled reasons irresolvable for as long as religious people adhere to the very principle of faithful adherence to insufficiently supported beliefs.  Only less faith and more doubt and openness to rethinking can solve such disputes.  Faith is inherently an obstacle to human reason and cooperation because it allows some of us to believe things separately from reasons accessible and defensible to all of us.  It is a recipe for incommensurable beliefs.  Holding all of us to meet the same evidence requirements when advancing a position to each other and to apportion our beliefs to those requirements when adopting beliefs in general, is how we create the conditions in which agreement is at least in principle possible.

There is more I could say, but in the meantime;


Your Thoughts?


For more on faith, read any or all posts in my “Disambiguating Faith” series (listed below) which strike you as interesting or whose titles indicate they might answer your own questions, concerns, or objections having read the post above.  It is unnecessary to read all the posts below to understand any given one. They are written to each stand on their own but also contribute to a long sustained argument if read all together.

Faith in a Comprehensive Nutshell


How Faith Poisons Religion


What About The Good Things People Call “Faith”? (Or “Why I Take Such A Strong Semantic Stand Against The Word Faith”)


How Religious Beliefs Become Specifically *Faith* Beliefs


Faith There’s A God vs. Faith In God

Trustworthiness, Loyalty, And Honesty

Faith As Loyally Trusting Those Insufficiently Proven To Be Trustworthy

Faith As Tradition

Blind Faith: How Faith Traditions Turn Trust Without Warrant Into A Test Of Loyalty

Faith As Tradition’s Advocate And Enforcer, Which Actively Opposes Merely Provisional Forms Of Trust

The Threatening Abomination Of The Faithless

Rational Beliefs, Rational Actions, And When It Is Rational To Act On What You Don’t Think Is True

Faith As Guessing

Are True Gut Feelings And Epiphanies Beliefs Justified By Faith?

Faith Is Neither Brainstorming, Hypothesizing, Nor Simply Reasoning Counter-Intuitively

Faith In The Sub-, Pre-, Or Un-conscious

Can Rationality Overcome Faith?

Faith As A Form Of Rationalization Unique To Religion

Faith As Deliberate Commitment To Rationalization

Heart Over Reason

Faith As Corruption Of Children’s Intellectual Judgment

Faith As Subjectivity Which Claims Objectivity

Faith Is Preconditioned By Doubt, But Precludes Serious Doubting

Soul Searching With Clergy Guy

Faith As Admirable Infinite Commitment For Finite Reasons

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

How A Lack Of Belief In God May Differ From Various Kinds Of Beliefs That Gods Do Not Exist

Why Faith Is Unethical (Or “In Defense Of The Ethical Obligation To Always Proportion Belief To Evidence”

Not All Beliefs Held Without Certainty Are Faith Beliefs

Defending My Definition Of Faith As “Belief Or Trust Beyond Rational Warrant”

Implicit Faith

Agnostics Or Apistics?

The Evidence-Impervious Agnostic Theists

Faith Which Exploits Infinitesimal Probabilities As Openings For Strong Affirmations

Why You Cannot Prove Inductive Reasoning Is Faith-Based Reasoning But Instead Only Assert That By Faith

How Just Opposing Faith, In Principle, Means You Actually Don’t Have Faith, In Practice

Naturalism, Materialism, Empiricism, And Wrong, Weak, And Unsupported Beliefs Are All Not Necessarily Faith Positions

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://alaska-kamtchatka.blogspot.com/ Matías Giovannini

    (it’s “notfancy”, BTW). I agree with your general position insofar personal faith and (in-)group faith can rarely if ever be separated and the first (unavoidably?) gives rise to the second, with the attending ethical (moral, social) consequences established dogma has (exclusion, fossilization, persecution). I noticed that you did single out Spinozian deism in the article I responded to as enough of an outlier as to merit separate consideration. But while I agree that the Argument From Evil works against the deity Yahveh as dogmatically characterized (omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, necessarily existing), this does not rule out in principle a different kind of personal deity. Indeed, some Gnostic sects recognized this logical impossibility and denied one or more (even all) of this deity’s attributes without denying its existence.

    In any case, I think that the distinction between personal belief and the group identification that (often, but not necessarily) comes with it is important, and only the latter (being an ethical position) is open to ethical critique. However, I don’t think the utilitarian angle you hint at is fruitful in this case, as arguably we were successful as a species, in the survival sense, even if (and some anthropologists say precisely because) we developed transcendent frameworks of belief as ethical and moral frameworks. Lately, reason and induction have led us, through more accurate observations of and theorizations about the physical world enabling better technology, to unparalleled prosperity, but this state of affairs had the former as its efficient cause. I don’t think that arguing for the present utility of rationality to maintain the rate of progress works either, as our current state could be (near) a local optimum (of course I’m not a Singularitarian: it seems to me suspiciously like rapturist millenarism, minus the Christ plus the Machine.)

    With respect to my second comment, you interpreted it correctly: one’s choice of epistemic framework (the cognitive heuristics one uses, like Occam’s razor, principle of sufficient reason, principle of charity and so on), and how one chooses to apply it, should be free if we wish to remain rationally uncommitted. An objection you could make is that the logical consequence of this stance is Pyrrhonian ataraxia, and I would agree; whether this is a worthy goal or not, it is everyone’s choice to make.

  • anti_supernaturalist

    Stop talking about nothing; it’ll change everything

    Greetings from the Anti_Supernaturalist. How about conducting a thought experiment on yourself? One so radical for any true believer that it will endanger your soul.

    a thought experiment in freedom of conscience you can try at home

    Dare to exercise your Constitutional rights to disbelief and to be free from religion. See what happens when you abandon spiritual discourse, that is, stop indulging in the linguistic fallacy that every noun (name) refers to some real (or abstract) thing.

    First, go ahead, pretend that there exist no supernatural agents, locations, states, or events:

    1. No supernatural agents: minds, souls, spirits, ghosts, godlings, gods, God (Allah, YHVH), cosmic soul, the absolute
    2. No supernatural locations: hell, purgatory, heaven, buddha realms, moral world order, Platonic world of forms
    3. No supernatural states: the numinous, sin, grace, revelation, life after death, illumination, nirvana, buddha mind
    4. No supernatural events: mysterium tremendum, redemption, resurrection, rapture, mystical union, karma, or reincarnation.

    Second, realize that when supernatural language disappears, nothing alters in nature: not the Universe, the Solar system, the Earth, physical events, biological events, psychological events.

    Humanity’s supernatural statements say nothing about nature — unless they are treated as testable hypotheses, each falsifiable. However the appropriate testing procedures belong to contemporary science — not 17th century Puritan theology, not 13th century RC theology, and not 11th century Muslim religious philosophy.

    Third, understand that nature itself is neither meaningful nor meaningless. Neither a source of comfort, as in natural theology, nor a source of despair, as in existentialism. Both comfort and despair are psychological errors rooted in the same mistaken presupposition that meaning could be found by searching “the starry heavens” for divine agents (gods) or by quarrying human inwardness for “the moral law within [us].”

    Finally, appreciate that the existence (or non-existence) of gods is irrelevant to our right to be members of a secular, open society.

    To put the matter as only an anti-supernaturalist knows how: Even if the immoral, vicious, paternalistic 1-god of the big-3 monster theisms could be proven to exist, even if old Tom Paine’s white-washed deistic divinity could be established by Reason — we have the sovereign right to reject any claim that it must be acknowledged, accepted, or worshiped.

    supernatural “persons” belong at best to fiction

    The proper name ‘Sherlock Holmes’ refers to no person, living or dead. Holmes never lived. Everything we know about Holmes comes from the imagination of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His writings are the only sacred text for all questions concerning the great detective.

    Adoring fans and imitative authors just cannot limit themselves to the received text. They want more. Fan fictions — books, TV and move scripts — attempt to “reanimate” Holmes without doing violence to the real Holmes. Now, simply substitute ‘Jesus Christ’ for ’Sherlock Holmes’.

    The truth emerges — Jesus belongs solely to historical fiction. His hellenistic divine alter ego “Christ” belongs to dark fantasy comix as the World Avenger™.

    You can no more have a personal relationship with Jesus/Christ than you can with Sherlock Holmes.

    the anti_supernaturalist

  • shane

    Hi Dan,

    I’m not sure I understand your argument here. First you make these distinctions between different kinds of atheism, agnosticism, and theism.

    Let G be the proposition “God exists” and ~G the proposition “God does not exist”, then there is clearly a difference between:

    (1) I assent to G;
    (2) I assent to ~G; and
    (3) I do not assent to G or ~G.

    And we could clearly subdivide at least the first two positions up into those who believe that they *know* what they assent to and those who don’t. So I’m with you up to that point (although I find your terminology a bit confusing, since “agnostic” and “theist” are usually taken to be mutually exclusive categories; but this isn’t material to your point.)

    It also seems clear to me that you’re trying to offer considerations in support of the evidentialist principle that we ought to apportion our belief to our evidence. What I find confusing is that you’re offering pragmatic, rather than epistemic reasons for evidentialism.

    To make my confusion clearer, let’s distinguish pragmatic from epistemic reasons a person might have for a given belief. I have a *pragmatic* reason to believe B if things are likely to go better for me if I believe B. For instance, suppose it is the case that I have a really bad kind of cancer that has a survival rate of only 10%, but that of those who do survive almost all were people who kept a positive outlook and who believed that they would recover. Surely, if this were the case, I would have a very compelling reason to believe that i would recover.

    By contrast *epistemic* reasons to hold a belief are those which make the belief likely to be true. It might go better for me if I believe that I will survive, but that doesn’t make my belief likely to be true. In fact, a sober look at the relevant facts available would suggest that my belief is overwhelmingly likely to be false.

    It looks to me like you’re offering *pragmatic* arguments for an *epistemic* conclusion. But I just don’t see how that’s going to work. Suppose it is the case that the world would be a fairer, juster, more peaceful place if everyone were an atheist. Ok. That would be a good *pragmatic* reason to endorse atheism, but it wouldn’t do anything in the slightest to make atheism more likely to be true.

    Further it also seems extremely awkward to advocate this kind of hardnosed evidentialism on pragmatic moral grounds. Are you really willing to say that the cancer patient who finds it pragmatically useful to believe that she will recover, despite the conclusive scientific evidence to the contrary is doing something literally immoral PRECISELY BECAUSE, pragmatically speaking, the world as a whole would be better off if everyone were an evidentialist. That just sounds really weird to me.

    I think it’d a better tack for you to take would be to try to support evidentialism on epistemic grounds and then to offer separate arguments that religious beliefs held by faith fail the evidentialist test for epistemic adequacy and therefore we shouldn’t hold those beliefs because they are likely false.

    Just my $0.02.