Why I Define Faith Philosophically As Inherently Irrational and Immoral

The word “faith” is a very misleadingly ambiguous one in common language. As I see it, religious people try to justify having faith by equivocating between different standard meanings of the word. For example, in everyday language faith may be a simple synonym for trust and so religious people will say that religious faith is no different than ordinary forms of trust that everyone rightly engages in. Or faith is sometimes used as a synonym for “holding a belief that is not known with certainty to be true.”  We all inevitably have to believe and act on some propositions without having absolute certainty they are true. So they want to say religious faith is just another instance of that common, rational, essential, and unavoidable form of believing and behaving. Sometimes faith is a synonym for loyalty or hope and, again, who can be against loyalty or hope?

What I want to say is that there are different ways we can trust, hope, be loyal, or hold uncertain beliefs. Some of them are rational. When they are rational they are intellectually scrupulous and morally conscientious. Other, irrational and negligent, ways of hoping, trusting, being loyal and believing despite uncertainty involve intellectual and/or moral carelessness.

Language is confused if we use the same words for the rational, intellectually scrupulous and morally conscientious versions of a practice as we use for the irrational, intellectually unscrupulous, and morally unconscientious versions of them. We need different words for similar behaviors when one exhibits an intellectual or moral virtue and the other an intellectual or moral failing, or “vice”.

Language is also confused if we do not have a special word for especially good actions compared to unexceptional ones.

And of course certain kinds of actions are very different from other kinds even when there is no virtue, vice, rationality, or irrationality at stake. And the language that is most accurate and useful would highlight those differences for us—especially when doing so would help us make sense of our behaviors, plan our actions, and/or choose our beliefs with more awareness and precision.

So for all these reasons, I think it is important that we distinguish faith from other forms of trust, uncertain belief, loyalty, and hope. If the apostle Paul is correct and faith is one of the three most special virtues (along with love and hope, according to 1 Corinthians 13:13) then Christians have a reason to say it is not identical with ordinary belief or trust or loyalty but rather is something extraordinary. And since he distinguishes faith explicitly from hope then neither should they equivocate between faith and hope by trying to defend faith as merely a species of hope.

So even those who want to especially praise faith as a virtue (rather than denounce it as a vice as I do) have a stake in clarifying what faith is as opposed to other virtues.

So, I want to give an account of faith that accounts for several major kinds of it. Then I want to show underpinning unifying factors that make each worth calling “faith”–independent of whether faith is on net a great, good, bad, or indifferent thing, either intellectually or morally. Only having established how exactly it differs from other forms of trust, uncertain belief, loyalty, and hope can we then dispute whether it is a good thing or not or in what ways it could be good or could be bad.

The most thoughtful, coherent, and consistent account of faith we can come up with will preserve all the most essential things people mean by the word but also reveal that some other usages are unhelpful because they lump actions which are distinct from faith with more specifically identifiable faith actions and, in this way, confuse people. This leads to all sorts of debates that go nowhere since people talk past each other by meaning different things by the word faith. So I am trying to suggest some people revise their linguistic usage where my suggested definition allows for clearer and less ambiguous discourse. If there are flaws in my reasoning, please convince me of them so that I can correct my errors, otherwise I recommend you adopt my usage.

I define faith thusly:

Faith is willfully committing (whether explicitly or implicitly) to a relationship (or relationships) of trust, loyalty, hope, and/or belief (a) beyond perceived rational warrant, (b) against perceived predominance of counter evidence of untrustworthiness, and/or (c) against all possible future counter-evidence that may undermine currently perceived evidence of trustworthiness.

So the first thing to establish is that faith involves willful commitment. Faith is a synonym for loyalty. It is not merely believing something unsupported by evidence, as this alone does not account for the dimension of loyalty in the word faith. Say I believe something unsupported by evidence only because I am deceived and think that it is actually supported by evidence. Then someone persuades me that I was wrong and that belief was not supported by evidence. Then I abandon the belief as false. In no sense in that situation was there loyalty or commitment to a belief. There was just believing that was, unbeknownst to me, unsupported by evidence. There was believing erroneously. But there was no principled, or otherwise volitional, faithfulness to the belief.

Yet, there are distinctly different circumstances in which people not only hold a belief unsupported by evidence but do so knowing that it is unsupported by evidence. These people believe out of commitment to the belief itself, independent of the degree of evidential support for the belief. They might believe it while thinking that there is no evidence for it. They may perceive themselves to believe it more strongly (and commit their lives to living by it more fervently) than the evidence for it alone would warrant. This distinct kind of believing deserves its own word to designate it. I use “faith” because it’s what people believing in this way themselves use. It is also this act of willful commitment in faith which I think makes it a matter of praiseworthy virtue to many believers. Much as they want to water down the concept of faith by making it equivalent to mundane instances of believing without certainty, in a religious frame of mind they want to praise the resolve that faith involves. That is what makes it so morally admirable. It is an act of strong commitment to the God or the belief which is faithfully believed in, hoped in, trusted in. Not only does it involve more belief than evidence warrants but it involves things like a maximal life commitment to some of the worst supported beliefs people have. This goes well beyond your garden variety mistaken or prejudicial belief. It also goes beyond cases of reasonably holding to a likely belief with tentativeness that it might be wrong.

Some do not realize they hold a belief as a matter of will at first. They think that, in part or in whole, their belief is based on evidential support.  Nonetheless, once the belief comes under attack and seems to have lost its evidential support, they prove they are now (and maybe all along were?) committed, whether consciously or unconsciously, to believe anyway. This is observable in the case of religious people who argue for the existence of God based on evidence but when presented with counter-arguments that show their reasons for believing are weak decide without hesitation to keep believing just as strongly as when they thought they were believing based on evidence. The word “faith” designates this kind of believing also. In fact, when pressed in these circumstances, one regularly finds believers invoking faith explicitly.

These types of believers who are recalcitrant in the face of evidence exist. When they believe more strongly than their own perception of evidential support warrants, or when they believe against what their perception of the evidence weighs in favor of, or when they implicitly or explicitly commit themselves to continue believing even should future evidence counter their belief—they are doing something distinct from other, unwitting, cases of believing out of proportion to evidence done by people who are willing and able to abandon their beliefs should their evidence be successfully assailed.

Those who are committed to believing, independently of evidence that points one way or another, do something that distinguishes them from people who are simply mistaken but willing to change their minds. I say we should designate this distinct choice to believe, trust, hope, and be loyal irrespective of evidence as “faith” and we should reserve the word “faith” for only such cases rather than muddle it up with the much intellectually and morally different practices of mundanely believing, hoping, trusting, and being loyal with uncertainty and yet nonetheless in ways that are calibrated to evidential warrant and responsive to changes in evidence.

Faith is the appropriate word for these distinct acts of believing. It is the word that mixes loyalty and hope in with belief and trust. It is the word believers reach for themselves when they are out of arguments and yet insist on believing anyway or when they try to justify why they believe things that they themselves do not perceive adequate evidence for. I have regularly encountered believers who challenge me to debates about beliefs and then outright tell me that they will not change their minds no matter what evidence or arguments I bring forth. They are committed in principle to believing their religious beliefs no matter what I say. And yet they would like to “reason” with me and insist I have to have an open mind and heart to accept their god.

We need a word that distinguishes this choice to believe irrespective of reasons to believe from other forms of merely believing uncertain propositions, merely unwittingly believing too strongly given the actual evidence, and merely being wrong. This choice, whether consciously admitted or revealed by recalcitrant behavior in the face of overwhelming counter-evidence, is a distinct phenomenon. It needs a name. It has a name. Its name is faith.

Now this does not mean that every religious believer perceives herself to believe irrespective of evidence. Some don’t seem to. Some very well do abandon their beliefs when they perceive them to be deeply incongruent with evidence and logic. (I for one did and you can too!) These religious believers may be enculturated to say they have faith, but they really do not. They just have beliefs they think are true and that they are willing to abandon if they come to think they are not supported by evidence adequately.

Some such believers may believe some wholly unrealistic and bizarre things. But if to them those beliefs seem to make perfect sense of experience and have more evidential weight than disbelief in those things would, then these people just believe strange things. But they are not committed to believing what they themselves find strange out of loyalty, hope, or principle, so there is nothing about will or loyalty or commitment there. So it’s not faith.

Now, if such a believer does come to see strong counter-evidence and lose confidence that their beliefs really are so rational and yet insist willfully on believing anyway, then it’s revealed that implicitly they had a faith commitment after all. Or, maybe in that moment the faith commitment is created, coming to be for the first time as they suddenly decide to start hanging on to their beliefs despite evidence after all. In either case, as soon as someone starts confessing that they are knowingly and unrepentantly not proportioning their beliefs and their actions and their trusts and their hopes to what the evidence for them warrants, they are engaged in an irrational form of believing, one worthy of denunciation and deserving of its own dishonorable (or, as many religious people would insist, honorable) name. Faith. If you want insist on another name, fine, but then at least admit that whatever that is is a prevalent thing among religious people.

Why do I think faith, as I have defined it, is dishonorable? While we all have to believe, hope, trust, and be loyal to others to one extent or another with uncertainty, it is immoral to not be as scrupulous as we can when doing so. We must be especially critical and rationally careful, for the sake of our own well being and flourishing and others’, to believe, hope, trust, and be loyal in the ways most likely to lead to good and not evil outcomes. Indulging our brains’ tendencies for confirmation bias or their desires to hold onto our ingrained identities or habits of seeing the world at all cost is to be ethically negligent rather than virtuous. This is why faith is, as far as I am concerned, usually morally bad and only more and more culpable the more that it is deliberately and defiantly chosen in flagrant, conscious contradiction of the authority of reason.

Is that stacking the deck against believers? What about those who say their faith is proportional to evidence? What I want to say to them is that their beliefs are not like others of their brethren who willfully disregard evidence, either implicitly or even explicitly. If a religious believer really is eager show himself responsive to the canons of reason in all matters, then that’s great. I’m not denying such believers exist. Let’s talk evidence. In that case, I am open minded enough to grant that this person is potentially as principally committed intellectually and morally to standards of philosophic, scientific, and social scientific reason and evidence as I am. Perhaps they can show me all the ways they interpret their beliefs as being the most supported by evidence, the most internally coherent, the most logically consistent, the most conceptually clear, the most semantically plausible, the most comprehensively explanatory, the most compatible with scientific knowledge and the historical record, and as capable of making the most sense of ordinary experience and leading to the best possible human lives.

In that case I am happy to say they are a committedly rational religious person, even if I disagree with many of their arguments and conclusions, and even if I think they are reasoning badly much of the time. Nonetheless, if they show how all their beliefs are rooted in reasoning processes according to the standard canons of rational thought, I can grant they are at least trying as I am to be rationally careful. Maybe even a rationalist like me. Perhaps their only “faith” in God is in their willingness to trust God to carry them through tough times when they feel scared or something. But even then they think that’s ultimately a rationally justified belief. Okay. I’m not saying there can’t be rationalist and evidentialist theists or other religious people who just have a different perception of what reason indicates. But they are not believing by faith specifically. They are just convinced of different things according to their reason than I am to respect and obey reason.

But here’s the rub. If you claim you’re principally and scrupulously going to be rational and evidential about your beliefs, when in the midst of debate you’re forced into conceding a logical contradiction or an incoherent concept or a disconnect between science and your religious beliefs, etc., you cannot start appealing to a supposed right to believe what is not most rationally compelling (even to you) but which “goes beyond reason” or start making any other audacious leaps away from reason and into the arms of irrationalism and arbitrary posits. Start doing that and you’re going to reveal yourself as a “faith” believer in the irrationalist sense after all. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt though for as long as you’re willing not to do that. But even your unusually rationalistic method of believing does not change the fact that for most believers, their “faith” is their committed willingness, rooted deeply in their identity, to believe in advance of evidence and in the teeth of evidence whatever they perceive their religion to require of them.

In reply to complaints from theists about this post such that I was mischaracterizing faith by defining it as belief/loyalty/trust/hope that is not proportioned in strength or degree to the strength and degree of rational warrant, I have written a follow up post, No Christians, You Don’t Rationally Proportion Your Beliefs to Evidence.

For numerous more analyses of these and many other aspects of faith and dissections a large range of other proposed definitions for faith, read any of the below posts in my “Disambiguating Fiath” series:

Your Thoughts?

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.

  • mikespeir

    Yes. Very good.

  • Obliged_Cornball

    EDIT: Fixed

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      thanks, I fixed it.

  • randomfactor

    “Fiath” in your last line.

  • watcher_b

    Just thinking outloud:
    Are there people who not only have faith in God, but also faith in their idea of God? For example, you have a Progressive Christian who has a strong faith in God but is open to different interpretations about it. As opposed to a Fundamentalist Evangelical who holds quite a bit of faith in not only God but in their doctrine about God.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Josh-Foreman/651503495 Josh Foreman

    Great work here. Thinking through much of the same terrain, I was forced to drop the word faith from my religion. I was a hardcore evangelical apologist for years, so it’s really interesting to me how the conflation of faith with so many other concepts that you have elucidated is very common among the apologist literature and circles. Indeed, I used this conflation (unintentionally) as a key argument many times. (Similes about driving over bridges and such to establish than everyone uses faith.)

    It’s been a very interesting process transplanting all of my conceptions about God, all my values, et. all from the catch-all bucket of ‘faith’ to my more specifically designated bucket of ‘hope’. Many organs of my previous religion did not survive the transplantation. The biggest being doctrine and revelation.

    One point you touched on, but I think ought to be expanded upon (maybe you already have on other posts) is that very, very few religious people will ever admit to the kind of faith that you are critiquing. I’ve never come across one. The standard technique is to inflate the evidence they perceive to be enough to warrant justified belief. Despite the fact that the majority of this evidence is highly subjective emotional states, the fact that they can label them as evidence is enough to carry the weight. Something like the Young Earth Creationist can point to the one or two PhDs who support their theory. The larger picture is ignored in favor of saying “This PhD thinks it, PhD means highly educated, therefore I can apply the credentials to my idea.” I suspect that when potential interlocutors tell you that nothing you say can change their minds they are not consciously claiming that no evidence can sway them. I think they are claiming that the evidence they have is so powerful to them, that it will outweigh any countervailing evidence.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Yes, very few admit to my definition at first. But after I drive home how immoral or nonsensical what they are saying is, their hostility to being held to rational standards becomes explicit and they start saying outright irrationalist things. That’s why at the end of the post I said, “Look, if you really want to say you’re a rationalist and you respect the authority of reason, etc., then great, let’s try that claim out. Can you withstand an ongoing dialogue with me in which you show responsiveness to evidence and changes of mind or do you just evade every devastating objection and even grab the “I can believe irrational things” faith card eventually. Because given that Christianity is built on a bunch of indefensibly irrational beliefs, this choice is inevitable.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Josh-Foreman/651503495 Josh Foreman

      I shared this blog with a group on facebook and someone said: ” f I am shown clear, convincing evidence against something, I will most likely stop believing it, though I may not be able to do so instantaneously.”

      I think they just hit on something very important to this conversation. VERY few people can turn on a dime when it comes to an entire worldview. The network of ramifications, dependencies, and interrelated ideas is vast and unwieldy, even when all the parts are stable. Challenge one or two foundational concepts and the dominoes may start toppling without any immediate indication. In fact, I’ll bet that when people fall back on the “it’s faith and I can never change my mind about it” that’s probably a defense mechanism that keeps the brain safe from having to constantly rework the framework with which it interprets reality. That’s a HUGE amount of energy required to do so. At some point, if the challenge to their foundational evidence is good enough, the cognitive dissonance will eventually erode the foundations to the point where the framework collapses and they are forced to reconcile the disparate evidence/conclusions. Essentially, the ‘faith’ card is a stop-gap measure that is unsustainable in the long run. Not that incredibly stubborn people can’t drag it out ad infinitum, but I think the vast majority of people simply need a lot of time to process valid challenges to the foundations of their worldview. And very few are content with, or praise the kind of faith that’s being critiqued here. It’s simply a useful short-term preserving tactic.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Yes, insofar as it’s only that, it’s perfectly understandable and not a problem in the long run. But I am afraid that when it comes to faith, it can be a more enduring refusal to face the cognitive dissonance.

    • http://www.facebook.com/john.moriarty.395 John Moriarty

      and its tightly bound up with fear

  • http://www.facebook.com/keith.phillips.794 Keith Phillips

    I try as best I can to proportion the strength of my explicit belief in a proposition to the strength of the supporting evidence. I lack any belief in gods and I have looked in some detail at the evidence and arguments for some truth claims involving gods. I have found them all unconvincing so far.

    Although I share your moral concern about the epistemic irresponsibility of willfully believing p, as a non cognitivist I do have serious reservations about your definition of faith and I don’t feel you have dealt with issues like the uniformity of nature satisfactorily.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=801935579 Andrew Tinker

    Hi Dan,

    This came up on my Facebook wall, and I thought it was a really interesting read.

    But… you don’t mention why you refer to faith as a commitment to a relationship in your definition. Do you mean, then, that you are defining “faith in God (or G-d or a god)” in this way, or any “faith” of any kind as necessarily coming from a relationship?

    You argue voraciously that holding onto a principle based on faith despite an absence of logical support, or in the face of contrary evidence, is immoral. This is, as I understand it, an epistemological point involving the methodologies we identify as trustworthy in understanding what we know to be true. So if we choose to ignore provable evidence, we commit an immoral act, as it shows we care more about shaping rational truth to our own self-centered narrative than shaping any narrative we might hold about the world to rational truth. In other words, the person who does not change their faith perspective in the face of contrary evidence doesn’t really care about living in truth. But I suppose my issue is that it’s not just a religious word (though it mostly commonly is). So perhaps you might consider narrowing what you
    mean, or just being more explicit about how you understand a “relationship” as a necessary component of faith.

    Also, you might need to clarify if you mean all faith, or if you are referring only
    to theist faith or religious faith. Like 9/11 conspiracy theorists, for example, immorally cling to a belief in the face of contradictory evidence, that is not necessarily theist, but leads to untruthful understandings of our government and of terrorism that would undoubtedly lead to immoral acts if these beliefs became part of domestic foreign policy. (Unless anti-gov’t sentiment is a God). This would be an example of “faith” being immoral without a presumed relationship to a divine being. Where would relationship fit into this definition? Or, less controversially (politically), if I have general “faith” that negative experiences will turn out for the best, does that refer to a relationship? Can a person be loyal to, or have faith in “optimism?”

    And if you are defining faith as immoral only when an assertion is
    counter-balanced with evidence disputing that claim (and erroneous otherwise), then it might be helpful to identify more specifically (you definitely start to
    do this describing erroneous faith, but there would need to be a whole
    other understanding, since “faith” is in that definition, which would confuse the concept). Maybe I’m wrong about that distinction but it seems like an important one to make, because you seem only to argue in terms of religion. Such issues of faith occur in non-theist contexts, do they not?

    Anyways, I hope this wasn’t a sophomoric response. I’m assuming that faith is even considered an appropriate epistemological category, which it is in theological circles. I’m not sure if you hold that it is an actual category of forming truthful knowledge at all and should even be considered as a category of knowledge.

    Cheers

    • Sillama

      Thank you, Andrew Tinker! You made the point upon which I was about to discourse, that of the believers in the 9/11 conspiracy.

  • Harold Gordon

    Dr. Fincke

    I am enjoying this post. However, I am wondering what you mean by evidence. Is personal experience or testimony considered evidence or is it only empirical, coming from scientific studies? Can something be considered evidence if one gets it second hand? What is the standard or criteria for evidence? For instance the standard of evidence in a criminal case is different then the standard of evidence in a scientific investigation. A physicist has a different set of standards for evidence then a sociologist, historian or literary critic. How does one determine if they have enough evidence or a proper understanding of the evidence? Do different beliefs have different standards? For example, are there different standards for moral beliefs? Lastly how does one avoid bias when examining evidence? I guess what I am saying is, it would be enlighten to see you give a discussion about evidence. I look forward to your reply.

    -Harold

  • http://www.facebook.com/robwbright Rob Bright

    Interesting that you referred to Paul, yet made up your own definition of faith – even though Paul specifically gives one in Hebrews 11:1.

    http://bible.cc/hebrews/11-1.htm

    It’s rather easy (and disingenuous) to make up your own definition of what you believe people are doing when they exercise “faith” and then “proving” it to be immoral and irrational.

  • http://www.yeshua21.com/ Wayne

    What if we trust in and rely on the “I Am” presence that we sense within ourselves–in the silence between each heart beat and in the stillness between each breath we breathe? Is that rational or irrational?

    http://jeshua21.wordpress.com/2012/08/16/faith-or-belief-%E2%89%88-trust-and-reliance/

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001620023965 Michael Krueger

    I have thought religious faith is immoral because it implies the person doesn’t care if what they believe is true, or if what they believe causes harm. They are adopting someone else’s morals that may in fact be immoral. That not caring is what makes it immoral for me. They really don’t care who they hurt or harm.

  • GeorgeLocke

    It seems to me that William Lane Craig has faith, but as you define it he does not. Craig will never admit that his belief in God is irrational no matter how long you badger him. He will produce arguments until the end of time to support his belief, but he is acting out of irrational bias, and his commitment to theism is irrational and immoral. He has failed to live up to his responsibility to avoid fooling himself, even though he thinks he is fulfilling it.

    Consciously playing the “faith card”, i.e. willful belief in the face of evidence, does not appear to be necessary to faith. If I am in denial about my irrational commitment, my commitment may still constitute faith (in the morally pertinent sense).

    This is why I find the quality of “willfulness” to be problematic. I think of it as a funny case of “intent is not magic”. Even though I imagine that my arguments are rational, they are not, and my commitment is immoral because of the degree of my stubbornness. You may present “devastating objections”, but I may simply fail to find them convincing. I may hear a logically closed argument that my beliefs are incoherent, but I may be so committed to my belief that I cannot acknowledge the logic (I may persist in futile challenges to the argument confident that it is invalid). This is faith, and it is only “willful” if my “will” can be out of my own awareness.

    I use Craig because he is a well known debater, but I think in general, few people are aware of their own “willful” commitment to their faith beliefs, and so your definition excludes most of the beliefs I think ought to be condemned for being “faith”. You talk as though you may persist in arguing with someone until they finally give up and say “I just believe”, whereas I imagine that most people will insist that the conversation just stop, not admitting to or even becoming aware of their irrational commitment.

    Consciously admitting to willful commitment may not be all that uncommon, and certainly it is immoral, but I think many/most people are not aware of their commitment, and their moral failure is failure to scrutinize their beliefs adequately. (The degree of moral failure is mitigated by context, so that if you have little exposure to skeptical thought your fault is much less. Your failure is only slightly mitigated if you understand the virtues of skepticism in general but fail to apply it to X because nobody around you does.)

    I think this characterization captures a much larger swath of faith beliefs, from anti-vaxxers to fascists, and does a better job of explaining the psychology of faith.

    • GeorgeLocke

      It may be objected that a larger proportion of believers have a consciously willful commitment than I have suggested, but I think it must be allowed that a significant fraction is unaware of their irrational commitment, and that irrational commitment of a sufficient degree is immoral in a manner comparable to conscious commitment.

      If you consider that “willfulness” can be unconscious, then my definition is much closer to Finke’s, but I dispute that “willfulness” is usually understood this way, as it seems to imply conscious choice.

      Also, it’s not necessarily easy to tell who is scrutinizing their beliefs “adequately”. Even so, we have an ethical responsibility to see the world as it is, which implies that we are responsible for vetting our beliefs. It seems straightforward to conclude that faith is what happens when you fail in this responsibility. Deciding what is failure and what isn’t may be tricky, but that’s not a problem with my position in principle.

      “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence,” says Hume, to which I add that foolishness has practical, i.e. ethical, consequences.

  • Jay

    One thing I;d like to point out right away is that Paul (I also read the surrounding text for a more holistic understanding to make sure you might be right), but it doesn’t seem that Paul makes hope, love, and faith out to be distinct virtues.

    Interesting read. Initially, as I read it, it seemed that your definition of faith was almost ambiguous in belief. That is, belief, something that could be quantified in some degree, is what you weighed your faith on. And whether or not that specific belief held, the faith remained that there was a specific reason that it perpetuated the outcome. In this idea of faith, it would see

    But, that seems redundant.

    However, there can be a disparity in where the belief fails and where the faith fails, and there is a sort of multifaceted avenue in which either one may fail. Certain beliefs may fail if becomes apparent that initial belief was wrong or incoherent with the faith. Or in other words, the faith could still be kept without that specific belief, and without compromising reason or a some contradictory fallacy coming into the mode of thinking. Where faith fails is much more difficult to understand. I may be nitpicking but allow me to select a word from your definition is the “untrustworthiness” and “predominance of counter evidence”.

    The unstrustworthiness would seem too subjective and fall short due to, perhaps, misconception of the beliefs. The other being that at what point in someone’s life walk in faith can it be held to become untrue relative to someone elses’. I had more to say, but I lost my train of thought, but it would seem that you have a slight bias that leans toward any politicized religious institution, which is fair enough. When I’m not too distracted, hopefully I can fully outline what I was trying to say in the most effecient way possible.

  • penn

    I read “not seen” in that verse as shorthand for “that cannot be physically observed.” so I think Dan’s assessment is reasonable, but I am curious about your thoughts on faith.

    Are you arguing that faith is just believing something based on evidence not available to our eyes? Or is there more to it?

    Would you say that you’re belief in God is then rational and evidence based? Would you change your mind about God if convincing counter-evidence was provided to you? What evidence would you find convincing?

    • Jay

      I’d imagine a lot of “intellectual” or “smart” believers would like some factual way for someone to disprove the historical validation of the Bible, that their personal experiences with God are delusional states, the origin of the universe, the explanation for the coincidental nature of miracles (or the miraculous nature of coincidences?).

      There are a number of things. Of course, as well, there is always the objectivity of life experiences that get in the way, as well as subjective interpretations (or in fact misconceptions) of themes, all the gray areas in between that man as yet to quantify in their search for absolute truth. I had a friend that put it as so. “In the end, Christian or not, we’ll find out. If I die, and it was all just an idea gone awry, well, I’ll be too dead to care. If I was right, well, right on, and I can only hope that the Next is better than I can begin to comprehend.”

      There were greater implications in what he meant by what he said, but those may be for a later topic.

  • penn

    I think you picked a poor example because the proposition that “London exists.” is not only knowable “through philosophy, or art, or some other abstract field” There is tons of scientific evidence for the existence of London (e.g., pictures, video, stories, wikipedia pages, google maps, travel websites, etc.). Someone claiming London exists can actually tell you exactly where it is and how to get there. It’s obvious that the proposition that “London is an elaborate fabrication.” is much less likely to be true.

    What is the evidence that you see for God that makes belief the obvious rational choice?

    • Erick

      penn, while scientific evidence for London exists, it is not scientific evidence I have done myself ( I have no personal observation of London). It’s all secondhand knowledge to me. What you have pointed out is that I am trusting the authorities (my teachers, my politicians, my friends, etc.) who have done the observations. Until I reach London myself, evidence for London exists on the same plane of evidentiary conviction that God exists on. It’s all truth based on personal eyewitness or abstract knowledge through art or literature or philosophy, etc.

    • penn

      So, are you defining faith as believing in something without direct visual evidence?

      If I’ve been to London, does it take faith to believe it’s still there? Does it take faith to believe that the whole world outside of my dining room, where I’m currently sitting, still exists?

      Clearly not, because there is no evidence for the opposite proposition (i.e., London no longer exists, or the world outside my dining room no longer exists). It doesn’t take faith to believe propositions where the only other alternative is to believe an absurdity.

      Why is visual evidence special? Our eyes deceive us all the time through optical illusions or hallucinations. Doesn’t it take faith to believe what I’m seeing is actually there? If I can’t believe the pictures and videos I’ve seen of London, why would I trust seeing it myself? For the proposition “London does not exist.” to be true, there must be a huge global conspiracy that would be more than capable of tricking me into thinking I was in London, when I wasn’t, so going to London wouldn’t change a thing.

      You’ve essentially just redefined faith to mean evidence, and if that’s all it is, why is it such a special gift? I think you’re just playing in the ambiguities of the definition of faith that Dan discussed in the first paragraph.

  • penn

    I really did not follow this example, and I don’t know where the trial process came from.

    But at this trial you could provide pictures and videos of London. You could pull up Google maps and show satellite and street view images. You could look up the London Olympics or the Blitz. You could buy a plane ticket to London. All of that would be much better scientific evidence than eye witness testimony. Eye witness testimony is among the least reliable forms evidence there is.

    Also when considering the truth value of any proposition we also need to consider the truth value of its negation as well as the fact that we should accept all propositions only provisionally and with varying degrees of certainty. We have a mountain of scientific evidence for the existence of London and zero evidence for the non-existence of London, so we provisionally accept the proposition that London exists with high certainty and act accordingly.

  • http://www.yeshua21.com/ Wayne

    [Would it be just as rational for Muslims or Hindus to trust the "I Am" presence within themselves that leads them to Allah or Brahman?]

    Yes…

    [Is the suicide bomber, full of faith in the justice of his actions, acting rationally or irrationally?]

    Generally speaking, such people appear to be “lost in thought” (not trusting in the “I Am” presence).

    http://jeshua21.wordpress.com/2012/07/20/foolishly-lost-in-thought/

    ["How can you tell without using reason or evidence?"]

    It’s not always easy to know. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna advises Arjuna as follows: “Plunge into the heat of battle and keep your heart at the lotus feet of the Lord.”

    But assuming that the “I Am” presence in which each of us “lives and moves and has our being” in is One — it would seem that is our essential point of contact with Reason — that which binds us all together — Spirit in the broadests sense of the Word.

    Those who recognise this, in themselves, and tend to live from that standpoint, will tend to respond more appropriately to circumstances than those who are lost in the labyrinth of the egoic mind (see link, above).

  • ShaunPhilly

    No. You use some form of empiricism to know this; you must. And empirical methodology is the foundation of science, and nothing can be known about the exterior world without this type of methodology. Art, philosophy, etc only know things through their utilization of some empirical/skeptical methodology, and never WITHOUT them. However you came to know that London exists, it was through empirical, skeptical, and thus essentially scientific means.

    • Erick

      Are you saying that the proposition “London exists” was not a true proposition for aborigine Asian tribesman in say the 14th century Philippines? This is obviously false.

    • ShaunPhilly

      What? No, the fact that it was true has no necessary bearing on the fact that for such a tribesman to KNOW London existed requires some empirical relationship between London and said tribesman. If some Londoner visits such a person, describes and gives evidence for the existence of London, the strength of this knowledge increases with the quality of evidence. But the mere fact of something being true (independent of someone knowing it) does not necessarily effect one’s knowledge.

      So, you can claim that the fact that London exists is separate from your empirical evidence of it, but what we were talking about here is that to have reason to believe something, and to have reason to accept something as true, requires some empirical evidence. Otherwise it’s an irrational belief.

      There may be a planet out there with Wookies on it. If there is, that fact is true. But I don’t have reason to believe it, because I have no evidence of it. Thus, for now I don’t believe it, even if it might be true. The same is true for said tribesman (assuming they don’t actually have any evidence of London, of course).

  • Liralen

    Redefining terms to make a point by definition seems circular at best, but assuming for the sake of argument that it’s rational, your re-definition is itself confusing, particularly the “and/or”.

    If I assume you mean “or”, i.e., a person who has faith need meet only one of the criteria, then the conclusion you reach by your title “Why I define faith as inherently irrational and immoral” is not consistent with your points regarding “In that case I am happy to say they are a committedly rational religious person.”

    If you mean “and”, that would imply such a person has no faith, yet you use the term “faith” to describe such a person in the preceding paragraph.

    By the way, did you intend to close comments on the article about feminism and religion? My android phone sees “Comments are closed”, while my PC doesn’t, but the comment box does not appear.


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