The Use and Abuse of ‘Faith’

The word “faith” is one of those magical words that can mean everything or nothing simultaneously. It’s used by those who accept its validity to mean a number of things that are entirely different, amounting to little more than a rhetorical trick used to shield their beliefs from scrutiny. Jerry Coyne agrees:

The conflation of faith as “unevidenced belief” with faith as “justified confidence” is simply a word trick used to buttress religion. In fact, you’ll never hear a scientist saying, “I have faith in evolution” or “I have faith in electrons.” Not only is such language alien to us, but we know full well how those words can be misused in the name of religion.

What about the public and other scientists’ respect for authority? Isn’t that a kind of faith? Not really. When Richard Dawkins talks or writes about evolution, or Lisa Randall about physics, scientists in other fields—and the public—have confidence that they’re right. But that, too, is based on the doubt and criticism inherent in science (but not religion): the understanding that their expertise has been continuously vetted by other biologists or physicists. In contrast, a priest’s claims about God are no more demonstrable than anyone else’s. We know no more now about the divine than we did 1,000 years ago…

Scientists give no special credence or authority to books, either, except insofar as they present comprehensive theories, novel analysis, or verified truths. When I became an evolutionary biologist, I was not required to swear to the truth of Darwin with my hand on The Origin of Species. Indeed, that book was wrong on many counts, including its fallacious theory of genetics. In contrast, many believers must regularly swear adherence to unchanging and dubious religious claims (think Nicene and Athanasian Creeds), and many ministers swear to uphold church doctrine.

So scientists don’t have a quasi-religious faith in authorities, books, or propositions without empirical support. Do we have faith in anything? Two objects of scientific faith are said to be physical laws and reason. Doing science, it is said, requires unevidenced faith in the “orderliness of nature” and an “unexplained set of physical laws,” as well as in the value of reason in determining truth.

Both claims are wrong.

The orderliness of nature—the set of so-called natural laws—is not an assumption but an observation. It is logically possible that the speed of light could vary from place to place, and while we’d have to adjust our theories to account for that, or dispense with certain theories altogether, it wouldn’t be a disaster. Other natural laws, such as the relative masses of neutrons and protons, probably can’t be violated in our universe. We wouldn’t be here to observe them if they were—our bodies depend on regularities of chemistry and physics. We take nature as we find it, and sometimes it behaves predictably.

What about faith in reason? Wrong again. Reason—the habit of being critical, logical, and of learning from experience—is not an a priori assumption but a tool that’s been shown to work. It’s what produced antibiotics, computers, and our ability to sequence DNA. We don’t have faith in reason; we use reason because, unlike revelation, it produces results and understanding. Even discussing why we should use reason employs reason!


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  • Michael Heath

    It’s disheartening that I had to learn to abandon faith on my own when I slowly came to realize it is a defective and juvenile attribute. In spite of leaving the fundie community decades prior at 18 and reading a lot of non-fiction articles about history, current events, and science since leaving (1978). Those venues should have been bombarding us with evidence and the criticism of experts regarding how juvenile and dangerous it is to practice and celebrate faith. (I was a freethinker as a teen-ager, so I didn’t have any religious beliefs by the time I reached adult-hood, but I still practiced faith in other areas of my life until the early- to mid-2000s.)

    My college years at Michigan State University were no different. Experts in science, social science, and history who brought up the topic enabled and sometimes even promoted the practice and celebration of faith. They should have been sticking the knife into faith.

  • Modusoperandi

    We know no more now about the divine than we did 1,000 years ago…

    What? Great strides have been made in sussing out the Divine. For instance, we know now that God believes what we believe now. How our ancestors got the will of our unchanging Lord so poorly, I’ll never understand. They actually thought that He believed what they believed, if you can believe that!

  • suttkus

    Not for the first time, I’m snagging a Modusoperandi post for my quote file.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    It is logically possible that the speed of light could vary from place to place, and while we’d have to adjust our theories to account for that, or dispense with certain theories altogether, it wouldn’t be a disaster.

    Says the biologist. IANAPhysicist, but I suspect evidence supporting Coyne’s suggestion would lead to much tearing of hair, raised voices, and heavy ethanol consumption among the astronomy professoriat.

  • dugglebogey

    Faith is also a girls name, that ironically I am fond of.

  • raven

    Faith is not a virtue.

    Faith flies planes into skyscrapers and car bombs into crowds. It kills kids and adults with faith healing. It leads to wars over just which faith is the True Faith.

    Today the faithists are fighting all over the world. The Moslems send terrorists to the west while we send armies back, the Israelis and Moslems are locked in a never ending struggle, Sunnis and Shiites are fighting in Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan, Moslems and Buddhists in Burma and Thailand, Moslems and Hindus in India/Parkistan.

    Closer to home, the fundie death cultists openly hate the US and its government and will destroy it if they can. They hate scientists and science and attack them whenever or wherever they can.

  • Sastra

    Yes, “faith” is an example of one of Daniel Dennett’s “deepities” — a word, phrase, or statement with both a reasonable interpretation (‘true but trivial’) and an unreasonable interpretation (‘extraordinary but false.’) The superficial similarity is then traded upon so that the first one grants credibility to the second one.

    It’s a bait ‘n switch. Agree that pragmatic reliance is a kind of faith — or that values and virtues and hope/trust/and love involve faith — and suddenly we’re believing implausible things for dubious reasons and comparing this to sitting by the bedside of a sick child.

    It’s sneaky, dishonest — and I suspect it’s usually unintentional. Religious thought processes are SLOPPY. They trade on apathy, imprecision, and confusion — the opposite of the faith-killers ( curiosity, clarity, and consistency.) It’s all too easy to tell yourself a story and reframe those virtues as vices in the name of Humility.

    But when push comes to shove even the spiritually-addled usually recognize that the secular version of “faith” is not the same as what they’re peddling. Ah, so you have “faith” in your doctor, do you?

    Tell me: is it a religious faith? Do you hope and trust in your doctor’s competence the way you believe in God?

    Better not. If someone has a RELIGIOUS faith in their doctor’s abilities then that means that their doctor could prescribe poison, cut the wrong leg off in an operation, and even run through the children’s ward in a hospital with a machine gun, mowing down all who stand in their path … and you, the person of faith, would simply bow your head and still believe. Yes, this one is a “struggle.” It’s hard to still trust this physician. But you’re not arrogant enough to think you know everything and you just can’t give up on Hope.

    The deepity is a deep pile of (manure.) It stinks even to the faithful, if you can draw them close enough.

  • freehand

    Sastra, that is a beautiful rant. You could write almost the same one on “belief”.

    Yes, the Faithful lie to themselves first. They are so sloppy in their thinking that I think they think that linguistic precision is a rhetorical trick. one which they never get right but never quite accept that criticism, either.

    They flitter about in their conversations on these subjects, and never seem to remember the subject from one sentence to the next. It’s like chasing butterflies in the garden, and you’re not allowed to use a fly swatter.

  • iplon

    A wonderful piece.

    This nicely says most of the thoughts that float around my head any time I hear a presuppositionist start in a debate. “They start with a priori assumption X, so my a priori assumption Y is fine.”

    It wasn’t that one day somebody wrote down all the rules of logic and said, “These are the logical rules, and if you assume they work, they work.” No, you can perfectly demonstrate that they work on their own, that they work in all situations, and that those that don’t work can be thrown out, rather than just reiterated.

  • iknklast

    Is it an article of faith to be convinced that Flying Spaghetti Monster isn’t going to bring me my dinner, and if I want spaghetti, I need to get off my butt and fix it myself? None of the people positing reason as faith would see anything wrong with not expecting FSM to actually bring me spaghetti and meatballs; they don’t even expect Yahweh to bring spaghetti and meatballs (well, except Cindy Jacobs). So they essentially make the same natural world observations that we do; they just refuse to recognize that we’ve made those observations because we exclude unobserved deities (or at least their unobserved deity; they don’t mind if we exclude Zeus or Thor or Flying Spaghetti Monsters)

  • Michael Heath

    Sastra states, rhetorically:

    Ah, so you have “faith” in your doctor, do you?

    I never use the words believe or faith to describe myself, this is something I’ve stripped out only within in the past 10 years or so. I emphasize I have confidence in certain credible people/entities; confidence that’s held provisionally. I also like to use the word hope to describe something I want to happen in the future.

    Great post Sastra, as always.