Faith in faith

Normally, I don’t take faith—of the blind faith, leap in the dark, I have a feeling down deep it’s true varieties—too seriously. It’s intellectually worthless, and too transparently an attempt to protect some claims from criticism.

That doesn’t, however, mean that the faith-attitude isn’t widespread and effective. This past week I encountered a lot of it in the classroom, as I let my students’ discussions wander without steering them too heavy-handedly. I teach a course I call Weird Science, devoted to arguing about paranormal and fringe-science claims. This year I’m starting them off by having them discuss the nature of science, and the question of “well, homeopathy/astrology/creationism/whatever might not be scientific but it might be true nonetheless” came up. I naturally have an overwhelmingly Christian-majority class, and soon many started bringing up the notion of faith, and religion as something that was out of bounds to science but nevertheless true.

Now, most of my students didn’t seem to have an overly coherent view of faith—they could say that faith was something without evidence, by definition, but on further questioning some thought that faith was mainly trust in a community or institution, which need not have connotations of a complete leap in the dark. To futher confuse matters, it turned out that a good number thought of “truth” as being personal, as opposed to “fact.” Anything a person believed in was “true for them,” but a fact was more public and objective, something “proven.”

To try and get a better feel for how my students thought (by now it was getting obvious that the way I’ve been brainwashed and the way they’ve been brought up are very different), I asked what I hoped was a more concrete question. I invited them to imagine themselves to be in a situation where they need to figure out whether astrology was factually correct. Maybe a roommate swears that astrology works wonders and is trying to convince them to follow astrological advice, or maybe they’re simply paid to take on a research project where they have to figure out if astrology works as claimed. Then, I had them think of two alternative scenarios. One is where the first information they encounter about astrology is that the astrology proponent (their roommate or the author of a pro-astrology book) claims that astrology is scientific, that it is a very ancient and well-proven science, and that lots of evidence supports astrological claims and predictions. The other scenario is where the astrology proponent immediately states that astrology is not scientific, but insists it is correct nonetheless, and that they know this because it is a spiritual kind of thing, and that they have this deep conviction in their heart that astrology works. I now asked them in which of the two scenarios would they be initially inclined to think that astrology might be correct. They’d have opportunity for further research and experience later, but what would their gut feeelings be?

It turned out that except for a few students who stated they were more skeptical by temperament, many in the class said that the feeling-in-heart scenario would inspire more trust in astrology. Some went all the way with that, and others said a mixture of the two scenarios would work best for them, but by and large, the whole feel-down-deep aspect of the pro-astrology position impressed them.

Very interesting. I’m not sure what to make of all this; I’m not even certain I’m understanding my students correctly at this point. But I’m tempted to speculate that this is an instance of the faith-attitude being more generalizable than I expected. The classic skeptical approach to a claim like faith in the Bible is to point out that there are other people who take rival truth-claims on faith, such as Muslims believing without question in the Quran. So how do you sort out who, if anyone, is right? A common believers’ response seems to be to acknowledge the intellectual difficulty posed by this symmetry, and either adopt a confused relativism or simply end up reasserting their own faith. After all, the job of faith is to insulate a belief from criticism, and that attitude tends to be learnt pretty well. But when a faith-claim does not immediately seem to be a rival, as in the case of astrology (since they don’t know too much about it), it might seem that they can have both faiths, and the warm associations of the faith-attitude more readily generalizes.

OK, sheer speculation. But if I ever want to devise a paranormal belief (a lot more money in that than physics, certainly), I probably should include a lot of faith-linked warm-and-fuzzies. It seems to be a good way to get people to lower their guard—but only if it doesn’t obviously go against their already established faiths.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12530697116703137619 bookjunky

    That just makes me want to weep for the future of our country. I am thankful that these kids at least may have their eyes opened to a more rational approach.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02534213457235996564 Jeremy

    I don’t really know if this would be something to interject in a science class room, but the next logic step would be to discuss the nature and mechanics of faith. It’s a bit more psycological though.

    Perhaps starting with the fact that we are all separate conciousnesses and we continuously try to find ways to connect with each other. Hence we get things like love and faith, showing how the affect our judgement.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00493983037832805656 Bagwell

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00493983037832805656 Bagwell

    Jeremy wrote, “Perhaps starting with the fact that we are all separate conciousnesses and we continuously try to find ways to connect with each other.”

    I need help understanding that statement. Is that a fact in the strict sense of the word? Seriously. Is it proven and irrefutable? Or am I mistaken in what I believe to be the meaning of the word “fact?”

    This is the problem with the quest for “truth” when that term requires “proof.” Precious little, if anything, can be “proven.” Many things can have mountains of evidence compiled to suggest it is so, but there remains, I believe, at least a trace of faith that some refuting evidence isn’t out there somewhere.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11108933553772863699 Jeff Chamberlain

    I’m surprised that you’re surprised that the “faith-attitude” is so generalizable.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17778790259428232332 rostradamus

    Perhaps a discussion of adbuction as a form of epistemology may help. Critical thinking should be shown to be the best possible way to consider truth in the world.

    You could possibly show the ramifications of abandoning rational thought for a single idea as to how it applies to sillier concepts.

    Aggressive Memetics since 2006

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08669750912981252898 ChurchandState

    A worldview that rejects objectivity and absolutes restricts faith to something blind and irrational. Biblical Christianity, however, is a reasonable faith – the most reasonable faith, making most reasonable sense of the reality before us.

    The degree of “faith” prevalent in the classroom is indicative of the nature of man as created by God and as desperately and vigorously suppressed by secularists. It is also the natural default for those who reject or don’t consider the reasonable faith of Christianity. Only the smallest minority of non-Christians become serious, hard-core believers in the blind faith of supposedly no-faith and “pure reason”. That’s why the communists have always set up murderous, tyrannical regimes – people wouldn’t abandon faith in God or other forms of faith on their own, simply by way of education. That’s also why the goonsquad fascists of “Political Correctness” are the most hardcore censorship fanatics in the West today, wanting to ban (keep banned) non-leftist alternatives to evolution, feminism and (reverse) racism as well as criticism of homosexuality and alternatives to abortion. In places like Canada, where liberalism has moved much farther than in the U.S., barely any oxygen gets through the suffocating blanket covering the gulag established by the dissent-hating liberals here.

    Genuine liberty (not absolute liberty) comes by way of robust Christianity – especially the right to dissent and academic liberty. Anybody who understands history knows that Protestant Christianity introduced these dynamics to civilisation. And as secularists increasingly take over, we are rapidly losing these liberties, all in trade-off for the only “liberty” secularists are truly concerned about and that is sexual “liberty”.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08666452648992220786 Ron Gray

    There are a few significant lacunae in your approach to discussing ‘faith’ with your students… and a few very significant errors in the responses from your students to claim to ‘have faith’.

    Perhaps the first and most important error was your definition of faith as “blind faith, leap-in-the-dark, I-have-a-feeling-down-deep-it’s-true”.

    Your students, by accepting that kind of intuitive “feeling” as a basis for faith, merely demonstrate that they do not have a clear understanding of faith. Faith without a foundation is not faith; it’s more like the small boy’s definition of faith: “Believing something you know isn’t true.” But that’s not faith; it’s superstition.

    I realize that most militant Secularists believe—by faith, ironically—that “faith” and “superstition” are synonymous; but they’re not. Secularism, by the way, is also a faith—one of the most bigoted in the world, as its primary goal is to eradicate all other faiths—but it is one in which even its adherents are not able to act with total confidence. The militant Secularist may declare that his creed is to “question everything”, but he doesn’t live that way. He gets up in the morning and begins right away behaving as though he believes gravity is still operable, and he maneuvers through traffic as though it is unwise to get in the path of a speeding truck, and so forth—all on faith that the “laws” of physics are still working.

    The correct place to begin an examination of faith is with the twin questions of authority and historicity.

    You have to begin by recognizing that authority can always be questioned, but that not all challenges to authority are rational. The best example is the three-year-old who discovers the joy of persistently asking, “Why?” Eventually, the frustrated parent explodes, “Because I said so, that’s why!” But that is not really an answer. That’s where historicity comes in: one must be willing (as the three-year-old is not) to look at the origins and the track record of any particular article of faith.

    So if we are going to consider origins, the most important question one can ask is, “Why is there something instead of nothing?”

    To the best of my understanding, there are only three possible answers:
    1 – The universe created itself
    2 – The universe always was
    3 – The universe was brought into being by something greater than itself.

    So, let’s evaluate those three.

    Answer Number One is kinda like the old hillbilly song, I’m My Own Grandpa. It’s an impossibility. The universe could not have created itself, because to do so it would have had to exist before it brought itself into being.

    Answer Number Two would repudiate all the evidence of age that science has found; if it always way, there would be no beginning, like the Big Bang, and there could be no evidences of age.

    That leaves Answer Number Three: the universe was brought into being by some pre-existing eternal entity that is greater than the universe.

    That doesn’t establish Biblical faith, but it does establish something beyond the natural: something supernatural. But, as you have pointed out, there are many competing supernatural faiths. We still have to evaluate and compare the competing faiths on the basis of historicity and track record.

    Let’s start, for example, with Hinduism. One of the Vedas, and perhaps the most significant of them, is the Bhagavad-Gita. This interesting book was written about a millennium after the Bible. It tells the story of a prince, Arjuna, who must go to war against an army that includes some friends and even relatives. He is distressed by this duty. Krishna (one of the ten avatars of Vishnu) comes to him and says, in effect, “Your duty is the action, not the result. It doesn’t matter if they die, because they’ll be re-incarnated anyway. Just do what you gotta do.”

    However, although the Bhagavad-Gita tells us Arjuna’s name, his father’s name and his tribe, it doesn’t give anything like a verifiable genealogy, and it doesn’t tell us when and where all this took place. Its theology and ethics are just “out there” floating in space.

    It has no historicity.

    The Quran, similarly, is a pretty disjointed series of recitations—organized not chronologically or thematically, but according to length, after Muhammad’s death. Quranic scholars have arranged them in chronological order, which shows a changing theology: in the early days, when he still hoped to convert Christians and Jews, Muhammad dictated irenic treatises such as “The is no compulsion in religion”; but when these other “people pf the book” failed to adopt his alleged revelation, his theme changed to “smite them wherever you find them; strike at their necks, cut off their finger-tips…”

    In addition, Muhammad’s theology is remarkably inconsistent: the Quran says a man may have four wives (although it allows for the rental of any number of “temporary wives”), but Muhammad had eleven. The youngest he married when she was six (but he didn’t consummate the marriage until she was nine). And his “doctrines” include al-Taqqiya, which says it’s OK to lie to a kaffir (unbeliever in Islam): how do you hold a conversation with someone who believes that?!?

    And he said that Adam and Eve were created, not from dust of the earth, but from clots of human blood. Question: where did human blood comes from if Adam and Eve were the first humans?

    Well, then, what about Biblical faith?

    Now, we have to admit at the outset that the record of Judaism and Christianity have been pretty spotty; but the bad parts of their history have been precisely the times when the adherents of those two faiths (or that single faith in two expressions) were not following their doctrines. The excesses of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Shintoism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and other faiths occurred when they were following their doctrines.

    For example: the Crusades were originally begun as a defensive measure against the Islamic doctrine that gave Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land three options: convert, become dhimmi (inferiors who must pay the jizhri tax) or die. Now, the Crusaders went far beyond defensive measures, and certainly did not obey the Christian commandment to “love your enemies.” Not to mention their pogroms against the Jews, in spite of the Scriptures that told them they were “grafted into” the Commonwealth of Israel, and commanded them “do not exalt yourself against your roots.”

    But that’s exactly my point: their excesses were in disobedience to their own Scriptures.

    However, when Jews and Christians were consistent with their Scriptures, they both benefited the world greatly.

    It’s interesting to note that the Muslims, who comprise 20% of the world’s population, have won a grand total of six Nobel Prizes; the Jews, with only 0.2% of the world’s population, have earned 165; 1/100th of then population has earned almost 30 times as many intellectual and humanitarian awards! That’s 3,000 times greater contribution. Not bad.

    And Christianity gave the world hospitals, universities, democracy as we know it, the abolition of slavery (still practiced in parts of Islam) and the principle that all men and women stand equal before the law. Most of the founders of modern science—Blaise Pascal, Isaac Newton, Faraday and many others—were devout Christians. Not bad. And they were not “illogical” people who believed by “blind faith”.

    As Richard John Neuhaus wrote in The Naked Public Square, on balance, the Judeo-Christian faith has been the best thing that happened to this planet.

    The statement that various ideas “may not be scientific, but might be true none-the-less” rests heavily on the word “might”; it is simply the assertion that what we call scientific truth may not necessarily be the only truth there is. But the key to understanding that statement is realizing that what we call “science” has been arbitrarily restricted to materialistic naturalism.

    Consider, for example, the words of Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin. In his book, Billions & Billions of Demons, he wrote:
    “Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.
    “It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept the material explanation of the phenomenal world; but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated.
    “Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”
    —From the New York Review of Books, Jan. 9, 1997, P. 31

    And if the universe came into being by the actions of a supernatural entity (as we have seen), there must be truths beyond such arbitrary limitations.

    Nevertheless, if “scientism”—the religion of science—cannot provide the ultimate proof, logic can. For reason, like revelation, is a gift from our Creator. (Through the prophet Isaiah He invites us: “Come, let us reason together.”) However, when we use reason, we must take the fruit of our reasoning to the revelation to verify it, and never the other way around. Why? Because the revelation comes from the superior intellect.

    A faith based on that kind of reasoning is not arbitrary; it is reasonable. It is not “blind” faith; it is rational. It does not depend on “leap-in-the-dark, I-have-a-feeling-down-deep-it’s-true” emotions; it is logical.

    Once we accept that a supernatural entity cause the whole universe—and us—to come into existence, it is not unreasonable to accept that such a sentient, communicative being would undertake to communicate truth to us. That is the rationale behind evaluating the various revelations offered by various scriptures. The test of which one is likely to be real is simple: which one most nearly matches the observable reality we see around us and within us? As C.S. Lewis (among the greatest scholars of the 20th century) brilliantly demonstrated in his 1940 BBC lecture series, now available in book form under the title Mere Christianity, the biblical Judeo-Christian worldview provides the most accurate match with observable reality. I urge you to read Lewis’ book. It’s excellent! In fact, why not spend a few hours studying it with your students?

    Here’s the kicker: if this world-view is true, we have everything to gain and nothing to lose by living our lives according to its precepts. Lewis himself made the observation that, if true, the biblical worldview is the most important thing in the world; if false, it deserves to be debunked.

    But to date, no one has been able to disprove it; and hundreds of millions of people can testify that their lives have been immeasurably enriched by it. And hundreds of thousands have been willing to suffer martyrdom and even die, rather than forsake it. Unlike some other self-styled “martyrs” who kill for their ideology, Christians and Jews suffer for theirs. Allah tells radical jihadis to send their sons to die killing and maiming others; the God of the Bible sent His Son to die so that we might live. What a difference!

    —Ron Gray
    Langley, BC, Canada
    leader@chp.ca

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09129782654156444116 Freudian Slip

    We need to continue to fight for people’s minds and eyes to be open. I can’t stand closemindedness! Thank you for your thought provoking thoughts :)
    Matt

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16267488542836505561 Deacon Barry

    Ron, you missed out option 4: The universe is one part of a larger multiverse. The conditions for spontaneous universe generation are present. This makes option 1 true for our universe, and option 2 possible for the multiverse. Option 3 is now redundant as an explanation.


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