Why false equivalence arguments mean religion sucks even more

Lately, probably due to science coming across new information about the operation of the universe that (surprise!) has nothing to do with god (like every other scientific discovery), the Christian commenters on this site have taken very strongly to false equivalence arguments.  They usually look something like this…

Whether you’re trusting the bible or the opinions of scientists, you’re basing your beliefs on faith in something.

Like the “atheism is also a religion” tack, it’s a means of trying to pull the atheist down to the theist’s level.  What the theists don’t realize is that even if I grant their premise, the false equivalence argument only shows that religion really sucks.

So, for the sake of argument, let’s say I grant the premise that all beliefs require faith of some kind.  For instance, the claim that I own a car is a pretty rock-solid claim.  I can take pictures of myself with the car.  I can show it to other people who will then agree on all the cars qualities, confirming that we all experienced something consistent with the car.  There are oodles of ways I could confirm my car’s existence such that only an abject idiot would reject the claim that I own a car.

But still, I’m placing “faith” in the reliability of my senses as well as the senses of others.  If I’m granting the really stupid premise of the “every belief requires faith” argument, I have “faith” that I’m not a head in a jar in some laboratory being fed the experience of owning a car and that all the other people aren’t just figments of my imagination.  In the scenario painted by the theist, faith is where uncertainty lies.  You follow the evidence as far as you can, and then use faith for what’s left.

But we would be more sure if we could, which means for our beliefs to be more reliable we would want to use less faith.  If we could know for sure that our experiences were 100% legitimate, we totally would.  This should tell you that we’re doing our best to purge our reliance on faith every single day, and that we use it only where we don’t have good evidence.  A world of greater knowledge is a world where we have less need for faith.  And, if we ever got to a point where we knew everything, it could only be because we had zero reliance on faith.

That’s why we build a huge particle collider to search for theoretical particles – when we can, we want to use evidence instead of faith.  In 1900, belief in the Higgs would have required oceans of faith.  In 1970 it would have require less faith, thanks to theoretical models compliant with known physics.  In 1990 it would have required still less, since those models had improved.  Now, belief in the Higgs requires only a droplet of faith – the kind you need in order to believe I own a car, because we’ve spent the last century adding more and more evidence.  In the “every belief requires faith” scenario, faith is merely a placeholder until we can know with greater certainty, and evidence always takes infinitely greater precedence over faith when it is available.

And, when evidence is unavailable, we realize it is better to withhold judgment until it is, rather than relying on unchecked faith.  Think of all the particles you could believe in with no evidence.  How about one that turns things into chocolate?  Were evidence to arise for such a particle, it would then be wise to give its existence increasing amounts of belief.  But believing purely on faith makes you a damn fool.

But religion is funny.  In terms of faith, it runs in the opposite direction of knowledge.  While the greatest human minds are continually shedding off layers of faith in exchange for evidence on matters like the nature of the planets/stars, medicine, production of plentiful food, etc., religions like Christianity are extolling the virtue of faith – but not the kind of faith used by everybody else (the placeholder for when evidence is unavailable). To the religious, faith is given greater reliability than the evidence (otherwise believers would immediately cite their evidence in arguments, never faith).

While it takes a drop of faith (the kind used in confirming the the existence of my car) to conclude that people don’t rise from the dead, it conversely takes oceans of faith, as well as a willingness to value faith over the evidence, to believe people have risen from the dead.  Ditto for the claim that someone walked on water.  Not only does it take immense amounts of a quality that any smart person is trying to use less of to believe such a thing is possible, it takes someone eager to collect and hoard humanity’s intellectual refuse as a prize when all the evidence points to the contrary.  This foolish, anti-intellectual behavior is the very behavior encouraged by religion.

Even in false equivalence arguments, faith is necessarily a matter of intellectual weakness used only when we have no other option (and only then if evidence exists to temper it).  False equivalence arguments are used to try and put all beliefs on an even playing field by insisting they all require faith, as if they all require the same amount of faith and as if that makes it ok to value faith over evidence.  It doesn’t.  In fact, the very notion paints faith-based religions as the havens of eager lunacy that they are.

Even in this false equivalence scenario, beliefs that rely less on faith are more reliable.  This should tell you all you need to know about beliefs that must elevate faith as a virtue in order to be believed.

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.