The Brain on Faith: What We’re Up Against

The Brain on Faith: What We’re Up Against September 24, 2018

Editor’s Note: While many of the people reading here once had “brains on faith” – it’s possible that we don’t have a very good understanding of how it happened, or how it continues among many good, intelligent people.  Reading this will help.  /Linda LaScola, Editor.


By David Madison

Theology fails the honesty test

Those who are distraught because they’ve discovered that Christianity can’t possibly be true—and are going through stages of grief—commonly say,

“I lost my faith.”

Something once treasured is now missing from their lives; they face the so-called ‘god-shaped hole.’
Those who are not upset by the “loss” of faith—something once taken for granted or endured has been left behind—commonly say instead, “I didn’t lose my faith. I saw through it.” They don’t face a ‘god-shaped hole.’ They are closer to embracing the human experience honestly.

I was a latecomer at seeing through the Christian fog. I made it all the way to graduate work in seminary before I snapped out of it. A couple of offhand remarks by professors shocked me into awareness of major fallacies. I was lucky, but why hadn’t I wised up much earlier? For those who have been urged, from toddlerhood, to love and embrace faith, making the break usually never happens at all.

It turns out that faith plays deadly tricks on the human brain. Believers rave so much about faith, and there are eloquent texts touting its value. In Hebrews 11:1, for example, we read:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

This is the NRSV rendering, but translators like to be creative and pump up meanings. The so-called Passion Translation reads:

“Now faith brings our hopes into reality and becomes the foundation needed to acquire the things we long for. It is all the evidence required to prove what is still unseen.”

Wow, 15 words become 31, and that’s a pretty bold ending: “Faith is all the evidence required to prove…”

Surely that is misuse of the word evidence, i.e., something is true because faith says so. Who would take that seriously? Peter Boghossian sheds light on this phenomenon in an essay included in John W. Loftus’ 2014 anthology, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails.

The essay is titled, “Faith, Epistemology, and Answering Socrates’ Question.” It is an eloquent plea for honesty—and Boghossian reveals that he was shocked to find out that there really are fideists, those who argue that faith counts as evidence.

For some of us, doubt starts early, and Boghossian reports that he received a jolt in the sixth grade. A Jewish girl in his class whispered to him:

“My dad told me not to tell anyone there’s no Santa. He said Christian kids would get upset.”

Christians, it seems, are especially allergic to myth busters.

“I was stunned. A grand—perhaps the grand—conspiracy had just accidentally been revealed to me.” But he feigned worldly wisdom: “Of course I know that.” He was curious, however: “I needed to know if she knew of any lesser conspiracies.” So he tried a bluff: “I know a lot of other secrets, too. She quickly replied, ‘You mean that Jesus isn’t the Son of God?’ Shock. Dead silence. Despair.” (p. 75)

While Boghossian was not especially religious, he describes this as one of the “two moments in my life” that impacted his understanding of faith. His mother pointed out that different religions have different beliefs, but even in the sixth grade he saw the fallacy:

“Doesn’t it have to be the case that [Jesus] either was or wasn’t the Son of God? How could someone’s beliefs determine what is true?” (p. 76)

The other moment in his life came about twenty years later when he was teaching a college class. He ran into a real, live fideist. He had mastered the concept of fideism while doing his graduate work, but here was a young man who “told me matter-of-factly that it [the Bible trumps Darwinism] was his faith and thus did not require definitive evidential support or argument.”

“I brought the discussion back to epistemology (how we know what we know) and asked him—again—how he knew the claims of evolutionary biology were false and what passages in the Bible lend support to this claim. He replied, ‘I just told you, it’s my faith. I know it because of my faith. And you don’t seem to get that. It’s my faith.’” (p. 76)

And this is what we’re up against:

“…I realized the role that faith plays in religious beliefs. Faith is an epistemology—it’s a method of coming to knowledge (or of claiming it)—and conclusions that result from this epistemology are knowledge claims.” Hence, as we try to deal with religion, Boghossian says that there is “no way around” three facts: (1) “faith is an epistemology,” (2) “…In religious contexts, the term faith is used when one assigns a higher confidence value to a belief than is warranted by the evidence…” and (3) “…some people live their lives (make decisions, inform actions, etc.) based upon their faith-based beliefs.” (p. 77)

But as secular thinkers are more than willing to point out, professional theologians and apologists know that this approach puts them on thin ice:

“…unlike rank-and-file believers, [they] understand that conclusions resulting from faith-based epistemology are inherently suspect; intellectually they understand that faith is a process that produces arbitrary conclusions that cannot be considered knowledge.” (p. 78) (emphasis added)

One way around this is a form of special pleading (“But ah, things are different with religion”):

“Consequently, they obfuscate the fact that faith is an epistemology and instead claim that Christ, or ‘the witness of the Holy Spirit,’ is living within them; they claim to have faith that their feelings stand in lawful correspondence to external reality…”(p. 78)

But some of the most determined defenders of the faith know thin ice when they see it. Dismissing the need for evidence—faith alone will do—is not so smart. So they manufacture evidence, or exaggerate slender threads of what they say is evidence, e.g., Boghossian points out,

“…they will invoke a history of ‘scholarship’ surrounding Christ’s alleged empty tomb…” (p. 79)

I was gratified that he mentioned this particular weak link in the Christian chain. If only the apostle Paul had mentioned an empty tomb! His certainty about the resurrection came from his visions, so an empty tomb was irrelevant. The four gospels do not agree about what happened at the tomb on Easter morning. Nor is there an account of the resurrection itself.

We suspect that folklore grew with the telling, especially since Mark’s account—the first to be written—came some forty years after the “events” described. Yet conservative scholars have worked overtime to assure the faithful that the gospels provide evidence. Boghossian is quite right that such scholarship is

“…frankly, too tedious, too disingenuous, and too corrupted by confirmation bias to deserve serious intellectual consideration.” (p. 81).

One of the most brilliant slams in his essay comes when he dismisses the idea that we can’t understand what’s going on down the rabbit hole unless we’ve spent considerable time there ourselves; no, theology is not a profoundly deep topic that only a select few have mastered:

“Being told…that one is unqualified or unsuited to discuss an argument because one is unfamiliar with the history of Christian scholarship is akin to one being told, ‘That’s not how Spock used that word in Star Trek episode #10, ‘The Corbomite Maneuver,’ and episode #52, ‘The Omega Glory’. Clearly, you’ve not read the surrounding literature in Whitman Books, Wanderer Books, Archway Paperback, etc. And if you had read Shatner’s Dark Victory then you’d never have that interpretation. You need to deepen your understanding before you can speak meaningfully about such issues.

“The problem with these statements is that they assume further study is needed before one can come to the conclusion that people don’t fly around in warp-capable starships or beam across large distances. These are also an attempt to evade substantive criticism of an argument by making one’s interlocutor appear ignorant of exogenous minutiae that have no bearing on the fundamental arguments.” (pp. 81-82)

The apostle Paul was high on woo, and spoke from the authority of his visions; modern theologians count on their esoteric shop-talk to get away with their god-claims. I have so often written in the margins of theology books, “How does he know this?” and “How do theologians learn to talk like this?”

Boghossian eloquently suggests that they give honesty a try:

“Before engaging in a serious discussion about faith or epistemology, the following statement should be made at the start of the conversation:
• ‘There is insufficient evidence to warrant any confidence in a set of propositions—most of which are knowledge claims—but I’ve decided to lend my belief to them in spite of this.’
“This sort of blunt, honest, forthright statement would be clearer and more sincere than the history of obfuscation that has mired and continues to obscure faith and its trappings.” (p. 82)

But such honesty is beyond the reach of preachers and priests precisely because of faith. I’ve seen it countless times as well with laypeople who seize up with fear—even panic—at the very idea that their beliefs might not pass muster, and they don’t want to go there:

“I believe it, I’ve always believed it, my parents believed it. It’s the faith of our fathers, so it must be true.”

Faith is the evidence.

We see it also in the responses of the apologists who haunt the Debunking Christianity Blog. No matter the evidence and rational arguments presented, they can’t absorb them. They display the brain damage that comes in the wake of faith.

Boghossian ends the essay with an appeal to Socrates’ famous question:

“What sort of life should one lead?” This is the challenge to Christians:

“Should some people live their lives (make decisions, inform actions, etc.) based upon an epistemology in which one assigns a higher confidence value to a belief than is warranted by the evidence?”

Well, it’s a dangerous business; after all, his essay is one of twenty-three in a volume titled, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails:

“Many of the chapters that follow answer this question by detailing the harms that result when people act on the failed epistemology that is called Christian faith…Reason, rationality, honesty, authenticity, epistemic humility, and assigning confidence value in direct proportion to evidence take us toward the good life. They’re ways to escape from the cave.” (pp. 83-84)


Bio: David Madison,a Clergy Project member, was raised in a conservative Christian home in northern Indiana. He served as a pastor in the Methodist church during his work on two graduate degrees in theology. By the time he finished his PhD in Biblical Studies (Boston University) he had become an atheist, a story he shares in the Prologue of his book, published in 2016: 10 Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith.

This blog post is reprinted with permission from Debunking Christianity.

>>>>Photo Credits: By Paul Pardi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,;

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  • Ellen Mottley Tannenbaum

    This tendency to rely on one’s faith as all the evidence one needs about religious ‘truth’ has bled over into the rest of believers’ lives. I have had friends tell me that they know the facts do not support their opinion about [insert topic of the day here] but because their opinion feels right to them they are going to hang onto that opinion. Seems to also explain how it has come to be that people can know our political leaders are doing despicable things or are awful human beings, but because at some point their supporters fell for their promises they are willing to continue their support.

    • Jim Jones

      Welcome to Trump supporters.

      We witnessed that schism first-hand last fall when we went to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and gathered 14 people – seven who voted for Mr. Trump, seven who did not – for a wide-ranging discussion about politics, policy and the president himself. To mark President Trump’s first year in office we decided to repeat the experiment.

      Laura: I feel safer now than I ever did the last eight years of Obama. Oh my God.

      Oprah Winfrey: How do you feel safer? Tell me how you feel safer?

      Laura: Well, I feel like I can say Merry Christmas to anyone I want wherever I want.

      Jennifer: You could anytime!

      Tim: You could! Spare me the fake outrage!

      Jennifer: Obama always said Merry Christmas.

      Maggie: I don’t think Laura has fake outrage but like, I do think some of the things that you believe, I don’t think really make that much sense. Like, I don’t think Obama’s a Muslim.

      Oprah Winfrey: Let her finish telling us why she feels safer.

      Laura: Safer means that I’m not gonna have regulations after regulations after regulations that are gonna outdo my budget. I don’t make any money. I’m poor. So when I mean I don’t make, I probably make less than anyone at this table. You know, my heat bills go up. My electricity goes up. I guess it makes me feel economically safer that Trump’s in office.

      • Linda_LaScola

        Jim Jones — could you provide a link to the above conversation?

    • When I finally realized that there was no evidence, I deconverted in a hurry. I realized that I had never had faith in the first place… I always believed there was evidence!

      • When I finally realized that there was no evidence, I deconverted in a hurry. I realized that I had never had faith in the first place… I always believed there was evidence!

        Oh, please. We just don’t find the religious language game meaningful, so we find people who play language games that make sense to us. Such as using the term evidence as a totem of our freethinking virtue.

        • Illithid

          It’s not a language game. I honestly attempt not to believe things which I have no rational basis to believe. Evidence, physical facts or observations that support a proposition, is part of that rational basis. It’s a pretty straightforward concept that everyone uses all the time… except when we want to believe something for which there isn’t enough. Almost everyone then proceeds to chuck evidence-based thinking out the window.

          I try not to be one of those people. Often, I think I succeed.

          • I’m not religious either, but I just don’t think people profess belief in The Big G and Biblical myths for the same reason they profess belief that the Earth orbits the Sun. And I don’t see anything rational about pretending I’m conducting my life like it’s a science experiment.

            Most of what we believe and know simply derives from sense experience and a vaguely coherent process of reasoning. When it comes to scientific constructs like the Big Bang, I’ve never assessed the evidence and I probably wouldn’t be able to understand it even if I had. I just figure scientists oughta know. I consider this kind of appeal to authority very prudent and reasonable. But it’s different than basing my beliefs on evidence.

          • Illithid

            I agree with your first sentence. That’s exactly the point: people should not believe these things, because they don’t have sufficient reason to do so. If they rationally examined their positions, I think they would discard their belief in the biblical myths and the biblical god.

            I wouldn’t say that I “believe in” Big Bang cosmology prior to a certain point. I understand stellar spectral redshift, and I do believe the universe is expanding; logically this means it was smaller in the past. I understand the extrapolation into an energy density such that normal matter as we understand it couldn’t exist. Past that, the math is beyond me, as you say, therefore I cannot believe the models because I don’t understand them. I accept the current model as the best explanation available, as proposed by the experts in the field of cosmology, but if the details are different next year I won’t be surprised or upset.

            We do depend on the obsevations of others for many things; I do still consider that to be evidence. It just has to be solidly corroborated and consistent with other evidence. I believe that Australia exists, for example, despite never having been there; I don’t believe in Bigfoot. I reexamine my beliefs all the time. I’m constantly finding little things I thought were true that turn out to be (as best I can tell) urban legends or historical myths, and I then change my beliefs.

          • I agree with you here. We do accept things that are told to us by people who are supposed to know, without ourselves acquiring a lot of knowledge. But we also reject things when they don’t add up.

          • Lerk! Just follow David Hume’s wise aphorism to proportion your beliefs based on the strength of the evidence and all will be well with your soul! 😉 Think exclusively in terms of the probabilities. Of course, if you do you won’t have any beliefs at all.

          • Just follow David Hume’s wise aphorism to proportion your beliefs based on the strength of the evidence and all will be well with your soul! 😉

            Magical thinking is so adorable.

          • You’ll have half-beliefs and three-quarter beliefs and one-sixteenth beliefs? I believe I don’t know what point you’re trying to make, or how it relates to what I’ve said in this thread!

            At this moment I believe that you’re really John Loftus, but if you began saying things out of character I would conclude that things didn’t add up and that an imposter is making these comments (after first trying to determine whether yours is a verified profile).

            I suppose that at some point I (and people in general) do proportion my beliefs and think in terms of probabilities, but for most things one would eventually come down on the side of being sure enough that a thing is true or not. The probability of a god, from all of the study I’ve done, is close enough to zero. The probability that Yahweh is real, I’ve concluded is exactly zero, based on the fact that the book that purports to define that god fails to do so. (Starts out with Adonai being one of the sons of El Elyon, then moves on to the two being one and the same… among other evidence.)

          • No Lerk! My claim is that I should have no beliefs at all. Thinking exclusively in terms of probabilities leaves no room for beliefs. I have hopes, fears, opinions, and probabilities ranging from 1% to 99%, but beliefs are something only believers have, who accept assertions based on insufficient evidence. I’m a nonbeliever, as are you, so let’s be consistent. It’s not that there isn’t evidence mixed with faith claims. It’s that anything falling far below the threshold of sufficient evidence isn’t an assertion I should hold to or believe as true. Cheers.

        • I disagree. We used the term “evidence” as Christians, too, and insisted that there was plenty of it. Bible colleges have courses called “Christian Evidences” and my wife is always wanting an evidences class for a Sunday morning or Wednesday night quarter at church. It’s the realization that what we accepted as evidence is full of holes that causes many of us to deconvert, and that only happens because evidence is more important to us than faith. It’s a huge deal in some forms of Christianity, despite Hebrews 11. When I was outed as an atheist, people didn’t tell me to pray more —they gave me books on Christian Evidences.

      • Linda_LaScola

        I had a similar experience. However, I think it’s easy for people who have this experience to deconvert because whatever “faith” we had didn’t come naturally to us or mean very much to us.

  • Milo C

    I’ve tried to talk with a friend of mine, a science professor at a Christian college, about these things, but he insists that compartmentalization is all he needs to be good at his job and a believer. I should ask him how that works when your job directly intersects with the bible stories; Middle Eastern anthropology, etc. and then show how that extends to nearly all fields.

    • The same type of critical thinking or due diligence that people apply to purchasing a home or insurance policy–i.e., functioning in the real world–simply is not done in the religious realm. If they’ve given it a try, the onrush of doubt can be so alarming that they opt for the compartmentalization.

    • I’ve tried to talk with a friend of mine, a science professor at a Christian college, about these things, but he insists that compartmentalization is all he needs to be good at his job and a believer.

      Isn’t that what we want him to do? I figure if he’s doing his job and not teaching his students creationist garbage, I have no problem with his beliefs about The Big G.

    • mason

      I’ve come across quite a few people who are aware their Evangelical beliefs are irrational nonsense, but they compartmentalize, like a child who wants to hold on to Santa.

      • Mark Rutledge

        but children observe that even when they stop believing in Santa somehow the gifts keep on coming at Christmas

        • Linda_LaScola

          while Christians wait for death to reap their reward

    • DoctorDJ

      “…a science professor at a Christian college…”

      I submit that you can be one (a scientist, or be a professor at a Christian College), but not both.

      A a science professor cannot accept assertions on “faith,” but rather on evidence.

      A professor at a Christian College simply babbles back the party line.

  • What Hebrews 11 actually says is that faith is a substitute for substance and evidence. Where there is no substance, faith allows a person to believe (in the case of the passage, “believe” means “believe that Heaven is real”) that there must really be such a place. Where there is no evidence — same thing.

    • Jim Jones

      > What Hebrews 11 actually says is that faith is a substitute for substance and evidence.

      Can that fly me to the moon? Feed the hungry? Cure disease? That’s why I ignore the silly claims of theism.

  • Jim Jones

    > If only the apostle Paul had mentioned an empty tomb! His certainty about the resurrection came from his visions, so an empty tomb was irrelevant.

    Was that because the “empty tomb” myth hadn’t been invented yet?

    It’s more interesting to me to ask why Paul never never saw or heard Jesus, since they were supposedly contemporaries and Paul traveled to the region.

    • The first chapter of Galatians is an eye-opener. Paul brags about NOT getting any of his information about Jesus from those who knew him. He saw Jesus in his visions. Period. He claims that he spent 15 days with Peter, but doesn’t seem to have learned ANYTHING from him about Jesus, for example, the empty tomb. Yes, I suspect that myth hadn’t been invented yet, in the era that Paul wrote, decades before the gospels were created.

      • Jim Jones

        I searched every epistle for Peter or Cephas. Paul is all about how be bested Peter in arguments.

  • Mark Rutledge

    I think that “faith” technically does not mean “belief.” But rather “trust.” Then the question is what does one trust in rather than what mental beliefs one has. There are all kinds of things to put our trust in: God, nature, other people, shopping, money, actions such as justice and love, the cosmos, etc. I don’t mind losing a lot of so-called religious “beliefs” (especially ones involving the supernatural, etc) but I’d be uncomfortable without trusting in something or someone. Maybe trusting in “reality” is the best we can do for now.

    • mason

      Trusting, placing my faith in real things, has worked wonderfully for me; family, friends, sciences, love, sports, travel, music, money, property, … there’s so much to trust, believe in that’s rational.

    • I think John Loftus gets this totally wrong. He insists upon defining “faith” as “belief without evidence” and insists that the “trust” defninition is wrong. But that’s a much more common usage! I have faith in certain people, not because I’m 100% sure, but because my experience with them or knowledge of them causes me to trust them.

      • Linda_LaScola

        Maybe faith can be both – belief without evidence and trust

      • Lerk! Please offer a citation, as I’m unfamiliar with the person you think gets faith “totally wrong.” I can save you the trouble by denying you understand my view of faith. Or perhaps it is I who misunderstands you.

        • Perhaps I need to re-read your book?

          • Do you? All I say is you’re “totally wrong” about my views. You could provide a citation from my works to prove me wrong. If you do, I’ll have to see it in context. If I said what you claim, I’ll have to admit I got me wrong too. I have said: “If faith is trust there is no reason to trust in faith.”

          • Which is why I said that perhaps I need to re-read it. The impression I was left with from the first part of the book was that you wouldn’t call the trust that one has in, for instance, their spouse, “faith,” and that it you considered this to be a misuse of the term. Because you’re personally telling me that’s not what you intended, I definitely need to read it again. It’s been a couple of years, anyway, so it would be good to read it again.

            I apologize for mis-characterizing what you wrote.

            EDIT: Sorry, John. I was actually confusing your book with Peter Boghossian’s “A Manual for Creating Atheists.” Again, I apologize.

          • Thank you! You try writing a book or more and see how you get treated by readers claiming you said something you didn’t, then watching as others repeat it without doing any research. Our debate may not be over since I’m not exactly sure we agree on faith. One thing is though, that at least I’m not totally wrong about faith.

    • mason

      Mark, Checking the dictionaries, they all show faith still does mean belief, but good luck on getting a technical ruling somewhere 🙂
      complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
      “this restores one’s faith in politicians”
      synonyms: trust, belief, confidence, conviction; optimism, hopefulness, hope
      “he justified his boss’s faith in him”
      strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.
      synonyms: religion, church, sect, denomination, (religious) persuasion, (religious) belief, ideology, creed, teaching, doctrine
      “she gave her life for her faith”

    • Jim Jones

      Don’t worry about it. Gods are impossible, Jesus never existed, and the bible is contradictory and badly written fiction.

      Ordinary faith is expectation based on previous experience.

      Religious faith is just wishful thinking.

  • mason

    I’ve never felt for a moment that realizing I’d been frightened as a credulous child with hell fire threats and then bamboozled into believing Evangelical nonsense was any kind of a “loss” or that I “lost” my faith ; I dumped it!

    Words effect our brains and produce emotions. I think leaving any kind of religious cult should always be framed as a great human victory, a gain, and never considered as a loss. When I hear or read about people saying they lost their faith, IMO they are fostering inappropriate emotions and are playing right into the indoctrination BS we were all told about so & so “lost” their faith. If we’ve truly lost something we try to recover it.

  • alwayspuzzled

    The “Their point-of-view is dishonest, therefore my point-of-view must be honest” argument is a weak one. Human nature being what it is, it is entirely possible (indeed likely) that both points-of-view contain some measure of dishonesty.

  • But such honesty is beyond the reach of preachers and priests precisely because of faith. I’ve seen it countless times as well with laypeople who seize up with fear—even panic—at the very idea that their beliefs might not pass muster, and they don’t want to go there:

    Okay. But it’s not like we should stop being critical of our beliefs just because we’re not religious anymore. Compared to the number of discussion about the lazy thinking of religious people, how many discussions here have to do with the beliefs we nonbelievers have about truth, knowledge, progress, and morality?

    • Jim Jones

      > … how many discussions here have to do with the beliefs we nonbelievers have about truth, knowledge, progress, and morality?

      Feel free to start one. We could cover it, in between dealing with the violent rage, vandalism and death threats from ‘loving’ Christians.

  • viaten

    I can see two believing types. One says, “I just believe it.”, and might add, “I just have faith that what I believe is true.” The other says, “I see that I have faith. And because I just happen to have this faith, that’s how I know my beliefs are true.” (It seems there is a faith required for this observation as well.) Is this a distinction that applies to many believers? Is only one a fideist, and the other just a “blind faith” believer?