I find your definitions of faith disturbing…

I find your definitions of faith disturbing… March 12, 2012

Remember you can vote once per day for the About.com Atheism Awards.  I’m one of five nominees for Best Atheist Blog.  More details here.

I really appreciate all the definitions of ‘faith’ you guys are discussing in my Two Questions for Christians post and the Loftus post that prompted it.  I’m not sure which one I most agree with, but I’ve spotted two I definitely want to kibosh.  First off, Sam Urfer offered:

Faith is knowing by testimony rather than by experience. I believe that the Earth orbits the Sun, because the scientists tell me so, and I believe them. I can become an astronomer or an astronaut and find out more concretely, but I can also become a monk and find out the experience of divine revelation more directly.

I think this is defining ‘faith’ too broadly (and it’s certainly underestimating how much we take on authority).  When I was an intern in a genetics lab (one of the more empirically-based things you can do), I transfected cell lines I didn’t create with plasmids I didn’t sequence that were meted out pipets that were calibrated by someone I didn’t know.  When it came time to analyze my data, I used a machine that I wouldn’t know how to repair and sent the results to a biostatistician whose methods I wasn’t familiar with.

Long story short, we all do a lot of standing on the shoulders of giants.  Our modern lives are complex enough that we have to accept on authority the way most of the physical world around us functions, let along the metaphysical aspects.  Using this as the heart of faith makes the definition useless to me, if I want to talk about a way of knowing that differentiates atheists and theists.

This framework might be useful if we think the two groups have different criteria for identifying credible authorities, and I’d be interested in your thoughts on that topic in the comments.  My hunch is that, when it comes to metaphysics, it’s not that atheists and theists are turning to different authorities, but that atheists mostly aren’t seeking out explicit authorities on these topics at all.  Most atheists don’t cleave to particular philosophers the way Christians might be shaped by a certain theologian.  So this doesn’t end up being a fight about how we answer questions, but about what we’re trying to find out.

Next definition addressed tomorrow, since this one got longer than I expected!

"I'd love to see a video of how it works. keranique shampoo reviews"

Welcome Camels with Hammers to Patheos!
"Logismoi (the plural of logismos) are a fairly simple concept; they are whispers from either ..."

Logismoi, Vampires, and Other Intrusive Thoughts
"I imagine I’ll do a lot more reading and pick a lot more fights over ..."

A little about the queer stuff
"You are part of a search and rescue for lost Catholics.Regular updates to the countdown ..."

I’m keynoting at a Con for ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Man, now I’m worried about my shirt collar.

  • Lukas Halim

    Have you read or listened to Jonathan Haidt’s stuff on the conservative and liberal psychologies? It is somewhat related to this.

  • Patrick

    The biggest problem with that definition is that we can have reasons for why we trust (or don’t trust) our experiences, or why we trust (or don’t trust) something that someone tells us. These reasons can be evaluated independently of the experience or testimony itself.

    For example, a scientist and a mystic both tell me that I presently cannot understand the evidence that supports their respective professional beliefs, but that if I study in the way that they tell me, I will learn to be able to evaluate the evidence underlying their beliefs, and that once I do, I’ll agree with them. I believe the scientist, but obviously not the mystic. This isn’t just arbitrary! I have reasons for this!

    • deiseach

      But why “obviously” not the mystic? I think that’s probably the thing about atheists that most annoys believers; the attitude that “I don’t have to check this out/read the texts/explore the context, I already know it’s rubbish”.

      Is it that you accept that the mystic’s revelations are all down to explainable changes in brain chemistry caused by the effect of starvation and sensory deprivation, and that all this can be measured and quantified by a brain scan interpreted by a qualified neuroscientist? Therefore, the only ‘real’ part of the experience is the objective measurement of which parts of the brain ‘lit up’ and we can explain that by showing how the same parts of a rat brain are changed under the same circumstances, so the ‘subjective’ notion of feeling God’s presence or being one with the universe or a deeper, underlying continuity of the self beyond the material is just a fairytale?

      But then, an emotional response to music could be dismissed the same way; it doesn’t count that you experience the sublime when listening to Tchaikovsky or Mozart or Part, that’s just a mistaken subjective attempt by your consciousness to explain the physical sensations, therefore I don’t need to sit and listen to this recording of “Soave si il Vento”, because it’s not going to give me any useful experience that science cannot explain.

      • Ray

        “I don’t need to sit and listen to this recording of ‘Soave si il Vento’, it’s not going to give me any useful experience that science cannot explain.”

        In what way does the supposed lack of a scientific explanation enhance the experience of listening to music?

        Are you confusing the claims “science can explain what I feel when listening to music” and “there is a scientific explanation that can make me feel the same thing as listening to music”? I don’t see, if you’re not equating these two statements, how your conclusion is any less of a non-sequitor than:

        “I don’t need to refuel my car, since it’s not going to give my car any useful energy that science can’t explain.”

        Again, I just don’t see how the lack of a scientific explanation adds anything to an experience.

        • deiseach

          No, Ray, I’m saying one can achieve an aesthetic experience without a knowledge of the structure of the human larynx, the propagation of soundwaves in a medium, and the workings by which the inner ear transmits and converts air motion into electrical impulses.

          I’m saying that someone who reduced all experience to what was scientifically explicable, and busied himself writing up the exact frequencies of the pitch of the notes played, would not be experiencing the music as it was intended.

          I am saying someone who said “If I don’t have a rigorous compilation of the calibration of the frequency in hertz of the tuning forks used, I’m not going to bother to listen to the piece, because the only paradigm I am willing to accept is the one whereby all phenomena are materially measurable, and no-one has yet invented a scale of measurement of ‘pleasure derived from sheer sublime beauty of the music’, therefore it is a waste of time for me to engage with mystical blatherings about transcendence and wonder” is not, to me, convincing.

          Why say “I would be convinced by A but not by B, even though both A and B ask me to undergo the same tests of what they are claiming”? If you have decided from the outset that the scientist would convince you but not the mystic, then in what sense are you making an objective comparison on the merits of each case?

          • Ray

            deiseach: I don’t see where I disagreed with any of what you said above. You seem to be arguing against a position that is not one that I or any other atheist I know of actually holds:

            The objectionable religious claims are not analogous to the claim “I will experience sublime feelings of transcendence if I listen to music.” That claim is scientifically plausible, and even reasonably well supported, allowing for some interpretation to narrow down what it’s supposed to mean in the context of scientific reasoning.

            Religious claims are more analogous to
            “listening to music will cure leprosy.”
            “listening to music will bring my deceased grandfather back from the dead.”

            Do you really not see the difference?

      • Patrick

        The reason the mystic isn’t worth trusting in the same way as the scientist is trivially obvious.

        First, there are loads of mystics who believe mutually contradictory things, but they all make the same promise. Organic chemistry doesn’t work that way.

        Second, we see that people who follow the mystics end up agreeing or disagreeing with the mystics they follow at a rate that isn’t explainable by the mystic being correct. Most people who follow Mormonism’s mystics become Mormon. Most people who follow Catholicism’s mystic become Catholic. Ditto scientology, etc. Phrenology and psychology are two opinions on the brain, but they do not exhibit this trend.

        Third, a fair proportion of people who follow these mystics come back convinced that the mystics are nuts. This doesn’t happen to actual science. Even when scientists disagree about new research, you don’t get people obtaining an undergraduate degree in biology and suddenly discovering that its all lies.

        Fourth, scientists are asking for a categorically different kind of trust. They’re asking that you learn something so that you can evaluate objective evidence. Mystics are asking that you practice feeling a particular way so that you will evaluate a subjective experience differently.

        I could go on.

        • Anonymous

          1) You’d be surprised what some scientists think.

          2) It’s actually narrower for scientists. Academic lineage is strangely massively important. Don’t even bother trying to get an adaptive control guy to talk to a machine learning guy… or have either of them talk to a gain scheduling guy… or have any of them talk to a contraction theory guy…

          3) Why do some of those people think the mystics are nuts? Because they dug deep enough to find the inherent assumptions, and those assumptions were displeasing to them. The same thing happens in science. Once you learn what people are really doing, you see the assumptions involved. They’re not always pretty.

          4) Sometimes. Mathematicians convince with logic (and sometimes handwaving). They introduce assumptions. Scientists take that math (the good ones keep track of the assumptions), add more assumptions, and show that the result is kinda close to some experiments. Data (‘objective evidence’) is various levels of noisy depending upon what you’re studying…. but if you’ve practiced feeling out the math long enough, the conclusion is obvious, right? I mean, you wouldn’t have bothered to learn all that math for nothing…

          *Disillusioned rocket scientist living in academia*

  • Ray

    The problem with the definitions of “faith” given by the faithful is that they do not explain why no one thinks of a public university, say, when someone talks about a “community of faith”.

    Now, to be fair, this was not given as a specific requirement in the challenge, but it seems like a salient consideration.

    • @b


  • “Using this as the heart of faith makes the definition useless to me, if I want to talk about a way of knowing that differentiates atheists and theists.”

    I think this is the heart of the issue. Theist don’t want there to be a different way of knowing between themselves and atheists.

  • “if I want to talk about a way of knowing that differentiates atheists and theists.”

    Is that what you wanted? Because I don’t think that is what you asked for. In fact I think the Loftus question asked for the opposite: “That atheists have faith just like Christian theists do.”

    • leahlibresco

      Fair catch. Loftus asked for a definition of faith 1) that atheists don’t usually supply AND 2) that both atheists and Christians depend on. Now, I could satisfy these criteria by redefining ‘faith’ as ‘lungs’ but everyone would be left feeling cheated. So whatever common faith atheists and Christians share should come with a bit of an explanation as to how it leads them to such different conclusions.

      Otherwise, it becomes trivial

      • deiseach

        Let’s come at it from a different angle; both atheists and believers might, for example, believe that democracy is the best form of government.

        Why? On what grounds? What is the commonalty there?

      • Here’s what I think: there are a superfluity of metaphysical first principles to choose from. These can then be networked into numerous systems, some with much overlap and some with little or none. The common faith is the necessity for some axioms, the uncommon part is which axioms are chosen, Trying to name all the axioms for both systems and then seeing which are common or not could be fun.

        • Jake

          But surely belief or disbelief in God doesn’t boil down to one person saying “I axiomatically accept God” and another saying “I refuse to axiomatically accept God”. If it did, the internet would be a much more hospitable place 🙂

          If accepted axioms are all that differntiate atheists from theists, then the whole concept of evangelism doesn’t seem to make any sense. I would argue that theism, in whatever form, requires a faith above and beyond simple axiom selection (after all, we could justify literally any belief simply by changing our axioms- why pick theism?). Moreover, people who accept the same set of axioms can arrive at wildly different conclusions.

          Nobody (that I know of) starts with the proposition “There is a God, who created the universe, wants a personal relationship with me, sent his son to die for my sins, and is described innerrantly in the collection of writings from early Jewish sources and followers of Jesus from the first century A.D., as selected by a later council of church leaders and scholars”. They may (or may not) start with “There is a God”, but they’re convinced of the rest of it by something entirely seperate from axioms

  • Rade Hagedorn

    The word “Faith” for atheists and theists alike really means trust.

    Atheists trust empirical evidence (and those observers that they have faith in the credentials of) that can be used to make predictions. Atheists then use these empirical observations and predictions to provide meaning — e.g. children trust and respect their parents because of evolutionary pressures.

    Theists trust revelation (from sources that they have faith in the credentials of) that provides meaning and guidance — e.g. children SHOULD trust and respect their parents because of revelation. Normally there is a means to evaluate revelation dependent upon the theistic tradition. For many theists empiricism and revelation are not at odds with one another because the two are concerned with different things.

    Atheists seem to be preoccupied with predictability while theists seem to be preoccupied with meaning. Empiricism is concerned with with why something happens (which is built upon predictability) while ‘belief’ or religious faith is concerned with why something SHOULD happen.

    • @b

      +1 to your opening statement: “The word “Faith” for atheists and theists alike really means trust.

    • Patrick

      “Empiricism is concerned with with why something happens (which is built upon predictability) while ‘belief’ or religious faith is concerned with why something SHOULD happen.”

      So if a Christian says they “believe” that Jesus rose from the dead, I shouldn’t take that as a claim that they literally believe that an actual guy came back from the dead? They’re just expressing that such is how the world ought to be?

      I know of at least one Christian theologian of whom that is true. But I also know a lot of other Christian theologians who consider that guy to be a crypto atheist. So at least a fair portion of Christians do not actually accept your definition of “belief.”

  • “My hunch is that, when it comes to metaphysics, it’s not that atheists and theists are turning to different authorities, but that atheists mostly aren’t seeking out explicit authorities on these topics at all.”

    The atheist authority is him or herself. That is the authority turned to.

    • Ray

      You say that like thinking for oneself is a bad thing. In any event, the decision to delegate your belief formation to an authority of one sort or another is yours alone, so you’re treating yourself as an authority anyway.

      Speaking personally, I only consider appeal to authority legitimate when there appears to be a consensus among experts. In metaphysics, there either seems to be no consensus, or a weak consensus in favor of physicalist monism and atheism. Either way, I don’t see much help for the theist.

      • Hi Ray,

        I almost completely agree with what you are saying, in fact what you are saying is, I think, deeply Christian. The individual is the ultimate authority in terms of choosing a worldview, and this is completely consistent with Christianity – we are responsible for our beliefs. And thinking for oneself isn’t a bad thing, but when we consider our fallibility and biases it ought to make us realize that there are other smart people in the world that we might consider listening to, AKA other authority figures, preferably with some expertise and consensus.

        Appeal to consensus of experts is great, except when there is no consensus, as you note. And I think there is no consensus in favor of physicalism or atheism. It depends of course on who you ask, where you delineate the boundaries of who counts as an expert. If you want the global breakdown you can look to percentages for each global worldview. But of course we also know that truth is not a democracy.

        Here’s where a theory-practice distinction might come in handy. Look not to the metaphysics but to the ethics. Do the practices of the belief-group “work”? (Choosing the value that determines working or not – that’s another question. I vote for numbers of adherents, survival, growth, and flourishing.) Theism (the Abrahamic ones) currently has about half the world’s population. They are highly competitive worldviews, if not in theory (as an atheist might argue) then at least in practice.

        Practice might not give straight truth, but it does give indications of truth. Science and technology, after all, “works,” which is all most people demand of it. Theism works too. The theory behind the science might be wrong, the theory behind the religion might be wrong. But what are we asking of reality and how likely is it to give in? Reality will give us answers on practice but not so much on theory – the theory we have to figure out ourselves and we might well be wrong. Barring clear theoretical data, practical data is, I think, a good starting point.

        • I think for consensus of experts on theism, academic philosophers are a good place to start. One of the few things most academic philosophers do agree on is that if a god exists, it’s a fairly weak deist sort of god.

          Inconclusive, as all expert consensuses are, but I feel indicative that theism is probably not the way to go.

          • Actually I don’t think the expert heuristic is useful for this kind of problem.

            But if we wanted to go that way the experts on theism would not be academic philosophers in general but academic philosophers of religion. And then the majority is pretty much reversed.

          • My reply is something like Gilbert’s. Where do these experts come from? Which culture, discipline, and place (and time). E.g. Iran or Sweden?

            Also, why should we trust theorists? I’ve always had a bias towards experimentalists, and theism as a religious experiment has done quite well.

            Shockingly, today Jerry Coyne basically agreed with the theory vs. practice question yet somehow came to the opposite conclusion on religion! Surprising, I know.

          • Jake

            “theism as a religious experiment has done quite well.”

            This would be true if those 4 Billion people were all in agreement. They’re not. This is rather like saying “Humans did quite well in World War II”. Technically, humans won. But “Humans” isn’t a high enough level of granularity to talk about the participants in the war. Likewise, if we’re going to move the conversation towards theism “working” or “not working”, then theism is the wrong level of granularity, since basically all theists make the claim that only their version of theism works (I’ll leave out the obligatory argument over religious wars and theism “working”, because literally nothing productive has come out of that argument in the history of the internet)

            I certainly wouldn’t argue with the fact that religion has convinced most people in the history of the world. But what does it tell you that that now, when we have the most complete undestanding of the universe in human history, this trend is dramatically reversing? Or put it another way- any progress in knowledge would cease if we were willing to accept the argument “most people believe it to be true, therefore it is true” as a valid one. Why is it any different accept that in a religious context?

        • deiseach

          Ray, here’s a good place to start. Brian Green’s link to Jerry Coyne’s article leads to a site called “Why Evolution is True.”

          Now, I’ve been bashed over the head time and again with “The difference between science and faith is that we never claim anything is true, we just say it’s the best explanation for the facts at the moment. We demand falsibility in our theories, that is, they can be proven wrong if more data or a better explanation comes along.”

          Hmmm – not seeing much evidence of falsibility in that blog title. It’s not called “Why Evolution is the best estimate at present”. Actually, it sorta kinda reminds me of the claims some evangelists make about “Why Jesus is Saviour” or “Why Christianity is True”.

          And do you really think if someone popped up with a new theory in the morning that would make Darwinian evolution as dead as the notion of phlogiston that all the evoluntionary scientists would just go “Huh, can’t argue with that!” and immediately change their minds, or would there possibly be some old stagers who would wage bloody war on the heretic who dared to question holy writ?

          • Ray

            I’d take these sorts of comments more seriously if unequivocal statements regarding the number of naturally occurring isotopes of gadolinium or the value of the fine structure constant were brought up as often as those regarding evolution.

    • That’s not the case. I do not treat my own experience as an authority the way I might, for instance, treat a Fellow of the Royal Society as an authority in their area of expertise.
      I treat my own experience as a data-set, not an authoritative source. Or in other words, I think Leah is entirely correct on this point.