What Exactly is This Thing in Crisis? On the Meaning and (Epistemological) Significance of Faith
The primary target of my recent book A Crisis of Faith: Atheism, Emerging Technologies and the Future of Humanity is not religion per se, although I do dedicate several chapters to discussing correlations between religiosity and phenomena like happiness, racism, approval of torture, openness to new ideas, disapproval of war, terrorism, and so on. Rather, the primary target is the epistemic attitude of faith.
Unlike many other authors on both sides of the issue, I provide a clear definition of exactly what I take faith to be – that is, of exactly what I argue is highly problematic. There are, of course, many different uses of the word “faith” (it is polysemous for sure!), and indeed there are many different types of definitions one could give (e.g., explicative definitions vs. stipulative ones). The sort of definition I aimed to provide is something like a consensus definition; it was supposed to capture what most people mean most of the time by the lexical item “faith.”
In doing this, I cited Hebrews 11:1, which states that “Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.” Notice that “confidence” and “assurance” are both epistemological terms: they describe a relation between an individual and a belief about reality, and saying that one is confident or has assurance in X implies that one has some justification for believing in X. The question, then, is “What does this justification consist of?” (More on this below.)
I also quote a theist philosopher named John Bishop, who writes the following in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (a tremendous source of disinterested discussion about philosophical topics):
“Faith seems to involve some kind of venture, even if talk of a ‘leap of faith’ may not be wholly apt. It is thus widely held that faith goes beyond what is ordinarily reasonable, in the sense that it involves accepting what cannot be established as true through the proper exercise of our naturally endowed human cognitive faculties—and this may be held to be an essential feature of faith. As Kant famously reports, in the Preface to the Second Edition of his Critique of Pure Reason: ‘I have … found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith’ (Kant 1787/1933, 29). As well, however, theist philosophers typically desire to show that faith is not ‘contrary to reason’. On models of faith that take a cognitive component as central, and construe faith’s object as propositional, reasonable faith arguably needs to conform to evidentialism—the requirement, generally thought essential to rationality, to hold propositions to be true only to the extent justified on one’s available evidence. Faith’s venturesomeness is thus in tension with its reasonableness, and models of faith differ in the way they negotiate this tension by taking a particular stance on ‘faith and reason’.”
One can take away several ideas from this passage. First, faith and reason appear to be in conflict – “faith goes beyond what is ordinarily reasonable … it involves accepting what cannot be established as true through the proper exercise of our naturally endowed human cognitive faculties.” And second, the notion that faith and reason are in conflict is more or less the consensus among not only philosophers but theologians too. This is why, as Bishop states, “theist philosophers typically desire to show that faith is not ‘contrary to reason’.” There is indeed a whole industry of theists working hard toward this end precisely because it’s “widely held” that faith is unreasonable.
But what exactly does it mean to be reasonable? Or, as I put it above, what is it that justifies beliefs about the nature and workings of reality; about how things are and ought to be? The reason philosophers and theologians generally see faith as problematic is that nearly every epistemologically-informed individual these days (in both the sciences and humanities) holds that a belief is justified when and only when there’s evidence to support it. (There is plenty to be said here, by the way, about an alternative theory in epistemology – the only other game in town! – called “reliabilism,” but this would get us into some philosophical esoterica.) As Bishop says above, faith does not appear to conform to the requirement that beliefs should be proportioned to the best available evidence – a requirement that is generally held to be central to rationality (Indeed, not only is this requirement held by philosophers, scientists and even theologians, but virtually everyone holds it in virtually every domain of life every day. The one major exception to this rule is the domain of religion, where beliefs like “Mohammad was the last great prophet of Allah” can be accepted without sufficiently compelling evidential support.)
Here’s one way to think about our situation: beliefs involve a certain kind of attitude (or relation) we have towards propositions. Propositions are statements that describe something about the external world – reality. As I discuss in A Crisis of Faith, beliefs can be thought of as little maps inside our heads that we take to reflect what “mind-independent” reality is like and how it works. For example, I believe that I’m typing on my computer right now. I thus have a little model of the world – located inside my skull – that’s mappable onto an actual state of affairs in the external world – my standing here typing on this computer. Similarly, I have a belief that Allah does not exist. I thus have a little map of reality – inside my head – of a particular state of affairs in reality – the universe and whatever might be beyond it not including a being that we pick out with the word “Allah.” (The distinction behind this picture of our situation in the world is none other than that between epistemology and metaphysics, theory and reality.)
The question now becomes: how do we get the beliefs inside our heads to line up sufficiently well with the external world? That is, under what conditions do we have the right to be confident or assured (to use those terms from Hebrews) that what our beliefs say reality is like is what reality is actually like?
There are a couple of ways to connect our beliefs about reality with reality itself. One possibility is, as suggested above, evidence. Thus: what is the connection between my belief that one of our ancestors was Homo habilis and the actual world? It is quite a lot of evidence, such as the existence of bones in certain strata; data from biogeography; data from genetics; studies in morphology; and so on. What is the connection between my belief that my lawn desperately needs to be mowed (a much more mundane belief)? It is the observational evidence acquired by simply looking outside my window and seeing an incipient jungle.
(Note: I also have a long discussion in A Crisis of Faith about what exactly “evidence” means. I argue – and this is nothing more than common sense, really – that the best evidence is intersubjectively verifiable or, to use a less cumbersome word, checkable. The reason it’s crucial for belief-supporting evidence to be checkable is that without being able to check a claim, your only choice is to simply take someone else’s word for it. This opens up the possibility that the individual making the claim is delusional, duplicitous, or was tricked into honestly believing a falsity. Thus, phenomena like revelation and religious experience are highly problematic means of acquiring evidence precisely because no one can check or double check whether John the Elder, the Apostle Paul, Mohammad, Joseph Smith, the schizophrenic guy in the mental institution, Brian David Mitchell, and so on, really did communicate with divinity the way they claim they did.)
Another way that many people throughout history and into the present have tried to hinge their beliefs to reality is through faith. As Bishop suggests, faith, as it is most commonly understood, is venturesome – it goes beyond the available evidence and, in doing so, attempts to increase one’s confidence / assurance in a given belief without what most professional thinkers take to be an essential component of rationality. Thus: how does the Buddhist know that there are Six Realms of existence? How do Mormons know that Jesus ministered to people in North America after his ascension? How do Christians know that Jesus healed a blind man with mud made from spit? How do Scientologists know that there is a landing pad on Venus that our thetans travel to after we die? How do Hindus know that Visnhu created the cosmos? How do Catholics know that wheat bread and wine really do change into the body and blood of Christ? There is very, very little checkable evidence for any of these claims. (E.g., evidence that Jesus ministered to Native Americans comes from the Book of Mormon. But there is very, very little checkable evidence to support the claim that the Book of Mormon is a reliable source of information!) The primary connection between all these beliefs about reality and reality itself is faith.
Tom asked me to avoid bringing up faiths other than Christianity. I mention Islam, Mormonism, Buddhism, and so on, because all of the religious beliefs above exemplify the sort of faith that I have a major epistemological problem with. It is precisely this kind of faith that the first half of A Crisis of Faith is about, because it is precisely this kind of faith that’s widely accepted and indeed actively practiced by religious individuals around the world. Not only is it bad epistemology, but it’s also incredibly dangerous, given the technological trajectory of genetics, nanotechnology and even robotics.
In contrast to the above account, Tom defines faith as “a fact-based confidence or trust in [God] as a person [that's] built on an awareness of genuine love-factual awareness.” (I’m paraphrasing this. For the unedited definition, go here.) First of all, this is a jumble of terms. What is the cognitive significance of “love-factual awareness”? How about the expression: “an awareness of genuine love-factual awareness”? Apparently Tom holds that faith is based on facts while simultaneously being built not on a love-factual awareness, but rather on an awareness of an awareness of things love-factual in nature.
Second of all, one of the acceptable definitions of faith does indeed involve trust. But think for a moment about what “trust in God” involves. It involves that one already believes in God’s existence, and this is the issue that I’m after. The relevant epistemological question therefore is: “But why believe in God?” Or, in Tom’s case: “Why believe not only in God, but in the God of Christianity; in a three-persons-in-one God; in a God who asked Abraham to kill his own son; in a God who sent an identical but also non-identical part of himself to this planet to fix a wretched situation that Adam and Eve created after being tempted by a talking snake; in a God who permits gratuitous “natural evils” to saturate the world; in a God who describes himself as “jealous”; etc.?”
A Crisis of Faith puts for a number of thoroughly evidence-based arguments for why believing in God – and especially believing in the God of the Christian religion – is unreasonable, given all that we currently know about the origin of the universe; the relation between mental states and brain states; the biological history of life on Earth; the origin of humanity in the African savanna; the history of the New Testament texts; and so on. In sum, my essentially epistemological argument is that atheism is a system of beliefs that is, by comparative standards, more strongly hinged to reality than the the beliefs of any theistic religion (especially Christianity). And it’s more strongly hinged precisely because its hinge consists almost entirely of checkable evidence, whereas religion’s link consists almost entirely of venturesome faith (with a tiny little bit of arguable-at-best evidence in the mix).
So, my questions for Tom are these: Given everyone I cite above, how have I misunderstood faith? Do you think your account of faith fits with that of most other peoples? What about with that held by most philosophers and theologians? Why do you think so many Christian philosophers and theologians are still working assiduously to show that faith needn’t always be irrational? What facts do you think you have for your belief in God? And, importantly, how do these “facts” differ in quality from the “facts” that people of other (false) faiths might put forward to support their claims that, for example, Allah really does work in the lives of those who love him, or that past life regression really does work?
These are a lot of questions – and, indeed, my first post here contained a lot of stuff that I take to be crucial background knowledge for properly understanding my position. Please feel free to focus only on a few points or questions.