the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

My Photo
Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

on the unavoidability of proof, evidence and justification

Yesterday I had an occasionally heated, but not quite acrimonious discussion with someone about my desire to challenge 'people of faith'. She quoted a friend who said, basically, that she didn't care what wacky ideas people believed in, as long as they were harmless.

It's a familiar position, which can be encapsulated in the phrase 'live and let live.' It has, also, the great advantage of making us feel liberal and tolerant. The sentence, apparently wrongly attributed to Voltaire, 'I don't agree with what you say but I'll defend to the death you're right to say it', which manages to turn the live-and-let-live position into something heroic and gallant, is often quoted in these sorts of discussions.

Many philosophers, though, have pointed to the weakness in this position - not least because it seems to render philosophy obsolete. I'm very much an amateur philosopher of course, but I've read a bit of the stuff, and I know that most introductory texts on the subject will equate philosophy with argument. Whether such arguments are intended to persuade others or to clarify our own positions, or a bit of both, there's surely little doubt that arguments are what philosophy is about.

Ludwig Wittgenstein said that a philosopher who doesn't engage in argument is like a boxer who refuses to enter the ring. An overly pugnacious remark perhaps, but it emphasises the public nature of philosophical argument. It's one of the philosopher's tasks to engage in public debate, to challenge public opinion, to expose flaws in the arguments, opinions and beliefs of others, and to oppose them with stronger arguments and more rationally justified beliefs.

Now, the person with whom I discussed things yesterday would have no problems with any of the above, but her concern is that I seem to want to attack people for holding views which they have every right to hold, even if they're false or absurd. In other words, I'm like the philosopher/boxer who's not so much interested in climbing into the ring, but who wants to punch out the lights of anybody on the street who holds doubtful beliefs, whether they're interested in fighting or not.

There are many responses that can be made here, but two will suffice. First, the limitations of the boxer/streetfighter analogy need to be underlined. 'Anything goes' attacks, including abuse, scorn and the like, needn't and shouldn't be part of the repertoire, but the statement that anybody prepared to express an opinion or belief should also be prepared to justify it is hardly a controversial one. Instead of thinking of the boxer or streetfighter, it'd be more flattering to think of Socrates, who's said to have gone about eliciting the opinions and beliefs of ordinary Athenians, and then pointing out their weaknesses and inconsistencies, and replacing them with firmer and more rational beliefs (thereby earning the undying gratitude of his interlocutors, if the dialogues are to be believed).

A second response would question people's rights to hold or express any opinion they want to. Our federal government has enacted anti-racial vilification legislation, while various states have anti-vilification legislation based on religious beliefs and sexual orientation either on their books or pending. It's a controversial trend, seemingly based on the view that there are publicly agreed limits to the expression of opinions. Further, there's a distinction between having a right to hold or express a certain view and having a right not to have that view questioned or challenged (in an appropriately civilised fashion). Even if we assume that it's fair enough to talk about rights in this context (a big assumption), few would agree that our right to an opinion involves or extends to a right not be questioned on it.

Finally I want to say more on the 'live and let live' position. The obvious weakness in such a position is that it amounts to a sort of pragmatic relativism. Thus, to avoid fruitless argument, let's just say that all opinions are equally valid (even though we don't really believe it) as long as they don't harm us or our world. Such a position discourages debate and analysis, and seems to suggest that the concept of truth is of little value or meaning, and certainly not worth the trouble that arguments bring.

I would suggest that most Christians don't adopt a 'live and let live' position. And rightly so. They believe in their god, and many are none too comfortable with people who don't - as is shown, for example, here. They believe that this god exists, and that his existence is vitally important to our understanding of human nature, the universe etc. These are objective claims. The onus is on the promoters of such claims to provide proof. It's a simple and reasonable challenge. Faith, of course, isn't an argument. Faith, as I see it, is nothing more than a form of hope.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

the wearisome battle continues

Would it be necessary to refute the 'twenty compelling evidences' and the massive quantity of other texts and arguments justifying god's existence before attempting to understand why gods are invented? The task might seem impossible due to the sheer volume of justifications out there. However, any inspection of these 'evidences' or justifications will uncover a lot of repetition and rhetoric, and little argument worthy of the name.

Again using the method of googling keywords, this time 'evidence existence god' I'll comment on on the first website to appear, which again is a Christian website.

The first paragraph of the site is interesting, as it runs counter to my remarks in the last para of my last post:

Does God exist? I find it interesting that so much attention is given to this debate. The latest surveys tell us that over 90% of people in the world today believe in the existence of God or some higher power. Yet, somehow the responsibility is placed on those who believe God does exist to somehow prove that He really does exist. To me, I think it should be the other way around.

I won't question the percentage mentioned above. I also recall reading, in Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, that the majority of Americans believe that the miracles described in the Bible actually happened, and that a very small percentage of Americans believe that evolution provides a convincing account of life on our planet. The majority believe that god created humans in their present form (that is, that humans didn't evolve at all).

The truth of a proposition can't be a matter of popular vote, for then science could never get off the ground and there'd be no need to investigate anything. Suppose there are two conflicting views about the shape of the Earth, with two thirds of the people believing that the Earth is flat and plate-shaped, the other third believing that it's more or less spherical. According to the above argument, the onus would be on the minority to provide the evidence to refute the majority view. Why? Wouldn't it be better to test the evidence? Through a rigorous process, science has arrived at a coherent account of the physical world, an account that would've been inconceivable to people living at the time the Bible was written, an account, in fact, that a vast majority of the people currently inhabiting the Earth don't believe in, largely because they're not even aware of it.

The issue, to me, isn't about which side should provide the proof. It's rather about justification of all beliefs, whether positive or negative.

It may be that none of our beliefs can ultimately be justified, and so we should stop worrying and just live. That might be one interpretation of Hume's remark about reason being a mere tool of our passions. The fact is, though, we're obsessed with justification, even if we're not much good at it. We're destined - at least some of us - to go on worrying about why we have particular political views, and whether they're truly justified, just as we worry about a perceived lack of justification for the views of others, whether in politics, science, aesthetics or whatever.

The mentioned website goes on to give extremely summary accounts of the arguments for god's existence, ontological, cosmological, teleological and moral, but I surmise that he's not much interested in any of these, being already convinced. He prefers this sort of argument:

People claim to not believe in God because it is “not scientific” or “because there is no proof.” The true reason is that once people admit that there is a God, they also must realize that they are responsible to God and in need of forgiveness from God (Romans 3:23; 6:23). If God exists, then we are accountable for our actions to Him. If God does not exist, then we can do whatever we want without having to worry about God judging us. I believe that is why evolution is so strongly clung to by many in our society - to give people an alternative to believing in a Creator God. God exists and ultimately everyone knows that He exists. The very fact that some attempt so aggressively to disprove His existence is in fact an argument for His existence.

This, again, connects the Judeo-Christian belief system with that of the North Koreans. Key to the popularity of both is the 'Great Leader' to whom they must be devoted and accountable, who watches over them, looks after them and judges them. They're part of his family, and they enjoy the fellowship of other family members, bonded as they are by their devotion to him. The mockery and disdain of others is somehow further proof of the Great Leader's bounty and perfection.

Do people detect traces of contempt in my wondering about religious belief? A smug superiority? An underlying positivism, a la Richard Dawkins? This might be worth exploring further.

it's always personal

fighting the good fight

Before exploring further this matter of justification and the large claim I've made about it, I should give some background to my own wonder about faith-based belief.

I was exposed to the Christian faith from about the age of five or six until about the age of twelve, when I attended, along with my elder siblings, a Salvation Army Sunday School. A weekly sermon, hymn-singing, Bible readings in a circle. The question of the existence of god was probably the first major intellectual question to exercise me - though I admit I never seriously entertained the idea of god's reality. From the first, the question took the form of 'Why do others believe?' or 'Why have they invented this god? What's this powerful need they have?'.

In spite of Sunday School, I wasn't from a religious family. My parents weren't church-goers, and I now suspect that the main motive for sending us off to the Sallies was for a few hours' weekend respite. Oh, and moral guidance ...

God never rated a mention in our rare family discussions. I brought up the subject only once. I asked my slightly older sister if she believed in him. After a pause, she claimed she did. I didn't know whether to believe her, whether she said it for my sake, whether she'd seriously thought about it. I was stunned, but not shaken in my own view. Obviously, she wasn't as smart as I'd imagined.

What had convinced me so early that the Christian god was a fiction? Certainly, events in my young life, too distracting to delve into, had primed me for scepticism, and I was struck by the endless insistence upon a god who made us and loved us and wanted us not to sin but forgave our sins anyway if we would only believe in him. And worship him, apparently. Why would an inconceivably perfect and powerful being want our worship? The very idea heavily detracted from his perfection in my book. Worship and prayer seemed much more easily understandable in terms of human need and human tradition. Prayer was a bizarre practice, which seemed to have nothing whatever to do with the positing of a divinity. Even if I granted the existence of such a divinity, what evidence was there that he enjoyed the spectacle of people fawning over him and prostrating themselves before him? Were we out to make the guy vomit on an hourly basis? Was this an attempt to win the guy's respect, for fuck's sake?

It just seemed much more likely that all these worshippers were doing it for their own sake, because they enjoyed prostrating and humiliating themselves, or somehow needed to, and good luck to them. And it wasn't much of a leap to the realisation that the god himself was an invention designed to fulfil that need and to provide that strange pleasure. This helped to explain why, considering the prima facie unlikeliness of the real existence of such a convenient if bizarre character, those who promoted his existence and insisted on our worshipping of him were so uninterested in issues of evidence and proof.

I was well aware that these were dangerous, even if blindingly obvious, thoughts never to be voiced within the walls of the Sunday School. There seemed an unspoken agreement to maintain a delusion too fragile to withstand the pressure of even the most childlike criticism.

My sense of confusion and amazement at the confection of beliefs making up Christianity, as well as Judaism, Islam and any other faith-based belief system, still remains. The fact that many highly intelligent people subscribe to these beliefs doesn't concern me, though it astonishes me at times. Above all it makes me determined to understand why.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

the problem of justification

you've got a problem

There is a question as to whether faith can ever be justified, whether something inherent in the meaning of faith makes attempts at justification futile. However, as can easily be attested by the plethora of websites and blogs out there dedicated to the promotion and justification of Christianity and the demolition of the arguments of non-believers, many of the Christian faithful are very much embroiled in issues of justification.

It's worth noting that justification doesn't seem to be such a problem among the Islamic faithful. On the face of it, Moslems appear not to even consider that their faith requires justification. In this, at least, they resemble the North Koreans, whose devotion to the Great Leader goes without saying and is, apparently, integral to their cultural identity. This particular resemblance is important to point out, as it indicates that a faith-based belief system can take deep root in a matter of a generation or two, so long as the ground has been well-prepared, either by human or natural means.

The North Korean example is instructive in other ways. In the west, many who would hesitate to criticise the Catholic Church or the Imams of Iran, would have no problem with mocking or contemptuously dismissing the pretentions of Kim Il Sung or the blind faith of his followers. We can see through the game. Some of us feel that we can understand, too, the game that is Christianity, or Islam, or any other faith-based belief system. In any case, pulling apart the construction of Kim Il Sung worship will be a useful activity toward understanding the monumental grip of religion in general.

One of the keys to the creation of a successful religion seems to be to make its grip on believers so deeply felt that issues of justification are swept aside. For, in spite of the noises emanating from Christian blogs and websites, a religion that embarks on the path of self-justification has also taken the path to its own dissolution.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


same as the old world ....

The vast majority of people on our planet believe that there is a god or set of gods, or some sort of supernatural force that affects their lives. That these gods, spirits, forces are part of life, even creative of life, and can be influenced by our own thoughts and behaviour. Most people believe this, regardless of evidence. Why?

I've just googled three words - why believe god - to see what crops up. Unsurprisingly, the first link is to a Christian site, as are five of the eight links on the first screen.

This first link tries to help young Christians find justifications for belief when confronted with such claims as 'evolution disproves god'.

The first argument put is that humans have a longing for something beyond themselves. Ecclesiastes 3:11 states:

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (NIV)

This yearning for eternity, and the sense of a vast gulf between human spacial and temporal smallness and the universe's amplitude, was powerfully evoked by Blaise Pascal, who wrote of a 'god-shaped vacuum' in every human being.

Of course, the existence of such longing, our desire to be so much more than what we are - exhibited from an early age, when children invest themselves with magical powers, superhuman strength and an ability to 'come alive again' at will - doesn't constitute any sort of proof in the existence of deities, even if it points to something psychologically vital in what I call 'the faith hope'. All the other arguments on this web site - that it's impossible for life to have arisen by chance, that the Big Bang provides proof of a creator god, that universal moral law also provides proof of a universal creator, that god showed his love for us and closeness to us by making his own son just like one of us - are contestable, to say the very least. In fact, the arguments of most theists - insofar as they engage in argument - are almost invariably as inept as their faith is strong. For this reason, it seems pretty obvious that 'the faith hope' can't be understood in terms of reason and evidence. Better to examine it in terms of culture and psychology.

We know that there are whole nations, especially in the Islamic world, where non-belief is simply not an option. Non-belief, in such nations, may place an individual in mortal danger, but it's rarely an issue as it wouldn't occur to people there not to believe. Is there something inherent in Islam that gives it such compelling force, or is it more of a cultural phenomenon? Think of North Korea, nominally an atheist nation. Its Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, is, to all intents and purposes, a god, lending credence to the instant deification of ancient Roman Emperors, and any criticism of him would meet, in that country, a fate more deadly than that of a cartoonist of Mohammad. It's true that this uniformity of belief and worship is orchestrated from above (and was carefully manipulated by Kim Il Sung during his lifetime), but it's also true that the emotion that swirls around the Great Leader, and his Dear Successor, is powerful and genuine. The North Koreans, almost to a person, must be counted amongst the world's Faithful.