Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Question even the existence of faith

In my last post, I said that I will not teach faith to my son as an alternative to reason in determining reality. A large reason that I will not teach faith is because I cannot teach faith. In this post, I want to explore my inability to understand faith.

Many, but not all, arguments between atheists and theists are fruitless because our standards of argument are fundamentally different. Mainly, theists value faith and atheists do not.

Now, I am only speaking for myself here, but I suspect that a lot of atheists would agree with me when I say that I absolutely do not understand how someone can value faith as a tool to view reality. I understand faith like a blind man understands "red."

As a former Christian, I have often heard people tell me, "Well you were never really a true Christian if you converted to atheism." Ignoring the indefinability of the term "true Christian" I tend to agree with this assessment of myself. The way I understand religion, and specifically Christianity, is that it necessarily requires faith. Meaning that you must accept something to be fact in the absence of evidence, and quite often in the face of opposing evidence.

I never had this kind of faith. I believed in God, and Jesus, and the Bible as literal truth because it was all I ever knew. I don't really consider that faith, because once I gained the cognitive abilities to question aspects of my religion (and eventually, the existence of God altogether) I favored reason over what my religion taught. If reason directly conflicted with what I believed, I quickly changed what I believed.

Through high school and my early college years, I believed that God existed only because everyone in my life accepted this as an unqestionable fact. No one ever challenged me to test God's existence against reason. But I was never passionate about my religion. The only Christian tenant that I held on to with any kind of conviction was sexual "purity." And even with that, I was constantly testing the boundaries. In the face of explicit orders to avoid all sexual activity, I was good at justifying my right to mastrubate, make out with a girl, touch the fun spots, receive and give oral sex, and eventually engage in coitous.

The overall point here is that at no point in my life have I believed something because of my subjective hunch that it was true, without trying to justify that belief through reason. From an early age, I understood that feelings are not good tools for determining what is true and what is false. I don't remember being explicitly taught the scientific process until college (or possibly very late in high school) but I instinctively understood the fallibility of the human experience, and that it needed to be tested.

Even when I accepted the existence of God without question, I did not accept faith as proving reality. As a young child, when I heard people tell stories of how God directly intervened in their life, I always rolled my eyes and thought, "There's a perfectly rational explanation for that." I remember times when I could not find my wallet or my keys, my mom would tell me that I needed to pray. I remember how ridiculous that seemed to me. So I would tell her (falsely) that I prayed, and then 10 minutes later when I found what I was looking for she would say, "Make sure you thank God for helping you." I remember wanting to laugh at her and scream at the same time.

The overall point here is that I have always naturally turned to reason. That doesn't mean I make all my decisions based purely on reason. There are a lot of daily decisions I make based almost entirely on irrational, subjective feelings--decisions like who I love, what football team to cheer for and what I should eat for dinner, to name a few. But these are decisions of preference, which are inherently subjective, not decisions about reality. When it comes to determining what is real and what is not real, I rely entirely on reason and evidence.

I turn to reason and evidence so instinctively that I cannot imagine how anyone could turn to anything else. Just about every time I get into an argument with a theist, they end up turning to subjective experiences or "faith" to justify their belief in a supernatural being. To an atheist such as myself, this is simply absurd. To a theist, it is a clinching argument.

I think this is where a lot of hostility between atheists and theists comes in. Theists insist that faith and subjective experiences are good enough reasons to believe in a supernatural being; atheists say that those are absolutely horrible reasons to believe in anything.

But do theists really absolutely believe anything because of faith? I have admitted that faith is an inconceivable notion to me, so I don't understand exactly how it works. So perhaps it is because I can't understand it, but I have to question just how prevelant faith actually is. I suspect that a lot of people who claim to have faith are not being entirely honest with themselves. This is based on my exposure to people that claim to have Christian faith (thus, I am talking only about Christianity in this case, as my exposure to other religions is little to none), and my philisophical and religious discussions with those people. And there are a few common themes that prod me to question whether anyone can really possess faith.

First, I must define what I mean by "faith." There are several definitions in Webster; the one I am referring to is, "firm belief in something for which there is no proof." Okay, definition out of the way, here are the reasons I am not convinced that faith actually exists in anyone:

The constant arguments for creationism and a young Earth
For the time being, I will ignore the fallacies in the creationist's arguments. What is important for now is that creationists try to use reason and science to prove that the planet is less than 10,000 years old, evolution is impossible, the Grand Canyon was created by Noah's flood, etc. But the creation/evolution argument is just one example of Christians using reason and evidence to argue the validity of their religion. Some times they just try to show that their version of truth is possible, but a lot of times they try to prove that their version of truth is the only possibility. To me, this suggests that they are not entirely convinced by their faith, and need evidence to try to back it up.

Doubts in their faith
Any Christian that is the least bit honest will admit to doubting their faith at some point or another. Unanswered prayers, sudden deaths of loved ones, and clinical depression are just a few events that cause people to question their faith. For some people, like myself, these questions are never answered and lead to a complete abandonment of religion. But most people return their beliefs. Why? A lot of people cite faith as the reason, but when I have prodded these people further, I discover that it is always something more than that. Their reasons for not abandoning their faith in times of doubt are usually along the lines of, "I can't imagine living without God." They return to their beliefs for comfort and stability, but not because they are actually convinced that their beliefs are true. It is hard to restructure your entire view of truth, and most people simply don't want to go through the hassle, so they return to what they are familiar with.

Subjective experiences
Earlier, I grouped subjective experiences with faith, but I do not mean to suggest that they are the same thing. Subjective experiences are often used in the place of objective evidence. If faith is holding a belief in something for which there is no proof, then you cannot have faith if you offer subjective experience as proof. In my experience, almost every person that claims to have faith offers their personal experience as proof of God's existence ("I have felt the hand of God"). The next step is rarely, " I feel like God exists." It is much more often, " God exists." Not only is this arrogant because it assumes that you have a direct pipeline to the creator of the universe and universal truth, it is oppossed to faith. Subjective experience is bad evidence that God exists, but it is still (in the mind of the theist) evidence. Therefore, anyone who claims that their experience is proof that God exists does not have true faith.

In order to have true faith, you would have to hold the following position:

"I know that there is no evidence for God's existence. I understand that any subjective experience I have is just that--subjective--and provides absolutely no evidence for God's existence. I understand that evolution and other scientific discoveries have negated the necessity for God's existence. I understand that when all the evidence and reason has been considered, the possibility of God's existence is the same as the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I understand all of this, but I full-heartedly believe in the existence of God."

That seems harsh and belittling, but understand that I am not suggesting that anyone actually holds this position (if someone does, please let me know. I would be genuinely interested in trying to understand your viewpoint). If someone held this position, they would truly have faith. I suspect that true faith does not exist.

Instead, what most people call faith is actually a lack of knowledge or bad reasoning. When someone says that they have come to believe in god's existence purely through reason, I am always intrigured, and listen to their reasoning. To this date, all of their arguments have used faulty reasoning at some point. I will continue to listen to anyone who tries to prove god's existence through reasoning, but I am skeptical that I will ever hear a logically sound proof.

The other common form of bad reasoning is adhering to subjective experience as objective evidence. Theists who do this are much harder to argue with, because of a fundamental difference in what qualifies as evidence.

Whether someone does not understand evolution, uses subjective experience as objective evidence, or uses flawed logic, they do not actually possess faith in its literal form. As humans, we are rational beings, so even when we try to justify irrational theories, we do so in the form of a rational argument. To do otherwise goes against our nature. This is why I don't believe literal faith is possible.

Then again, maybe I just don't understand it.


Toni said...

I appriciate your taking the time to express your ideas. I am not well read, and not as articulate as I wish I were. Your efforts will help when I am a loss to explain why I am an atheist. Previously, When asked why I am not a theist I would just say the whole god thing just doesn't make any sense. And to that statement they would inevetabley boast back with.."blah blah blah jesus blah blah blah died blah blah blah my savoir blah blah blah". Then I might ask "what part of the whole god thing doesn't sound genuinely crazy to you"? The conversation doesn't evolve much after that and if we do keep on about the jesus thing I try to point out that jesus has been described as someone who presents with many of the symptoms that are key to diagnosing schizophrenia. That makes then not want to talk to me anymore. I think I am to straight forward and I may be offending them. But I find it offensive when people say god bless you when I sneeze

Anonymous said...

I appreciate you describing yourself as thirsting for knowledge, which implies that you are still learning, as we all are. We Christians often consider atheists to be self-appointed, arrogant know-it-all 's, pompously lambasting us "Bible-thumpers" for believing in our 'fairy tales' or 'superstitutions' or whatever other condescending or cheeky turn-of-phrase is used to describe the beliefs of millions of Christians... Christians that have included incredibly astute, learned and intelligent minds. Your comments about what America would be without Christianity (your conjecture that America would be better off if it had existed completely devoid of faith are, I would suggest, amusingly misguided) aside, I find it refreshing to see someone who may possibly be willing to admit that just because you've personally come to the conclusion that you cannot and do not believe in God, that doesn't necessarily mean that He does not and cannot exist... As if you were the last bastien of truth, order and intellect in the universe. Could it be that God does exist, and you have yet to find Him? I hope you someday do...

When I weigh out Christianity versus Atheism as the rule for my life, I hear what the Atheists have to say, but I choose faith in God. Pascal's wager clinches it for me... "if I am right, I gain all eternity, but if I am wrong, I've lost nothing." Good deal.

- peace, and keep searching, troy (canada)

Itarion said...

This is actually a very interesting, and common in my experience, phenomenon. An atheist, in attempting to better understand something, will run into a conversation with a theist who recites dogmatic "truths." This is frustrating, because of the inherent disconnect. It isn't that atheists are against Christians in general, but rather the blinkered "Bible-thumpers." And I want to give a distinction, that not all Christians are Bible-thumpers. I don't think that many atheists are a "last bastion of Truth," and I think that those who are have managed to replace dogmatic theism with dogmatic atheism. And, most atheists require proof of everything they think: homeopathy, "natural remedies," and the like are disregarded because of a lack of proof. If given solid proof of a deity, most atheists would adopt the god proven.

For your use of Pascal's wager, I offer a counter: How can you know that you have found the right god? There are thousands of gods out there. Yours is one of many. Now, your chances of correctness are far lower, but mine are higher. Either there is, or isn't. For you, you have need of selecting the right one. Not trying a dig, just an alternate view.

For myself, I would love to find a god, but I would definitely require solid proof. One who would speak directly to me to offer guidance. Not even often. I don't think that is much to ask for - I get it on a regular basis from human friends. Surely five minutes a month isn't to much for an omnipotent being. Able to do anything, including splitting his consciousness into 7 billion parts, and maintaining coherency. Maybe even 49 billion billion - why take a terra-centric view?