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Sep 24 2011

Many people of faith are filled with doubts

An amusing passage in the conversation between Dawkins and Odone in the Guardian:

CO: I’m a Catholic and my husband is an Anglican, and transubstantiation is an issue between us. Do I want my daughter to take up my Catholic beliefs? Yes I do. Do I believe my beliefs are superior in any way to his? Yes I do. But do I want to teach her that mine is the only way? No I don’t. What I want her to feel is that there are some beautiful principles in all religions. In your new book you say scientists cheerfully admit they don’t know, “cheerfully” because not knowing the answer is exciting. What’s so funny is that I feel about religion in the same way. You musn’t think that religion is stuck in its inquisitorial phase; religion is capable of evolution and many people of faith are filled with doubts.

RD: But how do you decide which bits to doubt and which bits to accept? As scientists, we do it by evidence.

CO: You can’t boil everything down to evidence!

I haven’t read further yet.

It’s true in a way that you can’t boil everything down to evidence. If I say “I’m tired” (or curious or bored or grumpy or elated) it would be odd for you to say “what’s your evidence for that?” But evidence is relevant to the subject that Odone herself raised, which is doubts. Doubts about what? Doubts about things like “transubstantiation.” Transubstantiation is a claim about reality – it is the “teaching” that during the Mass

the elements of the Eucharist, bread and wine, are transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus and that they are no longer bread and wine, but only retain their appearance of bread and wine.

Of course, that rider about “their appearance” is a dodge to avoid, precisely, evidence…but it’s just that: a dodge. It’s like Gosse’s Omphalos dodge: God planted evidence of evolution to trick us. If one has “doubts” about it – well (as Richard says) then what?

If you’re that kind of Catholic then nothing, you just “have doubts” and trot them out rather proudly when chatting with people like Dawkins. They’re inert. They’re a condition, not a real question that prompts you to consider the evidence. They’re essentially frivolous.

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  1. 1
    Ken Pidcock

    They’re essentially frivolous.

    For Odone, I suspect they are. To others, doubts are psychologically troubling. Stanley Fish:

    The religions I know are about nothing but doubt and dissent, and the struggles of faith, the dark night of the soul, feelings of unworthiness, serial backsliding, the abyss of despair.

    Surveys that purport to show a positive association between well being and religiosity are showing, I think, that treating doubt as sin, as fundamentalists do, can relieve the strain. Another route to well being, of course, is the resolution of doubt with the realization that what you are being asked to believe has no rational basis.

    Odone, I’ll bet, has taken the second route but finds it useful to pretend otherwise.

  2. 2
    anthrosciguy

    If I say “I’m tired” (or curious or bored or grumpy or elated) it would be odd for you to say “what’s your evidence for that?”

    But only because we know that evidence for these things is easily at hand, and we know this so well, via our own experience and that of others, that we don’t usually feel we need further evidence that you’re not making it up. The same is not so of beliefs based on the supernatural.

  3. 3
    Jeremy Shaffer

    [The doubts]‘re inert. They’re a condition, not a real question that prompts you to consider the evidence. They’re essentially frivolous.

    Basically they’re a means for the religious to appear that they have considered their religion in an open-minded and thoughful manner without ever having actually done so. I remember being told often by clergy that doubt was fine but there was always an implicit notion that the conclusions I could draw from those doubts were very limited.

  4. 4
    Ophelia Benson

    # 2 – eh? Evidence is easily at hand that I am feeling bored or elated?

    Maybe you mean fMRIs and the like, with a special meaning of “easily.” If you don’t mean that, I’m confused.

  5. 5
    Ophelia Benson

    # 3 – exactly. They’re a sop, and a pat on the back. “Doubts” about transubstantiation ffs…

  6. 6
    Deepak Shetty

    If one has “doubts” about it – well (as Richard says) then what?

    Ha!. That reminds me of a couple of Catholic friends I have. One wanted his daughter baptised and elected the other as the God Parent. The parents and god parents have to appear for a pre-baptism class and one of the questions they asked was “Are you a Catholic?” . Friend 2 replies he is baptised as Catholic but now he is an agnostic since he doubts many of the teachings. Teacher replies – It’s ok to have doubts as long as you believe in the teachings. i.e. Doubt all you want but come to the *right* conclusion!

  7. 7
    Yed

    As Dara O’Brien puts it:

    “There’s more to life than evidence”

    “Get in the fecking sack.”

    http://m.youtube.com/watch?gl=US&client=mv-google&hl=hi&v=VIaV8swc-fo

  8. 8
    Andrew B.

    It’s true in a way that you can’t boil everything down to evidence. If I say “I’m tired” (or curious or bored or grumpy or elated) it would be odd for you to say “what’s your evidence for that?”

    It’s also worth pointing out that some claims are so mundane that the burden of proof is so low, in which case just taking someone’s word for it might be enough. If you say you had a sandwich earlier, I’m not going to grab you by the throat and inspect your lips for crumbs with a magnifying glass. But when your faith claims seriously impact other people’s lives, you’d damn well better provide some evidence.

    It’s ok to have doubts as long as you believe in the teachings. i.e. Doubt all you want but come to the *right* conclusion!

    Yeah, that’s a common trick played by the religious. They recognize that doubt is a very common concern, so they try to co-opt it by turning it into a tool. A tool for what, you ask? For deepening one’s faith. I think that’s a dishonest use of doubt. One should follow doubt wherever it leads, even if it leads away from faith.

  9. 9
    anthrosciguy

    Yes, evidence is at hand. I can ask you for it and you can give me very good reason to believe that you are not making it up. You can give me, for instance, some info that indicates that a typical person would likely feel elated. You say you’re eleated and I ask for evidence and you reply “well, I won 100 grand in a lottery” and I can realise from my own experience and others that this is highly likely to make a typical person feel elated. You can say you feel sad and I ask you for evidence and you point to your dog who was just run over by a car and I would recognise that feeling sad in such a case is just what I’d expect.

    Either one is not positive proof: it’s possible you’re really a secret psycho who has managed to hide this condition from your readers and your reactions would be incredibly different from the norm, but you have to make an awfully big stretch to get there. In fact such evidence is so easily gotten by asking that we generally don’t bother asking anymore, just as we don’t reinvent arithmetic every time we want to buy a dozen eggs.

    You can’t say “I talked to god and god told me to run for president” and provide me with any reasonable proof.

  10. 10
    mal099

    “It’s true in a way that you can’t boil everything down to evidence. If I say “I’m tired” (or curious or bored or grumpy or elated) it would be odd for you to say “what’s your evidence for that?””

    I disagree. The issue of you being tired can be boiled down to evidence. We simply know from experience that people saying that they’re tired is a pretty good predictor of their level of tiredness.
    It’s not a very extraordinary claim, so it doesn’t require extraordinary evidence, your word will be enough. But THERE STILL IS EVIDENCE.
    I wouldn’t just believe that you’re tired without you having said so. I won’t have doubts about you being tired and simply leave it at that, I’d ask you about it. It’s kind of like an eye-witness account, admittedly a very weak form of evidence, but sufficient for a claim like this. And if I do not believe you, I actually can demand further evidence for this claim. So it absolutely does come down to evidence.

    You have evidence for being tired simply because your body tells you so. But I also have evidence for you being tired simply because I know that in the past, you have rarely lied to me about this, and you do not have a motive to lie. So I do have evidence that you’re speaking the truth, and if you speak the truth, I know that you must be feeling tired. Now let’s change the evidence a bit, and see what happens: let’s say you’re a notorious liar. You often claim to be tired just to get out of things, and I have just proposed we watch a movie together, and I know it’s not the kind of movie you generally enjoy. Do you see how the evidence now suggests that the claim isn’t true?

    Now let’s look at the eucharist thing again. On the one hand, we have a bunch of priests claiming that a cracker turns into Jesus. Weak evidence. On the other hand we have the fact that the whole claim is very much impossible under the known laws of physics, and we have examined the cracker and found no Jesus. Pretty strong evidence.

    Both claims can, and should, be examined with the same methods. We should seek the evidence. Because that’s what will most likely lead us to the answer that is true.

  11. 11
    Midnight Rambler

    That interview was very weird. Except for the exchange quoted in the OP and a bit at the end, it sounded like it was a much longer piece from which random lines had been cut out and mashed up together.

  12. 12
    MadPat

    I looked at the title and I thought it said :
    “Many people of faith are filled with donuts”

    So…. There all as dumb as Homer Simpson, eh?

  13. 13
    Ophelia Benson

    10 and 11 – but that’s not evidence. It may be reason to believe, but it’s not evidence. Experience, for example, is different from evidence. It’s not that they’re opposites, but they’re not the same thing. (Not that either one is a “thing”…)

  14. 14
    sailor1031

    “Do I want my daughter to take up my Catholic beliefs? Yes I do. Do I believe my beliefs are superior in any way to his? Yes I do.”

    Doesn’t sound to me as if La Odone has any doubt that her belief is the correct one,although she magnanimously concedes that other beliefs exist, but are inferior. I have never seen in her columns any evidence that this odious woman is anything other than the most conservative type of utterly convinced catholic.

  15. 15
    lauchlan leishman

    Just about all of whatever you point out happens to be astonishingly accurate and it makes me ponder why I hadn’t looked at this with this light before. This particular piece truly did turn the light on for me personally as far as this subject matter goes. Nevertheless there is one particular issue I am not really too comfortable with so whilst I try to reconcile that with the actual core idea of the point, allow me observe what the rest of the readers have to say.Very well done.

  1. 16
    If they retain their appearance | Butterflies and Wheels

    [...] another thing. This transubstantiation nonsense – another thing about it is that it’s a teaching. Transubstantiation is the teaching [...]

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