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Friday Favorite Exchange This Week

Crap in a hat, I nearly forgot it’s Friday. Time for something favorite, and the choice is easy: you guys.

The vast majority of my commenters here are outstanding. One of the absolute joys of writing a blog is having a comments section, in which you often say things that make me laugh, weep, think, and marvel. I can ask a question, and I get answers. The book I’m writing now has been shaped in no small way by your input and assistance. I’ll never be able to thank you enough.

I don’t often highlight specific comments, because I don’t like to play favorites, and it’s usually too difficult to choose between you all. But for the purposes of this week’s Friday Favorite, I’m extracting the exchange that had me absolutely howling:

Howard said…

One more thing: When the topic of “what atheists believe” comes up, I like to say, “I believe in chairs.”

When someone offers me a chair, I sit in it. Given that there is a nonzero chance that the chair will collapse, spilling me onto the ground (as I can personally attest), this is a remarkable leap of faith. And yet it is one I make on a daily basis. I don’t stop to evaluate the structural integrity of every chair I’m offered, I simply trust that it will support my weight and offer sweet respite from the tedious grind of standing upright.

And yet, despite my miraculous faith in chairs, I know that my belief is easily falsifiable. And on those rare occasions when I suffer a bad chair, I know that it is the chair that has failed, and not I who has failed the chair.

To which stevec said…

Howard, I would disagree that you have faith in chairs. You have plenty of evidence (in the form of past experience) that chairs generally work. And if you were to sit down on a chair, and it were to creak portentously, you might well get up and take a hard look at the chair, and maybe gingerly test it a bit before sitting on it again.

To put it more shortly, you do not appear to believe in the structural soundness of chairs to a degree which exceeds the available evidence. And that is what faith is, as best I can tell, believing something to a degree of certainty which exceeds what it warranted by the available evidence. So, to be blunt, I doubt your faith in chairs. You are no chair-believer, you.


While I’m singling people out, I want to speechify Woozle, George, and Cujo359, who have all worked their guts out sending me material that’s proven extremely useful, clarifying my thoughts, and providing the support and encouragement that this book so desperately needs. All of you who have commented or emailed me have been of vital service, but those three have really taken this project to heart, and so have earned an extra tip o’ the shot glass.

I know you all have extremely busy lives. I know you probably have eleventy-one thousand better things to do than hang about here, adding your wisdom to my work. The fact that those of you who have commented on this book-in-progress, no to mention those who have read and commented on my other posts, have found it worthwhile to add your insights is incredible to me. There’s no greater gift you can give to a writer.

I need to work on this whole becoming rich and famous thing so that I can gather you all together in a real cantina, and show my appreciation with a lavish application of food, drink, and entertainment. You deserve nothing less, and a great deal more.

Muchos gracias, mis amigos. Salud.


  1. says

    My take on the notion of faith is here.I responded to Howard about the chairs mainly because this specific “you have faith in chairs” accusation is actually very common coming from Christians. The moment you start to question the core notion of faith (not faith in a specific thing, but the idea of faith itself) you get a response like “Everyone uses faith.” (tu quoque fallacy) and this is often followed by an example, and the specific example offered is surprisingly often, to the point that it’s become a bit of a cliche, “You have faith that that chair you’re sitting in will hold you up.” The popularity of this may well be why Howard chose to say he “believed in chairs,” as a kind of preemptive maneuver, I don’t know. I would think it better to preemptively disavow faith in chairs specifically, as well as faith generally. :) But that’s just me.

  2. says

    Now that you mention it, the “chair faith” argument does sound familiar — I seem to recall a debate with a Mormon a couple of years ago in which she brought it up much as you describe. I’m pretty sure I responded in detail, something along the lines of: “Well, I have past experience with chairs; I know how to recognize when a chair is unstable. I also have experience with the laws of physics and mechanics, and it doesn’t take any “faith” to believe that a chair which appears more or less sound is going to support my weight…”(I seem to recall that we went off into some discussion about where the boundaries are between things that are chairs and things that aren’t, but I can’t remember what point this was supposed to prove.)On faith, as expounded very nicely by stevec, and specifically “the evidence of things not seen”:* Stipulated: Religion asks you to believe in things without evidence.* Question: Why would you ever arrive at a belief in something in the first place if you hadn’t yourself come across evidence for it?* Answer: because someone told you it was true. (Religionists may protest that they “prayed” or “sought within themselves” for the truth rather than being told what to believe, but are there any cases where they ended up having “faith” in something that wasn’t what their religion wanted them to believe in the first place?)So what it really comes down to is this: Religious faith* is believing what you’re told, regardless of the evidence.In other words, authoritarianism. Maintaining the leader’s authority supplants all other considerations.(* as opposed to the more reasonable usage of the word, which I loosely define as any choice made on the basis of intuitive feeling and where a purely rational analysis suggests that a different answer is more likely but does not completely exclude the one you chose. “I have faith in Bob’s ability to turn over a new leaf, even though he’s been a total screwup so far.”)

  3. says

    Also… in the exchange between Howard and stevec, note that Howard initially says he “believes in” chairs. He later uses the word “faith” to describe this belief, but I think it’s fair to say that this was meant to be tongue-in-cheek.So stevec’s response is more or less a refutation of what was a satirical strawman from Howard but is an actual argument used by Christians. The refutation was needed, but……Howard’s original point may have become somewhat lost in the scuffle: Atheists do have beliefs. We believe in things like chairs, and love, and sunrises, and moon landings — because we’ve seen the evidence for them. (Not that this point hasn’t been made already; just making the connection in case anyone missed it.)

  4. says

    Woozle, point taken about Howard’s probably deliberate strawman. That thought occurred to me, but, on the internet, it’s hard to tell.As for atheists having “beliefs,” at the risk of coming off as pedantic, and as PZ might chide me for, I cringe at the word belief, or believe. To me it’s shorthand for “think that it’s probably true that,” but the person one is writing or speaking to may not know to take the word in that way. There may well be an implied surfeit of certainty conveyed by the word belief and its variants which is not intended. I find myself editing my own writing in such a way as to avoid (or pedantically explain) the word belief for that reason.To paraphrase Richard Feynman, the question is never, “is this true,” the question is rather, “how certain is it that this is true?”

  5. says

    BTW, I got “the chair” argument for faith as recently as Nov. 5, 2008, in the comments to this post on my blog, in which one commenter says”We exercise faith in everything we do. I exercise faith that the chair I sit in is not going to give out on me and I break my tailbone.”The faith chair thing is exceedingly common. Checking the hit counts on a few google searches will confirm it.

  6. says

    …and I agree totally with you, stevec, that “belief” is a slippery word. I think we’ve also established that “faith” is similarly slippery.One could almost write a chapter about it… or perhaps a wiki entry