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Faith as a Last Resort

Faith
So why should you need faith to believe in God?

I know that seems like a dumb-ass question. But hear me out.

Why should there be a real, enormously powerful entity in the world, an entity with a more real and more powerful effect on the world than anything else… and yet, for this entity and this entity only, in order to fully understand and believe in its existence, the most essential requirement is that we want to believe?

(A requirement charitably described as “the will to believe”? Uncharitably described as “wishful thinking”?)

Let’s take a brief, grossly oversimplified tour through the history of religion. And I’ll show you what I mean.

Zeus-lightning-bolt
Once upon a time, you didn’t need faith to believe in God. The existence of God, or the gods, was just obvious. Who else made all this stuff? Who else made lightning? Who else made the rain come, the sun rise and fall, the crops grow? The gods, of course. Stuff happens because someone makes it happen. If rain falls, then a rain god must have made it fall. I mean, duh.

Breaking the spell
From our perspective of the modern world today, thousands of years later, we can see the ways that people created gods out of their brains. We can see how human minds see intention and pattern, even where no intention and pattern exists. We can see how, given huge important events that people didn’t understand and had no power over, they’d make up the idea of gods who they could influence with prayer and sacrifice, so they wouldn’t feel out of control and totally freaked out. Etc. etc. (Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is an excellent book on this subject.)

But none of this was conscious. Consciously, religion wasn’t primarily based on faith. It was based on evidence, and analysis of the evidence. Not very good evidence, granted… but the best evidence available at the time.

But now, things are different.

Over the centuries and millennia, the role of evidence in religion has been diminishing. To put it mildly. We’ve gradually been building a coherent picture of why the world is the way it is… and supernatural beings are not part of it. The need for religion to explain the world — and the correspondence between the known facts about the world and our religious explanations of it — have been inexorably been shrinking.

Faith book
But as the evidence for religion has been shrinking, religion itself has not dwindled. (Well, it has, but not by as much as you’d think, what with the shrinking evidence and all.) Something else has been happening instead. As the evidence for religion has been shrinking — as God’s existence has become less obvious, less of a “like, duh” conclusion — the role of faith in supporting religion has been expanding to fill the gap.

Religious leaders and teachers, religious apologists, ordinary rank- and- file religious believers: all have increasingly stressed the importance of faith — of believing in God because you choose to believe, because you will yourself to believe, indeed simply because you do believe. And I’m not just talking hard-core fundies, whose religion is based on the active denial of reality. Much modern progressive theology is less about, “What reasons do we have to believe in God?” than it is about, “Why is it okay to believe in God, even though we have no compelling reason to do so?”

In fact, for many religious believers, the very fact of faith — the fact of believing in a supernatural being for which there’s no real evidence — is considered not only acceptable, but positively virtuous. Faith is often considered a finer, more pure basis for belief than trying to find evidence in the crappy old real world. And it’s common for religious believers to overtly advocate the rejection of evidence if it conflicts with their belief.

If you’re a believer, all that stuff may seem self-evident and sensible. Of course religion is based on faith. That’s what makes it religion. I mean, duh.
But if you’re a non-believer — or if you step away from your belief for a moment and look at it from the perspective of an outsider — it suddenly seems very strange.

Why should this be so?

Why — to return to the question I started with — should there be a real, powerful entity in the world… for whom the single most important quality required to understand and perceive it is the desire to believe?

Tinker bell
Why should God be like Tinker Bell?

And why should this method of “perceiving” be not only acceptable, but superior? Why should it be better to believe in something you don’t have evidence for than to believe in something you do?

Somebody made a really interesting point in this blog recently, a point that cuts right to what I’m getting at. In response to my Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe in God piece, Thorin N. Tatge said:

There’s just one major reason for atheism I would have put on the list that you left out. That’s just the fact that there are so many feasible motivations (as opposed to reasons) to believe in God. After all, if you’re discrediting an argument or belief, it’s a nice touch to try and explain why the misguided argument or belief is widespread in the first place. And it isn’t hard to identify some of these motivations. Wanting an afterlife to exist is a big one. Wanting justification for thinking of one’s own group as superior is another. Wanting a sense of grand understanding of the universe (but not quite being able or ready to grasp science) is one of the more noble ones. And so forth.

Thorin is right. There are way, way too many reasons for people to want to believe in God for us to view the belief with anything other than a suspicious eye.

See, here’s the thing. If you really, really want something to be true — whether you call that “the will to believe” or wishful thinking — that’s when you have to be extra rigorous. That’s when you have to make a special effort, not to argue yourself into your belief, but to try to argue yourself out of it.

Mistakes_were_made
You have to do this because it’s been clearly demonstrated, in thousands of ways, that when we already believe something, or when we’re strongly motivated to believe something, we amplify the importance of evidence that seems to support it, and filter out evidence that contradicts it. (A tendency that becomes more pronounced the more we’ve invested in the belief.)

And what could we be more strongly motivated to believe in than immortality? What could we be more strongly motivated to believe in than a perfect, blissful place of eternal life where we’ll be reunited with everyone we’ve ever loved? What could we be more strongly motivated to believe in than the unreality of our permanent death, and of the permanent death of everyone we care about?

So.

If the strongest argument you can make for your belief is faith? The fact that you really want to believe it, or that you have a strong will to believe it, or simply that you already believe it?

That’s not an argument in favor of your belief.

That’s a very, very strong argument against it.

Simpsons_church_sign faith
The more I think about faith, the less it looks like a genuine foundation for religious belief. The more I think about faith, the more it looks like a last resort. It’s the argument you make when you’ve run out of arguments. It’s the argument you make when you know you’ve been beaten, but are really attached to your point of view, and really, really, really don’t want to concede.

Faith doesn’t look like a foundation. It looks like an ad-hoc structure hurriedly put into place, to prop up a building whose foundation is crumbling.

Comments

  1. says

    I wholeheartedly agree with you. The only thing I add is that for all the talk of faith being more virtuous than belief based on evidence, believers themselves don’t buy it.
    Every time a shroud of Turin, or weeping statue, or bleeding host, or Bible Code, or Jesus on a cheese sandwich, or whatever shows up, believers jump on it. These are exactly the sorts of things that, if they panned out, would constitute evidence for God. But it seems that people never say “Oh, I heard something about a nun performing miracles in India, but please don’t tell me about it, since I’d prefer to believe by faith alone.”
    When the possibility of evidence for God presents itself, believers eagerly seize it. Then, when it fails to pan out, they go back to resorting to faith.
    In everyday life, of course, people recognize that faith just doesn’t cut it. The customer who believes on faith that the smooth-talking salesman is telling the truth usually winds up poorer than the customer who demands evidence and warranties.

  2. says

    That’s a really good point, arensb. And it definitely backs up my point about faith being a last resort. When believers think they have evidence, they jump all over it. It’s like they know that faith is a weak argument, and are trying to shore it up.

  3. CybrgnX says

    Don’t forget the real main reason for faith in She-He-It in the sky. Abject FEAR. Fear of thinking about morals, fear at facing constant change (main reason people fear science), fear of being left out of local group. When I was having a discussion with other believers I realized the big difference between them and me was their fear of change. As an agora-phobe can bury his head under the pillow and ignore the reality of the outside world, the religious can bury their heads up the minister’s butt and deny the world or science and change. Studing anthropology shows that most of the job of society is to stop or slow down change. the faster the world of KNOWLEDGE, not gagets, changes the stronger the fundie type religions grow. So it will become harder to not only change mind sets but they will activily see skeptics are the bringers of evil. You can see it going on now and it will get worse.
    Any typing errrorss is the fault of the keyboard.

  4. says

    I’ve been reading your posts for quite a long time now and only recently I reached a conclusion.
    I know you will hate me for this but, here it is:
    (1) Science is skeptical, not atheist. Anyone who seeks in Science a justification or a foundation for their atheist ideology should learn more about Science,
    (2) Atheism is, thus, a religion just like any other, filled with irrational certainties and emptied from any other foundation aside the atheists’ will NOT to believe in God.
    I said you would hate me for this, but these arguments of yours are getting repetitive and misinformed.
    The best things Science can do about God are skeptical statements like “there is nothing we can affirm about this issue”, “this God thing is not subject to scientific studies”, and so on.
    Even if a scientist, or many scientists, or even EVERY scientist, state publicly their atheist worldviews, this is not enough to state that Science itself is atheist.
    Science, very differently from religions (including atheism) does not pretend to know every possible thing in the Universe. It is moved by the simple (and outstanding) ambition to learn, in the long range, every thing that is knowledgeable in the Universe.
    Science does not exclude the hypothesis that maybe there are things that exist but unfortunately, are not likely to be known, from any possible method or instrument ever to be invented.
    So, scientifically speaking, one must accept that there could always be something like “God” in this hypothetical set of unknowledgeable existing things.
    Before anyone screams: no I am not defending religion. If God is in the realm of not knowledgeable things, then every religion is a counterfeit, for pretending to know intimately something they couldn’t possibly know at all!

  5. says

    Great post as always Greta. I cannot tell you much you motivate me after reading your posts. Thank you.
    @CybrgnX – You have hit te nail squarely upon its head! FEAR is the primary motivator of religions. It was Fear of the unknown which created a perceived need for religions to begin with. And it is FEAR that keeps ‘em coming back. Otherwise they would never need to advance the concept of hell, as a heaven would be more than sufficient.
    @ Alexis Kaufman – I don’t know which post you were reading, but I don’t recall seeing where Greta said that Science = Atheism. maybe you are oversimplifying her comments. Or, maybe you should just reread the post. As many times as needed. On the other hand, science and atheism are similar in that they are both disciplines which demand evidence to confirm a position or statement.
    As to your last point: “If God is in the realm of not knowledgeable things, then every religion is a counterfeit, for pretending to know intimately something they couldn’t possibly know at all!”
    This is precisely the case. Every religion IS counterfeit with respect to any idea that it KNOWS anything concerning the existence of any god. And with respect to the god concept in-general. Its all made-up. Period. Religion is to science, as alchemy/magic is to chemistry/physics.
    Religion was the old science before the facts were known, or even knowable….

  6. Beowulff says

    @Alexis: Atheism is a religion? Really? That old trope is all you could come up with after all that time?
    Here, have some standard replies:
    If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby.
    If atheism is a religion, then baldness is a hair color.
    Atheism is literally the absence of theism, i.e. the absence of a belief in god(s). Atheism is not the rejection of the possibility that gods could exist.
    Science can’t prove or disprove the existence of god(s) in general, as you pointed out, so by your own admission, theism is not part of science. To say that science is therefore atheistic in nature is not unreasonable; again, atheism is merely the absence of theism.
    (Note that some specific gods can be shown to not exist, using simple logic. For instance, an omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient god is inconsistent with the existence of evil)

    So, scientifically speaking, one must accept that there could always be something like “God” in this hypothetical set of unknowledgeable existing things.

    While this is true, this doesn’t mean that you therefore should believe in “something like ‘God’”, nor that you are in any way wrong if you decide not to believe in it, or suspend your belief until evidence is presented. There are infinitely many hypothetical unknowable things that could exist, but that doesn’t mean there’s any reason to believe in any of them. Two famous examples are a pink invisible unicorn, or a teapot orbiting the sun somewhere in the asteroid belt: science can’t prove they don’t exist, but are you wrong if you don’t believe they exist?
    Nobody will hate you for saying these things, but by offering the tired old “atheism is a religion” claim, you have clearly shown how little you understand about atheism. Therefore, be prepared for a little mockery coming your way.

  7. Roger Rains says

    I personally became an atheist when I came to the conclusion that faith is not, in fact, a virtue and without it there is literally no reason to believe. Having said that, however, I don’t think your historical perspective holds water.
    Faith was the cornerstone of Christianity long before anyone understood what made lightning or how species form. Nothing that could credibly be called science existed before the 15th or 16th century. So how does your hypothesis explain the writings of Paul?
    -RR-

  8. Julanar says

    Alexis: You have severely misinterpreted what Greta has said about the relationship between atheism and science. You need to read the post “What Does Science Have To Do With Atheism?”
    Job: So if faith is your “first resort,” does that mean that when you get sick, the FIRST thing you do is pray for it to go away instead of going to a doctor? Your little axiom makes no sense. I doubt that you actually thought about the meaning; I suspect that you wrote it because it sounded good and made you feel superior to everyone else. I see no evidence that you even read the post. Let me know if any of my theories are incorrect.

  9. says

    I dunno, a lot of people have faith in stuff they have evidence for but have trouble believing in. As an abuse survivor, it’s a daily struggle for me to believe I have innate self-worth. I don’t think I should try to argue myself out of that.
    I agree, though, that such skepticism is necessary for love, spirituality, and other times when you’re acting on strong feelings and need to review the evidence before acting. I hit it off with my girlfriend almost immediately, so well we both thought it was Twilight Zone level uncanny, which made me terrified that I’d find out this person I loved ate kittens for breakfast or something. I spent a long time finding out more about her before I confessed my feelings to her.
    Likewise, I’ve lived a charmed life in many ways. So many doors conveniently opened to get me out of my past life; uncanny coincidences and serendipities that were hard to dismiss, to the point where Inari (my personal deity) practically signed her name on my blessings. Which, of course, made me terrified that it was all going to be taken away from me.
    In this case, my faith in her is more like rocking back and forth in the corner telling myself “It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay,” after being pulled out of a war zone. And seeing the material reasons for why I have what I need now — the way society’s organized for my benefit — helps reinforce my sense of security, instead of making me doubt that Inari loves me.
    I understand it seems silly to some. But I don’t see any reason why I can’t hold materialist and magical views at the same time, or regard the one as the “how” and the other as the “why,” even while remaining aware that it’s based on my subjective experience. Because everyone else’s worldviews are formed by theirs, the lenses through which they see evidence, and I don’t feel it’s inherently wrong to reverence the forces that shape your world. Or their anthropomorphizations.
    An atheist might not need to, but I’ve found that atheism just doesn’t work for me. I’d rather not guilt myself into trying to do it again.

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