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Atheist Meme of the Day: Secular Faith /= Religious Faith

Scarlet letter Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

The secular meaning of “faith” is very different from the religious meaning. Secular faith means trust, hope, confidence: a possibly wrong but still reasonable conclusion, and a willingness to move forward based on that conclusion. Religious faith means maintaining belief no matter what, regardless of the evidence. These are not the same. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Comments

  1. says

    One could argue that I make a leap of faith when, say, I trust my doctor or mechanic, or when I believe what I read in Science, rather than educating myself to the point where I can confirm for myself that what they say is true.
    The difference between this sort of faith and religious faith is that that religions consider faith to be a good thing in and of itself. Whereas for a skeptic, faith is something that you settle for, or resort to, when no better alternatives are available.
    In a perfect world, I’d be able to go to med school and learn how to read an EKG or a blood analysis report. I’d also learn quantum physics and cosmology and evolutionary biology and economics and all the stuff I need to really understand science news. But I don’t have the time. And so I settle for putting faith in experts. (Just as my customers trust me to know stuff so they don’t have to.)

  2. says

    Hmm, I dunno. My religious faith is much more like your description of secular faith. If someone proves Jesus was never a human being I’ll believe them (I’ve been reading third-hand accounts that this may be a possibility, and it’s more disconcerting than I thought it’d be but it doesn’t overturn my entire worldview). The only thing where I’d maintain “belief no matter what” is in the existence of some kind of deity with whom I’ve had personal experiences, but that’s because it’s simply unfalsifiable; if someone *could* disprove God’s existence then sure, I’d listen.
    So I have trust, hope and confidence; I may be wrong but I think it’s reasonable to believe (ie it’s not unreasonable in that the belief isn’t inconsistent with the rest of reality and doesn’t make my life worse – indeed it makes my life better – though I also think it’s reasonable for people not to believe, and I know people for whom believing would make their life worse); and I’m willing to move forward and continue to explore what those conclusions mean for me.
    I know plenty of other Christians and members of other religions who seem to have faith in similar ways; and I know atheists who seem to have unconditional faith in eg “Free markets will always sort themselves out”. So I don’t think the divide you describe is a secular/religious one, though it is an important one.

  3. says

    The only thing where I’d maintain “belief no matter what” is in the existence of some kind of deity with whom I’ve had personal experiences, but that’s because it’s simply unfalsifiable…

    Ummmm… Zeborah, that’s pretty much exactly the point. Your belief in a deity is simply unfalsifiable. No piece of evidence could change your mind about it. It is therefore different from secular faith, which trusts even with the absence of perfect evidence and to some degree even in the presence of contradictory evidence… but which ultimately is falsifiable. You’re totally proving my point.

  4. Valhar2000 says

    “Free markets will always sort themselves out”
    Oh yeah: Libertarians.
    I used to be quite drawn to their rhetoric until I realized how positively religious they are in their political zeal.
    This is actually not that uncommon: there are several political movements that function as religions.
    This is very counter-intuitive to a theist, for whom the concept of God is a very important and critical difference between a religion and a political movement, but for an atheist that considers “God” one more feature among others, the similarity between fundamentalist religious cults and communist cell organizing is striking. They even structure their ethics using the same basic principles!
    This is the reason why atheists nowadays disavow the regimes of Stalin and Mao (and the cult of Ayn Rand): those regimes ran on dogma and faith, not religious but political, whereas the so-called “New Atheists” think along very different lines.

  5. says

    I don’t see that argument being at all persuasive to believers; I think the phrasing stands to antagonise them, even moderates. Believers are no keener on having non-believers tell them what they think than non-believers are on having believers tell them what they think; it’s just annoying to have someone who disagrees with you tell you how you think. This is one where I think sticking to I-statements might work better.

  6. says

    Greta, I don’t think that’s a qualitative difference in my faith; it’s just a difference in the thing in which I have faith. An atheist might believe that it’s better to lie than to let someone die — this isn’t falsifiable (unless you posit some axiom, but then that’s not falsifiable either) but that doesn’t mean they have religious faith. It just means that they believe something which happens to be unfalsifiable.
    Contrariwise, my belief that Jesus is the son of God is quite falsifiable (eg if it’s proved he never existed) and if it was falsified then I’d stop believing in it. But it seems strange to say that my belief in the meantime is a secular belief.
    Valhar:
    “This is very counter-intuitive to a theist, for whom the concept of God is a very important and critical difference between a religion and a political movement”
    It’s not counter-intuitive to me. There are plenty of religions without gods. (There are even plenty of religions with gods where faith is not the most important component of the religion.) Certainly lots of movements look like religions from the outside. However I think it’s important to believe what people say about their own beliefs. If a libertarian says their libertarian beliefs aren’t religious beliefs, then I think it’s as important to take them at their word as to take an atheist at their word that their atheism isn’t a religious belief.
    I also think that, just as it’s bad reasoning for me as a Christian to say of Spanish Inquisitors and abortion clinic bombers and the like “Oh, well those aren’t *real* Christians”, it’s also bad reasoning for atheists to say about libertarians, no matter how obnoxious, “Well, those aren’t *real* atheists.”

  7. says

    An atheist might believe that it’s better to lie than to let someone die — this isn’t falsifiable…

    Zeborah, I think you’re confusing two different kinds of “beliefs” — subjective beliefs in values or judgments about aesthetics or such, and beliefs in what is and is not literally, factually true about the non-subjective world. It doesn’t make sense to talk about whether a statement like “it’s better to lie than to let someone die” is falsifiable — it’s an opinion or value judgment, not a question of fact. It does make sense to talk about whether a belief in a deity is falsifiable — a deity either does or does not exist. It’s not a matter of opinion.
    And it seems to me that the example you gave of how your faith could be falsified is a perfect example of potential goalpost- moving. How could it be proven, beyond any possible doubt, that Jesus didn’t exist? Proving that something or someone didn’t exist is next to impossible. No matter how much evidence is turned up that there was no contemporary historical references to a messianic figure named Jesus who lived in Judea at the turn of the millennium, you can always say, “But records from that time period are spotty! And it wouldn’t have been in the interest of Roman historians to record a true monotheistic Messiah! He could have existed and not had any remaining contemporary records about him!” How, exactly, do you propose that Jesus’s non-existence be proven?
    It’s also somewhat irrelevant — there could easily have been a historical Jesus who was still just a person and not the son of God. But that’s not my main point. My main point is that your religious faith is still unfalsifiable, and is thus still qualitatively different from secular faith.

  8. says

    If you want an unfalsifiable statement about the non-subjective world, Wikipedia suggests “For example, ‘all men are mortal’ is unfalsifiable, since no finite amount of observation could ever demonstrate its falsehood: that one or more men can live forever.”
    It’s an unfalsifiable proposition, but believing in it is hardly a religious belief.
    Re Jesus’s non-existence: The third-hand account I was reading suggested that early manuscripts were treating Jesus – to put my own paraphrase on it and muddy the waters further – more as a metaphor or mystery or pure spirit, and only later manuscripts sought to situate him in a human genealogy and flesh-and-blood context. It seems to me quite plausible that this thesis could convince me. I just don’t have the knowledge myself to verify the quotes and so forth they’re using, but if other experts said that yes, that makes sense (or if fundamentalists threw a hissy fit over it – I’ve a bit of a contrarian) then I’d likely undergo the work to assimilate it into my worldview.
    I’d still believe in God. :-) But that’s just my belief; I care fairly little what (absence of) god(s) others care in as long as they’re happy and not hurting anyone.

  9. says

    Zeborah: If Jesus’s non-existence would convince you, I encourage you to read Ebonmuse’ webpost, Choking on the Camel, or the book it’s based on, The Jesus Puzzle. It certainly convinced me that the hypothesis of the historical Jesus is, at the very least, very much in doubt.

    I’d still believe in God. :-)

    Which is exactly my point. Is there any possible evidence you would accept that would convince you that God did not exist? If not, I’ve made my point.
    And yes, “all men are mortal” is technically an unfalsifiable non-subjective secular proposition. But (a) it’s certainly a plausible hypothesis, supported by a great deal of evidence, with none contradicting it. And (b) while in a practical day- to- day sense we assume that all men are mortal (because of [a]), in the strictest sense what I think is that “all men are almost certainly mortal.” If someone could be shown to have lived, say, 100,000 years, and it could be shown that they had been survived events that would kill anyone else (such as being dropped from a height of 10,000 feet), I would certainly re-think that conclusion. It’s impossible to falsify with absolute certainty… but it’s possible to find evidence that would make it a lot less plausible. Is that true of your religious faith?

  10. says

    I feel like the conversation is sliding away from my original point, and I’m not here to defend my faith – I have no special evidence that would convince anyone – just to say that your original definition of secular faith:

    “trust, hope, confidence: a possibly wrong but still reasonable conclusion, and a willingness to move forward based on that conclusion”

    is consistant with the way I believe in God; and your original definition of religious faith:

    “maintaining belief no matter what, regardless of the evidence”

    is consistent with the way some people believe in secular ideas.
    So I think that:
    a) the distinction you describe is important, but it’s not a secular/religious distinction; and
    b) if you want to draw a secular/religious distinction, then you need to describe it differently.

  11. says

    Well, first, Zeborah, I feel compelled to point out that this is the 420- character version of my definitions that I was able to distill into a Facebook status update. So yes, it’s an oversimplification. If you want to see the more detailed version of my analysis of these definitions, I suggest you look at my piece What Would Convince You That You Were Wrong? The Difference Between Secular and Religious Faith.
    But I’m sorry — you still haven’t convinced me that I’m mistaken. If anything, you’re convincing me even more that I’m right. You haven’t yet given me a good example of secular “faith” that means “maintaining belief no matter what, regardless of the evidence.” (I’ve already explained why all the counter-examples you’ve tried to offer don’t hold up.) And you said yourself that you’d still believe in God no matter what — even if it could be proven that the historical Jesus never existed. How is that anything other than “maintaining belief no matter what, regardless of the evidence”?

  12. says

    (Getting a “cannot accept this data” error so trying to post in parts to see if that helps.)
    I’ve read that essay before, but reading it again I’m struck by the facts that a) all the definitions you quote are from Christianity, which is hardly representative of religions in its treatment of faith, and b) the only ones of those definitions that are at all consistent with my faith are the very vaguest among them and could in those vague senses apply equally to the wind or love or democracy, which is clearly not your intent. So that doesn’t work for me any better than the short version.
    I can at least see a little more clearly why you’re discounting my examples. I think it’s a shame to define religious faith so narrowly that it’s utterly alien to any secular kind of faith: it seems then that you lose some ability to understand why an otherwise rational human might choose to retain it, which makes it harder to to convince them that they’re wrong to do so. So I’ll try another example: how about someone who believes in determinism; or, conversely, someone who believes in free will?
    (For me this is a particularly good analogy because I long ago realised that, even if I don’t actually have free will, I’m happier when I believe that I do; likewise, even if God doesn’t exist, I’m happier when I believe that he does. –But if it doesn’t work for you then that’s probably exhausted my limited command of epistemology.)

  13. says

    How is the ahistoricity of Jesus evidence for the non-existence of (a) god(s)? Saying “Jesus didn’t exist, therefore there is no god” would scarcely convince my Pagan friends. If the thesis you link to is correct (and indeed in its whole it seems extremely plausible, and the fact that it’d really annoy the fundamentalists makes it all the more appealing) then it wouldn’t even convince the earliest Christians. All it’s evidence for is the falsehood of some modern Christian doctrines, and that’s fine by me: just because I’m a theist doesn’t mean I’m orthodox.

  14. says

    the only ones of those definitions that are at all consistent with my faith are the very vaguest among them and could in those vague senses apply equally to the wind or love or democracy, which is clearly not your intent. So that doesn’t work for me any better than the short version.

    My point — which is the point you seem to be resisting, and I’m not sure I can make it any clearer so I may want to drop this soon — is that there are some religious believers who think their faith is more of the rational, secular variety… but when they’re pressed or seriously questioned, it inevitably turns out that this isn’t the case. These believers think, “This is just a reasonable conclusion based on incomplete but sufficient and reasonable evidence,” but I have not once seen a case where it turned out to be anything other than just standard religious faith — i.e., maintaining belief no matter what, regardless of the evidence.
    And with all due respect, nothing you’ve said so far makes me see your faith as any different from this. Those definitions of faith that you reject seem much more consistent with your faith than you’re willing to acknowledge.

    How is the ahistoricity of Jesus evidence for the non-existence of (a) god(s)?

    It isn’t. I gave that example specifically in response to things you’ve said, to point out the ways that you’re moving the goalposts. You started by saying “If it could be proven that Jesus never existed, I’d question my faith”… and then almost immediately followed that up by saying, “But even if it could be proven that Jesus never existed, I’d still believe in God.” Which is exactly what I’m talking about. This is not just a possibly wrong but still reasonable conclusion. (Especially since you keep saying that your faith is reasonable… but you haven’t yet said what evidence it’s based on.) This is a conclusion that wants to maintain itself no matter what.
    Finally: Determinism and free will are both theoretically falsifiable hypotheses, and current neurological research into the nature of consciousness may indeed wind up falsifying one and supporting the other. And this is actually a perfect example of what I’m talking about. I would love to believe in free will — but if it turns out that this isn’t so and that we really are just biological stimulus- response machines, I will accept that. That doesn’t seem to be true for you. Your faith seems to be based on what you describe as “I’m happier when I believe.” Which is what I call “wishful thinking.” And wishful thinking is not the same thing as “trust, hope, confidence: a possibly wrong but still reasonable conclusion, and a willingness to move forward based on that conclusion.”

  15. says

    You started by saying “If it could be proven that Jesus never existed, I’d question my faith”…

    I explicitly did not. I said, “If someone proves Jesus was never a human being I’ll believe them”. Jesus is simply not central to my personal faith, any more than phlogiston is central to science. Phlogiston gets disproved, science adjusts itself and moves on; Jesus gets disproved, I adjust my worldview and move on. Science still believes that the world can be explained through rules of some kind, and I still believe in some kind of god.

    Especially since you keep saying that your faith is reasonable… but you haven’t yet said what evidence it’s based on.

    The only ‘evidence’ it’s based on is purely subjective so there’s no point in me mentioning it. Nevertheless, my faith is based on a *reason*: that is, I prefer to be happy. Believing in God makes me happier than not believing in God. Therefore I can best achieve my goals of happiness by believing in God.
    It would be nonsense for me to say “Believing in God makes me happier, therefore you should believe in him too.” It would be even worse nonsense for me to say “Believing in God makes me happier, therefore he exists.” But it’s perfectly reasonable to say “Believing in God makes me happier, and I want to be happy, therefore I choose to believe in him.”

    Your faith seems to be based on what you describe as “I’m happier when I believe.” Which is what I call “wishful thinking.”

    Call it what you like, but if you want to persuade me not to believe, you’ll need to persuade me that believing makes me unhappy. Otherwise why on earth would I choose to change my beliefs to beliefs that would make my life (however subjectively) worse? My subjective experiences don’t matter to you in the slightest, but they’re rather important to my own quality of life.
    –You’re a lot more optimistic about the falsifiability of determinism and free will — and, indeed, everything except for God — than any of the philosophers I ever studied at university, so given the limits of my grasp on philosophy this seems a natural close to the conversation.

  16. Maria says

    “But it’s perfectly reasonable to say “Believing in God makes me happier, and I want to be happy, therefore I choose to believe in him.”
    I wouldn’t call that reasonable. I’d call it self-deception. And I don’t get it how anyone can “choose to believe” anyway. Belief is not really a choice. No matter how happy it would make me to choose to believe that I am rich for example, I just can’t choose to believe that. What makes me happy or not just do not play a role in what I actually believe or not in such a way. That’s just… absurd.

  17. says

    Last things first: My optimism about the falsifiability of free will doesn’t come out of thin air — it comes out of research that’s being done in the field of neurology and neuropsychology. “Free will or no?” is a question about the nature of consciousness — which we may eventually be able to understand better than we’d ever imagined.
    Now to the meat of the matter:

    The only ‘evidence’ it’s based on is purely subjective so there’s no point in me mentioning it.

    Which is exactly my point.

    Nevertheless, my faith is based on a *reason*: that is, I prefer to be happy. Believing in God makes me happier than not believing in God. Therefore I can best achieve my goals of happiness by believing in God.

    And once again, you’re making my point for me.
    Wishful thinking is not evidence. “I really want this to be true, therefore it’s true” is not evidence. You’ve basically told me, in your own words, exactly what I’ve been trying to argue: that your belief is not based on evidence of what is and is not actually true in the non-subjective world, but on what you find pleasant to believe.
    Which isn’t rational, in anything but the most utilitarian way. It’s arguable that it’s a rational evaluation of your own subjective emotional state — but it’s not a rational evaluation of whether the God hypothesis is correct, or whether it’s even plausible. Which is what I thought we’ve been talking about.
    You have every right to believe whatever you want, for whatever reasons you want. But if you’re going to base your belief in the literal existence of God on your wish that it be true, please don’t insist at length that this is a rational, falsifiable evaluation of what is and is not true about the non-subjective world. Any more than it would be rational for me to insist that believing in Santa Claus is rational because doing so might make me happy.

  18. says

    Maria, it’d be hard to choose to believe that you had a billion dollars if you’re constantly confronted with evidence to the contrary. But as there’s no evidence that God doesn’t exist, it’s a lot easier for me to believe in him. I could choose not to believe – I can actually tilt from one belief to the other in my head like a seesaw – but believing is better for my emotional health.
    Greta:

    You’ve basically told me, in your own words, exactly what I’ve been trying to argue: that your belief is not based on evidence of what is and is not actually true in the non-subjective world, but on what you find pleasant to believe.

    If that’s what your Facebook meme had said then I’d never have commented, because that’s perfectly true, whereas what your meme did say isn’t true with respect to my faith.

    But if you’re going to base your belief in the literal existence of God on your wish that it be true,

    No-o. Hmm. When I say “I believe in my mother” it doesn’t mean I believe that she literally exists, though it certainly presupposes it. I guess then you could say that I presuppose that God literally exists. It’s not quite the same but if you can’t see the difference it probably doesn’t matter much.
    What does matter is that I don’t base that presupposition on my “wish that it were true”. It’d be nice if it were true but it’d be just fine if it weren’t too. I base it on the fact that while I believe, I’m happier and more resilient to stress. So it’s not just a wish about the hereafter; it’s knowledge and experience about my current subjective mental states.

    please don’t insist at length that this is a rational, falsifiable evaluation of what is and is not true about the non-subjective world.

    I don’t at all insist that: of course it’s not falsifiable, nor is it an evaluation of the non-subjective world. But it’s perfectly rational for me to do something that increases my happiness without causing me or anyone any harm, and that’s what believing in God does for me.

  19. Maria says

    Maria, it’d be hard to choose to believe that you had a billion dollars if you’re constantly confronted with evidence to the contrary. But as there’s no evidence that God doesn’t exist, it’s a lot easier for me to believe in him.
    Why should it be easier to believe in something just because there is no evidence for its existance? I hear people saying that a lot, and it makes absolutely no sense at all! The reasonable thing to do in such a case is to suspend belief until there is an actual reasonable reason to consider it at all! That is also what most people, who argues similarly to you here, are actually doing – when it comes to all OTHER similar concepts that they say they do not believe in. I mean, do you do the same with unicorns, Zeus, Santa Claus, the Loch Ness monster…?? Do you in fact believe in the millions of fictional and mythical characters, beings and creatures that there is likewise no evidence for? I am sure you don’t. You choose only your version of god for this – and so we are back to the wishful thinking part.
    I could choose not to believe – I can actually tilt from one belief to the other in my head like a seesaw – but believing is better for my emotional health.
    That is not belief in any reasonable sense of the word. And I can’t see how it can be good for anyone’s emotional health to fully knowingly simply pretend things to feel better. What is it about facing reality as it is (and thus give oneself a decent chance to deal with the inevitable hardships of life in a sound way) that is threatening to emotional health? What is the difference between choosing to believe things that you know most likely doesn’t exist for comfort – and just sticking your head in the sand? Or sticking your fingers in your ears and go la la la? Usually such things do prove to be more or less harmful in the long run, if not in the immediate presence.
    Not saying you can’t do that if you prefer to, just agreeing with Greta, it’s not rational, and you do keep insisting that.

  20. says

    Why should it be easier to believe in something just because there is no evidence for its existance?

    No: just because there’s no evidence against its existence. And certainly this doesn’t make it harder not to believe, but it does make it easier to believe if one wants to.

    I mean, do you do the same with unicorns, Zeus, Santa Claus, the Loch Ness monster…??

    No, because believing in them doesn’t make me happier.

    What is it about facing reality as it is (and thus give oneself a decent chance to deal with the inevitable hardships of life in a sound way) that is threatening to emotional health?

    I fully accept reality as it is. It’s just that in addition to the falsifiable objective world, I also believe in God. My belief in God doesn’t contradict any other part of reality, and no part of reality contradicts my belief in God, so I can have both.

    Usually such things do prove to be more or less harmful in the long run, if not in the immediate presence.

    Your concern for my mental health is as touching as an evangelist Christian’s concern for your salvation, and about as convincing. Excuse the snippiness, but seriously, allow me and my healthcare professionals to be the judges of my mental health.

  21. Maria says

    Your concern for my mental health is as touching as an evangelist Christian’s concern for your salvation, and about as convincing. Excuse the snippiness, but seriously, allow me and my healthcare professionals to be the judges of my mental health.
    Who said I had any concerns about your mental health? It was sure not meant to be some sort of fake concern trying to be convincing as real concern. It’s not like you have come across as a delicate little flower or something anywhere here so far, and I sure as hell weren’t trying to treat you as one, believe me. I said that usually such things are harmful, yes, so? If it doesn’t apply to you then no need to get your knickers in a twist.
    but it does make it easier to believe if one wants to.
    It sure doesn’t make it more reasonable!
    No, because believing in them doesn’t make me happier.
    Why does god?
    I fully accept reality as it is. It’s just that in addition to the falsifiable objective world, I also believe in God. My belief in God doesn’t contradict any other part of reality, and no part of reality contradicts my belief in God, so I can have both.
    A god in addition to a falsifiable objective world is a contradiction! If he would be at all detectable in any way, he would not be an addition, he’d be a part of it. And if he isn’t, there’s no way he can be interacted with in any and he’s meaningless to worry about. Why don’t you explain exactly what your belief in god is, and what personal experiences makes it reasonable for you to keep this belief? It’s really easy, isn’t it, to keep claiming that it does not contradict reality when we have no chance of evaluating if it actually does so or not, since you keep being so vague about it.

  22. says

    When I say “I believe in my mother” it doesn’t mean I believe that she literally exists, though it certainly presupposes it.

    Zeborah, for the fiftieth time — I’m sorry if I sound impatient and snippy, but this is the heart of the matter and you keep not dealing with it — we’re talking about two entirely different meanings of the word “believe.” Just like we’re talking about two entirely different meanings of the word “faith.” To “believe” in something, as in “believing that it is good or valuable,” is absolutely not the same thing as “believing” in something, as in “believing that it exists.” You keep conflating these two meanings — and it’s making for a very frustrating conversation.
    The whole point of this meme is about questions of what is and is not literally true in the non-subjective world. It’s about having faith (or not) that God actually exists. It’s not about a utilitarian assessment of whether religious faith is emotionally useful. If I seem impatient, it’s because it took several go-rounds for you to acknowledge that the question of whether God actually exists is essentially irrelevant to you… when that’s the entire point of what I’m talking about.
    And I’m sorry, but I simply don’t agree with you that the God hypothesis has no evidence against it. It doesn’t have absolute, 100% certain evidence against it — but there is both evidence and logic against it, which is extremely damning. It’s not a hypothesis with no evidence supporting or contradicting it one way or the other. It’s a hypothesis with a whole lot of strong evidence contradicting it… and not one scrap of strong evidence supporting it.
    If I believed in God, I would care more than anything else about understanding, to the absolute best of my abilities, what is really true about the universe he created. Do you really not care about that? Do you really not care about whether your beliefs are true?
    If not… you’re perfectly entitled to your beliefs. But please stop insisting that the argument from wishful thinking has any philosophical standing whatsoever. I’m not aware of any coherent philosophy that would support you in picking what you believe to be true about the world, out of a nearly infinite selection of implausible but not absolutely disproven hypotheses, based entirely on what you most want to believe.
    If you want to argue that your faith is “rational” in a psychologically utilitarian sense, I suppose we could have that conversation (although I personally find that a whole lot less interesting than questions of what’s really true, and I probably won’t want to spend much time on it). But if you want us to agree that your faith is “rational” in any epistemological sense, in any “trying to evaluate what we know to be probably true about the universe” sense… I’m sorry, but it’s not going to happen. It’s a ridiculous argument on the face of it. And I think the reason it took me so long to figure out that this is the argument you were making is that it frankly didn’t occur to me that someone who’s obviously as intelligent as you are would even consider making it.

  23. says

    And I can’t see how it can be good for anyone’s emotional health to fully knowingly simply pretend things to feel better.

    I feel like I need to very quickly weigh in on this, as it seems to be one of the central issues here.
    Speaking entirely for myself: Back when I was a believer, I definitely held beliefs largely because I found them comforting. (Although I didn’t do this consciously, as Zeborah is doing, and I didn’t try to defend this as a rational practice.) But this comfort was always undermined by the uneasy feeling that I didn’t really have any good reason to believe what I did. It was always undermined by cognitive dissonance. It was always undermined by the uneasy, just- under- the- surface awareness that I was evading essential questions, and ignoring evidence just because I didn’t like what it said.
    My current philosophies are, in some of the more obvious surface ways, less comforting than my religious beliefs were. But they’re a whole lot more solid — which makes them more deeply and substantially comforting. They give me the comfort of knowing that I’m not fooling myself; the comfort of knowing that whatever sustenance I’m taking from my worldview, it’s not built on a foundation of self-deception.
    And I’m not alone in this. Many atheists describe letting go of their beliefs as a profound relief… because, among other reasons, it meant they’d stopped doing the slippery evasions and mental contortions necessary to continue in their beliefs. A shelter built on a solid foundation is a whole lot more comforting than a shelter built on sand.

  24. says

    Maria:

    No, because believing in them doesn’t make me happier.
    Why does god?

    I could witter on but really it boils down to “I neither know nor care, but it does in ways that seem likely to continue for the foreseeable future.”

    Why don’t you explain exactly what your belief in god is, and what personal experiences makes it reasonable for you to keep this belief? It’s really easy, isn’t it, to keep claiming that it does not contradict reality when we have no chance of evaluating if it actually does so or not, since you keep being so vague about it.

    You want me to give you a potted history of my 20+ years relationship with God, and the complex personal theology I’ve developed over that time, modified by discussions with theists of various other religions, all in a blog comment? I don’t have room and I don’t have time and anyway I know what you’ll say: all my experiences are subjective and could just as easily be explained by brainwashing, wishful thinking, self-delusion, coincidence, and so forth, and my beliefs are wishy-washy, meaningless, and of no practical value.
    I have had no experiences that could convince anyone to believe unless they want to, and even then I rather think their own experiences would be more important than mine. So you can either take me at my word that I have thought a lot about my beliefs and about reality and in 20+ years would probably have noticed and considered it in depth if the two contradicted each other; or you can decide that I’m lying or wrong or forgetful.
    Greta:

    The whole point of this meme is about questions of what is and is not literally true in the non-subjective world.

    This meme in particular, or the whole series? If the whole series then I apologise for missing or forgetting that. If this meme in particular then all I can say is, again, maybe you should have in some way alluded to that.

    Do you really not care about whether your beliefs are true?

    Some of them I care about. Certainly it’d be nice to know about all of them. But I don’t have time to fret and worry about those beliefs which by definition I can never know. So if something is unknowable and it seems inconvenient to carry on undecided, then I pick what seems most elegant or most moral or most likely to promote my happiness or whatever other method(s) seem most likely to help me decide, and then I run with the decision and set my mind to more tractable problems.

    If you want to argue that your faith is “rational” in a psychologically utilitarian sense, I suppose we could have that conversation (although I personally find that a whole lot less interesting than questions of what’s really true, and I probably won’t want to spend much time on it). But if you want us to agree that your faith is “rational” in any epistemological sense, in any “trying to evaluate what we know to be probably true about the universe” sense… I’m sorry, but it’s not going to happen.

    …That would be why I explicitly said a whole bundle of times that I choose to believe because my faith makes me happy and I think it’s rational to do things that make me happy if they don’t do harm (this would be the psychologically utilitarian sense, just to be clear), and why I explicitly said a whole bundle of times that I’m *not* talking about evaluating things in non-subjective reality (the epistemological sense).
    …Your meme never mentioned “falsifiable” or “subjective” or “rational” or “evaluating reality” or “literally true”. I guess it included “reasonable” but not in a context that made it clear you meant it only in a technical, let alone epistemological, sense. If it had, I wouldn’t have commented. If epistemlogy is what you want to talk about now, I’m not really interested. And if it’s what this conversation has been about all along, then… well, I wish I’d known.

    the slippery evasions and mental contortions necessary to continue in their beliefs

    <shrug> They say that doing crossword puzzles keeps one’s brain active and healthy in old age; perhaps practising mental contortions will prove an equally productive exercise for me.

  25. Maria says

    I could witter on but really it boils down to “I neither know nor care, but it does in ways that seem likely to continue for the foreseeable future.”
    Slippery, slippery! It’s a nice method you have come up with here to avoid having to actually have a real discussion about things. To every argument you can claim that it is something that you can’t know anything about, or that you don’t care about it, but you still claim that it’s something that makes you happy and is important in your life and you want to discuss ‘it’ whatever ‘it’ is, but without ever having to define ‘it’. So, you don’t know why it makes you happy, you don’t care why it does – can you explain HOW it makes you happy? What are these ‘ways’?
    You want me to give you a potted history of my 20+ years relationship with God, and the complex personal theology I’ve developed over that time, modified by discussions with theists of various other religions, all in a blog comment?
    Yes, please!
    Seriously, what on earth is the problem here? Extremely complex processes can very well be described in a short and concise way. There’s no reason at all to why you should not be able to define rather clearly in a few sentences or paragraphs, that will nicely fit in an ordinary blog comment, what it is that you actually believe and why! You don’t need to read back a whole book to give a summary of what it is about in a way that other people very well can understand what the book is in fact about. That goes for a70-pages booklet as well as the authors collected works of 2000+ pages. I don’t believe for one minute that you are incapable of doing this. I think that you are reluctant to do so because it is much easier (for you) to discuss and claim things when you don’t actually have to define what it is you’re discussing, or back it up. It’s a bit ironic how you keep harping on Greta for not defining what it is that she is discussing well enough for you, while you yourself keep going “I want to discuss this thing, but I’m not going to tell you what it is.”
    Slippery is the word!
    I know what you’ll say: all my experiences are subjective and could just as easily be explained by brainwashing, wishful thinking, self-delusion, coincidence, and so forth, and my beliefs are wishy-washy, meaningless, and of no practical value.
    Excuses, excuses… Then don’t start discussions with people if you know that this is the case! Go back and come up with better arguments then.
    So you can either take me at my word that I have thought a lot about my beliefs and about reality and in 20+ years would probably have noticed and considered it in depth if the two contradicted each other; or you can decide that I’m lying or wrong or forgetful.
    Oh, thank you, for giving me a choice between these two things only! First it’s not really fair of you to go into discussions with people expecting them to just take your words for anything and everything, especially not on the net, implying that they would be slightly insulting to you if they in fact do not take you on your words. People have no way of knowing or confirming such things about you. If you start a discussion we can only argue against that which you choose to say, and if we ask for more information about your claims and arguments and you refuse to give it, only saying we have to take your words for this and that, then
 yeah, you can do that, but then you are also bowing out of the discussion!
    Second, that is not the only two options. Though I’d say that you are probably neither lying nor are being forgetful, but that it IS likely that you’re wrong. The length of time in itself considering something says nothing about the quality of the conclusions after all! As a third option I can also decide that there is simply not enough information here to carry on a meaningful discussion, and that it isn’t likely that you will provide it, and that you really want out of it!
    But I don’t have time to fret and worry about those beliefs which by definition I can never know.
    Then why on earth waste time on maintaining them at all? You have a lot to gain here, waste no time at all, instead of wasting some of it. I know, I know, it’s not a waste because it makes you happy! Which makes me wonder
? Is there really nothing else that can make you happy to the same extent? How come unfalsifiable human made up concepts have become the thing to keep you happy?
    They say that doing crossword puzzles keeps one’s brain active and healthy in old age; perhaps practising mental contortions will prove an equally productive exercise for me.
    WTF? :-)) “I know I’m wrong, I know I don’t make any sense, but making up elaborate excuses for it to make it sound better in my own ears, and then simply choosing to believe in it – will sure keep my brain in shape!” Okay, I’d say that coming up with this alone probably gave your brain a nice little work out right there then!

  26. says

    If epistemlogy is what you want to talk about now, I’m not really interested. And if it’s what this conversation has been about all along, then… well, I wish I’d known.

    I would have thought it was clear from context that I was talking about “faith” as in “actually believing that something is true,” which is what most people mean by the word. But I can only spell out so much in a format that’s limited to 420 characters.
    So let’s drop it. You’re entitled to believe what you want; but you’re never going to convince me that conscious, deliberate self-delusion is rational. If you’re really and truly uninterested in whether the things you believe in are true — if you’re really and truly more interested in maintaining beliefs that you find pleasant than you are in understanding the universe to the best of your ability — then I don’t see any reason why I should be interested in your beliefs.

  27. says

    Maria:

    It’s a nice method you have come up with here to avoid having to actually have a real discussion about things.

    Greta:

    I don’t see any reason why I should be interested in your beliefs.

    I never asked for a discussion about my faith – as I said above, I didn’t come here to defend it; and there’s no reason you should be interested in my beliefs. I thought I made this clear many times already, but for the record: I don’t want to convince anyone out of atheism; if it makes you happy that’s awesome and moreover you’re right that all the evidence in non-subjective reality suggests that it’s highly improbable that any kind of interventionist god exists, and that a non-interventionist god is of extremely limited non-subjective use.
    I thought, however, that you (Greta) would be interested in knowing that the way you phrased your meme makes it not just oversimplified but simply false with respect to my religious faith and that of many of my friends (because to us, ‘faith’ *doesn’t* mean what you say it does, and for that matter I bet ‘true’ doesn’t mean for us what it means for you, and however irrational this all seems to you, if your aim is to convince people then you need to take into account what those people mean by the words you’re using) and with respect to some people’s secular faith in libertarianism or homeopathy, and with respect to love and democracy and propositions such as the (im)mortality of man.
    You have in the comments introduced the concepts of falsifiability and non-subjective reality which do make the distinction you were wanting to make. You obviously thought that these concepts were obvious from context. They weren’t however explicit in the meme and they weren’t in fact obvious from context either, so the meme, as written, is false. And if you say something false enough times you just end up sounding like you don’t know what you’re talking about; which is a shame because you do know what you’re talking about, you just didn’t communicate it in your meme.
    So this is the sum and the total of my reason for being here: to let you know that your meme doesn’t communicate what you thought it communicated, and that therefore if you want it to be convincing you need to rewrite it.
    I would be happy to discuss ways in which it could be rewritten to better communicate what you want to communicate.
    But any other kind of discussion — neither of us will ever convince the other and I’m not the kind of person who enjoys debate for the sake of debate, so I certainly agree we shouldn’t continue with that.

  28. says

    Thank you for your concern, Zeborah. But since the overwhelming majority of people, both believers and non-believers, define “faith” in more or less the way I described it — and since nothing you’ve said has convinced me that your faith is in any way substantially different from the standard definition, despite your repeated protestations to the contrary — I’m not going to worry about it too much. I am aware that the Memes of the Day are often somewhat oversimplified, since the format is limited to 420 characters. I will still manage to sleep at night.

  29. says

    You’re definitions are quite unreflective of myself, as a Christian. When asked what faith means, I’ve always said it means trust, confidence, etc. When asked if it means belief no matter what, regardless of the evidence, I generally correct that as a mistake born of immature teachers. For you to suggest the opposite says more about your misapprehension of Christians like myself than any genuine understanding. If you would like to genuinely dialogue though I’m always open to some more mutual conversation.

  30. says

    Okay, Matt. I’ll bite. If your faith does not mean belief no matter what, regardless of the evidence… then I’ll ask you the question that the Daylight Atheism blogger Ebonmuse poses in his famous Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists: What would convince you that you are mistaken? What evidence would you accept to persuade you that God does not exist?
    As Ebonmuse points out: Most atheists can tell you what evidence we would accept to convince us that God does exist. It’s a falsifiable hypothesis. Is your God hypothesis falsifiable?

  31. Maria says

    This reminds of a discussion not long ago here, where someone claimed much the same thing. When asked the same question, ‘what would convince him he was mistaken’, he said that if it could be shown that the bible was not a reliable source (or something like that, I don’t remember the exact words) it would seriously shake his faith. Easy case then, you’d think, the bible is definitely riddled with mistakes, errors and internal inconsistencies. He was shown this. So, did he question the his faith then? No, it seems he never did. He kept moving the goal posts and bogged down the discussion researching and defending the smallest details where there seemed to be the remotest chance he could show an historical accuracy or a similar thing (as if that would matter, there are probably quite a few historical accuracies in the Arabian Nights too, which can surely be proven, that doesn’t mean desert djinns exists and live in bottles and oil lamps) while completely ignoring other bigger errors.
    In the end what he said would convince him… didn’t convince him.

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