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Feb 13 2009

Religious faith versus scientific commitment to certainty

All religions depend on a particular kind of faith, the belief in something in the absence of, and in fact counter to, credible evidence for its existence. Such an effort necessarily involves the suppression of doubt. When a person of one religion encounters someone from another, it is relatively easy to think that yours is the ‘right’ faith and the other person’s is the ‘wrong’ one. The other person is not challenging the very act of faith, but just the details of your faith, and people in religiously plural societies are used to fending off such challenges.

This is why religious people often try to suggest that since atheists cannot prove that there is no god, believing that there is no god is as much an act of faith as believing in a god. They are trying to make it once again a contest of dueling faiths, comfortable terrain for religious people. Atheists should not fall for that rhetorical gambit.

When atheists use the words ‘believe’ and ‘faith’, they use them in the scientific sense of the word. Scientists realize that almost all knowledge is tentative and that one knows very few things for certain. But based on credible evidence and logical reasoning, one can arrive at firm conclusions about, and hence ‘believe’, many things, such as that the universe is billions of years old. Or one can have ‘faith’ in the laws of science that keep airplanes aloft.

The words faith and belief used in the scientific context merely represent an implicit acknowledgment of our lack of absolute certainty. Even though we cannot be 100% sure that the current laws of science are true, we have sufficient evidence to commit to certainty and thus have ‘faith’ (in the scientific sense) that they will not let us down. Otherwise we would be paralyzed, frozen into inaction, afraid to drive a car or step into a building or go by plane, fearful that everything would collapse around us.

This is in stark contrast to the way the same words are used by religious people. They not only have to have faith in the existence of things for which there is little or no evidence or reason, but even in spite of much evidence to the contrary, and defying reason.

As a consequence, the greatest challenge to faith is not a competing faith, but doubt. When persons of faith encounter an atheist, the calm assurance of the latter that god does not exists brings them face to face with their own suppressed doubts in a way that can be much more disconcerting than meeting an agnostic.

Philosopher David Hume said in his work On Miracles: “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish…” Astronomer Carl Sagan put it more succinctly: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

The claim that there exists an all-powerful, all-knowing entity that exists everywhere in space and time, can even read everyone’s mind simultaneously, and yet is undetectable, is about as extraordinary a claim as one can imagine. Yet most people who believe in god do not have any evidence at all for this belief, let alone extraordinary evidence.

Believing in the existence of such a god requires faith in the religious sense, committing to certainty in spite of having no credible evidence or reason in support of that conclusion. Such a commitment is hard which is why religious people are always plagued by doubts. To try and overcome this problem, this deficiency is exalted into a noble virtue: the greater the lack of evidence or even reason for belief, the more the faith is lauded. This enables people suppress their ever-present doubts.

Believing that god does not exist requires faith in the scientific sense, committing to certainty based on overwhelming evidence and reason in support of that conclusion. Such a commitment is easy to make and we make such commitments all the time in our everyday life.

This is why religious people find atheists so disconcerting. Atheists are relaxed and confident about their commitment to disbelief in god in ways that religious people can never be about their own commitment to belief in god.

In Obama’s inaugural speech he said that he wanted to “restore science to its rightful place.” Applying scientific scrutiny and standards to all beliefs, including religious ones, might be a good place to start.

POST SCRIPT: Atheism on the move

The campaign to put ads on buses in London that said “There’s probably no god so stop worrying and enjoy life” generated some publicity and spurred a similar campaign in Washington DC with a more muted message that said “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness sake.” This also has generated some publicity.

These ads were relatively mild in their skeptical message but made me realize that it is not easy to come up with a simple slogan that expresses full-blown atheism in a pointed way that would also be eye-catching and thought-provoking and yet humorous. Any ideas, readers?

14 comments

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  1. 1
    Kathy

    I’m not troubled by atheists or atheism, but I am troubled by certainty. It seems to me that believers who won’t admit to doubt and atheists who won’t admit to doubt are both seeking a very comfortable place. I think “plagued by doubts” is not a bad thing but the normal human condition.

    Talking about banishing or abolishing religion makes me nervous, because it sounds like a very narrow, intolerant approach — it implies the same kind of certainty that, say, many missionaries brought with them to Africa or the Americas. I always wonder what atheists (militant ones, not everyday doubting ones) would think (or do think) at a show like Mahalia at the Playhouse now, or at a Messaien concert, or hearing a great MLK sermon. Is it “stuff or nonsense” or is it “maybe some wisdom here that’s worth my attention”? Maybe some people’s life experience leads them to belief…because intuition, emotion, and questioning are as much a part of our mental makeup as rationality. What would be served by convincing Mahalia Jackson that she’s wrong in her belief and to quit singing that nonsense gospel music?

  2. 2
    Mano

    Kathy,

    I have said that doubt is always present, whether one is a believer or an atheist. Neither one is 100% certain. But there is a big difference between committing to certainty when the evidence is overwhelmingly in your favor, and doing so when you have no reason to think so.

    We all have to commit to certainty all the time. I do that whenever I drive my car or get on a plane or enter a building. My committing to nonbelief in god is exactly of the same kind.

    I have never advocated banishing or abolishing religion. I am a strong advocate of the First Amendment, after all. But I am arguing that we should actively speak out about the vacuity of religious beliefs, just like we should argue against astrology, fortune-telling, witch craft and all the other things that are used to exploit the gullible.

    Would Mahalia’s voice be any less effective if she sang about love instead of god? Haven’t we all been emotionally touched by songs that had nothing to do with religion? Was MLK any less persuasive when he was spelling out secular arguments against the Vietnam War? Is Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony any less moving that Handel’s Messiah because he was using a pastoral instead of a religious muse?

    Religion is simply not essential to anything. It is superfluous.

  3. 3
    Brock

    There was a post on Pharyngula not long ago about various slogans the Brazilian Association of Atheists was considering for busses. Some of them were good.

    The Jesus & Mo comic devised a couple slogans for the other side.

    Also: this.

    (Just kidding! Thanks go to the Bus Slogan Generator.)

  4. 4
    Greg

    Ta for the link Brock. Some good slogans in that list. I like the one. “Faith does not give answers. It only prevents questioning.”

    Googling around I see that catholic church in italy blocked a campaign to put “The bad news is that God doesn’t exist. The good news is that you don’t need him” on buses there.

    Some good slogans I’ve found were:

    “If we were made in his image, when why aren’t humans invisible too?”

    “You’re a Natural Born Atheist – because like all babies you were an atheist at birth.”

    “Calling something “The Truth” doesn’t make it true.”

    As for coming up with any original ones. (That are humoured and not so aggressive.) Quite tough. I’ll try think a couple this weekend.

  5. 5
    Corbin

    I think Kathy makes two good points.

    I doubt very much that Mahalia Jackson or MLK would say that they would be “who they are”. For many people, their religious perspectives are not clothing to be taken off and on — they are integral to their identity and self-expression. You could take the gospel away from Mahalia Jackson, and you find find the result pleasing (or not) artistically, but what you will have is not Mahalia Jackson. If I want want a world Mahalia Jackson exists, just the way she is, then for me religion is not “superfluous”. And it does not take anything away from Beethoven to say that Handel or Bach simply would not be “what they are” if not for the clearly demonstrable role of their religion in the development of their music. The issue is not whether in principle we can substitute Beethoven for Bach. The issue is that I think the world is a richer place for having both.

    Also, Mano, I know you have posted several times in the past that you strongly support the idea of tolerance and the second amendment for religious freedom. But when you use rhetoric like “getting rid of religion is the goal” and “Religion, on the other hand, is purely a propaganda system and will only die if its weaknesses and its lack of any empirical basis are relentlessly pointed out,” well these words do not exactly convey an “air of tolerance”.

  6. 6
    Steve

    My goodness, what an absolute excellent post, and I mean no exaggeration whatsoever. As an atheist, I have often been plagued with phrases such as “well evolution is only a theory, you cannot PROVE that god does not exist”.

    I realised that these people simply misinterpreted the meaning of “theory” within the scientific sense. Indeed, they were using semantics to reason against one of the most well supported arguments in the history of humanity.

    After reading your blog, I have been able to identify with exactly how you feel in your struggle when arguing with any form of believer. They will always start the argument off clear and level headed, however will always lose their confidence after you put forth a few good arguments. It is then that they will state that faith is more important than evidence, and of course go on to their usual ramblings.

    The thing I have learned is that you CANNOT win in a religious debate because the believer will always resort to child-like argumentative tactics, and insult your intelligence if you continue the debate any further.

    Bravo, excellent post, and I couldn’t have put the predicament that athiests face when debating theology any better myself.

    Steve
    Covert Hypnosis

  7. 7
    Astroogle

    There is a quite improper approach dealing with religion and science. Why they might be separate and how to find the parallels.

  8. 8
    Megan

    I find it mindboggling that so many scientists continue to try to win over the ‘religious’ with science. I myself am a biologist (evolutionary zoology to be specific), but was brought up a Catholic. I found my beliefs changing as I learnt mroe and more about things (I now would call myself a firm atheist – I also strongly believe that religion is such a powerful tool for ‘evil/greed etc..) that it should be abolished.

    But from my own experience, it wasn’t science that changed my views – it wasn’t learning about DNA or the hominid development etc…It was actually my love of history. After reading about many different world religions (past and present), and the political environment that actually fostered the spread and ultimate success of Christianity, I began to think….Ummmmm sounds a bit dodgy. It was more the realisation that “Hey I might think I know the one true God” but then millions of others think the same thing about their God….

    I think science holds much less potential for converting people from religion and blind faith, than does ensuring in the curriculum that history covers the details of the conflicts between paganism and Christiany…the Roman “backing”, how it spread etc… Not to mention a good dose of “Epicurus” for good measure. I think a LOT mroe people would come to the logical conclusion via this method.

  9. 9
    Randy

    I see a lot of talk here trying to maintain that “faith” and science are opposites. The more I study (I’m an electrical engineer) the more I’m convinced that there is someone a whole lot smarter than any human at work here. Yes, you have to have “faith” to believe what He says, but you don’t need faith be sure of His existence. The reality of God is provable, in spite of all the cute atheist slogans.
    I posted an article in my blog on DNA a while ago. I didn’t even scratch the surface of all the information I found, but just the little bit I did cover points to a design – not an accident. I didn’t even go into the issue of irreducible complexity in the “simple cell”. Any living cell is more complex than a large city and could not exist if any part was missing.

    Steve, Your statement:
    “They will always start the argument off clear and level headed, however will always lose their confidence after you put forth a few good arguments. It is then that they will state that faith is more important than evidence, and of course go on to their usual ramblings.”

    Just means you aren’t talking to anybody with enough knowledge and research behind them. You could get the same response from someone by arguing that a plane can’t fly. You could throw examples of gravity, mass, etc. and if the other person didn’t understand aerodynamics, they would not be able to present a good argument. You’d win the debate, but you’d still be wrong.

    Megan,
    You can’t learn about God by studying people. The only lesson you can learn from history is that man doesn’t learn anything from history. Letting the history of man convince you there’s no God is like deciding you don’t like apples because oranges smell funny. It just doesn’t make sense.

    Actually, I’m not bothered by atheists. I know my place in the world, and I like it. I do object to the current trend towards shouting down anyone who believes in God. In the sixties, we called that censorship.

  10. 10
    Keith "the hypnosis guy"

    Beliefs are funny things…

    In my field I work a lot with beliefs and over the years it’s become more and more obvious that beliefs and what we think reality is are much more fluid than one might think.

    I’ve learned to not take anyone’s belief or faith as seriously as I might have in the past. That includes my own. It doesn’t mean I might not respect that person–it simply means that I know that when a person “knows” something–they may very well not.

  11. 11
    devin, reprogramming mind aficionado

    Mano, you made a comment that makes me wonder if you think that people who follow a religion are insecure in comparision to atheists… “This is why religious people find atheists so disconcerting. Atheists are relaxed and confident about their commitment to disbelief in god in ways that religious people can never be about their own commitment to belief in god.”

  12. 12
    devin, reprogramming mind aficionado

    Do you feel that people who follow religion are more insecure than atheists? Your quote is what raises this question.

    “This is why religious people find atheists so disconcerting. Atheists are relaxed and confident about their commitment to disbelief in god in ways that religious people can never be about their own commitment to belief in god.”

  13. 13
    Mano

    devin,

    If you mean insecure in their beliefs about god, then yes I do think that. How can it be otherwise when you are asked to believe in something in the absence of evidence?

    This is precisely why religions promote faith as such a virtue. It is to help people come to terms with their ever-present doubts.

  14. 14
    Alfredo, Hypnosis for Weight Loss

    Thank you for this post. The fight against science in this country has got to stop. It is detrimental to our health as a nation!

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