On The Definition of Faith

For the past couple centuries, if not longer, the writing has been on the wall for the religious. You can’t use reason and evidence to demonstrate to the satisfaction of an outsider that religious claims of the supernatural are true. (This was eloquently outlined in John Loftus’ book The Outsider Test for Faith) It’s no secret that there is no non-fallacious, strictly rational way to adduce the existence of a deity. (If you think you have one, talk to a thoughtful atheist and they’ll be able to point out where the logical fallacy is.) And the way you cover the gap — essentially papering over the fallacy in the argument — is faithFaith is that which you use to justify a belief that you don’t have rational means to justify, but would like to believe anyway without being accused of being irrational. Essentially, a get-out-of-logic-free card.

I count myself among the people who think that faith is an immoral thing. When you try to assert as true something that you can’t back up with evidence, you are being dishonest and therefore behaving immorally. So the response to this has been an attempt to redefine the word faith as seen below:

This is just a misunderstanding of how belief and certainty work. You don’t really ever get to be sure of just about everything. You can be sure enough of certain things. You can even be so certain of things that you would be your life on them; something we implicitly do every time we board an airplane or pick up a prescription. Of course, the plane may crash or the pill bottle may contain lethal poison. But we are able to infer from past experience that these possibilities are so insignificant they don’t have to be taken seriously.

But the mindset that Eric is advising is the opposite. He appears to believe that in order to get through life you need to believe things with certainty. You need to be certain that the plan is safe before getting on. But because you don’t have rational access to that certainty, but you need it (likely confusing an emotional need with a metaphysical need) so faith gets injected to allow you to feel you have complete certainty where it isn’t warranted. (Whereas someone like me just needs sufficient certainty.Faith is a charm which allows you to believe things on insufficient evidence without risking the guilt of feeling as though you are being irrational.

(I have recently come to understand that there is a hidden unstated assumption that underlies religious thinking that making decisions in the presence of uncertainty is immoral. This is evidenced by religious proscriptions against gambling, but also by the frequency with which the phrase “But you can’t be sure…” is brought out as a cudgel as though getting someone to admit a lack of 100% certainty amounted to defeating their argument.)

As individuals, we are very bad at coping with uncertainty and hedging against risk. Our only hope is to build safeguards into our institutions to be rational on our behalf. For example, the criminal justice system insists on assuming innocence by default until guilt can be established beyond a reasonable doubt. The fight is stacked in this blatantly asymmetrical way against the prosecution because we understand the consequences of unjustly confining (or executing!) an innocent person are less desirable than those associated with allowing a person who ought be confined to go free. Contrast that with most people’s intuitive sense of how justice works: that bad people get away with things far too often, all accusations should be assumed credible and the burden is on the accused to prove their innocence.

If you take the common definition of faith, then it’s entirely possible to live a life without faith. You just have to make a few reasonable inferences.

The correct question is not whether or not their is a god, but what is the intellectually and morally responsible way to live in a world that may or may not have a god in it? It just so happens that for all practical purposes, “I think the evidence for the existence of a god is so thin that it’s responsible to live life as though there isn’t one” and “I believe there is no god” are indistinguishable.

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