Faith – is it good or bad? Why do we disagree?

Hello Pascal and friends! 🙂

There’s been some renewed discussion about faith and evidence in the last few posts and comments. I’ve touched on my issues with “faith” in previous posts like Is Love a Good Reason to Believe?, including why the word makes me uneasy as a non-believer. It’s been a while, though, and this is an important topic and we should try to come to an agreement while we’re covering it.

Pascal, in the last post you quoted Mike who had said the following:

… I’m certainly not adverse to … doing my best to convince others to embrace evidence based thinking instead of faith.

Thank you for the guest post, Mike! Very well done! 🙂

After this quote, Pascal, you highlighted that faith and evidence may be an acceptable approach for you and not an acceptable approach for me. You said:

… Russell and I have often reached a point of impasse here.  Is the word instead correct?  I feel that it is the pivot of the sentence at least, likely the paragraph, perhaps the thesis.

Let’s reason this out and clarify our differences. They may not be as stark and opposed as it seems. I have the floor while you’re hiking a mountain with your amazing family, so I’ll explain what faith means to me and you can tell me where you find disagreement.

At the risk of being far too long winded and spending too much of my limited time on this post (it’s already after 11 PM and I have an early start to a busy week tomorrow), I’ll try to keep this much shorter that I want to and save details for follow-up comments. Who am I kidding. That just means it will be 4k instead of 10k words. Haha. Onward.

Whether or not Socrates actually said this, I find it both cliché and extremely relevant.

The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.

What do we mean by faith? If communication is a transference of an idea from one person’s mind to another person’s, and if information theory (I’m almost finished with The Information and it’s one of my favorite books) cares about how accurately that idea is replicated, it seems essential that we cancel out the confusion and noise caused by potential meanings we don’t intend when we use words like “faith.”

Here are a few of the many, many potential things that will come to someone’s mind when one mentions faith. This is all off the top of my head, and I’m sure each of you can add many more. The point I want to make is that they tend to fall into three basic categories. Some definitions put faith in a positive light, some a more neutral, and some are more negative.

Neutral definitions of “faith”

1. Hope

2. Desire or expectation

3. Belief, confidence or trust in a person, object, religion, idea or view. (Dictionary.com)

Anti-faith definitions non-believers tend to hold

4. Blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence (Richard Dawkins)

5. Believing something for no good reason (Matt Dillahunty)

6. Only needed when there is insufficient evidence to hold a desired belief

7. Wishful thinking – I hope it’s true therefore I have complete confidence

8. A bias, especially special pleading, that is thus less likely to lead to truth

9. That which is required to move one in a desired direction from a position of non-belief to a position of belief

Religiously-based definitions of “faith” that believers tend to hold

10. The substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. (Heb 11:1)

11. Complete trust or confidence; based on spiritual apprehension rather than truth (Google or Siri grabbed this from somewhere)

12. An educated decision about a personal religious conviction, based on evidence, and not blind

13. A virtuous quality (something worthy to be desired, the more faith you have the more righteous you are) that makes one right with God

14. That which is granted by God to some, in varying degrees, in order to fulfill his plans.

See the Christianity section of the Wikipedia page on Faith for more interpretations.

What follows is my take on these definitions and some recommendations to readers that might help more of us increase our understanding of one-another’s perspective. Let me pause here and say that my view is not “the right view.” People come to this from different angles and my goal is not to convince anyone that X is how faith “should be interpreted.” What I hope to do here is clarify “why,” in many cases, there is disagreement between believers and non-believers about the virtue of faith. This comes from my own limited perspective, so add it to yours only if it helps. 🙂

Why the neutral definitions of faith (1-3) should be avoided

Recommendation #1: Don’t use “faith” as a substitute for a better word with a clearer meaning

If we mean something like #1-3, we should consider using words other than “faith” unless we are certain that everyone in the audience is on the same page. When we replace perfectly good and appropriate words like, confidence, trust, belief, etc., with nebulous words like faith, we risk causing some to misunderstand our meaning due to the ambiguity of “faith.” For example, if you believe in Young Earth Creationism and you tell an atheist she “has faith in Evolution or Darwinism that is no different from the faith you have,” you’re conflating two different definitions in the mind of your audience. I’ll explain why in a moment. If you use the word “confidence” instead of faith, you remove this ambiguity. You also reduce the chance that a non-believer will assume you mean “religious faith.” There is a strong difference between confidence, or trust, (terms where “faith” is often inserted) and religious faith. It’s this key difference that is usually being conflated in most of these scenarios. So, if you mean confidence, say confidence. If you mean trust, say trust. Save “faith” for religious faith, unless you really know your audience and “faith” fits what they’ve expect for the context, or unless you’re willing to take the time explaining what you mean in more detail.

Why non-believers should be cautious when using the anti-faith definitions (4-9)

If we choose to assert, like Dawkins did (#4), that the trust girding faith is blind, we are erecting a straw man. Perhaps you can think of a belief that isn’t based on some evidence, but I cannot. The question is not whether evidence is present, but whether that evidence is of the caliber that warrants the level of belief a person is assigning to it. Dawkins does have a point that some faith, particularly some religious faith, is held in spite of what should be compelling evidence in opposition. However, the pivot is here: compelling to whom? They have sufficient evidence in their mind, or, by definition, they wouldn’t believe what they have faith in. Is their manner of reasoning about their evidence grounded in a mechanism that is more likely to lead to objective truth? That is the key question.

Definition 5 also turns on this point. What is “good” evidence? That is where the believer and the non-believer tend to differ, and it is the real heart of the issue about the meaning of faith. I just made up definitions 6-9 but most of them probably came form my subconscious after being reconstructed from something I previously heard. As a non-believer, I should be careful before thinking of faith this way because each use of the word requires it’s own evaluation. People often don’t mean “religious faith” when they say “faith,” and even religious faith doesn’t always meet the criteria listed in 6-9.

Why non-believers tend to distrust the religious definitions of “faith” (10-14)

First, let me say that I have immense respect for faith. I know that statement won’t sit well with many of my fellow non-believers, but I must be honest. I know the indwelling presence of joy and strength that comes from faith first-hand. It is a confidence, an assurance, an acceptance and a love like no other. Neuroscience might note that it can act like an addiction and a high like any other positive endorphin trip. That doesn’t change the experience. I just wanted to start by identifying with the believers before I explain why the feelings, while deeply treasured, are still subject to the assessment that follows.

The first definition in that set (10) makes faith sound like something to be avoided – at least that’s what the rational parts of my conscious mind say (some believer’s may call that the devil). Paul sounds poetic and it’s in the Bible so a vast number of people take it to be God’s definition and wholly accurate. This is just the KJV but please look up the possible meanings of the words in the Strong’s concordance. I use this almost every time I look up a verse in the Bible. Here’s the link to Hebrews 11:1 where this faith verse is recorded. Click the words to where else they’re used in the Bible. Click the Strong’s numbers to see the possible meanings that the words may have.

The problem I’m seeing with Paul’s definition is the same problem many non-theists probably see with most religiously based definitions they hear. Non-theists, this is my personal assessment so please let me know whether or not you agree with the following. Religious definitions of faith are in opposition to the best tools of reasoning we have for determining Truth.

I experience the sublime, but at the end of the day, the substance of hope is really best described as just “hope.” “Evidence of things unseen” is either no evidence or weak evidence, in my opinion. So, in a sense, it seems as though he’s defining faith to be hope, courage, conviction, etc., that is based on non-testable and weak evidence. That sounds very much like poor reasoning that doesn’t take advantage of what we’ve learned about coming to true beliefs since Aristotle (before Paul) and in the scientific revolution in the last four hundred years. It was written before modern philosophy of science so we can’t expect it to have taken that into account, right? The two problems that keep that from being convincing to me are that it was written post-Aristotle, and it was supposedly divine. It could have used Plato/Socrates/Aristotle-like reasoning as a basis for determining which beliefs to hold with which level of certainty, but it did the opposite and left the door open for almost all the fallacies and biases of human reasoning to enter what we accept as true. Despite 1 Thessalonians 5:21 which tells us to test all things, we aren’t given any tools for testing that will have a high chance of leading us to truth. Testing them against the Bible is circular and thus shouldn’t be believed with full-confidence. In addition, Biblical faith makes predictions that are testable and don’t pass the test when measured (e.g. the average success-rate of prayer).

Please don’t write me off as a post-modernist strong-naturalist steeped in scientism. I’m actually none of those things, by my interpretation of them. I have reasons for believing what I do about epistemology and the good brought about by the modern philosophy of science. I don’t believe it’s the answer to every question, but I know what it’s strengths and limits are. Coming to “true beliefs” is a strength it has over “reasoning without it.” More on that in a minute.

Definition 11 isn’t any better. If complete trust is to be based on spiritual apprehension rather than on truth, this highlights the problem neatly. It’s about what we value more – a false belief that feels excellent out of the box or a true belief that we have to work at before it will feel good after leaving the false belief.

Please note that I’m not saying anything about the truth or falsity of the beliefs the Bible relates. All these arguments are equally applicable to any religious, political or other ideology. The question is not whether the Bible’s claims are true or false, but whether or not the mechanism it outlines for belief is one that is more likely to lead to True beliefs. As Matt Dillahunty has pointed out, our goal should be to minimize the number of false beliefs and maximize the number of true beliefs we hold. We should all strive to hold as many true beliefs and as few false beliefs as possible. If that’s our goal, we must recognize the following.

Promoting certainty of belief in concepts that we hope are true, but for which we have little evidence, is a poor method of coming to objectively true beliefs. It may make us feel good, but even if it leads to a belief that is true but non-demonstrable, we can’t relate that knowledge to others because it’s subjective by nature. In that case it is indistinguishable from the follies of our bias reasonings and logical fallacies which, when discovered, leave many of us either deeply questioning our faith or deeply opposed to what we see as the “religion of science” or “liberal intellectualism.” Any angle I examine it, I can’t find Paul’s definition of faith to be more virtuous, righteous, or valuable in terms of leading to truth than evidence-based reasoning. If truth is individual, given by God, and steeped in a web of flawed human reasoning that opposes the order or critical thought, then I still want to know it but I can’t get there.

Definitions 12 through 14 don’t make religious faith sound any more desirable, to me personally, as a path to truth. I made them up anyway. Saying a decision is educated also makes it more prone to the the MR thing I wrote about in Why I respect Pascal (I won’t write the words here since I told some important people that I’d stop mentioning it :)). Definition 14 is actually the one I’m the most okay with because it has a clear meaning within the religious context and doesn’t prescribe anything directly about how we ought to reason. I find it dubious, but I don’t take umbrage with it. I used to believe I had it and I miss it.

Why else do non-believers feel uneasy when someone says they have faith (and don’t clarify that they don’t mean religious faith)

I want to wrap this up quickly but there is a lot to cover here. I’ll try to make it quick and save most of what I was going to say for a later time. The short answer, in my opinion, is that religious faith tends to demand a level of certainty beyond the level for which it can justify good evidence.

A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. – David Hume

When I say good evidence, I do mean evidence that can be tested and falsified. In Paul’s time, personal conviction may have been “good evidence.” I don’t think so, because he had Aristotle who’s principles would have led to much better evidence, but then again, Plato’s logic include “forms” and was more of an armchair philosophy compared to the modern empirical sciences which are significantly more accurate. Either way, it seems undeniable to me that, by today’s standards, Paul’s definitions of religious faith do not qualify as good evidence today. Why?

First, listen to this audio lecture. Seriously. If you do I’ll celebrate your awesomeness in a post and email you a secret family dessert recipe. Pascal listened to it. 🙂 I know you’ll like the course because you read this far. If you made it this far you definitely have what it takes to make it through that awesome audio.

Second, briefly, science is a subset of reason. Life forms have been reasoning about the world, their environment, themselves, each other, etc., for millions of years or more. Humans for hundreds of thousands. That reasoning power is great at self-preservation, but not engineered for finding truth. There are many flaws in our reasoning. For an idea, read The Problem, and skim the Wikipedia pages for cognitive biases and logical fallacies. The vast majority of these effect each of us every day and we are completely unaware. This is another excellent audio book on the subject. The bottom line is that if there is an objective reality (and I believe there is), we do not observe it. We construct our reality as we experience it. I’m not even talking about quantum physics here. There are several layers of processing that occur between what IS, and what we consciously experience. Those layers are faulty at many places and lead us away from the truth of what IS. Worst of all, we aren’t even aware of it most of the time. For a taste to demonstrate the principle, look at the famous dress photo (blue and black or white and gold?) and these others I got from a TED talk a while back. There are many more such images. You can find similar images by googling “optical illusions” but Neil Degrasse Tyson says we should call them “brain failures” because that’s what they are…

dress

black_dots

straight_or_curved

Okay, so our human reasoning isn’t perfect at seeing things, but we can still trust our non-scientific reasoning about things, including the supernatural, right?

probabilities

Not so much. 🙂

The philosophy of science has evolved over centuries as the most effective means of stopping poor reasoning that plagues all humans. A good scientific theory provides explanation, prediction and control. We can justify belief in many concepts, but confidence should be reserved (in my opinion) to a more moderate level when dealing with things that fall outside of what we can test. The appropriate level of confidence almost always falls below the threshold of what would be considered righteousness in a religious tradition. Religious faith demands a level of confidence that is at war with the best processes we have for searching out truth today. I am not saying that science is the only way to “know” something. I am saying that we must acknowledge that our non-scientific reasoning should be distrusted to a greater degree than our reasoning that follows the scientific process accurately. Science embraces methodological naturalism which means it doesn’t say anything about the supernatural one way or the other. While it won’t tell us what God’s nature is, it can attempt things like determining which clearly defined hypotheses are less likely than others based on the predictions those hypotheses make (assuming they interact with the world in some way).

We can believe X about God Y, but if we have the same level of confidence about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin than we do about whether the sun will rise tomorrow, we’re placing as much confidence in our demonstrably far-less trustworthy evolutionary reasoning as we are in our reasoning based on science, which is encompasses the latest advances in thought throughout history (with a demonstrable track record of high-success).

The real issue is whether or not something is falsifiable. If it isn’t, we can still believe it and potentially justly so. But we can’t call it science. Popper helped solidify that with his problem of demarcation. Science which encompasses mathematics, statistics, probabilities, confidence intervals, margins of error, peer reviews, efforts to disprove hypotheses, checks against personal biases, double-blind trials, and the formidable advantage of formulas and logic to weed out the ambiguous nature of human reasoning and language – is far more likely, on average, to lead to true beliefs (beliefs that accurately reflect the reality that is) than using non-scientific processes based on flawed reasoning and circular logic about how we feel about a given subject.

If you disagree, I’ll be happy to dedicate a post to defending that position. Before doing so, consider that most religions require an ante of belief upon conversion. You must believe X and Y to be a true follower of religion Z. Once there, the balance between eternal bliss and eternal torment due to apostasy often hinges on your level of religious faith. With that in mind, consider Bill Nye’s answer at the end of the Creation vs Evolution debate about what would change his mind. A single piece of evidence (paraphrase). His opponents answer was “nothing.”

Please don’t think I’m saying that all believers hold faith “in the teeth of evidence” or that Ken was not right to do so. Perhaps he does have the proper belief or perhaps he would change his mind when the right pieces of evidence appear, but he just can’t imagine it yet. What matters is not whether faith in X or Y is warranted, or even whether idea Z is true or false. I’m asking you to consider which process of reasoning, on average, is more likely to yield more true beliefs and fewer false beliefs. Regardless of your answer, know that non-believers tend to think that the methodology of reasoning is different for religious faith than it is for science (yes, they conflict), and that religious faith is far less reliable. That is why they tend to define it differently and why it makes them uneasy to hear someone say they are using “faith.”

Conclusion

The word “faith” means so many things, many of them very polarizing, and there is almost a certainty that people with opposing theological beliefs are not going to accept the same interpretations. We all have flaws in our reasoning, naturally, from birth – especially me. No matter how much we try to overcome them through learning about them or studying logic, biases, meta-cognition, etc., none of us are completely immune to the hidden biases that creep in. For this reason alone, we should be cautious of the types of reasoning that make us certain about untestable claims. We should also be aware of when we think we’re testing claims against our experience but we’re really failing to take account of confirmation bias, or other biases for which we are often unaware until we learn about them and examine our beliefs against them.

Is faith good or bad? I may be largely a personality thing. Evidence seems to support the idea that some personality types (mainly “feelers”) tend to be more likely to land on the pro-religious-faith side than their opposites. I don’t know if that’s true, but the Myers-Briggs profile analyses seem to say so.

In some sense it depends on how important truth is to you. Faith feels wonderful. Oh how I miss it. But is the quality of evidence in religious faith sufficient to warrant the level of belief we hold in our religious tenets? Those who reason by faith usually say yes. Those who don’t tend to say no. Who’s right? As a general principle, my assessment is that religious faith is less trustworthy than scientific reasoning, so I trust it less. I do not completely distrust it but I’m a little more skeptical of it. I think this is good because wanting something to be true means we should be even more cautious of it, examining it even more, because our natural tendency is to do the opposite (another blind spot).

So Pascal, if we’re talking about how we reason as humans, I think we should focus on evidence-based reasoning over faith-based reasoning. I actually think that’s not the best way to consider the conflict. I still want there to be faith-based reasoning because the things that come to us through our faith are a kind of evidence. It’s all under the umbrella of human reasoning. We just need to subject our faith-based thoughts and intuitions through the same two filters that we subject every other kind of thought.

Filter 1: a list of all the biases and logical fallacies we’re subject too.

Filter 2: evidence-based testing (e.g. scientific method, testing, repeatability etc.).

We shouldn’t necessarily disbelieve it if it fails one of these filters, but the degree to which it passes both filters is the degree to which we should trust it, wherever it comes from (faith-based reasoning or elsewhere). This is where I support the “and” over the “instead.”

To me, “faith” is a red-flag warning of potential belief that exceeds what’s warranted by the evidence. I see faith as a potential multiplier that takes what we should believe based on evidence and boosts it some degree with confidence from what we want to be true. Evidence always informs faith, but faith has a tendency to go further than good, fallacy-filtered evidence warrants. If we hold up the white-flag of humility alongside the red-flag of hope (e.g. if we say, “I think and hope this but I don’t know”), then I’m much more okay with faith and evidence rather than limiting to just faith instead of evidence. Of course, you have this quality in spades. Go climb your mountain, you awesome dad. 🙂

Next week, let me know if we’re at an impasse with faith and where I made things more confusing or more clear. I know you already knew the vast majority of this, but I’m putting it down for posterity and the off chance it might help someone. Sorry you had to wade through it. Please forgive the typos. It is very late now.

Questions

Readers, did any of you make it this far? If you’re a non-believer are you uneasy when people say you “have faith in X?” If you’re a believer are did this post irritate you? Do you disagree? If so, I apologize. Want to add anything?

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

41 comments

  1. Hi Russell, I made it through, I’m a christian and I think (1) you had a lot of good thoughts but (2) I think I see things very differently (I suppose obviously). Here are just a few thoughts to throw into the mix:

    It is possible that faith to believe what is true is given by God (the Bible suggests that, as does your #14). If that was true, it would explain a lot – why some believers are so confident and most non-believers are so critical – and hypotheses that explain a lot are worthy of some respect. You could say that it wouldn’t be a good basis for belief, it is bad epistemology, etc, but it might still be a true belief. Of course, this would be a conversation killer, because an unbeliever couldn’t accept it, so I won’t mention the thought again. But I guess it needs to be said.
    We would all probably agree that our epistemology should be appropriate to the subject (e.g. we don’t use the scientific method to test if we like chocolate or if I love my wife), the circumstances (e.g. in an emergency, we take shortcuts or we may die) and who we are (e.g. don’t ask a five year old to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem). The following is a list of things which require, in my opinion, different levels of evidence:

    whether to try the new flavour chocolate or stick to the old favourite
    whether to ask this woman to marry me
    whether to choose this job or that one
    whether war is justified
    does the multiverse exist?
    whether this new drug should be released onto the market

    So is something like scientific method appropriate to knowing God? Or is some thing more like how we decide to get married or accept a new job? (Non-believers often say “but choosing to get married is different because you know the person exists”. But I am not suggesting the two matters are totally analogous, only that both involve quite life-affecting decisions made without certainty of the end result.) And the key in these cases is surely choosing what has the preponderance of evidence and the least amount of uncertainty – a standard that wouldn’t be sufficient for science and probably not acceptable in a court of law – plus a certain amount of faith or trust in the character of that woman, despite the uncertainty.
    My opinion as a christian is that the preponderance of evidence is in favour of God and Jesus. I think that there is evidence either way, but I think the pro evidence significantly outweighs the anti. I accept that you make a different judgment and this topic isn’t the place to discuss our different assessments. But I think it is reasonable to make the decision to trust Jesus was telling the truth, and to trust him in a way not all that different to how I trusted my wife when I asked her to marry me.
    So, finally, where is “faith” in that? Which definition am I offering? I am happy with #3 (and I would be happy to use synonyms instead), I think Hebrews (#10) is a quite reasonable definition, because it simply points out that many intangibles can never really be “proven” like tangibles can. Another way of expressing my view would be: faith = living confidently (though not with certainty) following a belief that is merely probable and not certain, because I have decided the evidence points to the truth of trusting Jesus. Again, it is similar to being married. I may not be certain this woman is the very best for me in the whole world, I may not be certain that someone “better” won’t come along tomorrow, but having decided this is my best choice, I will live on that basis regardless. Does that make sense?

    Thanks for your thoughtful ideas, I hope I have helped the discussion along.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi UnkleE. Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I actually largely agree with this. I’ll explain my differences and where I have problems with it when I get a work break. 🙂

      Gentleness and respect,
      —Russell

      Like

    2. Hi unkleE!

      I apologize for what is about to follow. Some people don’t like the style of quoting and responding to every line. My goal is to get as many of my thoughts out as possible in a short time and to not miss addressing any of your points. I hope this doesn’t offend you. Here goes. 🙂

      It is possible that faith to believe what is true is given by God (the Bible suggests that, as does your #14).

      I agree with your point and tried to pull out my version of it a few times in the post but I probably didn’t do a good job. Many non-believers (and seemingly even many non-humans) believe True things so if it is God granting that ability, he must be doing it to some degree for everyone.

      If that was true, it would explain a lot – why some believers are so confident and most non-believers are so critical – and hypotheses that explain a lot are worthy of some respect.

      Explanation is only one leg of a good hypothesis. There are an infinite number of hypotheses that can explain the data. Explanation of some of the data does not warrant confidence in a hypothesis. If the explanation accounts for all the data, is clearly defined, is coupled with accurate prediction (and sometimes control), is filtered through the fallacies of human reasoning, and is the best explanation we have given (or at least as good as alternative explanations) at explaining the data, and if it requires the fewest assumptions in addition to what we can demonstrate – only then is it worthy of belief (with a confidence level and a margin of error). Otherwise, we can respect the hypothesis, but trying to justify confidence in it would put as at odds with the best level of reasoning about truth, and many of those who don’t find the hypothesis compelling will just be labeled as those that God didn’t choose (or chose and then release from truth when they learned to much about the more sound processes of reasoning today).

      If you are interested to think through the argument your proposing in your first quote above and present it as an actual hypothesis, I’ll do my best to explain why I think it fails and why I think there are better hypotheses that are simpler, with fewer new dependencies, that also fit the data, make accurate predictions and provide control.

      You could say that it wouldn’t be a good basis for belief, it is bad epistemology, etc, but it might still be a true belief. Of course, this would be a conversation killer, because an unbeliever couldn’t accept it, so I won’t mention the thought again. But I guess it needs to be said.

      I’m glad you said it. I said it in the post and I agree. I don’t think it’s bad epistemology for those who haven’t been exposed to the alternatives which are better. It’s the natural epistemology, but unfortunately it’s flawed and leads to religious feuds. I’ll also add (I mentioned this in the post but it might not have come out as clearly as I wanted it to), that bad epistemology is certainly not limited to religious faith, not all religious faith is based on bad epistemology (some is just good evidence that has no need for “faith” but is labeled as “faith” because that is seen as a virtue), and that many non-religious ideologies can fall into the camp of religious faith regardless of whether or not they are religions. It’s not even about religion other than the common theme of religion requiring an ante of high-confidence that is perpetuated through the life of the believer while condemning the changing of one’s mind about key tenets. Any system of non-evidential reasoning has similar problems. They let the preponderance of human fallacies run wild and, as you stated, are often not based in good epistemology. Also, these are obviously all generalizations. It is certainly possible to hold religious beliefs about God that are based on good epistemology because they have been passed critically through the two filters I listed. The first filter basically gives alternative reasons that could explain our beliefs (which we should consider). The second filter says which of our beliefs we should probably doubt for evidential reasons that conflict with reality as we observe it. I think many readers of this blog, including Pascal and probably you, have subjected many or most of their beliefs through these filters and have an appropriate level of confidence assigned to them. The post was about the concerns of faith in general and not with individuals’ use of faith.

      We would all probably agree that our epistemology should be appropriate to the subject (e.g. we don’t use the scientific method to test if we like chocolate or if I love my wife), the circumstances (e.g. in an emergency, we take shortcuts or we may die) and who we are (e.g. don’t ask a five year old to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem).

      I wouldn’t claim that we should be actively using the scientific method, specifically, for all areas of life. What I do believe is that we should examine all our closely and confidently held beliefs and pass them through the filters I mentioned. There may be some we need to shore up. Why do we believe X or Y so strongly? What is our evidence and is our confidence level appropriate for the evidence we find, or have any of the fallacies from the first filter affected our confidence level to an inappropriate degree? Whether we like chocolate, a quick decision about a route, or expecting unreasonable math from a child aren’t relevant to this in my view. With that said, science actually can provide a good approach to reasoning about all of those, but that’s outside of my point.

      The following is a list of things which require, in my opinion, different levels of evidence:
      whether to try the new flavour chocolate or stick to the old favourite
whether to ask this woman to marry me
whether to choose this job or that one
whether war is justified
does the multiverse exist?
whether this new drug should be released onto the market

      Completely agree. 🙂

      So is something like scientific method appropriate to knowing God?

      The answer is a resounding “no.” Science excludes the possibility of knowing God by setting one of it’s key principles to be matching natural phenomena to natural explanations. We knew there was a problem with burning people alive for being witches. Reasoning without a formal methodology that ignored supernatural theories led to all manner of crazy subjective reasoning (largely based on fear of what strong person or group X feared about their deities or thought their deities wanted from them). It was an unstable system. From 2:46 to 4:21 of this video is tangentially related.

      Know the difference, as Galileo did, between how to go to Heaven and how the Heavens go. – Neil deGrasse Tyson

      No, science does not help us know what God is. Science tells us what God is unlikely to be. The way it does this is by providing a formal method to determine whether claims should be believed or not, and with what level of confidence and what margin of error. This is the point of the second filter I mentioned. If a claim about God does not involve properties that interact with he world in any testable way, science is completely mute on the point beyond a sprinkling of Occam’s Razor. If the properties of a deity do make claims that interact with the world, then those claims are subject to testing by science, and one’s confidence in one’s beliefs in the truth and existence of a deity with such properties should take those scientific results into account.

      Having said all that, I think the very idea of “knowing God” through any means is wrong-headed. God is by definition supernatural. Outside of nature. Because of that, our thoughts about God are indistinguishable from our imaginations about a made-up God, except where our ideas of him require interaction with the physical world – in which case, science is the only way we can “know” anything about God (which is strictly limited what properties he probably does not have).

      Or is some thing more like how we decide to get married or accept a new job? (Non-believers often say “but choosing to get married is different because you know the person exists”.

      Those are decisions that we have to reason about and the best way is to pass them, as much as possible, through both filters I mentioned.

      But I am not suggesting the two matters are totally analogous, only that both involve quite life-affecting decisions made without certainty of the end result.) And the key in these cases is surely choosing what has the preponderance of evidence and the least amount of uncertainty – a standard that wouldn’t be sufficient for science and probably not acceptable in a court of law – plus a certain amount of faith or trust in the character of that woman, despite the uncertainty.

      The processes in a court of law are mostly science-based. Science acknowledges subjectivity and works with the evidence it has, even the terrible reliability of eye-witness testimony that hasn’t passed through the two filters or the feelings of someone in love. I wouldn’t call what you describe “faith” in the woman’s character. The confidence level should be entirely based upon the evidence after being passed through both filters I mentioned. To come up with a level of confidence or trust, etc., there’s no need for anything beyond the evidence itself. Unless we can separate where confidence from the evidence ends and a desired level of trust that goes beyond that begins, faith isn’t needed here. Hope that the supporting evidence will continue past the marriage ceremony, perhaps? Hope, I’ll go with that. 🙂

      My opinion as a christian is that the preponderance of evidence is in favour of God and Jesus. I think that there is evidence either way, but I think the pro evidence significantly outweighs the anti. I accept that you make a different judgment and this topic isn’t the place to discuss our different assessments.

      I understand and respect this position. I used to hold it myself. I’ll just say that I can’t find any way back to that place, despite how much I long for it, because no set of reasons for trusting the Bible that I can come up with are not better explained by the reasons to distrust it. I was taught to love it before I knew what critical thinking was. It took years for me to learn meta-cognition and then have the courage to critically examine my beliefs to see where I could actually stand without feeling dishonest.

      It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving, it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe. – Thomas Paine, Age of Reason

      But I think it is reasonable to make the decision to trust Jesus was telling the truth, and to trust him in a way not all that different to how I trusted my wife when I asked her to marry me.

      This is where Pascal stands, and where many do. The theme is something like, “I trust Him like I trust my wife’s love.” And then, ultimately, “I trust because I’m in love.” This is where the disconnect usually occurs. My response to Pascal can be found in Is Love a Good Reason to Believe?. Yes, as you pointed out, I trust my wife’s love because she’s here in the flesh telling me in small ways every day. I used to trust Jesus’ words because I believed the Bible was worthy of trust and Jesus was here, telling in small ways every day. If you still believe that and if you’ve examined your belief through the filters I mentioned, your belief is well-grounded. However, if I could give you 5 seconds in my mind you would understand why I don’t trust it, and it all comes down to those filters. In my view, the Bible is clearly less than fully trustworthy and it’s difficult to see which parts are worthy of high confidence. The presence of Jesus or The Holy Spirit in my life were better explained by my misunderstanding and misuse of that first filter I mentioned.

      So, finally, where is “faith” in that? Which definition am I offering? I am happy with #3 (and I would be happy to use synonyms instead), I think Hebrews (#10) is a quite reasonable definition, because it simply points out that many intangibles can never really be “proven” like tangibles can.

      I think synonyms for 3 would be better when you’re audience includes non-believers to reduce the chance of their gut-reaction being “My beliefs aren’t outside of what the evidence warrants.”

      I also think Hebrews 10 is a reasonable definition, and the fact that intangibles can’t be proven (demonstrated to be True) elucidates the point that they should rarely be trusted to the same degree as the tangibles that are proven. Logic work with proofs, but science and logic are not completely overlapping circles (depending on your definition of science as the inclusive or exclusive version – I see science as encompassing logic but that’s more the inclusive version). Science, outside of formal logic in the domain of mathematics, doesn’t seek to prove anything but rather disproves hypotheses by demonstrating which ones don’t fit the data. To use “proven” as a word to cast doubt on the scientific methodology is targeting something that is outside of the scope of science compared to what the user of the word “proof” usually intends. I don’t think you were doing this with your use of “proven,” but I wanted to point it out in case it helps others (not that anyone else will read all this… haha).

      Another way of expressing my view would be: faith = living confidently (though not with certainty) following a belief that is merely probable and not certain, because I have decided the evidence points to the truth of trusting Jesus. Again, it is similar to being married. I may not be certain this woman is the very best for me in the whole world, I may not be certain that someone “better” won’t come along tomorrow, but having decided this is my best choice, I will live on that basis regardless. Does that make sense?

      It absolutely does! 🙂 I would just ask this. If you took out the faith part, and just trusted Jesus based on the evidence alone, and trusted your wife was right for you based on the evidence alone, would it change anything? If not, then what is faith doing in your belief equation? Why use the word at all? If it would change something by putting it back in, then isn’t it giving you a level of confidence that exceeds that which the evidence warrants? If so, do you feel comfortable knowing that your confidence level is based to some degree on your desired truth rather than evidential truth? Doesn’t this validate the definitions of faith that indicated desire acting as a modifier to confidence, as I wrote about in the post’s conclusion?

      If we 1) seek to understand as many of the flaws in our reasoning as possible (that book I linked is an excellent start) and 2) examine all our closely held beliefs (including those about God, our spouse and loved ones, our political party, etc.) and subject them to the two belief filters I mentioned, whatever beliefs and confidence levels come out on the other side are likely to be much more objectively valid and worthy of respect from others. If we fail to understand our flaws in logic and our biases through a lack of awareness of meta-cognition, our reasons for holding our beliefs are no more trustworthy than those of the children fighters in ISIS.

      Faith has great value, but we start life under it’s control. It’s not perfect. Some learn it’s weakness and shore them up. Others are swept along for the ride and go along with whatever their in-group thinks. This is why most religion is based on location and why there are so many religions and sub-denominations today. It’s also why I question faith as the best method to obtaining more true beliefs and fewer false ones, in general.

      Oh goodness. I just overwhelmed you with words again. I’m so sorry. I completely forgot that my wife limited me to 1800 word posts and 5 sentence responses. Ah. I’ll try that next time. It’s back to work for now. I hope this has helped in some way and I hope you have a great day! 🙂

      Gentleness and respect,
      –Russell

      Liked by 1 person

    3. Hi UnkleE if it is the case that faith is given by God then what does that mean in regard to the person without faith. Does it mean that a sovereign God, creator of the universe has decided before they were even born that they will not have faith. What are they to do then?

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      1. Hi Peter,

        I’m sure you’re aware that some christians think what you say (that God predetermines who will believe) but I don’t believe that.

        (1) The Bible teaches that “whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” and “the one who seeks, and keeps on seeking, will find”. So if you or someone else calls, I believe he will answer (though we may not always recognise it).

        (2) We don’t know how anyone’s lives will end up, so there may be some who have not yet been given faith, but will be some day.

        (3) We don’t know why God gives faith to some and not to others. I can only think that God will be more fair, not less fair, than I would be. My guess is that God gives faith to believe to anyone who is honestly seeking in the right way.

        (4) But in saying these things, I am not therefore saying anything about the integrity of any particular person, you, Russell, or anyone else. I don’t pretend to speak for God, and I accept the genuineness of many atheists I meet on the web. I don’t know how any of you will end up, exactly why you disbelieve, how God will judge you, or anything, and I am not in any position to make a judgment. I can only try to answer your question.

        Thanks.

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        1. Hi UnkleE

          In essence I see that there are three basic possibilities:
          1) ‘God’ will see me as someone genuinely seeking truth and show me the truth;
          2) ‘God’ will in essence say I am not really seeking truth, that is I am in some way insincere and blind me to the truth; or
          3) There may not actually be a ‘God’ there to find.

          Being someone who was a believer, in my view and the view of every person who knew me, I could argue that Hebrews 6:4-6 says if someone like me falls away there is no coming back. So even if the Bible is true my position is hopeless. Having said that I am yet to come across a single person who really believes that particular text applies in reality.

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          1. Hi Peter, I missed this for a day or two, sorry. I see some other possibilities ….

            1a. God will see that you are genuinely seeking the truth and try to show you, but you may have the wrong assumptions or seeking in the wrong way, and so miss it.
            4. God sees you are not really seeking the truth but loves you anyway and tries again to turn your head in a different direction.
            5. You will come to see that you knew the truth back then and have temporarily misunderstood, and you get back to it eventually.

            I suppose they are subsets of your options, but I think they are important.

            I think many christians and non-christians alike misunderstand the Bible because they apply it like a 21st century science text. I’ve heard some OT scholars say to the Jews, the Bible is less a statement of doctrine and truth and more like a discussion with different viewpoints. (e.g Proverbs 26:4-5 give to opposite views one after the other!) I think there’s at least some truth in that. Hebrews 6 expresses some truths but there are other ways of looking at it too. In some ways which truth applies to us depends on our response.

            I accept you were a genuine believer as much as any human being can make that judgment. I sincerely hope you are able to find good reasons to believe again one day.

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            1. I don’t see Proverbs 26:4-5 as a problem, rather I see it as saying no matter what you do you can’t win with a fool. Regardless of whether you engage with them or decide not to, they will consider they have won the argument. I can testify to the efficacy of that from my dealings on some other blogs.

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    1. I know it does that to me sometimes. No worries at all. It was perfectly clear though I’m fairly confident that I still managed to misunderstand you in numerous places. Haha. 🙂

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  2. Hi Russell

    I found your post extremely interesting. I too was once a Christian but am now a non-believer. The part about the want to have faith because it is such a hopeful and euphoric feeling certainly hit home. Eventually, I found faith such a struggle when I have such a rational mindset that it felt like I was fighting against every inch of my own personality in order to maintain it.

    It is so refreshing to hear somebody discuss religion so calmly, thoroughly and without judgement.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have weeded the word ‘faith’ from my vernacular. It carries too much baggage, as you have so eloquently shown. I found that where I was using ‘faith’, ‘confidence’ would usually do the job better. When I believe in something without concrete reason, my thoughts are imbued with hope, not stubborn certainty. In the end, I am not willing to spend my life betting on shaky reasoning.

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  4. Hi Russell, I am quite fine with lots of quotes and responses. The only difficulty is that it can grow exponentially, so I will confine myself to four topics (if I can!).

    “why I think there are better hypotheses that are simpler, with fewer new dependencies, that also fit the data, make accurate predictions and provide control.”

    I think this misses the point of the argument from strong personal experience of God. You are still arguing evidence and rationality, etc. But this argument says that beyond all evidence and rationality, it is possible for God (who after all can do anything that is consistent with his character) can give a person an experience and a certainty about that experience that is truly and actually so certain that it blows all that you can say away. You can say quite rightly that the methodology is poor and the person could be fooled, and you’d likely be right according to logic, but if God is really there and has really directly interacted with that person, then your logic is of no value. I’ll give two examples, neither proving everything I want to say, but each adding something.

    First, there is a story (not sure if true) of when Mike Tyson was at the peak of his boxing career, and he was being interviewed about his next fight. The reporter says “Your next opponent says he has a plan to beat you, what do you say about that?” Mike is reported to have said “They all have a plan – and then I hit them!” There is a simple ratio equation – God:your evidence > Tyson: plan.

    Second, a detective investigates a case, methodically putting evidence together, finally showing that of all the possible suspects, you are the only one who is without an alibi, had a motive, had the means to do it, etc, and charges you. Yet you know that you didn’t do it. You might get convicted and go to gaol (later DNA studies show many people are wrongly convicted) but still you know you didn’t do it.

    Now in the end, there is nothing anyone can say to the person who believes they have directly experienced God in a very deep way. You can say the evidence isn’t strong enough, they will say it is. I say they will legitimately believe, and it is only the rest of us who have to decide whether the evidence is strong enough.

    Let me repeat, I have never had such an experience, and I am not using it as an argument for my belief (although I think the cumulative sum of such experiences can be a reason for outsiders like me to believe, because each event adds to the probability that God exists). But I still think it is quite wrong to suggest that the experiencer is wrong to believe on that basis.

    “No, science does not help us know what God is. Science tells us what God is unlikely to be. …. I think the very idea of “knowing God” through any means is wrong-headed. God is by definition supernatural. Outside of nature. Because of that, our thoughts about God are indistinguishable from our imaginations about a made-up God, except where our ideas of him require interaction with the physical world – in which case, science is the only way we can “know” anything about God”

    I disagree here. We only know anything outside of ourselves via our senses. How do we know our senses give us reliable information? Because what we learn from them is verified by others, is consistent and allows us to make decisions about our actions that give predictable results. We could probably think of other criteria.

    Using the same sort of criteria, we can scientifically test some personal experiences (visions, healings, mystical experiences, etc) and when we do it is arguable that there is consistency there too, and they lead to predictable and good effects, etc. Again, this isn’t certain, but it increases probability.

    Also the major philosophical arguments for the existence of God rest on current science. So I think some level of science is useful in assessing whether God exists, it just isn’t the only thing we should use.

    “I understand and respect this position. I used to hold it myself. I’ll just say that I can’t find any way back to that place, despite how much I long for it, because no set of reasons for trusting the Bible that I can come up with are not better explained by the reasons to distrust it.”

    I think this is a key issue. I don’t think my comment mentioned the Bible as an authority, and I don’t think belief in God or Jesus depends on belief in the Bible. Rather, a growing number of christians say that belief in the Bible follows belief in Jesus. It works like this.

    I look at the philosophy and science, at my rather modest personal experience of God, and documented cases of others’ apparent experiences of God, and I form the view that it looks quite possible that God is there. So I come to the life of Jesus, not looking at the Old Testament at all, and not looking at the New Testament as “inspired” or “authoritative” or “trustworthy” at all, but merely as a historical document (or really a group of documents). I look at what the secular historians conclude about it, and take what is the consensus as a reasonable starting point.

    On that basis I ask myself what is the right conclusion to come to about Jesus? And since I have already concluded that it looks quite possible, even quite likely, that God exists, I make my judgment on that basis. And on that basis, I am willing to accept he really does appear to have healed people (the historians agree that was what he was known for), he really did act like God’s unique envoy on earth, and he really was resurrected (the historians generally agree his tomb was empty and his followers really did see visions of him after he died).

    So I decide I believe in him. Then, and only then, can I consider whether the Bible is something more than the historical documents of the historians.

    So I don’t think lack of trust in the Bible is a reason to disbelieve in Jesus – it requires a lack of trust in secular historians!

    “If you took out the faith part, and just trusted Jesus based on the evidence alone, and trusted your wife was right for you based on the evidence alone, would it change anything? If not, then what is faith doing in your belief equation? Why use the word at all?”

    Again, this is a key question, especially to the topic of your post. It is a difficult one to answer, because I have to try to understand my own motives, including subconscious ones. I’ll do my best, but I may change my mind later. I think there are several levels of faith.

    First, we only have one life, and we live and die by our choices. I believe the evidence for Jesus and God is way stronger than the evidence against, but is certainly short of certainty. I could decide to wait a little longer, get some more evidence, but I am a person who would prefer to make a choice and get on with it. (e.g. I married at 21. I used to be an environmental manager, and the best way to manage the environment is not to wait until we know all we need to know – everything would be stuffed by then – but to make the best choices we can, and then review them and adjust course – it’s called adaptive management). I have done the same with christian faith, which I am constantly reviewing and adjusting. Some people would call the gap between probable evidence and committed belief “faith”. I don’t think I use it much that way, but I see their point.

    Second, Einstein and Hawking have each said something to the effect that we have the laws of nature that control the evolution of the universe from the initial big bang, but we don’t know “what breathes fire into the equations” and actually makes the universe happen. In my life when I was 16, I spent a period of about a year believing that christianity was true, but not committed to following Jesus. I finally committed, and I think that was a step of faith. Faith “breathed fire” into the evidence and led me to act and commit.

    Third, and this is the most important one I think, CS Lewis points out that life is not just intellectual, but also emotional and spiritual. People can be discouraged or disillusioned enough to give up and disbelieve. He argues that when that happens, we should review the evidence – are our reasons to believe still true? If so, then we know our discouragement is emotional. That is when we exercise faith to keep going, when we feel it is all false but know it is still true. I have followed his advice literally hundreds of times in my 50+ years as a christian. That is where faith comes in.

    Fourth, once I am a christian, I am faced with issues relating to prayer, guidance, understanding the Bible, etc. As a christian I make many decisions “in faith” that God is leading me. Here faith is trusting that the God I intellectually believe is there will act according the character I believe he has.

    Sorry, my response is long too. I am only new to this blog, and hopefully as we get to know each other more, I can answer more briefly. Thanks for the opportunity.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi unkleE,

      Okay, you’re right. This is getting long. Haha. I’m going to be more direct this time to save words and time, but since you can’t hear me talking or see my body language, please know my tone is in no way harsh. I know some of this will sound critical when reading but it isn’t meant that way or typed out with a single scowl. More smiles and inquisitive looks than anything. 🙂 Here goes…

      You quoted me saying…

      “why I think there are better hypotheses that are simpler, with fewer new dependencies, that also fit the data, make accurate predictions and provide control.”

      and you said

      I think this misses the point of the argument from strong personal experience of God. You are still arguing evidence and rationality, etc. But this argument says that beyond all evidence and rationality, it is possible for God (who after all can do anything that is consistent with his character) can give a person an experience and a certainty about that experience that is truly and actually so certain that it blows all that you can say away. You can say quite rightly that the methodology is poor and the person could be fooled, and you’d likely be right according to logic, but if God is really there and has really directly interacted with that person, then your logic is of no value. I’ll give two examples, neither proving everything I want to say, but each adding something.

      We seem to agree here, with slight clarifications. To be clear, my arguments here have never been about whether or not a God could do such a thing. I’m questioning whether forming extremely strong beliefs based on what we think is a poor line of reasoning is the best way to reach conclusions that are True. I’m not arguing that a God could not exist that could convince people of things on weak evidence. In fact, I agreed with that a few times. Such a God might exist. What I’m saying is that believing things on weak evidence, with high confidence, is what many people call “faith.” Some people believe with certainty that such convictions are from a God they believe in. This causes great problems. Other’s believe that, since such convictions are subject too all the same fallacies the as default poor human reasoning that hasn’t been filtered through a methodology to remove human biases and logical fallacies, it’s not a good mechanism to use and thus they don’t like the notion faith.

      I liked your stories but I wasn’t really clear about whether you thought they conflict with the notion that being certain of things we “think + hope” are true should not make us certain that they are true. That wasn’t worded well, sorry. My time is short and there’s a lot to respond to. 🙂

      Now in the end, there is nothing anyone can say to the person who believes they have directly experienced God in a very deep way.

      This is the problem I referenced. It seems humans have been experience God and believing things with certainty based on faith for over a hundred thousand years. The vast majority of human life has claimed some kind of knowledge about what their God is like and wants and changed their beliefs and behavior due to this strong impressions. Option 1 is that there is a God or Gods out there playing with human minds and granting them certainty in things that oppose the things they grant to other minds with certainty. If this option is correct, a person who stands on faith can’t judge another person who stands on faith, despite their beliefs, because their subjective experience tells them that whatever they believe they can know is from God because of their personal evidence. Gods in this instance sound more like the warring Gods who fight among themselves and play with humanity. Option 1, may be true. It is certainly possible. Maybe a version of the Christian ideology is correct and demonic forces are deceiving part of humanity and all of humanity some of the time. But that line of reasoning is recent in the timeline of conscious man, and faith has been along far before the concept of Yahweh and Satan. In addition, option 1 is only an unlikely possibility while option 2 is clearly demonstrable with overwhelming evidence. They may both be true, but only one is obviously true. Start with the option 2 which we can know to be true. If it explains all the data, then what need to posit option 1 on top of it?

      Option 2 is that human reasoning was bread more for survival than truth. We suffer from hidden logical fallacies and biases. Science is the process of removing those blind spots so we can reason better. If we don’t know what the blind spots are, we can’t possibly say whether or not they’re effecting our conclusions and our certainties, or to what degree they are affecting them. In retrospect, that is probably one of the main themes of my views on faith. Faith increases certainty without accounting for the blind spots. The blind spots are affecting many conclusions for all of us, only some people choose to actively learn about them and reign in their certainty accordingly while others remain unaware and claim they know X or Y because of their personal evidence. If we understand innumeracy (our innate misunderstanding of large numbers), confirmation bias, pattern matching, the fallacy of affirming the consequent, motivated reasoning, and on and on, and if we then apply each of them examine our personal experiences to see which were possibly modified by them and to what degree, taking nothing as certain but rather as probabilistic, then what beliefs remain will have a confidence level and a margin of error that we can stand on with confidence.

      Otherwise our faith feels solid but it’s a house of cards and we’re often unknowingly pitted against science. I personally know very view conservative evangelicals who trust science at all. Anti-intellectualism and ant-science education often has it’s roots here, and lack of science education is preventing us from preventing more suffering and death. We probably agree that we need more scientifically literate believers of all faiths who can promote their faith with solid rational that everyone can accept and condemn the ends of the bell-curve in every faith who hold to extreme views that have negative impacts on humanity.

      In addition, if we don’t filter against the fallacious and biased thinking that most of us are largely unaware of, it seems like we’re just riding our flawed human reasoning and assuming, incorrectly, that we know truths about the supernatural. It may be that one or more of our beliefs about the supernatural is correct (I’m avoiding the term “know” because we can technically have no “knowledge” if any belief about a supernatural is correct or if anything outside of nature exists), but if subjective evidence (feelings) rule, by what objective standard is our knowledge any more demonstrably correct than anyone else’s, perhaps those who wish us harm? I’m not trying to get into a morality debate here and now (goodness this is long already, haha), but I want to point out some of the many pitfalls to a system of coming to beliefs that rely on how we feel about evidence more than the objective defensibility of that evidence. We will always have a right to believe what we wish, because ultimately all beliefs are subjective just as the experiences that provide them are. But some systems are better than others at managing extreme views.

      Option 2 is true. We have imperfect reasoning due to evolution. It explains all human religions and all faith. There could be a God or many Gods adding to the confusion and granting different clarity about different things to different people, but that hypothesis is unnecessary and adds complexity, challenging Occam’s Razor.

      You can say the evidence isn’t strong enough, they will say it is.

      All evidence, whether objective or subjective, is “experienced” and thus is subject to the flaws in our reasoning. As such, all evidence needs to be examined against the known holes in human reasoning before a decision is made. If we 1) have a good understanding of the holes in human reasoning and how to close them, 2) examine our experience of the evidence against these holes, 3) put a probability and margin of error around our conclusion (can be subconscious), 4) still believe the evidence is strong enough for positive belief and can explain why such that unbiased listeners who understand this process will agree that it is sound, then 4) we are arriving at our belief based on the evidence alone and faith isn’t part of the equation. Otherwise, we’re at the whim of flawed human reasoning and our chances of finding truth are diminished while our chances of finding certainty are increased (a bad recipe).

      I say they will legitimately believe, and it is only the rest of us who have to decide whether the evidence is strong enough.

      Technically, I agree because all beliefs are legitimate to the person believing them. Legitimacy depends on who or what is imposing the rules, however, and the believer is not the only authority involved in most beliefs. Beliefs do not live in a vacuum and they often affect other people. For this reason, there are social contracts and governmental laws that legitimize behaviors based upon beliefs. The legitimacy of a belief may also be challenged by reasoning forums like a church, social club, cultural group, philosophical body like science, etc. A persons beliefs will always be legitimate to them, sometimes to one or more social groups they’re operating within, and very rarely within all social groups. What I’m saying is that personal beliefs may not be legitimate according to the best methods we have of reasoning to truth, and that is the point of this post. To do that, a belief must be filtered through the fallacies and biases discovered by logic or science.

      Let me repeat, I have never had such an experience, and I am not using it as an argument for my belief (although I think the cumulative sum of such experiences can be a reason for outsiders like me to believe, because each event adds to the probability that God exists). But I still think it is quite wrong to suggest that the experiencer is wrong to believe on that basis.

      Does each anecdotal experience add to the probability that God exists? Not for me. It would have to be a case-by-case question, but I haven’t heard any yet that sound compelling upon investigation. Most tales grow with the retelling. I don’t suggest an experiencer is wrong to believe anything. I’m not trying to control beliefs. I’m trying to establish that there is an arena of methodologies that have been thoroughly tested and proven to be more likely to come to true beliefs than false ones. If a believer wants to have an appropriate level of confidence in their belief, they can come and learn those methodologies and critically apply them to their beliefs, especially their closely held ones. If they do this, they’re level of commitment to their belief is appropriate to the other people who work in that arena. It can be passed along as a legitimate experience that led to a legitimate belief. If not, it will be rejected by the larger communities that deal with reason and logic and they may lose their membership for a time. 🙂 This happens between all disparate communities of thought, not just between faith and science. If we express pro-political party A beliefs to political party B, they may find our beliefs or reasons illegitimate. Is there a set of belief systems that has been refined over many years to be as bias and fallacy free as possible that can act as an arbiter to decide legitimacy between all these belief systems? The closest we have is science. That’s what it’s been bread for.

      “No, science does not help us know what God is. Science tells us what God is unlikely to be. …. I think the very idea of “knowing God” through any means is wrong-headed. God is by definition supernatural. Outside of nature. Because of that, our thoughts about God are indistinguishable from our imaginations about a made-up God, except where our ideas of him require interaction with the physical world – in which case, science is the only way we can “know” anything about God”

      I disagree here.

      I agree with you. 🙂 I disagree with that part of my quote as well because it’s not the full thing. I ended it with…

      science is the only way we can “know” anything about God” (which is strictly limited what properties he probably does not have).

      What I was trying to say was that if God starts interacting with the laws of nature, we can test and know something is messing with the laws here. If it’s happening in a way to confirm a Biblical predication (e.g. people of faith X prayers are answered regularly but people of faith Y’s aren’t) then we can have some confidence, via science, that God X may be the most likely hypothesis. Science will entertain God hypothesis and adapt to them, it just hasn’t even found one God hypothesis more likely and doesn’t currently assume a God as a cause for anything in its methodology.

      On the other hand, if claim X and Y are made about God Z, and the claims are mutually exclusive, we can use science to determine that it’s not likely that God Z exists with both of those attributes in the same way at the same time. He may in some supernatural realm, but the attributes have to mean something different in this realm or we can’t have high confidence in them because they break logic which is a subset of the inclusive version of science. Also, if it’s claimed that God interacted with the world in detectable way X, and measurements are made but way X did not occur, science can say that claim was not validated so the hypothesis that supported that claim is now less likely. These are just a few examples.

      We only know anything outside of ourselves via our senses.

      I’d go further by saying we the steps between our senses and conscious understanding of them is also subject to failures.

      How do we know our senses give us reliable information?

      We know they do not give us reliable information. If you think they do, please listen to that book. 🙂

      Because what we learn from them is verified by others, is consistent and allows us to make decisions about our actions that give predictable results. We could probably think of other criteria.

      Okay, I’ll rephrase. Our sense are not completely reliable. We can have more confidence in them experience things from them that are verified by others, but even that does not give us completely trust in out senses as groups of people can easily be deceived.

      Using the same sort of criteria, we can scientifically test some personal experiences (visions, healings, mystical experiences, etc) and when we do it is arguable that there is consistency there too, and they lead to predictable and good effects, etc. Again, this isn’t certain, but it increases probability.

      Except when you examine these closely they don’t pan out. They overwhelmingly more examples of flawed human reasoning. They fit in with UFO abduction stories and big foot sightings in terms of actually successful verification rate. This does not increase probability. If anything, it decreases it. The initial positive reports are almost always due to poor control because the experiment was carried out by professional scientists and no miracle claim I know of has made it through peer-review. Not all scientists understand the clumpiness of randomness and the probability that some set of experiments will disprove the null hypothesis simply because P-values are imperfect. Perhaps they’ll be changed as the philosophy of science evolves. A small P value – low probability of the data they measured – might mean the null hypothesis is wrong, or it might mean they just saw some unusual data. They can’t “know” which with one trial, which is why multiple experiments all of the world under different conditions with many seasoned scientists trying to disprove the hypothesis (rather than prove it) and a process of peer-review where more scientists pick it apart for wholes in reasoning, flaws in data collection, etc. may signal possible weakness in the conclusion arrived at by the experiment results (the scope of the conclusion is also tested). None of that is relevant, though, since no claimed subjective experience or miracle has even made it through one scientific test that didn’t come back with a different and more likely explanation than a supernatural event. Of course, science would lean toward the natural, so it’s always possible a real miracle is a work. But how would one know that?

      Here’s what I mean. Science identifies consistencies in nature which are constantly tested in an effort to disprove them. It’s always looking for the unique and unusual. Something that will defy a known consistency (e.g. a “law” or “theory” if it provides explanation) is extremely scientifically interested and could win a Nobel Prize (many scientists’ dream). A miracle is exactly that thing they’re looking for. Want to overturn an existing principle in science and learn new questions to ask to unlock new mysteries of the universe? Find an anomaly. Find a miracle! If you can do that and demonstrate it, the world shakes. So, with that motivation in mind, it’s not so clear that science is turning a blind-eye to potential anomalies like miracles. But none have been found. Just nature at work following the laws we know within the size and time of things relevant to human events. The standard model of particle physics explains everything relevant to us so far. It also explains supernatural feelings. We go into a lab and a scientist can trigger a supernatural experience by sending magnetic pulses to certain parts of our brains. If the experience of supernatural phenomena can demonstrably, objectively be both measured and triggered within the framework of the consistent things we understand about nature, how can we be certain that the experience actually comes from something outside of nature? We can’t (the fallacy of affirming the consequent). That’s something I struggle with. The only workaround to get there is usually faith. But again, that’s a modifier that goes beyond the evidence. We can’t know, and I’d rather be honest with myself and assign a confidence level and margin of error around any claimed miracle and refine it as I collect more evidence. Nothing has been conclusively miraculous yet. You very likely know of some claims that I don’t and you obvious reason differently which explains our different conclusions.

      Also the major philosophical arguments for the existence of God rest on current science.

      It has to be that way, unfortunately. With that said, there are some things that we’ve demonstrated that are extremely unlikely to ever change and those things say a lot about old God-claims that defy observation unless this is the devil’s workshop. If God wants to interact with the world and be detectable in the future, science will be very happy to try to do the detecting. Until then, current science is enough for the conclusion that a God, if he is anywhere, is not obviously changing the laws of nature in any noticeable way on a consistent basis that would make his presence obvious. If he interacts at all, he does so only in the parts of human experience and reasoning with the flaws and holes in it so that we can’t know if it’s a God causing an anomaly to increase our belief or if it’s our evolution-built imaginations (looking at other faiths, we have high confidence that the latter is at work) following natural laws we already understand.

      So I think some level of science is useful in assessing whether God exists, it just isn’t the only thing we should use.

      I completely agree. But when we find things that overlap with sciences domain we should employ it. Science isn’t a thing but a process. A way of thinking to determine whether something is more likely reflective of the reality that IS. If, for example, a God-claim was made that said if you do “this” he will do “that” in the world, we should test this and that with science. Such a test could never demonstrate the cause of “that” must have been a supernatural being that was described (that’s out of science’s domain and constitutes the fallacy of affirming the consequence), rather than some other force, but it can be evidence to support that conclusion. In that way, science can support a supernatural agent operating in the world, but it is much more useful in what it says about God-claims that probably don’t exist in our reality. Other than science, which is requires repeatable experiments and constant behaviors, we can use one-time events as evidence for God, but we should subject them to the filter containing the possible other explanations before we decide how much weight to give such experiences.

      You quoted me saying…

      “I understand and respect this position. I used to hold it myself. I’ll just say that I can’t find any way back to that place, despite how much I long for it, because no set of reasons for trusting the Bible that I can come up with are not better explained by the reasons to distrust it.”

      Then you said..

      I think this is a key issue. I don’t think my comment mentioned the Bible as an authority, and I don’t think belief in God or Jesus depends on belief in the Bible. Rather, a growing number of christians say that belief in the Bible follows belief in Jesus.

      I think some people may come to a belief in Jesus without believing the Bible is true, but the percentage is likely small. Either way, someone is usually telling them about it, so they believe based on culture, word-of-mouth, family/friend-influence, etc. It matters not where the information is coming from. What I’m saying is that regardless of how I came to my belief (which was originally from family influence, church influence, trust in the Bible and many other factors that fueled personal experiences of Jesus in my heart), I would doubt them if I began to doubt the thing they stood upon. The Bible is the foundation of the faith. If trust in it crumbles, faith usually weakens.

      It works like this. I look at the philosophy and science, at my rather modest personal experience of God, and documented cases of others’ apparent experiences of God, and I form the view that it looks quite possible that God is there.

      I do the same and have the same conclusion. An infinite number of deities are possible. Some are more likely than others. Our existence is a mystery to me, for which I hold many possibilities in mind but the only somewhat strong conclusion I have is that I’m wrong to some extent in all my theories. It’s certainly possible that something we might consider a God is in there somewhere. If I were a horse, no doubt I’d think he had many horse attributes. As as software architect I imagine the being running a simulation with us as a tiny fraction of the actors. That theory fits all the data, but I’m very aware that the odds that it’s correct are approximately 1/infinity. I’m a possibilian.

      So I come to the life of Jesus, not looking at the Old Testament at all, and not looking at the New Testament as “inspired” or “authoritative” or “trustworthy” at all, but merely as a historical document (or really a group of documents). I look at what the secular historians conclude about it, and take what is the consensus as a reasonable starting point.

      Good. I do this too and don’t find a strong consensus. I also tend to trust the more objective ones, which are hard to identify. Many secular Biblical historians are not objective, but on average, those who are sold out for the faith are even less so.

      On that basis I ask myself what is the right conclusion to come to about Jesus? And since I have already concluded that it looks quite possible, even quite likely, that God exists, I make my judgment on that basis. And on that basis, I am willing to accept he really does appear to have healed people (the historians agree that was what he was known for), he really did act like God’s unique envoy on earth, and he really was resurrected (the historians generally agree his tomb was empty and his followers really did see visions of him after he died).

      Historians are reading stories put down by men who were at least as subject to the problems in human reasoning that we are today (very likely more so), and didn’t have a solution for them. The conclusion that the tomb was empty is gathered from the stories themselves and doesn’t account for the possibility of it being stolen the first night. I’m currently around 60/40 for the idea that Jesus existed and I have two more books to read (one for and one opposing) before updating that confidence level. That makes the empty tomb a moot question at this stage. I’m 50/50 on the existence of something like a God. I disagree with Paul that men are without excuse. Maybe there was an excuse in his time when so much of everyday nature wasn’t understood and assumed to be the direct active influence of God, including a life spirit, demons, and the belief that a force was required to keep the heavens in motion – which we now know to be the passive force of gravity and the conservation of momentum in the frictionless void of space rather than God or the angels pushing things around. God could still be actively making gravity look consistent and passive and preserving momentums of objects that don’t have other influences acting against them. However, as Laplace said to Napoleon when asked why there was no mention of the solar system’s Creator in his Celestial Mechanics, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

      It sounds like your saying you didn’t put much weight whether or not the Bible is trustworthy but then you did put weight in what historians had to say about a story in the Bible and then decided to believe it. From that it seems that you did put trust in the Bible, just more indirectly. I’ve always struggled with this verse as much as any other. I’m curious about how you approach it. Do you think Matthew 27:51-52 is an accurate description of events. If it is accurate, why do you think we have no record of it from any of the historians writing in Jerusalem in or about the time of the events and why do you think it wasn’t in any of the other gospel narratives of the crucifixion? Everything is basically the same between the stories except the author of Matthew or some later editor just throws this in. If it isn’t accurate, how much trust should we give the rest of Matthew’s work?

      51At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection ande went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

      Back to you…

      So I decide I believe in him. Then, and only then, can I consider whether the Bible is something more than the historical documents of the historians.

      Okay. I get this. But it does sound circular in any other context, right? You’re trusting that the story that the book relates is reliable without asserting that the book that relates it is reliable, right? If we believe an ancient document not because we think it’s true, but because some of the historians think this part is true while others don’t, and then we decide to trust in the hero of the story, and based on that trust we decide to also trust what the document says in the other parts… it’s a circle. Part of the Bible–>Historians–>Us–>More of the Bible. Either way, it still stands or falls on your trust of the Bible, and I lack that. You know how we probably both think that it’s more likely that flawed human reasoning led to the stories in any other religions belief system (which are only a tiny fraction of those we’ve believed of the hundred + millennia) than that actual supernatural events did. In exactly the same way that we don’t fully trust that the supernatural events that support pick-your-religion-other-than-your-own, I don’t trust that the Bible is an accurate account of those events. Since it is more than likely not accurate, I think it’s more than likely inaccurate about the supernatural claims as well.

      All of the explanations I hear about the Bible not being a requirement for Christian belief seem to still ultimately come back to trust in the Bible for belief.

      So I don’t think lack of trust in the Bible is a reason to disbelieve in Jesus – it requires a lack of trust in secular historians!

      We all root for our home team. It’s pattern matching and confirmation bias at work. We tend to put down our critical thinking more when listening to a politician, pastor, or other influential leader we like than we do for those we’re neutral about or have opposing views. It’s a survival mechanism to stay in with the herd. I believe this is something you’re very aware of so I’m pointing it out for others. My point is that, on average, third-party investigators are more trustworthy than those who have stake in the game. So are secular scholars of Islam and international review boards assessing private interests. We’re motivated to preserve our beliefs and highly motivated to preserved our closely-held beliefs for many reasons that cognitive and social science illuminates. I too have thrown out some views of secular scholars and many views of religious scholars that competed with the faith I had or that I was sure were incorrect. The point is, while secular historians are far from being unbiased on average, given a large enough sample size of both, they are more objective than committed believers examining their own history they desire to maintain.

      You quoted me saying…

      “If you took out the faith part, and just trusted Jesus based on the evidence alone, and trusted your wife was right for you based on the evidence alone, would it change anything? If not, then what is faith doing in your belief equation? Why use the word at all?”

      You replied…

      Again, this is a key question, especially to the topic of your post. It is a difficult one to answer, because I have to try to understand my own motives, including subconscious ones. I’ll do my best, but I may change my mind later. I think there are several levels of faith.

      First, we only have one life, and we live and die by our choices. I believe the evidence for Jesus and God is way stronger than the evidence against, but is certainly short of certainty.

      Okay, so are you more certain in your belief than you are in the evidence? Is that a good thing? I wouldn’t want other religious people in other religions who want to harm you and your family because of faith differences to reason that way.

      I could decide to wait a little longer, get some more evidence, but I am a person who would prefer to make a choice and get on with it. (e.g. I married at 21. I used to be an environmental manager, and the best way to manage the environment is not to wait until we know all we need to know – everything would be stuffed by then – but to make the best choices we can, and then review them and adjust course – it’s called adaptive management).

      I’m honestly not sure how making a decision is a faith thing. I’m probably misunderstanding you here. I make decisions every day without it. I don’t hold of until I’m certain on something before deciding to act. I just have a probability in mind and decide in each circumstance when it’s high enough to act.

      I have done the same with christian faith, which I am constantly reviewing and adjusting. Some people would call the gap between probable evidence and committed belief “faith”. I don’t think I use it much that way, but I see their point.

      If by “probable evidence” you mean evidence that the person believes more than 50/50, and if by “committed belief” you mean a belief that is more than 75/25, or something like that, then I understand what you mean. That’s exactly how I’d define faith. I actually wrote out an equation for it a while back but I’m trying to stay away from math on here. Basically, subjecting the evidence of what is to a modifier of what we’d like it to be to land at a conclusion we want is the reasoning we all do unawares every day. Only, when this happens because of our religious tenets implore us to in order to keep the belief in that system high, we often call that modifier “faith.”

      Second, Einstein and Hawking have each said something to the effect that we have the laws of nature that control the evolution of the universe from the initial big bang, but we don’t know “what breathes fire into the equations” and actually makes the universe happen.

      Yes, but we have some ideas and we keep looking, adding more ideas and refining the likelihood and margin of error on old ones. Tweaking, and not concluding prematurely because science is built around getting things right, and more importantly, not getting things wrong, so it uses probabilities of truth. Case in point, the James Webb Space Telescope launches in 2018. We may never know that answer to that question (and many others), but we will be less likely (than we would if we used any other system of thought) to “know wrongly.” If truth is paramount to us, we should adopt this system of reasoning into our everyday lives and personal beliefs (my personal opinion).

      In my life when I was 16, I spent a period of about a year believing that christianity was true, but not committed to following Jesus. I finally committed, and I think that was a step of faith. Faith “breathed fire” into the evidence and led me to act and commit.

      Yes. I can definitely relate. I ache for it. I do so while knowing that the fire you describe is how you motivate an nation, an army, a group of people towards a common goal. People with love and hate and die for something they care deeply about more than something their ambivalent about. If the theory of the evolution of religion is correct, Christianity is just one of the best stories at doing that, so it survived. Or it could be true. I wish I had more reason to believe it is. Perhaps I’ll find it some day. I’d be happy if you prayed for that. For now, my random number generator is where my distant hopes rest. If it lands on a 1 during my lifetime, I’ll believe again. If not, I’ll need an obvious miracle or a divine spirit changing the atoms in my neurochemistry to see things differently. I’m open to anything and hoping for something.

      Third, and this is the most important one I think, CS Lewis points out that life is not just intellectual, but also emotional and spiritual.

      Agreed, depending on how loosely we define spiritual. 🙂

      People can be discouraged or disillusioned enough to give up and disbelieve.

      In my tiny inner-world, belief and disbelief happens on evidence rather than feelings (which are evidence in themselves but rarely very relevant to a decision about the real-world objects of events they reflect), but maybe I’m a robot. 🙂 Seriously. I get that it can be hard for people to relate to me like this.

      He argues that when that happens, we should review the evidence – are our reasons to believe still true? If so, then we know our discouragement is emotional.

      Hey, I agree with Lewis here!

      That is when we exercise faith to keep going, when we feel it is all false but know it is still true.

      My only point of confusion here is that, in this hypothetical, the person first doubted and know they “know” it’s true. If faith is taking us from what we should think is true, say 75/25, to knowledge, which I interpret to be certainty or something like 99.99/.01, then I have a problem again. 🙂

      I have followed his advice literally hundreds of times in my 50+ years as a christian. That is where faith comes in.

      I think I interpret faith as you describe it as that modifier I was talking about. It’s hard to know for certain because that story leaves open the possibility that you’re saying faith is just remembering not to let your emotions control decide what you believe. I think there still a concern of modification, though (desire for conclusion X increases your certainty that conclusion X is true, which is the cause of much man-made suffering and injustice, not by you but society in general throughout time – along with a great amount of good, which I’m sure you do).

      Fourth, once I am a christian, I am faced with issues relating to prayer, guidance, understanding the Bible, etc. As a christian I make many decisions “in faith” that God is leading me. Here faith is trusting that the God I intellectually believe is there will act according the character I believe he has.

      Yes. I do related to that as well. I think we can either call this hope, or if it’s modifying our actual belief it’s the modifier again.

      Sorry, my response is long too. I am only new to this blog, and hopefully as we get to know each other more, I can answer more briefly. Thanks for the opportunity.

      Oh I love it! I’m learning a lot about you. I recommend my post called The Problem and iMultiverse. Let me know if there’s something of yours I can read to learn more. 🙂

      Gentleness and respect,
      –Russell

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Hi UnkleE the essential problem I have with ‘experience’ is that is a very personal thing. Is it reasonable for someone to believe based on the experience of someone else that they have not shared?

      Also as science looks into this aspect they are building a strong case to suggest that religious experience is internally generated even though it might seem to the person concerned to be external.

      Also I would argue if some people believe based on experience, if these experiences are real and come from ‘God’ isn’t it somewhat unfair of ‘God’ not to give everyone a similar experience?

      Like

  5. Hi Russell,

    I am enjoying and appreciating this discussion and your attitude, and I don’t find your tone harsh at all. But your last response was long and while noted about 8-10 points going through it that I wanted to respond to, I think I must cut that short. So there’ll be some things I’d like to respond to but won’t.

    Deep experiences of God. I think I will make one brief comment and put this aside. I still think you don’t allow for the fact that God could reveal himself in a way that blows away all your explanations just like Mike Tyson blows away the plan. Of course most cases might be mistakes, but it is still possible. I’ll stop there.
    I have done some study of the miraculous, and I think some accounts have been tested and show reasonable verification. Here are a couple of references:

    Healing miracles and God
    Mystical experiences.

    My point about the Bible and history was that we can believe the Bible is fallible and still believe what the historians conclude is true, because historical study is an established discipline. So initial belief in Jesus is based on historical study, not any special view of the Bible. I don’t see how that’s circular. The logic is historical study -> some parts of the gospels are historical -> belief -> trust that the rest is OK. There’s no circle there.

    By the way, the secular scholars overwhelmingly (like thousands for and virtually none against) conclude not only that Jesus existed, but that we can know quite a lot about him. See Jesus in history.

    You asked about the weird passage in Matthew 27. The scholars would almost unanimously say those stories are legends, some would say they are imaginative ways of expressing religious “truths” that explain the historical event of the crucifixion of Jesus. I am happy to go with that.
    Now to the key stuff on the topic of faith.

    “Okay, so are you more certain in your belief than you are in the evidence? Is that a good thing?”
    No. I act as if I was more certain than I actually am. It is impossible, or would be stupid, to act as a christian 90% of the time and as an atheist 10% of the time. The marriage analogy again – I may only be 80% certain I should marry this woman, but I don’t thereby become 80% married, but 100% married.

    “If by “probable evidence” you mean evidence that the person believes more than 50/50, and if by “committed belief” you mean a belief that is more than 75/25, or something like that, then I understand what you mean. That’s exactly how I’d define faith.”
    This was my definition #1, and the one I am least happy with. The process is right and understandable, but it isn’t clear whether we should call it faith or trust.

    “Yes. I can definitely relate. I ache for it. I do so while knowing that the fire you describe is how you motivate an nation, an army, a group of people towards a common goal.”
    For me, the fire is a metaphor. I am not a very “spiritual” or godly christian – I keep on believing because I think it is true, not because I feel anything much. All I meant was that the evidence is one thing, but our response is another. Faith is in the response rather than in the evidence.

    “Or it could be true. I wish I had more reason to believe it is. Perhaps I’ll find it some day. I’d be happy if you prayed for that.”
    I would be very pleased to pray for you about that, and I admire your willingness to say that. I have been discussing with non-believers on the internet for 10 years, and I have met many admirable non-believers, and I have grappled with why we have almost the same evidence and yet are so polarised on the conclusions. I think it is less about the evidence and more about how we approach it and the assumptions we make. I don’t think a new understanding is so far away for someone like you, though I don’t mean that in a patronising or confident way. I think an analogy is a visual puzzle which looks like something, and then suddenly something “clicks” and we see it in a new way. In the case of christian belief, I don’t think that means giving up on logic and evidence, but I think it can mean changing some untested and sometimes unstated assumptions and attitudes.

    “In my tiny inner-world, belief and disbelief happens on evidence rather than feelings (which are evidence in themselves but rarely very relevant to a decision about the real-world objects of events they reflect), but maybe I’m a robot. 🙂 Seriously. I get that it can be hard for people to relate to me like this.”
    Not hard for me. I am, I think, slightly Aspergers (I mentor a guy who is diagnosed Aspergers, so I know what it looks like) and I often relate to things like even relatives’ deaths in very “mechanical” ways, and then occasionally get emotional about trivial things. So my belief is pretty much all about evidence. But I feel very strongly about injustice, and when I see someone suffering I can get very emotional about it, and mostly whenever I do, the thought comes: “Perhaps God’s not there. How could God allow this?” That’s when I adopt the CS Lewis approach and go over my reasons for believing. But if I didn’t, I would likely wallow in the emotion of the injustice.

    To sum up on faith, I think faith in my senses #2, #3 & #4 is a sensible and important concept. I live by faith to a reasonable degree – e.g I am retired, and in Australia lots of retired people become “grey nomads”, travelling around Australia by campervan and around the world on cruises and tours. I would love to be doing some of that, but we do far less than we might because we believe God has stuff for us to do. To me, that is living by faith or because of faith rather than by the pragmatic view that I don’t have many years left, let’s tick some things off my bucket list.

    “I recommend my post called The Problem and iMultiverse. Let me know if there’s something of yours I can read to learn more. “
    I will check them out. If you are a glutton for punishment, you might like to try my faith story and my reasons why I believe.

    Thanks again, I appreciate this opportunity to discuss in such a friendly manner.

    Like

    1. Hi unkleE!

      I’ll jump right in. 🙂

      Deep experiences of God. I think I will make one brief comment and put this aside. I still think you don’t allow for the fact that God could reveal himself in a way that blows away all your explanations just like Mike Tyson blows away the plan. Of course most cases might be mistakes, but it is still possible. I’ll stop there.

      Let me set your mind at ease. I do allow for this. That’s what I meant when I mentioned the possible things that would change my belief about God towards the end of the last comment. I’m hoping for it. If He’s real, I desperately want to know the truth. See Calling All Christians – Help An Atheist Believe and 4 Things That Would Turn This Atheist Into A Believer.

      I have done some study of the miraculous, and I think some accounts have been tested and show reasonable verification. Here are a couple of references:
      Healing miracles and God
      Mystical experiences.

      I will definitely check those out. I’m always looking for evidence. The problem I’ve had with most of them in the past has been that they were better explained by natural occurrences and the people relating the stories really didn’t seem to understand those flaws in human reasoning I’ve been mentioning. That makes it harder to trust that it was something supernatural. For example, unusual things occur constantly in any large set, such as a large set of life events. Deciding what’s a normal anomaly and what’s a supernaturally caused one is always a leap I’m hesitant to make with any confidence, unless it’s pretty overwhelming.

      My point about the Bible and history was that we can believe the Bible is fallible and still believe what the historians conclude is true, because historical study is an established discipline.

      I agree that any historical document can contain some truth and I definitely think that many of the Bible’s recorded events are mostly accurate. With that said, I also think there a significant number that don’t seem accurate. Historical study cannot tell us if Jesus ascended bodily into heaven, for example. It can only go so far as to tell us that some people in the story believed he did, just as thousands believed Mary appeared at Fátima. I’m not saying she didn’t. Just like I’m not saying part X of Bible story Y is necessarily false. I’m just saying I’m not convinced either are true enough to step forward and say I hold a positive belief that they are. In Who was right? I mentioned that the ascension was only recorded by one author (Luke/Acts) who, by his own admission in Acts, wasn’t there to see it.

      So initial belief in Jesus is based on historical study, not any special view of the Bible. I don’t see how that’s circular. The logic is historical study -> some parts of the gospels are historical -> belief -> trust that the rest is OK. There’s no circle there.

      I know it can sound offensive when someone accuses us of circular reasoning. I didn’t mean offense. I apologize. I do find it difficult not to associate circular reasoning with biblical trust, because it is it’s own validation, historically. Also, circular reason isn’t necessarily false reasoning (it can be logically valid), beliefs based upon it should be held with less than absolute certainty. In some sense reality itself and our most axiomatic principles are circular. That’s why there’s a marriage of foundationalism and coherentism in epistemology. At some point we’re all in a circle if our premises reference our conclusion in any way. All I mean in the case you mentioned is that if you start with not trusting the Bible and then you end up trusting the key parts, some process of reasoning took you from distrust to trust in those parts. If that process used the Bible to validate the Bible, it’s circular in some sense, even if it came from a set of historians. To the extent that it came from your conclusion that a God probably existed, I’m wondering how you got from God to Christianity except for the Bible. It’s only one of an infinite number of possible versions of a God, so it seems the Bible was a conclusion (explanation) to fit the data (longing in your heart, sense that there is a creator, etc.). But if we’d been born in a Muslim nation, it seems extremely likely we’d have filled that longing with Islam. Historians cannot claim historical religious figure X was supernatural (e.g. God) while remaining within the science of historical scholarship. They can claim that people seemed to believe such and such about the religious figure. Without compelling secular evidence from the time, there’s less ability to draw that conclusion without reasoning from the book itself, and you said you picked some scholars word over others. Again, I don’t mean to say that there’s anything wrong with the portion of your reasoning that might have been circular because circles are unavoidable in life. I just mean that we should view it as a potential concern, warning us to be cautious of extreme confidence based upon it, which you seem to have done already. 🙂

      By the way, the secular scholars overwhelmingly (like thousands for and virtually none against) conclude not only that Jesus existed, but that we can know quite a lot about him. See Jesus in history.

      I’ll check that out too. Pascal is convinced that Jesus was real based on the work of our favorite historian, Will Durant. I haven’t gotten as far in the series as he has and I’m interested in what Durant has to say. I’ll also be curious about any other views. I have no skin in the game here, honestly. I’m not hoping he wasn’t real or expecting one outcome or the other. I just think it’s less apparent than most believers make it out to be given more recent interpretations of events. I’ve read probably a dozen books in recent years on both sides of the argument (not all were explicitly about the argument of his existence) and I’m not as convinced that the ratio you provided is accurate today. And the numbers matter, but less than the strength of the arguments that come from both sides (see argumentum ad populum and argumentum ad verecundiam). I’m not a mythicist, but I listen to their newer arguments and hold some of them as plausible. I respect the reasoning of Richard Carrier who wrote a book called On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. I don’t honestly recommend the book for most people because it doesn’t actually discuss arguments for or against. What it does is establish conclusively why we should doubt the methodologies that have been used to come up with a historical picture of Jesus so far, and it makes extensive use of Bayesian reasoning to do so. I found it quite compelling, but it was very heady and difficult for me to listen to (audible.com), which I’ve heard is saying something since I used to pay my girlfriend (now wife of 6 years) to read my computer science textbooks to me (you should hear long strings of 011101001001 and tuple-relational calculus in funny accents to keep me interested while I listened and worked out at the university gym).

      You asked about the weird passage in Matthew 27. The scholars would almost unanimously say those stories are legends, some would say they are imaginative ways of expressing religious “truths” that explain the historical event of the crucifixion of Jesus. I am happy to go with that.
      Now to the key stuff on the topic of faith.

      Haha. I had a cookie at Subway and I’m feeling giddy. Sorry. Okay. When you say they are legends, that means they aren’t factual events (i.e. they’re false, they did not happen). When you say they are expressing “truths” that explain the historical event (what actually happened at the crufixion), that means they are true. So, I’m literally lost when it comes to that kind of reasoning. I know you’re probably talking about different groups of people, but I’m not sure which conclusion you support. I love literature and poetry and all manners of expressive art, but it has to be logically sound. Pascal and my gorgeous and brilliant wife J (CC) are amazing writers. They think alike. They’re both close in personality types. She is an ENFJ and he is an INFJ. They’re feelers (what are you?). The Bible gets them and they “get” it. I, however, and an INTP. When I read the description this site literally says, “spotting discrepancies between statements could almost be described as a hobby.” I’m sure that’s annoying to people. I think the Bible wasn’t written for me. It has a LOT of passages that talk about ALL people of such and such dying, or not crossing land, etc. Then it contradicts itself. The authors and/or editors just weren’t very logically precise. They were much more interested in the grander message and the heart than in the finer details that support the claims. For this reason, I almost feel like the more logically precise you try to reason, the more challenges you find in Biblical exegesis. Anyway, I don’t know what to make of Matthew 27 51:52 except to conclude that it, like many other passages, was very likely an embellishment of what actually happened (which makes the authors slightly less trustworthy to me).

      You quoted me saying…

      “Okay, so are you more certain in your belief than you are in the evidence? Is that a good thing?”

      And you said…

      No. I act as if I was more certain than I actually am.

      Yeah, this is how I thought to describe it after I made that comment. I really think I want to take the time, eventually, to diagram this out for more clarity. You’re helping me refine my issues about why faith is difficult for me. I don’t resent other’s use of it. I just want them to understand and I want to set boundaries on the terms we use (when we mean faith, etc.). To me, faith feels dishonest because it’s trying to convince myself that I’m more certain than I actually am about something. The reason for doing this seems to be to preserve an existing or desired belief. It’s based on desire or fear, and that feels icky. I’m not comfortable with trying to play mind games with myself to psych myself into believing something with more confidence than I actually believe them. Maybe I’m misunderstanding it all, still. Maybe I’m not alone.

      It is impossible, or would be stupid, to act as a christian 90% of the time and as an atheist 10% of the time. The marriage analogy again – I may only be 80% certain I should marry this woman, but I don’t thereby become 80% married, but 100% married.

      That’s not what I meant by the X/Y thing. I mean confidence level, like you’re 90% convinced. For example, 50/50 would mean you have no idea. 10/90 would mean you’re pretty sure the conclusion isn’t true, etc. It’s about a level of confidence not a percentage of time. I should have explained. Faith Poll – What Do You Believe? has a poll that represents beliefs the way I’m talking about.

      You quoted me saying…

      “If by “probable evidence” you mean evidence that the person believes more than 50/50, and if by “committed belief” you mean a belief that is more than 75/25, or something like that, then I understand what you mean. That’s exactly how I’d define faith.”

      Then you said…

      This was my definition #1, and the one I am least happy with. The process is right and understandable, but it isn’t clear whether we should call it faith or trust.

      Ah. I usually think of trust as matching the evidence. In other words, I trust someone or something exactly as much as my expectation of their future behavior based upon my analysis from my experience of their past behavior warrants. That confidence level is the level to which I trust it/them. If I modify it in any way because I desire them to be more trustworthy, that modification value is not the trust itself, but an addition of faith. That’s how I interpret it.

      You quoted me saying…

      “Yes. I can definitely relate. I ache for it. I do so while knowing that the fire you describe is how you motivate an nation, an army, a group of people towards a common goal.”

      And you commented…

      For me, the fire is a metaphor. I am not a very “spiritual” or godly christian – I keep on believing because I think it is true, not because I feel anything much. All I meant was that the evidence is one thing, but our response is another. Faith is in the response rather than in the evidence.

      Ah. We’re different here. Most of my faith life was imbued with passion and warm feelings I thought were from God. There were times when it wasn’t so, but I could easily get the runner’s high even when not running… just by thinking about God. Yes, it’s harder to trigger a significant response without passion. A significant response is the evidence of strong belief, not necessarily of faith. That strong belief could be warranted by the evidence alone, or it could be augmented by faith. Often the responses augmented by faith are just as strong, if not more so. It may have some element of fake it till you make it, but when it comes to some religious faith, there’s also an undeniable if often unconsidered carrot of heaven and stick of hell (for the self and loved ones) rumbling around in the subconscious. It’s influence isn’t nothing.

      You quoted me saying…

      “Or it could be true. I wish I had more reason to believe it is. Perhaps I’ll find it some day. I’d be happy if you prayed for that.”

       

      You followed with…

      I would be very pleased to pray for you about that, and I admire your willingness to say that. I have been discussing with non-believers on the internet for 10 years, and I have met many admirable non-believers, and I have grappled with why we have almost the same evidence and yet are so polarised on the conclusions. I think it is less about the evidence and more about how we approach it and the assumptions we make. I don’t think a new understanding is so far away for someone like you, though I don’t mean that in a patronising or confident way. I think an analogy is a visual puzzle which looks like something, and then suddenly something “clicks” and we see it in a new way. In the case of christian belief, I don’t think that means giving up on logic and evidence, but I think it can mean changing some untested and sometimes unstated assumptions and attitudes.

      I agree. We all want to believe what is true AND gives us life. I don’t want to live for a lie, so I wait until I can find a truth worth living for. I’ve found a few here and there, but the gospel message was powerful. Pascal thinks I should try to construct a world-view that works for me, and in some sense I am. I don’t have to have a substitute to my former faith before rejecting it, but it’s honestly difficult to match those waves of emotion grounded in a certainty of purpose for this life and the next. That’s what makes a faith system so compelling, and I also have an uneasy feeling that it’s what also makes it so dangerous (thinking of the twin towers). I don’t know where I’ll land, but I tried for a few years to force myself to have faith, praying for it, acting as if I had it, etc., embracing Pascal’s Wager, etc. See Not an outsider and Why I am not a Christian if you’re interested. The analogy of your puzzle clicking into place is exactly what I felt like losing faith, coupled by a sensation terror of falling. It’s world-altering and there probably should be easy, free counseling for people going through this. We see videos of people leaving cults and feel for them, thankful things of finally clicked. We need to understand that the emotions and psychological effects are very similar for people leaving a cult and people leaving Islam or mainstream Christianity (many sociologists would just consider those larger cults in terms of their cultural, behavioral, and psychological effects). Usually we have nobody to talk to. Thus, a lot of us are on blogs.

      You quoted me saying…

      “In my tiny inner-world, belief and disbelief happens on evidence rather than feelings (which are evidence in themselves but rarely very relevant to a decision about the real-world objects of events they reflect), but maybe I’m a robot. 🙂 Seriously. I get that it can be hard for people to relate to me like this.”

      You said…

      Not hard for me. I am, I think, slightly Aspergers (I mentor a guy who is diagnosed Aspergers, so I know what it looks like) and I often relate to things like even relatives’ deaths in very “mechanical” ways, and then occasionally get emotional about trivial things. So my belief is pretty much all about evidence. But I feel very strongly about injustice, and when I see someone suffering I can get very emotional about it, and mostly whenever I do, the thought comes: “Perhaps God’s not there. How could God allow this?” That’s when I adopt the CS Lewis approach and go over my reasons for believing. But if I didn’t, I would likely wallow in the emotion of the injustice.

      I work with a guy like that. I’m not really that way. I express positive emotions quite well and can get very excited with my two small daughters, my wife, my friends, or when learning or talking about a topic of interest. I really don’t get upset of disappointed about much of anything, except extreme suffering and injustice. When my wife tells me of a heartbreaking story at the hospital I can’t handle it. I don’t question God. I’m stricken by grief because of what we haven’t done to prevent these problems. The gap between what can be with technological advances, and what IS today, inspires me to action, but most of the time I just spend a few minutes thinking of theoretical solutions and then feel helpless. It does motivate me to action though. Action in thought, always. Action in mouth, hands and feet, sometimes. That’s worth something. I find my verbal solutions do very little good when what most others want to do is grieve in silence in the presence of a loved one. I don’t. I want to move and change things. At least my mind tries.

      To sum up on faith, I think faith in my senses #2, #3 & #4 is a sensible and important concept. I live by faith to a reasonable degree – e.g I am retired, and in Australia lots of retired people become “grey nomads”, travelling around Australia by campervan and around the world on cruises and tours. I would love to be doing some of that, but we do far less than we might because we believe God has stuff for us to do. To me, that is living by faith or because of faith rather than by the pragmatic view that I don’t have many years left, let’s tick some things off my bucket list.

      I think you are convinced enough that there is a life after this – and that there are consequences in that life for what we and our fellow humans do in this life – that you are motivated to action. That’s deferred gratification, like we do everyday as adults. I don’t define the action itself as “faith.” However, to the extent that your action is based upon some degree of hope or desire that is adding confidence to what you actually believe about the afterlife, it is partially acting on faith. Again, I may just have it all wrong and agreed upon semantics are established by a group of individuals – we all have a say.

      I will definitely check out your stories. Thanks for the great conversation. We may have to move this to a verbal discussion (Hangouts on Air or something) so I have time to keep up. I have work to make up now. Haha.

      Gentleness and respect,
      –Russell

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  6. Hi Russell, thanks for all your positive comments. I too am enjoying this. I have looked at some of your posts you recommended, and have responded on one of them (The Problem) so I will omit those matters from this reply.

    “Historical study cannot tell us if Jesus ascended bodily into heaven, for example.”
    That isn’t essential to believing in Jesus, but you could say the same about the resurrection, which is essential. And you’re right. But my argument was that historical study can tell us enough about Jesus to make a judgment about who he was – see for example Jesus – son of God?

    “I know it can sound offensive when someone accuses us of circular reasoning. I didn’t mean offense. I apologize.”
    I truly appreciate your commitment to gentleness and respect, but there was nothing offensive in what you said. It was just a difference in understanding.

    “I’m wondering how you got from God to Christianity except for the Bible. It’s only one of an infinite number of possible versions of a God”
    In my life, I think I probably started with Jesus and looked at the other questions later. But logically, I would now say that (a) if the philosophical arguments are successful (as I think they are), then they imply a God of a certain character and power, likewise if experiences of God are real they tell us something, (b) these conclusions describe only a few gods, and (c) I think christianity is unique among world religions and can be shown (in my opinion) to be more plausible than any others. My pages Where in the world is God? and Choosing my religion address these questions. I think there are really very few plausible religions.

    “we’d been born in a Muslim nation, it seems extremely likely we’d have filled that longing with Islam.”
    That sounds true, but ….. christianity is fading in the so-called christian countries and growing fastest in formerly non-christian countries (especially China). I did some calculations that show that between a third and a half of christians today are converts.

    “I’m not a mythicist, but I listen to their newer arguments and hold some of them as plausible. I respect the reasoning of Richard Carrier”
    Richard Carrier wouldn’t be regarded as an authoritative scholar by many people in that field. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say, but really, it’s like taking Ken Ham as your authority on evolution.

    “(what are you?)”
    I did the test and reported it on your blog. I was INFP, though I don’t know how much I agree about a couple of the scores.

    “That’s not what I meant by the X/Y thing. I mean confidence level, like you’re 90% convinced.”
    I think I understood what you were saying. All I meant was, however confident we are in our thinking (say 80% confident) we likely end up living 100%, because we can’t be 80% married and it is hard to be 80% christian in what we do. So I am about 90-95% confident in christian belief but I live 100% as a christian.

    “I think you are convinced enough that there is a life after this – and that there are consequences in that life for what we and our fellow humans do in this life – that you are motivated to action. That’s deferred gratification, like we do everyday as adults.”
    That seems to suggest I do it to earn salvation. But that’s not so. I believe I have been given salvation by God’s grace, so I live in faith (with the assurance of things hoped for but as yet unseen) that that is so, and choose to follow out of love of God, appreciation of his love for me, and commitment to following Jesus. There’s no delayed gratification, if I understand that term correctly.

    “I have time to keep up. I have work to make up now”
    Yeah, please don’t feel under pressure to answer quickly. I probably have more discretionary time than you do. Just take your time.

    Thanks again.

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    1. Hi unkleE,

      I saw your comment on The Problem post and responded to it there. 🙂

      In my life, I think I probably started with Jesus and looked at the other questions later. But logically, I would now say that (a) if the philosophical arguments are successful (as I think they are), then they imply a God of a certain character and power, likewise if experiences of God are real they tell us something, (b) these conclusions describe only a few gods, and (c) I think christianity is unique among world religions and can be shown (in my opinion) to be more plausible than any others. My pages Where in the world is God? and Choosing my religion address these questions. I think there are really very few plausible religions.

      I would say that most people who’s first religious imprint is religion X and live in a culture where religion X is acceptable will find themselves believing religion X is the most plausible story. Perhaps it is, but one of our Muslim friends would living in a Muslim area would very likely say Islam is unique among world religions and can be shown to be more plausible. I’m not doubting your experience at all. I just want to point out that it’s extremely rare for someone to go into religious evaluations equally and objectively. With that said, I’m glad you found a religion you can believe and find peace with.

      Personally, I’m stuck on those philosophical arguments, as well as other things. I don’t think argument from creation gets you anything more that “the ability to create” as a property. When we start tacking on qualities like, the God must be “personal,” and “loving,” etc., all that sounds much more like ad-hoc reasoning to argue from a conclusion that personal-loving-God of religion X is correct, therefore the creator God must have these qualities. So we’ve narrowed the possible God’s that might exist through an irresponsible manner, in my opinion. Then we’re picking from a small set of human God-claims we’ve heard and assuming one of them is probably right. It’s also quite possible a God exists that hasn’t yet revealed himself (the Bible God didn’t reveal himself until the last minute of the last day of the year if we look at age-of-the-universe time scales as one year), or did so years ago and we’re what’s left after his plans were done (maybe Jesus did return in that generation and we missed the boat?). Or, looking at the vastness of the universe, maybe it isn’t made just for human species. If we accept evolution, which has more evidence backing it than any God-claim, any number of intelligent creatures may exist on other worlds with their own version of a personal God. That would increase the pool of God’s to choose from and should make us a little less certain in our own as our hypothetical odds decrease. Just thoughts.

      Richard Carrier wouldn’t be regarded as an authoritative scholar by many people in that field. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say, but really, it’s like taking Ken Ham as your authority on evolution.

      You and I struggle with the same problem that everyone does. Who to trust. I am as slow to place my bets there as anywhere else. I based my assessment of him based on his reasoning acumen and understanding of logic, statistics, bayesian reasoning, and research prowess. I don’t follow anyone as an authority on history in the sense that most people use the word “authority”(person X said these people felt and thought this so I believe it). It’s more like “person X said these people felt and thought this so I trust that person X believe these people felt and thought X for these reasons, here’s the degree to which I support that and the degree to which I’m undecided and why.” With that said, saying who is and who isn’t an authority, from the position of a non-authority, is a bit like deciding who is playing the “No true Scotsman” game. I can’t say. What I can say is I’ve actually read his book and his defense of his own scholarship and “authority” status in the field of biblical study when this question was raised and I found it compelling. I can also say that I trust him, above the average of the others, to actually know what the No true Scotsman fallacy means. He’s less biased than the pack in my mind because I know from his explanations that he understands more logic than those who are reading the Bible seeking to prove the conclusion they know. Might Carrier still be guilty of motivated reasoning? Absolutely. I’m watching out for it. And that’s the best I can do.

      I don’t hold his views as authoritative anyway. I just listen to multiple views for all sides and balance them. Most would probably support the idea that Bart Erhman is an “authority” in the traditional sense of the word and I’ve absorbed much of his content, and he and Carrier are in a fierce debate about the historicity of Jesus. I’m not stuck on Carrier. The point is, most believers don’t read dissenting views at all, which is another problem I have with faith-based reasoning. This is another facet of what I mean when I say it seeks to magnify our confidence without addressing the holes in our reasoning (which might have come from a balanced point of view).

      Many educated, intellectual and/or mature believers will branch out and read dissenting views (though almost exclusively with the purpose of debunking or learning how to defeat the enemy of Satan that is entrenched in the minds of anyone with a different world-view, rather than careful consideration). Most worship songs involve begging God to convince us, to help us believe more confidently, to increase our faith in some way. There’s little motivation for most believer’s to reach out of their bubble, and much motivation against it, which is why cults of all sizes for close nit bonds, create an us-vs-them, and spread their ideas more internally. I recently finished N.T. Wright’s book called Scripture and the Authority of God. I read both sides. If we don’t expose ourselves to the best of both (rather than just the straw-men arguments our side erects for our opponents since they’re easy to knock down), we’re not in a good place to judge what the other side lacks.

      I think I understood what you were saying. All I meant was, however confident we are in our thinking (say 80% confident) we likely end up living 100%…

      It’s a little challenging for me to look at it like that. Maybe I’m misunderstanding or maybe it’s a consequence of not living by faith. My confidence level is my confidence level. I don’t bump it up for any reason. I have hope and that serves to make me more enthusiastic or impassioned at times.

      … because we can’t be 80% married and it is hard to be 80% christian in what we do. So I am about 90-95% confident in christian belief but I live 100% as a christian.

      I don’t comprehend the concept of being 80% married because marriage is discrete (binary, on or off). We can not apply an analogy of a discrete state to a continuous state, which most other parts of life are. You can definitely be 100% christian (that’s discrete, you belief your don’t) with a 90-95% confidence (confidence levels are continuous states).

      “I think you are convinced enough that there is a life after this – and that there are consequences in that life for what we and our fellow humans do in this life – that you are motivated to action. That’s deferred gratification, like we do everyday as adults.”
      That seems to suggest I do it to earn salvation. But that’s not so. I believe I have been given salvation by God’s grace, so I live in faith (with the assurance of things hoped for but as yet unseen) that that is so, and choose to follow out of love of God, appreciation of his love for me, and commitment to following Jesus. There’s no delayed gratification, if I understand that term correctly.

      I’ll try to clarify. I don’t deny that you get some gratification now for following your calling. You also get delayed gratification in the sense that you have hope for an afterlife which will be better for others (and possibly yourself) if you spend time on your calling rather than on the things that might be more immediately gratifying here and now (bucket list, etc.). There is some delayed gratification, always, when we do things for religiously motivated reasons (or any other reasons), but they aren’t always conscious. There is also a usually subconscious desire to avoid eternal torment and to help others avoid it. This makes it hard to ever demonstrate that religiously motivated things can be done for purely altruistic reasons. By saying that, I do not challenge that idea that many people do act to aid people for religious reasons that are, in fact, validly altruistic. I’m just saying that no matter how much we think we’re doing something out of love, the perceived “day of judgement” and it’s aftermath are tenets of the Christian faith. As such, they do impact the subconscious psychology of the hands and feet of the church. You don’t do it “to earn salvation” but each of us carries out actions whose motivations we only partially understand, and one of those motivations is likely your concern about the salvation of your fellow beings. You will be satisfied later if you find out that your actions now helped make it possible for the God you love to have restoration and fulfillment with more lost souls later.

      If it was only about love for God we would sit idly basking in the glow. We move to help others and spread the message rather than doing what we want because we believe that God wants us to do something. So we are acting now, out of love, to fulfill his desires, in order to increase what we perceive is his love (and appreciation) later. Subconsciously, we can’t escape delayed gratification as a motivator for most of our actions in life. That’s all I meant. You’re doing what your doing instead of a bucket list for some set of reasons, and they aren’t all entirely present in your mind while you carry about the business of action. A follower of Jesus is constantly striving to work out their salvation (sanctification), even after they feel they’ve been granted it. Because the events to occur for us and our loved ones at judgment are believed with a confidence level that isn’t 100% that everything will be maximally beneficial and loving for everyone involved, everything short of 100% is motivation (via the hope for the possibility of decreasing future pain or increasing future pleasure for parties involved) to act now. Long sentence. All you really need to take from this is that regardless of your motivations (conscious or unconscious), your work is noble.

      Gentleness and respect,
      –Russell

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  7. Hi Russell, we seem to have departed from topic a little, and I feel maybe I have said almost all I need to say at this point (though I am happy to discuss almost anything and will be continuing to read and comment on this blog, thanks). So a quick response to a couple of points.

    First, I recognise I have a bias towards christianity, growing up in a once-christian culture – though I am argumentative enough to make that less of a bias than you might think! But the important thing is the arguments and evidence, and I feel they can be stated quite clearly, and leave me with two strong conclusions: (a) a creator God seems to me to be very, very likely, and (b) the only real contenders are christianity and deism, with Islam a very unlikely possibility.

    Second, I do agree with you that it seems likely that there may be other intelligent and spiritual beings out there, though there is much argument over this (see A rare earth?).

    Third, I think we should read more sceptical and more believing experts on Jesus and history. My beef with Carrier isn’t that he’s an atheist, but that (a) he allows his atheism to rule his conclusions (just like you say about bias) and (b) he’s not a respected scholar and doesn’t behave like one. But one of the books on Jesus that has helped me the most is Maurice Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth – he was an unbeliever, and so rejects some things I accept, but his understanding of first century Judaism made it a joy to read.

    Finally, you say “So we are acting now, out of love, to fulfill his desires, in order to increase what we perceive is his love (and appreciation) later.” But that is definitely not what I think, and I think most christians would say the same. We have already been promised everything, so we act now, or not, out of love (or complacency).

    Thanks again for all this discussion. I understand you much better now.

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    1. Hi again, unkleE!

      But the important thing is the arguments and evidence, and I feel they can be stated quite clearly, and leave me with two strong conclusions: (a) a creator God seems to me to be very, very likely…

      I used to feel the same way. As I learned more about the natural explanations and my own biases, I changed my mind. I’ve heard many many arguments that claim a creator is very likely, and I just don’t see it. The best I can get to is somewhere around 50/50, and that’s even considering that I strongly desire there to be a creator. If you mean a theistic God who intervenes in nature, almost all the arguments supporting it are unsound in some way and most of the few that are valid are very weak (in my opinion) when compared to the simpler natural explanations I’m familiar with that are demonstrable and already sufficient to explain the beliefs in God.

      … and (b) the only real contenders are christianity and deism, with Islam a very unlikely possibility.

      I would guess that most people will say the religion of their culture and deism are the only real contenders. I actually tend to lean toward those two more strongly than anything else for the same reasons, but a lot of that is probably because I lack awareness of some of the finer points of many other God-claims. The software simulation ideas are in the set of potential deistic Gods.

      My beef with Carrier isn’t that he’s an atheist, but that (a) he allows his atheism to rule his conclusions (just like you say about bias)…

      Oh? I don’t doubt that he is influenced by some bias to some extent, but I question what makes you think he does that more than the average historian who is convinced of the divinity of the faith they’re researching. Not that it matters to me much because I expect he has some bias and I’m doing my best to account for it, like I always do when reading any book. Still, I’d like to know if he’s doing something egregious or if this is just an assumption people have because his conclusions differ from their own. Perhaps you’ve read something of his that I haven’t? I’ve read the one I mentioned, in which I found his reasoning sound without significant bias, and his short book “Why I am not a Christian.” I think he has reasons to not believe but he tries to remove those biases from his historical analysis. It’s in doing this that he’s shaking things up by defying the traditional bias-filled conclusions of many Christian historians (who tend to be believers).

      Without being historians it’s hard for us to know to what degree internal feuds and accusations (within such a polarized topic as faith) reflect the truth about who’s letting their desires influence their conclusions more. That’s why I abstracted the issue and pointed out that, on average, historians who are devoted to their beliefs are less objective than those who aren’t. I mentioned that I’ve read Carrier, and Erhman, and several religious historians, and heard the arguments on many sides, and the different methods of reasoning they use and conclusions they find, and the accusations of Carrier’s scholarship or historical authority, and his responses, and I find that I can still respect his reasoning. I imagine any atheist would tend to raise your objections a and b about most Christian historians and vice versa.

      … and (b) he’s not a respected scholar and doesn’t behave like one.

      I don’t think it’s right to say he isn’t a respected scholar without saying by whom. There are certainly those who do respect his scholarship. I’ll assume you mean by traditional Christian historians and Erhman, but that’s to be expected based on his claims, isn’t it? There are any number of people who don’t agree with any number of other people and there are biases all over the place here. Let any author’s claims stand as much or more on the soundness of the arguments than on their authority status, especially in very biased and polarized fields like religious studies.

      Finally, you say “So we are acting now, out of love, to fulfill his desires, in order to increase what we perceive is his love (and appreciation) later.” But that is definitely not what I think, and I think most christians would say the same. We have already been promised everything, so we act now, or not, out of love (or complacency).

      There were a few paragraphs surrounding that quote and I mentioned that you’re acting out of love and that part of your action is based on that promise – so I’m curious about which part of what I said that you are disagreeing with. I’m probably misunderstanding you again. 🙂

      Gentleness and respect,
      –Russell

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Russell,

    I’m sure you are as familiar as I am with the various arguments about God. But I find it interesting, as I imagine you might, that they can be so differently assessed. It seems to me that they are best assessed as formal logical arguments whose premises need testing. And that testing would require various options to be tested – e.g. the teleological argument is built on three options to explain cosmic fine-tuning. I am surprised if you think there are “simpler natural explanations ” for that argument, for example.

    Most people might say that “their” religion or deism are the most likely, but in the end, we should be looking at objective reasons based on objective criteria. I think christianity passes that test far better than any other religion, and in the references I gave you, I offer the arguments in support.

    Re Richard Carrier, I don’t really want to spend much time on negativity about him. The test of a good scholar is how influential his ideas are in the academy, and his ideas appear not to be. Ehrman has argued with him because Carrier criticised his book, but few other scholars, christian or otherwise, ever refer to him. I cannot give you a reference, but I think I recall him saying back almost a decade ago that he was going to do a PhD in history in order to prove Jesus was a myth, but I can’t demonstrate that now. And his behaviour is pretty obnoxious, using scorn and ad hominem as much as evidence and logic (on his blog, at any rate).

    I think you and many others think NT scholarship is dominated by christians pushing their barrow, but while there are such scholars, there are many others who are more neutral. Like I said, I get a lot out of atheist/agnostic Maurice Casey, whose “Jesus of Nazareth” book includes sharp criticisms of more (as he sees it) fundamentalist christians and Jesus mythicists. It is notable that Casey gives highest praise to the work of three scholars, Sanders (agnostic), Vermes (secular Jew) and Wright (christian). He doesn’t mention Carrier in that book, but in his book on Jesus mythicism he outlines some weaknesses in Carrier’s approach and understanding (read it here).

    I think it is good to read some of the more fringe writers on christianity (but read both fringes!) but the problem is you and I probably don’t have the background knowledge to know when they are speaking crap, but speaking persuasively. Better, I think, is to read more eminent scholars of various religious persuasions – my suggested list would include Casey, Sanders, Ehrman (non-believers), Vermes (secular Jew) and Wright, Bauckham, Evans & Hurtado (christian), though there are many others. These guys are all eminent scholars and their conclusions on history are not as diverse as if you read Carrier or Strobel.

    The bit I disagreed with about my motives is this: “in order to increase what we perceive is his love (and appreciation) later”. I don’t believe that at all. I believe his love for me is already perfect, despite my rather obvious imperfections, and nothing I do now changes that. I try to serve because it is right and because it is what he wants, not for any further reward than the massive reward I am already receiving.

    Thanks again.

    Like

    1. Hi unkleE. 🙂

      I’m sure you are as familiar as I am with the various arguments about God. But I find it interesting, as I imagine you might, that they can be so differently assessed.

      I think they’re usually assessed differently largely for the reasons I mentioned. It often seems to come down to the awareness level of natural explanations (and the trust level one gives to science in general compared to the certainty for God’s specific role in natural) vs the awareness level of logical fallacies.

      It seems to me that they are best assessed as formal logical arguments whose premises need testing. And that testing would require various options to be tested – e.g. the teleological argument is built on three options to explain cosmic fine-tuning. I am surprised if you think there are “simpler natural explanations ” for that argument, for example.

      When I mentioned theistic God I meant it in the specific form separating it from a deistic God-claim. Yes, I think there are simpler natural explanations for human beliefs than an interventionist God that sustains the universe and cares about people. There are even simpler natural explanations for existence than such a God causing it, though I’m on the fence about which of those explanations is more likely true.

      Most people might say that “their” religion or deism are the most likely, but in the end, we should be looking at objective reasons based on objective criteria.

      Haha. I thought you were promoting subjective experience when it comes to God beliefs. Faith, etc. I think you’re stealing my lines. 🙂 Just kidding. I know we both favor objective evidence when it’s there.

      I think christianity passes that test far better than any other religion, and in the references I gave you, I offer the arguments in support.

      I know you do. My point was that, empirically, most people will interpret the objective evidence in favor of their own religion. This is the crux of my argument that people aren’t trained for being objective about their own closely held beliefs. I am not saying you’re wrong in your conclusion, I’m just pointing out that it isn’t as objective as we suspect. I’ve heard several Muslim scholars debate fiercely with much evidence about the superior objective evidence of their faith of Christianity, for example.

      Re Richard Carrier … I cannot give you a reference, but I think I recall him saying back almost a decade ago that he was going to do a PhD in history in order to prove Jesus was a myth, but I can’t demonstrate that now.

      That is something I’d very much like to know. If you can find evidence for it, please let me know. Otherwise, I’m fine dropping the Carrier discussion. I’ll still read his book to hear the arguments along with some opposing ones.

      And his behaviour is pretty obnoxious, using scorn and ad hominem as much as evidence and logic (on his blog, at any rate).

      His book was completely free of that. That’s unfortunate that he and Erhman got into it they way they did. I liked Erhman’s response.

      I think you and many others think NT scholarship is dominated by christians pushing their barrow, but while there are such scholars, there are many others who are more neutral.

      Depending on what you mean, I’d say that is incorrect for me. I know many scholars and historians of the Bible tend to be much more liberal but or neutral than the average Young Earth Creationist Literalist, etc. I do think the majority of them still have some faith that compels them and, despite their efforts to be as neutral as possible, are still subject to some flaws in reasoning that they are unaware of. I only wanted to point out that, all things being equal, on average it’s not likely that believes of a faith tradition are less biased about that faith tradition than outsiders. I suspect we actually agree here. Remember, I don’t have an agenda against faith.

      Like I said, I get a lot out of atheist/agnostic Maurice Casey, whose “Jesus of Nazareth” book includes sharp criticisms of more (as he sees it) fundamentalist christians and Jesus mythicists.

      I’ll try to read that. As I said, I’m not a mythicist. I’m just willing to without some confidence until I give them an ear to see if they have anything more interesting to say. I even read Nailed, and while I didn’t come away significantly doubting Jesus’ existence, it did echo some of my issues with scriptural accuracy and point out some things I hadn’t thought of. David Fitzgerald is definitely not an established historian, but I read it anyway because I’m open to all views, though I hold some with more caution.

      It is notable that Casey gives highest praise to the work of three scholars, Sanders (agnostic), Vermes (secular Jew) and Wright (christian). He doesn’t mention Carrier in that book, but in his book on Jesus mythicism he outlines some weaknesses in Carrier’s approach and understanding (read it here).

      I will look. I haven’t even read Carrier’s book yet where he establishes his reasons for doubting Jesus’ existence, just the one where he establishes his reasoning for doubting the different approaches that traditionally are used to come to conclusions about Jesus. I think those arguments were sound because they really just involved removing biases. Still, he uses Bayesian reasoning and, as he explained that knows very well, that is only as good as the inputs. I was quite pleased with the logic of the book I read, but I can’t judge his application of that logic because I haven’t read the second book yet. Based on what I have read, I believe Jesus existed, as I said, but I without confidence in that belief until I read more. I hope this makes sense. I might pick up Casey’s book instead in addition to the two or three I was going to read for the anti-mythicist side. When I’m done with each, I’ll updated my confidence level accordingly.

      I think it is good to read some of the more fringe writers on christianity (but read both fringes!) but the problem is you and I probably don’t have the background knowledge to know when they are speaking crap, but speaking persuasively.

      Exactly. That’s have read both fringes. I didn’t want to make a conclusion against the new mythicist arguments I was hearing about before hearing their claims and reasoning. Until we do that, we have less ability to maintain honesty while refuting their arguments (rather than straw-man versions of them that our side promotes because they’re easier to knock down). There are some compelling questions that keep things less than confident on the pro-existence side until I read more.

      Better, I think, is to read more eminent scholars of various religious persuasions – my suggested list would include Casey, Sanders, Ehrman (non-believers), Vermes (secular Jew) and Wright, Bauckham, Evans & Hurtado (christian), though there are many others.

      I’m open to all of them and only read few fringe books.

      The bit I disagreed with about my motives is this: “in order to increase what we perceive is his love (and appreciation) later”. I don’t believe that at all. I believe his love for me is already perfect, despite my rather obvious imperfections, and nothing I do now changes that. I try to serve because it is right and because it is what he wants, not for any further reward than the massive reward I am already receiving.

      I know. That’s why I was distinguishing the conscious motivators from the mostly subconscious ones (which this is). You may be objecting to the semantics more than the point. If we think His love for us can’t be increased by what we do because it is perfect, then we at least want to maintain that level. We can say that He’ll never stop loving us perfectly, but we want Him to trust us and say well done. We can say he knows the beginning from the end and it’s already done, but we don’t have His knowledge and we’re the ones being motivated to action. We want to finish the race strong, etc. Sanctification is a lifelong process and were driven to obey what we perceive to be his commands for a host of reasons. Our desire for his love and approval is not absent from among those reasons. And the motivations that drive us to action are, in some sense, based on our desire to please the one who loves us perfectly. It’s just not always obvious.

      Thanks again.

      Thank you! 🙂

      Gentleness and respect,
      —Russell

      Like

      1. Hi Russell, I think I’m happy to leave this discussion at this. I’m not sure we have addressed your blog post all that much, but it has been very interesting. I’ll leave you with one further reference. You mentioned Nailed, which I haven’t read, but an atheist internet acquaintance has reviewed it on his blog. The review is pretty scornful, and I don’t support that, but it contains an assessment from someone who isn’t a scholar but has studied history more than you or I probably have, and illustrates how easy it is for a non-scholar to make claims that sound plausible to us non-scholars. So often I find in discussion about Jesus and history on the internet, the arguments sound plausible, but only because the “facts” are inaccurate. Here it is for what it’s worth – Armarium Magnum<.a>.

        Thanks for an enjoyable, constructive and friendly discussion. I’ll “see” you again on another post most likely.

        Like

        1. Hi unkleE,

          I completely agree with this as well. I think that does summarize many of my points quite nicely. As I said, though, Fitzgerald isn’t a scholar and I don’t necessarily trust his facts or his many of his conclusions (and I noticed several reasons for distrust when reading the book) which is why I mentioned that I’d decided to read much more from more reputable authors on both sides before updating my confidence levels. He just piqued my interest. Not much of anything I believe is based on Nailed, but I’m glad I heard is arguments and feel in a better place to judge them than I would if I’d only read what an opponent said about them. This is far from a settled issue for me and not very relevant to my faith either way. It’s not like a mythicist argument would ever be a strong reason to disbelieve Christianity because I don’t think it’s likely that anyone could convince me of the non-existence of Jesus. I’ll likely stay somewhere on the positive side, but shy of 100%. I hope this clarifies my position.

          Gentleness and respect,
          —Russell

          Like

  9. Hi Russell and UnkleE, fascinating debate. Thanks for the interesting interaction.

    One comment I will make is that the ‘discredited’ Fitzgerald claims that we have strong evidence of the insertion of Christian material into the works of Josephus because early writers who mention Josephus, such as Origen, bemoan his failure to mention Jesus. It is only a century later that suddenly Josephus is being cited as providing evidence for Jesus.

    http://www.josephus.org/testhist.htm

    Unfortunately there is strong circumstantial evidence that early historians like Eusebius might not be reliable witnesses. Eusebius is such a critical figure because 50% of what we know about the first three centuries of Christianity come from his Church history work.

    It is a bit like the reliance on the work of Pappias in regard to the writing of the gospel of Mark. Virtually every Christian text book cites Pappias, yet when we read some of the other things that Pappias wrote, such as his Judas story, one has to question his reliability. Even Eusebius considered Pappias of doubtful intelligence.

    Further than that we see a whole Christian culture, especially in the 2nd century, of making up stories. What I wonder is how much was that 2nd century culture representative of what actually transpired in he 1st century? I don’t know but I have my suspicions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Peter,

      Thanks for joining in! I can’t believe you’re following all this. Haha. This is just part of the conversation. You should see how thoroughly we’ve wrapped each other up over in the comments on The Problem post. 🙂

      Maybe you can keep unkleE occupied. He may be retired but he seems to have far more energy for all this than me. Haha 🙂

      Thanks for all the discussion, unkleE!

      Gentleness and respect,
      —Russell

      Like

  10. Hi Peter, I have read a fair bit about Josephus, and there is little doubt that the majority of scholars of all beliefs accept is as partially authentic, and sufficiently so, together with the other brief reference to Jesus, to more or less make certain that Jesus was a historical character whose life followed the broad outline given in the gospels. Wikipedia summarises this pretty fairly. I think the conclusion of Geza Vermes, a Jewish scholar not very sympathetic to Christianity, is fairly powerful.

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    1. The Wikipedia article noticeably mentions Origen as the first to cite Josephus. Why does Origen not refer to any comment by Josephus regarding Jesus?

      Like

      1. That would be pretty much speculation. Some say the early christians didn’t see the need to quote a fairly bland reference by a non-christian to answer a challenge (that Jesus didn’t exist) that very few people made. The need for it only came later.

        But I think the argument is fairly clear. There is a reference to Jesus by a respected and generally reasonably reliable first century historian. It stands, unless we have gtood reason to reject all or some of it. The only way we can judge that some of it is interpolated is to accept the verdict of scholars – the rest of us don’t have the background to do this. But if we accept the verdict of scholars, then we must also accept their verdict that the majority of the reference is genuine.

        Or look at it another way. If the scholars are wrong about parts being genuine, then they are likely wrong about parts being interpolated. Arch sceptics want to have it both ways – to accept the critical work of scholars but not the accepting work of scholars.

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        1. A fair point UnkleE. Of course it does get tricky when the scholars can’t agree among themselves.

          One of the matters I have been contemplating of late is the evidence within the Bible of a degree of difference within the early Church. Paul talks often of his rivals who preach a different Jesus and the first letter of John makes a similar reference that implies some were teaching that Jesus had not come in the flesh. So I would suggest the argument that Jesus was not a physical person is not a new argument.

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          1. Hi Peter, I agree about scholarly disagreement. But on Josephus, I think the consensus is getting quite strong now.

            I’m certainly not well read on the topic of Jesus and docetism, but I think it is a quite different proposition. The mythicists say Jesus never existed. The docetists accepted that he existed, they just didn’t think he was a flesh and blood person. We wouldn’t even consider this view today, but it was a view addressed in the NT, whereas Jesus not existing at all seems to be a view that didn’t surface at all until much later.

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  11. I also enjoyed the discussion back and forth. It took me a while to get through because work and chores kept pulling me away but I thank you both for your thoughtfulness and thoroughness of response.
    Personally, I agree a little bit with both of you.

    Liked by 1 person

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