new atheist

Faith ‚Äď is it good or bad? Why do we disagree?

Hello Pascal and friends! ūüôā

There‚Äôs been some renewed discussion about faith and evidence in the last few posts and comments. I‚Äôve 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‚Äôm 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! ūüôā

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 ‚Äď I hope it‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúthe right view.‚ÄĚ People come to this from different angles and my goal is not to convince anyone that X¬†is how faith ‚Äúshould be interpreted.‚ÄĚ What I hope to do here is clarify ‚Äúwhy,‚ÄĚ 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. ūüôā

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 ‚Äď 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 ‚Äď 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. ‚Äď 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. ūüôā 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. ūüôā

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 ‚Ästis 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 ‚Äď 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. ūüôā

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,
‚ÄďRussell

On Evidence and Faith

old fashioned scale

Dear Russell & Friends,

I hope this Saturday morning finds you well.  Yes uncleE and other friends in Australia, I realize it is almost Sunday.  This has been a week like all others.  One fiftieth of another year elapsed.  I do not know what proportion that year represents of my supposed middle aged life.  A treasured work colleague one year younger than me died suddenly yesterday.  His partner, our community, and I grieve.

Because I don’t know if I’m in the middle or a day from the end, the conversation here means more to me. ¬†You mean more to me. ¬†I’m sorry for doubting¬†it. ¬†No — that’s not true. ¬†Doubt is part of who I am and a reason I feel drawn to you. ¬†Reason. ¬†That’s what I’d like to address this morning. ¬†I’m grateful to Mike for his guest post and the respect that he showed in our home here. ¬†He is a thoughtful atheist who is willing to talk.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  Hebrews 11:1 (KJV)

Mike quoted this scripture in a dialogue with Eric (uncleE) about evidence and faith. ¬†It started with a comment that Mike offered¬†in his guest post. ¬†I’d like to provide the paragraph before as well for needed context.

I’m all about secularity and think people should be free to choose religion or non-religion. If anyone tried to take religious folks rights away to choose a religion, I would be in the front lines with them.

However, I will not pretend that I agree with religion ‚Äď Christian or otherwise, and I‚Äôm certainly not adverse to sharing my views and doing my best to convince others to embrace evidence based thinking instead of faith.

The first paragraph is important to me because I need to emulate it. ¬†I need to stand for people whose convictions I do not share. ¬†I live in America, an imperfect place. ¬†But one blessing that I should not take for granted is the ability to speak without being stifled. ¬†How can I realize that blessing without defending it for another? ¬†That was the core of Mike’s first paragraph and I appreciate it.

The second paragraph is important to me because 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.

Back to Mike’s scripture reference. ¬†It is one of my favorites and I chose to use the King James Version because I remember it from childhood and it has the words evidence and faith in close juxtaposition. ¬†As a Christ follower in a scientific vocation, this verse has meant the world to me.

Is faith blind? ¬†Is it always¬†required? ¬†The text in Hebrews says that faith is the substance of things hoped for. ¬†Is faith needed for things already realized? ¬†Probably not. ¬†I do not have faith for a table. ¬†I’m sitting at it. ¬†Is faith the substance of my hope for my children to follow Christ? ¬†It is. ¬†Is faith separated from hard work? ¬†By no means. ¬†My favorite epistle is James. ¬†Martin Luther called it the epistle of straw. ¬†I don’t particularly like Martin Luther. ¬†James said that faith without works is dead. ¬†So, if my faith that my sons will follow Christ is to have life, should I lead an authentic life worthy of imitation? ¬†I argue yes. ¬†I have faith – – belief – – in what I hope for but have not yet realized. ¬†That faith is coupled with effort. ¬†I can not have faith that Mike and I can continue respectful dialogue. ¬†I have to be willing to write letters and to carefully read his.

Faith is the evidence of things not seen. ¬†Allow me to be clear. ¬†I am an old earth creationist. ¬†I believe that God created the universe by authoring¬†natural laws and allowed us to evolve to sentience. ¬†I don’t think he directed every mutation. ¬†He could have, but the scientific evidence does not point that way. ¬†I don’t believe that Genesis is literal. ¬†I do believe it is completely true. ¬†As a student and lover of language, allegory has never bothered me. ¬†In biological science, I have some degree of expertise. ¬†In physical science, I have enough knowledge to plumb the depths of my own ignorance. ¬†In social science, I have compassion, but not Mike’s degree of professional knowledge, expertise and practice. ¬†As an aside, social workers are some of my favorite people on earth. ¬†How is faith evidence? ¬†Did¬†I take on faith the existence¬†of Pluto? ¬†It could have been another light source that we didn’t understand. ¬†In a thin way I did before the photos came back, but that’s not what I’m talking about. ¬†I take on faith that my life will continue if it ends tomorrow. ¬†That is a bold claim that I can’t prove. ¬†My personal version of Pascal’s wager is this: ¬†if I’m wrong I won’t know it ¬†— the can’t lose position for an¬†egotist like me. ¬†That is a statement of faith.

Faith is my belief in the things that I have not witnessed, accounting for the fact that even what I witness, experience and remember are constructed in a brain so complicated we¬†barely comprehend it. ¬†Is faith required for history? ¬†To some extent. ¬†Only modern history is recorded verbatim and one first run movie or internet meme will convince you that future generations may believe nothing that we so confidently record. ¬†But I don’t really consider it faith to believe that Jesus Christ existed. ¬†That is a consensus amongst historians just as the existence of the third Roman emperor Caligula is.

Do I need faith to believe that Jesus was God incarnate? ¬†I do. ¬†Scripture claims that he was. ¬†I can question the veracity of that Scripture. ¬†I can rightly question the legitimacy of eye witness accounts. ¬†I can rightly question even the existence of a supernatural. ¬†I can rightly ask why some claims of deity survived and others did not. ¬†There are few active temples of Zeus remaining. ¬†At every point in my chain of logic for belief, there are legitimate questions that skeptics ask. ¬†I don’t have answers for them all.

I’m open to the possibility that I live a dichotomous life – – evidence in my professional pursuits, faith in personal. ¬†But that doesn’t feel quite right. ¬†I see the effects of faith as evidence. ¬†There was a call to comfort when our professional friend was taken so quickly. ¬†There was an impromptu memorial at our place of work. ¬†We remembered his life. ¬†There was an urge to pray – – a hope that there was someone greater who cared about our grief. ¬†Is that urge evidence? ¬†It could be. ¬†All human societies have displayed the behavior of worship. ¬†Is that behavior evidence? ¬†Perhaps not. ¬†Perhaps it is an accident of our genes that made the paranoid and delusional more likely to survive. ¬†But it could be.

Time to close this James Joyce style post. ¬†I’m not even sure that I’ve asked or answered any good questions and for that I apologize. ¬†I suppose I just needed to write, and in a time of sudden loss this post took a different flavor than it would have otherwise. ¬†I do have one question that may be useful.

 embrace evidence based thinking instead of faith.

How would the meaning change if “in addition to” replaced “instead of”?

Pascal – – 1:16

 

photo credit: ¬†“Bascula 9” by L.Miguel Bugallo S√°nchez ¬†– self made, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. ¬†http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Bascula_9.jpg.

My Approach to Religious Friends and Acquaintances: A Guest Post

This is a guest post by Mike, my friendly neighbor to the north, at the Godless Cranium. ¬†He graciously invited others to post to his blog and we agreed to exchange posts. ¬†I respect his views and confirm that our correspondence online and off¬†makes him a person I would gladly fellowship with. ¬†I’m glad to see him actively blogging again. ¬†

Mike, thank you for adding value to our home here. – – Pascal

First off, thank you for the opportunity to post a piece on your blog. I’m sorry for the delay. Without getting into too much detail, I was dealing with multiple issues that unfortunately took me away from my blog for some time.

However, I’m glad to be back and I hope you and your readers enjoy my take on how I approach religious friends and acquaintances.

Let Us Begin

Most of my family is religious. My mom talks about my dad being in heaven. She also reminisces about how anything that dies is also up there with my dad, and to be honest I just grin and bear it. My mom is aware of my non-religiosity and she agrees with most of my reasoning but she’s religious and that’s not going to change any time soon. She doesn’t attend church and thinks that organized religion is just there to suck money from you, but overall she believes in God and the bible etc.

I grew up around religion. I live in a culture where Christianity is prominent and I’ve grown fairly used to it. Over the years I’ve created a sort of code of ethics when dealing with religion. Here’s a few examples.

Work

I’m a social worker and I work primarily with the deaf/blind. I avoid religious talk at work. I’ve accompanied clients to church and sat through the sermon. I’ve said a prayer for a client just going to bed. If asked about religion, I deflect because I don’t think it belongs in my professional life. When I’m at work, I’m there to serve my clients and if they find comfort in me praying with them, then I’ll be doing just that.

Functions

At social functions I do not bow my head in prayer. I do not pray. I do not sing hymns. I do not profess faith in a deity I do not believe in.

At functions or in public areas where I’m not working, I do not support religion. I do not actively go out of my way to embarrass people etc., but I also don’t partake in what religion is offering.

Personal Life

If you know me at all, you will probably figure out I‚Äôm not a believer. If you ask me about religion in a non-professional atmosphere, I will discuss my views with you. I will try to do so in a polite manner unless pushed to the brink with torture threats (like Hell) or other religious inanities. I‚Äôve been told that I‚Äôm the anti-Christ on more than one occasion, for example, and that I have ‚Äėweird views‚Äô on religion as a whole.

That’s fine. I make sure that I don’t actively hide my religious views. I’m openly atheist without being in-your-face about it. But if asked or drawn into a conversation about religion, I will speak my thoughts.

I believe being openly atheist is important, since many, many people can’t be. Some atheists fear for their lives, some fear losing their family and friends etc. I’m lucky enough not to fear those things. I live in a part of the world where I’m free to speak my mind about religion. Sure, I may take a few social consequences, but I’m fine with that.

Family

My wife was a Catholic when I met her and she is very much aware of my atheism. As are my step-kids, kids and close friends. We’ve had religious discussions and they are aware of my reasons for not believing. I never told my kids I was an atheist when they were growing up and I supported their right to choose religion or non-belief as they saw fit. My son believes in God and my daughter doesn’t much care about religion one way or the other. I love my family whether they are religious or not. I’ve even offered to attend church with my wife if it was important to her, as long as she didn’t expect me to bow my head (or kneel) and pray or in any other way compromise my own ethics. I would gladly (well…semi-gladly) sit quietly through a sermon if she wanted me too.

Conclusion

Basically, I try to strike a balance. I don’t pretend to be religious but sometimes I must put my religious and non-religious differences aside to help people I work with or care about. I’m proud of my atheism, because it took me a long time to arrive at. It meant many hours of reading and examining. It meant years of self-discovery, and I’m now comfortable with my non-belief in God.

However, that doesn’t mean I don’t challenge that non-belief on a regular basis. I read many religious writings and constantly strive to find good arguments against my position.

I hope you and your readers enjoyed the post and thank you once again for the opportunity to post on your blog. As you probably know, I enjoy your writings very much.

Prayer for an Atheist

Dear Russell and Friends,

Recently, J’s brother became suddenly and severely ill. ¬†Russell texted me that she was going to say goodbye as¬†he was in a coma and not expected to live. ¬†Some of J’s family believe. ¬†Some don’t. ¬†As she stands in the middle it can hurt. ¬†Whether you believe or not,¬†whether they believe or not – – when someone you love is hurting, you hurt. ¬†That is part of love’s definition. ¬†I said that I would pray. ¬†I wrote it down so that my promise would not be hollow. ¬†Then I ran. ¬†That is where I do much of my thinking directed to God – – prayer if you will. Then I wrote. ¬†That is where I write letters to God and leave a record of his answers and how they have changed my life. ¬†I write several times a week in a large journal. ¬†The entry is below. ¬†I’ve addressed it Dear Father as I usually do – – my title for God. ¬†As a father myself, I’m haunted and pricked each time I write those words. ¬†So many incomplete fathers. ¬†I am one of them. ¬†One father who balances discipline and love.

I’ll end with the letter’s actual sign off. ¬†Before I begin:

1)  Believers РРdo you pray for skeptics?  How?

2)  Skeptics РРwould this prayer offend you?  Would any?

Pascal – – 1:16

Dear Father,

I told a friend that I would pray this week for her brother who is severely ill. ¬†He is an atheist. ¬†She doubts. ¬†His sudden fall has sent waves through a family and community. ¬†A middle aged man scaling a noble cliff fell suddenly. ¬†His back is broken and he writhes in blinding pain. ¬†Will he walk again or even live? ¬†I don’t know him, but I love him. ¬†We’re the same age. ¬†I too have fallen before. ¬†I too have been rebuilt. ¬†But what if I hadn’t. ¬†What if I never recovered the sentience to hear your whisper of presence and reassurance? ¬†What if I never thanked those who loved me despite my far flung successes and foundational failures?

I believe that you made and gifted this man.  I believe that you used his gifts to enrich men whether he knew you or not.  I think his metal is like mine РРan alloy of base and precious.  I think his heart is like mine РРa dividing line between good and evil.  I think his family is like mine РРloving him, hurting deeply, hoping for a chance to reconnect perhaps reconcile.

What if he doesn’t wake up? ¬†If he was right about you then he’ll live in the memories he constructed. ¬†His family and his work will stand as a testament to what he built and how he built it. ¬†If I am right about you let me beg you this – – when the veil is lifted, when the choice is clear – – then let him choose. ¬†You know that my heart has grown for those who deny you and even for those who hate me for following Christ. ¬†We know it is illogical to hate the non-existent. ¬†But it does make sense to hate Christ followers – – especially if they have hurt others by twisting your words or following a broad rather than narrow path. ¬†I’ve done that.

I haven’t met this man, but I love him. ¬†Please bring him back to the family that needs him. ¬†I suspect that he has much to say and that they are needful of hearing it. ¬†Please especially strengthen his sister – – my friend. ¬†She thought, perhaps thinks, that she shares his atheism. ¬†Comfort without you is thin. ¬†Please comfort her. ¬†I’m not sure what my good friend her husband thinks. ¬†He is so hopeful that science will soothe the sting of death. ¬†In my work with the dying I knew he was wrong. ¬†I sit with families facing death from different perspectives – – four this week alone. ¬†It is different.

I’m not asking for a deathbed conversion for a mind that may grasp nothing. ¬†I do not understand completely how you will save all men through the work of Christ, but I know that you will. ¬†And if this man lives to die another day please let me meet him and offer my admiration and compassion in person.

Love,

Pascal

Arguing with Ayn

Ayn_Rand1

Dear Russell and Friends,

There she is.  Demure smile, confident pose, piercing eyes & cigarette in hand.  She created the best book title ever РРAtlas Shrugged РРa title that compelled me to read.  Her first name rhymes with wine.  She is worth arguing with.  We could not disagree more on so many fundamental things.  And yet.

Ayn Rand is one of the best, smartest, most incisive writers that I have read.  She has strong opinions well reasoned that are diametrically opposed to my worldview and philosophy.  Is reading her an exercise in frustration?  No.  Not at all.

Atlas

Reading her is pure pleasure and reminds me that my life is too short to pick lesser books. ¬†I’ve just begun The Fountainhead in its 25th anniversary edition. ¬†Rand wrote the introduction in 1968 – – five years before I was born and a full 25 years before I could digest her ideas.

Now I’ll wrestle with Howard Roark just like I wrestled with Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden. ¬†From the grave their ideas and speeches echo. ¬†And so it is with Ms. Rand. ¬†I want to invite her to our table and listen. Then I’d share what enthralls yet disappoints me. ¬†Her protagonists are my antagonists – – they are √úbermensch, gleaming strong and clear. ¬†I need these antagonists – – worthy opponents in the circus of ideas. Her antagonists are straw. ¬†Caricatures of bias, bigotry and weakness. ¬†If only she could revise. ¬†Would she? ¬†If only she had the courage to face the strong and not the weak. ¬†Would she? ¬†Oh well. ¬†Her gift to me remains – – enemies that I can respect and answer with a clear conscience. ¬†Enemies that best me in more areas than I usually admit. ¬†Enemies of concrete, steel, arcs and planes of soaring thought. ¬†Enemies that could become friends.

What of my antagonist to her protagonist?  I hope to return her gift and not to duplicate her greatest mistake.

Pascal – – 1:16

 

photo credits:

Ayn Rand portrait by Phyllis Cerf (1916‚Äď2006) Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ayn_Rand1.jpg#/media/File:Ayn_Rand1.jpg

“Objectivist1” by Michael Greene – originally posted to Flickr as Atlas 2. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Objectivist1.jpg#/media/File:Objectivist1.jpg

Wealth and Power

640px-Biltmore_Estate_14-2

Dear Friend,

I begin most of my letters here with a derivative of that salutation. ¬†Dear Russell and Friends . . . ¬†But the letter on my table is not from Russell. ¬†It is from Steve Forbes, or rather it appears, from his desk. ¬†I don’t know Steve Forbes but he asks me to join him by buying a magazine. ¬†It is three and a half pages long, but a quick read due to capacious spacing and outsized font. ¬†The first words that receive the inflation denote the thesis of the letter. ¬†Mr. Forbes offers me something that he thinks I want: ¬†wealth and power.

Is he right?  Before I discount advertising, I must assess its success.  It often works.  Very often.  And those who can afford Forbes magazine and even its peddled luxury wares are not less vulnerable. Perhaps they are even more so.

Mr. Forbes thinks that I want to read about the lives of billionaires.  In his words the magazine that bears his name is not all about business.

It’s also about enjoying the rewards of success. ¬†Exotic supercars. Yachts to die for. ¬†Hideaways that you can’t get to from here. ¬†The private plane circuit, where wealthy flyers never see the inside of a terminal. ¬†Plus, you’ll get ForbesLife, our guide to living the good life.

Is he right? ¬†Is wealth and power a worthy goal? ¬†Mr. Forbes is no fool, but I’ve been one. ¬†I’ve been sorely tempted to mistake my gifts for entitlement. ¬†I’ve been sorely tempted to direct my capacity toward temporary things that will not survive even my brief life. ¬†I’ve been sorely tempted to seek approval, influence, and regard. ¬†In truth – – I find power more tempting than wealth and view the latter as only the currency of the former. ¬†I have been tempted and I have fallen.

One reason I follow Christ is so that I can answer Mr. Forbes with honesty. ¬†Yes – – you’re right sir. ¬†I do want wealth and power. ¬†But, deep within me I know it is not enough. ¬†Deep within me I know that it will not survive me. ¬†Vanderbilt barely lived in America’s largest home. ¬†So what can replace wealth and power as my desire? Following Christ has given me that answer.

Mr. Forbes and his team are no fools. ¬†I’m not in the top 0.1% of income, but honesty compels me to acknowledge that I am in the top 1%. ¬†I’m not in the top 0.01% of intellect, but honesty compels me to acknowledge that I am in the top 0.1%. ¬†Honesty is not what I need. ¬†I need humility. ¬†By following Christ I see someone so much greater than me that I have no metric of comparison. ¬†Yet he came to serve and to suffer with us (compassion defined). ¬†Mr. Forbes may not be a fool, but I want to be. ¬†I want to foolishly reject the call to wealth and power although I know that I could realistically attain a measure of it. ¬†I want to foolishly love those who are poor and powerless.

Oh Mr. Forbes, you knew I would be tempted.  I am constantly tempted by goals that honor myself and not my savior.  Oh God РРplease let me be wise and pursue your compassion.  Let me live differently as a steward of the capabilities that are only a gift from you.

Dear readers – –

1) ¬†Does Mr. Forbes’ offer tempt you?

2)  Atheist friends:  how have you mitigated this siren call?

3)  Christ followers and those of other faiths:  same question.

4)  Any:  am I wrong to recoil from this letter?  I welcome your criticism.

 

Pascal  1:16

photo credit: ¬†“Biltmore Estate 14-2” by Biltmore_Estate_14.jpg: Doug Coldwellderivative work: Entheta (talk) – Biltmore_Estate_14.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Three Questions from a Pastor

My wife is at a bachelorette party this weekend so I get our enchanting¬†little giggle boxes all to myself! These girls are the biggest joys in my life and these are definitely my favorite times! The one-year-old just went down for a nap and the four-year-old (who has just earned the right to watch one episode of her favorite new show) and I are planning a dance party when the little one¬†wakes ‚Äď so my time for this post is very limited.

The pastor of the church that is doing “The Table” event discussing¬†Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask¬†(which we‚Äôve been blogging about here, here and here) emailed me three honest questions. I do have an immediate response to each of these but (as you know) I tend to get long-winded and my girls have my day! I also know that my opinions are flawed and your perspective is incredibly valuable. So, I wanted to open these questions up to all of your input ‚Äď believer or nonbeliever. Please respond with whatever thoughts you have.¬†Here are the questions…

  1. Where do you see the New Testament to be inaccurate historically?
  2. Do you believe in a historical Jesus? If no why?
  3. What are some of the contradictions you see in Scripture?

I‚Äôll put my thoughts in the comments as I have time in the next few days. Her show is almost over ‚Äď time to party! ūüôā If you have kids, hug them in person or long-distance today!

Gentleness and respect,
‚ÄďRussell

Apologies (accepted) & Napkins (used well)

Napkin

Greetings Russell and Friends,

Much of my reading and writing this week has been in the comments concerning my last post on God’s goodness or lack thereof. ¬†That is a new and exciting way to interact with our new friends – – something that we’ve seen modeled on several of their blogs. ¬†Much of the content in these blogs is in the comments. ¬†So we’re slowly addressing¬†your reasons for doubt and unfolding the map to your intellect and heart. ¬†I find your mind to be fascinating, likely because it is very different from mine. ¬†I also find it fascinating when you and your wife J (aka CC) write each other from¬†the same room. ¬†Fascinating, and completely valid. ¬†She said the following after you apologized for the length of your comments.

Your napkin drawing (that happened on paper, but same idea) was far more effective. Even if you has said the same thing in many thousands of words, I think fatigue would have prevented me (and perhaps others) from getting it. Are there readers who skip your comments altogether because of the length (knowing that they don’t have time in the Subway line)? You have so much to offer that I don’t want it to be missed for that reason.

I need to accept your apology and resist my impulse to reassure you that apologies are never needed. ¬†That impulse does not honor the reality of friendship. ¬†When I apologize I would rather have that apology accepted than deferred. ¬†Why do I accept your apology? ¬†Because I recently found myself in a Subway line trying to engage the blog content and I couldn’t attend to your very good comment, primarily because of length. ¬†I read and scrolled, scrolled and read, gave up, then ordered a six-inch wheat black forest ham toasted with pepper jack cheese, green peppers, red onions, black olives, banana peppers, spicy mustard and a little bit of sriracha sauce. ¬†I woke at four this morning intending to read every single one of your comments. ¬†I’m actually a slow, plodding reader – – speed reading is anathema to me. ¬†And I did, but it took¬†two hours to do so thoughtfully. ¬†Smaller bites and clarifying questions is good advice from your bride.

What about napkins? ¬†That is a favorite strategy of ours when we meet for breakfast. ¬†Back of the envelope analogies fail because the only envelopes I seem to have contain junk mail and I rarely have them at breakfast. ¬†Likewise, we have never eaten together at a restaurant with cloth napkins. ¬†I’m not saying that we couldn’t write on those napkins, just that it could get a little strange or tense. ¬†In the napkin above I’ve illustrated a general taxonomy which may or may not be correct. ¬†The horizontal axis represents a way of thinking – – like you or me. ¬†The vertical axis represents a skeptical or theistic belief. ¬†I’ve taken the liberty of asserting that you think the most like you and I think the most like me. ¬†We serve as paradigmatic members of the quadrants: ¬†you the Russell-like skeptic, me the Pascal-like theist. ¬†Then I’ve assigned several of our more active writers to the quadrants as I see them. ¬†I chose Madalyn for my way of thinking, albeit with very different beliefs, primarily because I find her writing style very easy to read. ¬†I chose Howie for your way of thinking because when he first came by I thought you had adopted another pseudonym. ¬†And so forth – – it’s a bit like picking teams for dodgeball. ¬†It would be better for people to assign themselves – – then I could redraw the napkin, although I did find the creative effort to be draining.

Why a tangential discussion about napkins? ¬†Because I’ve taken so many tangents this week trying to see how we see things differently. ¬†Did you know that Bertrand Russell was an¬†opponent of coherentism as an epistemic strategy? ¬†I did not. ¬†Did you know that¬†Soren Kierkegaard requires too many special characters in the correct spelling of his name to be my favorite philosopher? ¬†That was a joke (although true). ¬†He’s not my favorite philosopher because I don’t have one yet. ¬†Kierkegaard valued the subjective in his understanding of truth. ¬†I didn’t know that, but I’ve encountered him before in many readings and it is probably time to go to the source. ¬†My tangential responses to your comments and your linearity help me to learn and also to respect that I many not ever be able to reply to you in kind. ¬†I understand your objections, I just don’t process the world that way. ¬†And that is okay. ¬†I’ll do my best. ¬†Let’s have breakfast this week.

For our friends — which napkin quadrant would you place yourself in? ¬†Any takers for the lonely square? ¬†If you are one of the 8-in-ink and consider yourself misdrawn I am prepared to revise.

Pascal

–1:16

photo credit:  the napkin on the table, Pascal, my own work Creative Commons share and share alike