Sleight-of-hand with “faith”
[warning – this is long: over 4k words]
Theists – particularly Christians – often appeal to “faith”. Here are three fairly typical examples:
• Theists regularly say “But belief in the existence of God is ultimately a matter of faith, not reason”, when confronted by someone demanding to know whether they can muster a cogent argument in support or defence of their belief.
• Theists sometimes also insist that theism and atheism are both “faith positions”, and so equally rational/irrational.
• And theists are fond of suggesting that, just as it’s a positive thing to place your faith in those around you (otherwise life would be impossible), so it must also be positive to place your faith in God.
In this paper, I question whether these appeals to faith are as legitimate as they might first appear.
Let’s begin by looking at reasonable belief. Often, when you believe something with reason, you possess good grounds for supposing your belief is true.
Take, for example, my belief that there is a tree outside my office. I can’t now see the tree, but I am certainly justified in supposing it’s there. I saw it only a minute ago. It’s always been there whenever I have entered my office. And there’s no reason at all to suppose that someone has somehow managed silently to remove it while I have been sitting here. So I’m justified in believing the tree is still there.
Surely, I’m also justified in believing that Japan exists, despite the fact that I have never been there myself. I have seen innumerable TV programs about Japan, I have met people who claim to be from Japan and who all speak with that characteristic accent. And I have seen countless maps on which Japan clearly appears. Some of my relatives even claim to have been there. So, again, I have excellent reason to suppose Japan exists.
I’m also justified in believing that the battle of Hastings took place in 1066. I have read about the battle in a number of books written by reputable authors, so I have pretty good reason to suppose it’s true. Maybe this belief of mine isn’t quite as well confirmed as my belief that Japan exists. After all, historians can and do make big mistakes. But it is, nevertheless, a pretty reasonable thing for me to believe.
Of course, while I’m justified in holding these beliefs – while I have good reason to hold them – it’s possible I’m mistaken. Most if not all our beliefs about the world are open to at least some doubt. Even my belief that Japan exists. It’s just possible that there has been some huge and elaborate conspiracy to dupe me into thinking Japan exists when in fact it doesn’t. Perhaps my whole life has been controlled by forces intent on deceiving me about what’s really going on, as in the film The Truman Show (in which Truman, the character played by Jim Carey, discovers that his entire life has been contrived as part of a TV soap opera). The point is that, though it could turn out to be true that Japan doesn’t exist, it’s very unlikely that it doesn’t exist. The reasonable thing for me to believe is that it does. For I have powerful evidence that it does, and hardly any evidence to suggest that it doesn’t.
Reasonableness comes in degrees
Note that reasonableness comes in degrees. Beliefs can be more, or less, reasonable. My belief that Japan exists is very reasonable indeed. So too are my beliefs that the Earth revolves around the sun, that Elvis Presley is dead, and that there are no fairies at the bottom of my garden. Other beliefs lie in the middle range: there is some reason to suppose they are true, but perhaps not enough to warrant belief. For example, there is some reason to believe that there is life on other planets: we know there are millions of other solar systems many of which would be capable of producing and sustaining life. It’s not wholly unreasonable to suppose that life has evolved elsewhere. But perhaps there isn’t sufficient evidence to justify belief in extra-terrestrial life.
Towards the bottom of the scale there lie beliefs for which there is very little supporting evidence and indeed considerable evidence against. The beliefs the Elvis is alive and well, that fairies exist, and that the world is run by a secret cabal of Martian imposters all fall into this category (despite what you might read on some internet sites). So there is a scale of reasonableness: beliefs can be more or less reasonable, given the evidence. To qualify as a reasonable belief, a belief must at least fall within the top half of the scale.
Now where on this scale does belief in God lie, do you suppose? Does it feature down at the “Fairies exist” end of the spectrum? Does it lie somewhere in the middle, along with belief in extra-terrestrials? Or is towards the top of the scale, perhaps as high as my belief that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066, or even as high as my belief that Japan exists? Take a moment to think about it: where would you place belief in God?
My guess is that most people who believe in God consider their belief to be pretty reasonable, that’s to say, at least as reasonable as belief in extra-terrestrial life, and perhaps even as reasonable as my belief that the battle of Hastings took place in 1066. Certainly, that’s what most of the Christians that I have asked have said. Not one has ever suggested that belief in God is no more reasonable than is, say, belief in fairies. They’re always confident that belief in God is fairly high up there on the scale of reasonableness.
Arguments for the existence of God
But are they right? Is belief in God reasonable?
There are all sorts of reasons why you might suppose it is. Here are a few:
• Millions of people believe in God. They can’t all be wrong, can they?
• Many claim to have experienced God directly, though a revelatory experience. Surely at least some of these experiences must be reliable?
• There are many religious miracles, miracles that could not have happened if God did not exist.
• Jesus tells us that God exists, and we know Jesus to be a reliable source of information. Therefore it’s likely that God exists.
• The universe shows signs of having been designed. So God must exist as its designer.
• Where did the universe come from? Why did the Big Bang occur? Things don’t just happen, do they? There’s always a cause, an explanation. But then the Big Bang must have a cause and explanation. And by far the best explanation is that the universe was created by God.
These are some of the most popular arguments for God’s existence. Of course, the majority Christians are happy to accept that these arguments don’t conclusively prove that God exists. There is, they will admit, room for doubt about whether there’s a God. Nevertheless, you might think that these arguments provide us with pretty good grounds for believing in God, grounds sufficient to make belief in God reasonable.
But do they? Personally, I don’t think they do. Any good introduction to the philosophy of religion will explain why most if not all of these arguments are, at least as they stand, fatally flawed. By saying that the arguments are fatally flawed, I mean not that, while the arguments do provide good grounds for believing in God, these grounds fall short of being conclusive. Rather, I mean that these arguments actually provide us with very little, if any, reason to suppose that God exists.
The problem of evil
That there’s little reason to suppose God exists is bad enough. But the situation for theism is, rationally speaking, actually far worse then that. There is also a powerful argument against the existence of God, the argument raised by the problem of evil. It runs as follows.
God, according to Christians, Jews and Muslims, is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good. These are defining attributes of God. If God exists, He must possess all three. A being with only two would not qualify as “God”, as Christians, Jews and Muslims understand the term.
Now, there is a great deal of pain and suffering in the world, much of it natural in origin. Yes, God, if He exists, made “all things bright and beautiful”. But let’s not forget that He also made cancer, earthquakes, famine, the Black Death and haemorrhoids. By such means God inflicts great pain and misery on His children. And not just on we humans. Anyone who has watched a few of David Attenborough’s TV programmes about natural history will no that, for very many of the sentient creatures with which we share this planet, life is horrifically – indeed, almost unimaginably – cruel. And this sort of extreme cruelty has been unleashed on a daily basis over many hundreds of millions of years – long before we humans made our recent appearance on the planet.
It seems that, if the universe does have a creator (and let’s just suppose, for the sake of argument, that it does – though even this is highly doubtful) then either He doesn’t know about this appalling suffering, in which case he’s not all-knowing, or He is unable to prevent it, in which case He’s not all-powerful, or else He doesn’t much care about the agony he inflicts on sentient beings, in which case He is not supremely benevolent. Either way, the creator is not the Christian/Jewish/Muslim God, who, by definition, has all three attributes.
Direct religious experience of God
Some theists maintain, perhaps correctly, that a belief can be reasonable even if not supported by argument or evidence.
Take my belief that there’s an orange on the table in front of me. I don’t infer that there orange is there on the basis of evidence. I can just directly see it there. That makes my belief reasonable, despite the fact that it is not supported by argument or evidence.
Might I not, in the same way, have direct experience of God? If I am lucky enough to have such an experience, might it not then similarly be reasonable for me to believe, despite the fact that I cannot muster a cogent argument or evidence in support of my belief?
This sort of move faces on obvious objection, however. We know that many people have such apparently revelatory religious experiences. However, these experiences differ dramatically in terms of what they seem to reveal – indeed, they contradict each other.
Thus many of these experiences must be at least partly deceptive. We also have powerful evidence – in the form of the problem of evil – that there is no all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God.
How, then, can it be reasonable for someone in possession of both (i) this information about the unreliability of such experiences and (ii) powerful evidence (provided by the problem of evil) that what they seem to experience doesn’t actually exist, to suppose that their own experience is reliable guide to reality?
Attempts to solve the problem of evil
Those who believe in God have tried to deal with the problem of evil in various ways. Some suggest that our suffering is caused partly or wholly by our own free actions. Some argue it is fair and just punishment for our own wrong-doing. Some suppose the suffering and hardship we endure have a purpose – to make us better people. Without suffering, we cannot become the virtuous people God wants us to be.
You might wonder why God didn’t just make us virtuous to begin with. But in any case, if suffering is the unavoidable price we must pay for virtue, it is hard to explain why God dishes out suffering in the way He does. Why do mass-murdering dictators live out their lives in luxury? Why do sweet and lovely people have horrendous diseases inflicted upon them? It is, to say the least, difficult to understand how the seemingly random distribution of suffering in the world could really turn out to be “all for the best”.
Some try to defend the suggestion that the suffering is for our own good by insisting that “God works in mysterious ways”. In some not-fully-understood-by-us way, God’s giving babies cancer really does make the world a better place.
But this is really just to concede defeat. It’s to point out that, despite the fact that the distribution of suffering certainly doesn’t seem to make any sense, nevertheless it may ultimately make sense. Well, yes, it may ultimately make sense (and there maybe fairies at the bottom of the garden). But that’s not to deny that the evidence really does, on the face of it, point very firmly towards there being no God. (For more on the problem of evil, see “The God of Eth“.)
Where the onus lies
Of course, I might be wrong about all this. Perhaps you disagree with me. Maybe you think the problem of evil can be dealt. Perhaps you think that there are good arguments for the existence of God after all.
What I want to stress here is that if, at the beginning of this paper, you placed belief in God pretty high on the scale of reasonableness, then the onus is now on you both to provide some decent arguments in support of this claim to reasonableness, and to explain how the problem of evil can be dealt with. Otherwise, I think you should admit that you made a mistake: belief in God does not lie as high on the scale of reasonableness as you thought. Belief in God is actually pretty low on the scale. It’s down there near belief in fairies.
An extreme form of “faith”
Now many believers would say, at this point, that I am focusing far too much on reason. “It really doesn’t matter that I can’t provide good reasons for believing in God,” they say. “Nor does it matter that you can provide me with seemingly powerful evidence that there is no God. Belief in God is a matter of faith, not reason. One must just believe. ”
This sort of appeal to faith might seem to offer the theist some respite from the rational probing of an atheist like myself. They can just turn their back on the evidence and the arguments and say, “Well, I believe anyway, despite the evidence. I have faith.”
But notice that, in order to offer any genuine respite, the faith they appeal to at this point has got to be of a very extreme sort: they must believe, while at the same time acknowledging that they have no more reason to believe than they have to believe that, say, Elvis lives or that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden.
Now that is a very difficult thing to do. Could you do it? Could you really make yourself believe something, while also accepting that you had no more reason to believe it than you have to believe in, say, fairies?
Frankly, I doubt you could. I couldn’t. Certainly, this sort of extreme faith is very difficult if not impossible for anyone to sustain by a sheer act of will.
A more common sort of “faith”
In fact, while those who believe in God talk of having “faith”, they rarely mean the extreme sort discussed above. As I pointed out right at the beginning of this paper, most theists think their belief in God is pretty reasonable.
So what, then, do they mean when they say that belief in the existence of God is a matter of “faith”?
Usually, it turns out they mean only that, while there may be pretty good grounds for believing in God, these grounds fall short of constituting proof. God’s existence is “not proved”. What does the theist mean by “not proved”? They mean that the evidence of God’s existence isn’t irrefutable. They could be wrong. It’s possible that God doesn’t exist (just as it’s possible that the battle of Hastings wasn’t in 1066).
This way of using the term “faith” is obviously to be contrasted with the extreme form of “faith” discussed a moment ago. That sort of “faith” is the faith that is downright unreasonable – as unreasonable as, say, belief in fairies. This sort of “faith”, on the other hand, requires only that the belief not be proved. And of course, a belief may be very reasonable indeed without being proved. In fact, on this way of using the term “faith”, all our scientific theories come out as “faith” positions. Even the theory that the Earth revolves around the sun!
Sliding between these two senses of “faith”
Theists often slide between these two senses of “faith” without realizing they have done so.
For example, when given a hard time by an atheist about the reasonableness of their belief, theists often retreat to “faith” in order to defend themselves. “Belief in God” they will say, “is a matter of faith, not reason”. They hope that will make the atheist shut up and go away.
But we have seen that, here, only the extreme sort of faith will do. If an atheist appears to have shown that belief in God is downright unreasonable, it won’t do for the theist to reply “But belief in God is a matter of faith” if by “faith” they simply mean “not proven”. For the atheist’s point is precisely that not only is belief in God not proven, it’s also downright unreasonable: as unreasonable as, say, belief in fairies.
But then it would be underhand of theists to appeal to the extreme sort of faith (a form of “faith” they would probably find it impossible to sustain) to fend off rational attack by an atheist, and yet, when the atheist has left the room, to revert back to claiming that while they have “faith” in God’s existence, nevertheless, belief in God is “pretty reasonable, just not proved ”.
Yet this is what many theists do. By surreptitiously switching between the two senses of “faith” they engage in a philosophical sleight-of-hand. They craftily use “faith” to dodge the need to deal with evidence and arguments which, on the face of it, show belief in God to be downright irrational, while at the same time continuing to maintain that belief in God is quite reasonable.
Of course, not all theists resort to such linguistic trickery. Many try to deal honestly with the arguments and evidence. Others confess they cannot: they bite the bullet and simply believe while admitting they have no more reason to believe than they have to believe in fairies. My point is that all theists should do one or other of these two things. Unfortunately, many do neither. They choose instead to pull a fast one with “faith”.
A bad argument
Here’s another, different, trick that theists sometimes pull by switching between these two senses of “faith”.
“Look,” the theist may say. “I admit I can’t prove God exists. But then the atheist can’t prove He doesn’t. So atheism and theism both require a leap of faith. But if theism and atheism are both faith positions, than they are equally irrational, aren’t they? They are intellectually on par.”
This argument trades on the same ambiguity in the term “faith”. The claim that atheism and theism are equally a matter of “faith” in the sense that neither is conclusively and irrefutably proved is here being used to obscure the fact that the evidence and arguments may overwhelmingly support one position over the other. The two positions may well not be intellectually on par.
After all, I can’t prove that fairies exist. But neither can I conclusively prove that they don’t. It doesn’t follow that it would be just as sensible for me to believe that fairies exist as it is for me to believe that they don’t.
Similarly, while both theism and atheism may qualify as “faith” positions in the “not proved” sense, it may be that the belief that there is no God is just as rational as the belief that there are no fairies, i.e. very rational indeed. In short, it doesn’t follow that if atheism and theism are “faith” positions in the “not proven” sense then they are “faith” positions in the extreme sense.
The argument may be bad, but, as I say, it’s popular. Here’s an example I recently came across on the internet:
“God’s existence cannot be proved by physical means. However, neither can it be disproved. What does this mean? It means it takes complete and utter faith to believe there is a god (or gods) and complete and utter faith to believe there is not one.”
This argument appears to involve the same slide between the two uses of “faith”. It moves from “Neither theism or atheism can be proved or disproved” to “Therefore, both are a matter of “complete and utter faith”.
Now I admit that the fact that neither atheism nor theism can be proved really does entail that both are “faith” positions in the weak “not proven” sense of faith (though notice that this doesn’t entail that the two positions are intellectually on par). But the author concludes that it must therefore take complete and utter faith to believe that God exists/doesn’t exist. This strongly suggests that she thinks both are “faith” positions in the extreme sense. And if both faith positions in the extreme sense, then it really does follow that atheism and theism are equally irrational.
You can see that the author trades on the ambiguity concerning what “faith” means. By sliding from one of the two uses of “faith” to the other, the author creates the false impression that atheism and theism are intellectually on par. A nice rhetorical trick.
The arguments behind “faith”
Suppose I claim to have “faith” in God’s existence. We have seen that, if I mean by this only that I accept that God’s existence can’t be proved, I may still take my belief to be quite reasonable. More reasonable, in fact, than the atheistic alternative.
Indeed, as I have indicated, theists who claim to have a simple and trusting “faith” rarely consider their belief to be no more sensible than is, say, the belief that Elvis is still alive and well, living out his life in secret. The second belief is clearly irrational and absurd, the theist will no doubt point out, for there’s little in the way of supporting evidence and pretty good evidence to the contrary.
But is belief in God any less irrational and absurd? I can’t see that it is.
Yet few theists are willing to accept that belief in God is this irrational. Even those who claim simply to have “faith” – who insist they “just believe” – will often, if pressed to explain why they believe, quietly whisper, “But the universe must have come from somewhere, mustn’t it?”
It turns out, in other words, that behind claims to “faith” often lurk the standard theistic arguments (in this case, argument (vi) above). These arguments, while perhaps not explicitly laid out in the mind of the believer, nevertheless make their presence felt. Arguments (v) and (vi) in particular are extremely seductive. It takes most of us considerable intellectual effort to understand why they are (at least as they are usually formulated) fallacious. It’s unsurprising, then, that even those who claim to have “faith” often take their belief to be reasonable.
Of course, the belief that Elvis lives is rather frivolous and inconsequential. Belief in God is not: it can have huge, life-changing effects. There’s no doubt that the question “Does God exist?” is one of immense seriousness and importance. It has dominated human thinking for thousands of years. Belief in God seems to answer a yearning that most of us have. It’s not to be dismissed lightly.
Still, the question remains whether there is any more reason to believe in God than there is to believe that Elvis lives. Are those who believe in God any better justified? The answer, perhaps, is that they are not. We shouldn’t allow talk about “faith” to obscure this fact, if it is a fact.
Having faith in other people
To finish, I want to turn to yet another way in which the expression “faith in God” tends to get used.
We often speak of “placing our faith” in someone. When I saw David Beckham walk up to take that penalty in the World Cup match against Argentina, my friend Mike said, “He’s going to miss!” But I said, “Have a little faith in Beckham. He’ll do it.” And Beckham scored. So I was right to place my faith in him.
We constantly place our faith and trust in those around us. I have faith in the postman: that he will deliver my letters and not chuck them in the bin. I have faith in my bank manager: that she will deal with me honestly and won’t disappear with all my money. Indeed, without this sort of trust in others life would become impossible, wouldn’t it?
So it seems that placing our faith in others is generally a positive, even an admirable, thing to do . But then, whether or not it’s reasonable to believe in God, isn’t it, by the same token, positive and admirable thing to place our faith in God?
The Santa case
The above argument involves a serious muddle. In fact, we can distinguish two further senses of “having faith in so-and-so”. On the one hand, we have believing that a person will act in a trustworthy and/or reliable manner. On the other hand, we have believing that a person exists.
Notice that these are two very different sorts of “faith”. The first sort of “faith” simply takes for granted that the individual in question actually exists. The “faith” merely concerns the character of that person. Having made that distinction, let’s now consider the following case.
Dad is short of money and Christmas is coming. His two children are eagerly awaiting their presents, but he cannot afford to buy them any. Still, he is not disheartened. In fact, he’s feeling quite upbeat. Dad knows there is little reason to suppose that Santa Claus exists, but nevertheless places his faith in Santa Claus to produce presents for the children on Xmas day.
“Don’t you worry, children,” says Dad. “I know that Santa is a good person. I feel quite sure that he will bring you lots of presents.”
Is this father’s “faith” in Santa, a “faith” he also encourages in his children, really a positive and admirable thing?
I think not. The problem is that, unless Dad has pretty good grounds for supposing Santa exists, his faith in Santa is faith of a downright silly, and, in this case, potentially upsetting and damaging sort.
In short, to place your faith in the goodness of a person is only positive and admirable if you have pretty good reason to suppose the person in question actually exists.
So what I want to know is: what reason is there to suppose that God exists? If there isn’t any, then I think theists should acknowledge that placing your faith in God’s goodness is not a positive and admirable thing to do. In fact it’s a downright silly, perhaps even damaging, thing to do.
Theists use the word “faith” in several different ways, often without acknowledging or even realizing that they are doing so. In fact, by surreptitiously switching between uses, theists use the term “faith”
• as a tool by which they can, quite unfairly, avoid justifying their belief and sidestep awkward atheistic arguments (“But belief in God is a matter of faith, not reason!”),
• to disguise the fact that atheism is far , far more reasonable than theism (“But they’re both faith positions!”), and
• to borrow, quite illegitimately, some of the positive sheen that attaches to having “faith in others” in order to gild their own more dubious “faith in God”.
I confess that, as an atheist, I find this sort of sleight-of-hand with “faith” highly irritating. I wish the theists would stop it.