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Posted by on Feb 6, 2013 in Uncategorized | 20 comments

Faith a good bet? How do you know that?

I often hear something like this in defense of religious faith:

“Some people may need a delusion to get through life.  Why take that away from them?”

The problem is this:  How could an individual know if they would be better off being deluded?

Let’s suppose a person has a devastating condition (we all do, it’s called mortality).   Let’s say it’s a virus that will cause terror, madness and death, but will display no symptoms until the final hours of the person’s life.  The thought is that the compassionate thing to do is not tell them about it.  What’s most important is that they enjoy the time they have left.  After that, we’ll keep them comfortable while the virus takes their mind and body.

This is what religion does.  It tells us that suffering, death and loss are only apparent as long as we do something or believe something (at least in Western religions).  We do something like this when kids suffer.  It’s almost automatic to tell a kid it’s going to be ok, even when we aren’t sure whether that’s true. 

Back to our friend with the brain virus.  Let’s suppose a treatment has recently been developed for this condition.  His friends have never heard about the treatment.  They haven’t kept up on such things because they have a solution:  keep patients in the dark.  This is the problem with taking religious advice from religious people.  They are not the ones who keep up on alternatives to religion.

If you’re afflicted with something like mortality, you can seek guidance from authorities who offer competing answers which can not all be correct.  Or, you can refrain from investigating your options and adopt a comforting story of your own.  Or, you can go looking for answers yourself.  This takes the most courage because there is no guarantee you’ll find anything.  There’s no guarantee religion or self-delusion will work, either, but they at least promise answers. 

In this regard, there are two kinds of people.  Traditionalists will end their search early, assuming that the old, local answers are relatively old and local because they are good ones.  Adventurers will strike out on their own, excited at the prospect of finding a better answer.  We know people have strong inclinations one way or the other.  Perhaps it’s even innate.

The issue is this:  We still need the facts to know whether we would be better off being deluded.  But if we are given all the facts, it is hard to put them back in the bottle, and the path of delusion is denied us.  This is why religion is essentially authoritarian.  It requires submitting to a central authority that supposedly knows that we would be better off adopting their beliefs.  Religious faith is a form of delusion because there is no way to rule between them.  Most people choose the local one, but geography is no way to settle it.  If it were, we would convert to the local religion wherever we moved.

Atheism isn’t a set of beliefs.  It is a rejection of theistic beliefs for lack of good evidence.  Religious faith is a set of unprovable claims, which are inadjudicable and thus meaningless.   Science is a set of methods to adjudicate provable claims.  Things like “I know that God exists because I feel Him in my heart but I can’t demonstrate it to anyone else” are meaningless because we can’t prove or disprove them.  You can easily see this when you replace “God” with “elves”, “unicorns” or “Elvis”. 

So that’s all that atheism is.  But atheists invariably are much more.  We experience the nakedness of shedding our delusions.  Unsteady without our old props, we often seek others out and compare notes.  When we do that, we find there have always been people like us, people who peeked behind the curtain and saw how the trick was done.  Many of us felt a loss of innocence, but it didn’t last long.  It was replaced by a grown-up awareness that we shouldn’t have been content with what we had been told before.  Besides, after looking behind the curtain, it’s too late.  You can’t unbreak an egg or unhurt someone’s feelings.  We could only move forward. 

It’s not for everyone.  I myself have experienced biting fear and uncertainty, but that is only part of the story.  There is also the deep satisfaction of finding others who share my plight and walking with them.  I have only one life.  It will end forever some day.  I don’t want to miss it living in a fantasy.

Religious faith requires that we believe we are incomplete and that life is unacceptable the way it is.  It then offers unbelievable solutions, and always at a price.  Like most products, religion must create its own market by creating a need.  Suffering, death and loss are painted as something to be solved.  Then, guess what!  They happen to have a solution.  This is why the promises of religion should be rejected:  we can’t trust them.  They are selling answers instead of methods.  And they naturally claim that their faith is the only solution to the problem they created. 

Life includes pain, but do we really want to be exempt from it?  Can you imagine being the only human free of suffering?  That’s impossible, right?  Because others suffer.  At minimum, we would feel their pain.  If we couldn’t do that, we wouldn’t be human.  Shared experience is what binds us together.  If we had a life without pain, we would yearn for some in order to connect with each other.  This is just one of the absurd things about Heaven.  It assumes we can be content when our fellows are not.

When faced with life’s brutal side, we have choices.  But there is no way to make an informed decision about whether we should adopt religious faith.  Once we know enough about our alternatives, it’s too late to choose delusion.  Religious faith can only be maintained by stopping inquiry early and often. 

 

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  • That’s a statement that gets made far too often by accomodationists who think that it is possible, even if we were so inclined, to “take away” someone’s faith, as though it was a small child’s toy. I could not take away faith if I wanted to, any more than I could take away ignorance if the individual was insistent on maintaining it. However, you’re not going to find a lot of accomodationsts who will complaining that being ignorant is a net positive, except as it comes with religion. Is it best not to tell an ignorant person that the substance they are considering eating is poisonous? What if they claim that they are happy thinking it’s a healthy, good-tasting treat? Do we have a right to “take away” their happiness? I say hell yes! I have every right to tell them the truth about what they’re about to stick into their mouth or into their head. What they do with that information is ultimately up to them, I can’t force them not to eat the poison anyhow, knowing what it will do to them, but at least I tried to help them out and give them the full picture of the potential consequences of their beliefs and actions.

    The same goes for religion and pseudo-science. I have every right to tell people the facts. They can ignore me and I can’t forcibly change their minds, but I damn well can give it my best shot to set them straight and it doesn’t matter what the accomodationists think.

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  • Clare45

    I have often pondered on this question, as I have a 76 year old close friend who is a strong Catholic.What would happen if she started to question her faith at this point in her life? I think it could be very depressing to suddenly find out that you have been delusional for most of your life, not to mention all the time and money spent on the church, prayer every day etc. She knows exactly how I feel about religion, and we have many good discussions. Sometimes I laugh at her beliefs, but I always back off if she starts to get upset. She usually resorts to “Well, I have faith” when she is losing the argument. It is almost as though she knows it is not logical, as she is far from stupid, but is simply unwilling to let go of her beliefs.

  • disqus_w1Gq8PcBK4

    I don’t see how faith is a delusion. There is some evidence for God but no evidence for atheism. The best argument is the problem of suffering. But the argument is outweighed by the evidence for God. Many times I’ve wondered why God would allow suffering and bad things to happen. It is good to question and try to figure things out. But I think when we are dealing with a Being who is infinite in wisdom and knowledge we must realize our limited capacity to understand and grasp things and all His reasons for doing what He does. God is in a category all by Himself. I also don’t see God as something to try and figure out. Rather, I trust in His infinite wisdom and goodness to run things no matter what they may look like at the present moment. I believe He brings beauty out of ashes. For I trust He causes all things to work together for good. His business is His business. My job is to trust Him, clean my own house, and help others as I persue to love and seek justice.

    • donsevers

      If you trust God no matter how he acts, then you are in an abusive relationship. The issue isn’t whether God could have good reasons for allowing suffering. Serial killers have reasons that satisfy themselves. The issue is whether he could have included less suffering in the world. If he could have and just didn’t, then he is sadistic.

      If we say God loves humanity no matter how he treats us, then love means nothing. If we can’t judge God to be evil, then we can’t judge him to be good, either.

      • disqus_w1Gq8PcBK4

        God isn’t in the same category as humans and therefore serial killers. Moreover, for God to go contrary to the laws of physics He would have to lie. For the laws of physics are based on symetries. Which are based on mathematical necessity. He cannot lie or go contrary to His own nature.

        • donsevers

          >for God to go contrary to the laws of physics He would have to lie.

          God could have omitted Batten disease without violating any physical laws. We know he could have because he omitted countless possible, but absent, conditions from creation.

          https://www.facebook.com/notes/don-severs/the-lucky-people/10150368609164005

          • disqus_w1Gq8PcBK4

            Given that the laws of physics are based on symetries and those symetries are based on mathematical necessity then God couldn’t have created things differently. To do so would make those mathematical truths false. And God cannot do this. For He is a God of truth as well as one of infinite wisdom and knowledge and perfection.

          • donsevers

            If we go this route, God becomes a locked-in bystander. Not the God of Christianity for sure. More like Leibniz’s God. And this becomes the best of all possible worlds.

            This does away with intercessory prayer. Since any change is impossible (and would increase net suffering), God, in his goodness, can’t do anything. All he can do is weep with us as he watches children get ground up, one every 3.5 seconds from starvation alone.

            So God is either weak or evil. You’ve chosen weak. Now all you need is a reason to devote yourself to him. If he can’t do better than this, the most he’ll get from me is pity, the same pity I have for most of humanity.

          • disqus_w1Gq8PcBK4

            To say that God can’t make necessary mathematical truths false doesn’t make Him weak. The information is built in at the beginning of creation. When God creates, everything unfolds according to plan. This account of God being limited by mathematically necessary physical laws applies only at a classical scale. God is freely able to pick and choose a particular quantum event to occur just as long as he doesn’t disrupt the overall probability of events happening randomly. God can “build up” a prior series of events by selecting certain key quantum events to occur. In this case, the evolution would appear perfectly natural, except that the evolution is guided by those selective quantum events that God chose to be extremely influential in our evolution. Miracles are a special case of this kind of evolution. God sets up the circumstance ahead of time, and if event X occurs, then X is just a trigger mechanism to bring about the miraculous set of events.

            This accounts for the natural world as well as the hiddenness of God. Why do terrible things happen and not to all? God is restricted by conservation laws to control every Y-event. The good things, which we should be very thankful for, are because God does exercise control over certain X-events. Some of those events are miracles that happen in our lives. Unfortunately, if a Y-event occurs, we have to understand that God’s plan required that the conservation laws to be maintained in that instance. In addition, our active participation in prayer is essential since certain X-events are possible if human intentionality affects quantum processes. In that case, we are part of the creation process through our prayers.

          • donsevers
          • donsevers

            >To say that God can’t make necessary mathematical truths false
            doesn’t make Him weak.

            Constrained, then. In any
            case, he is impotent.

            >The information is built in at the beginning of creation.

            If God had any choice in the initial conditions, he is
            implicated in how things turned out.

            >When God creates, everything unfolds according to plan.

            Was there only one possible plan? If God had any choice in the plan, he is
            implicated in how things turned out.

            >God can “build up” a prior series of events by
            selecting certain key quantum events to occur.

            Then it seems he could build up a world with less suffering in
            it.

            >This accounts for the natural world as well as the hiddenness of God. Why do
            terrible things happen and not to all? God is restricted by conservation laws to control every Y-event.

            This is a theory that fits any facts. It doesn’t make specific predictions. It accounts for any amount of suffering by postdicting that God could not have done better.

            >Unfortunately, if a Y-event occurs, we have to understand that God’s plan required that the conservation laws to be maintained in that instance.

            Then we have to ask if God had to choose that plan. If he didn’t, but chose a plan that led to the epic suffering we observe when he didn’t have to, then he is sadistic.

            We normally hold human fathers accountable for neglect of their children. Can they say they were constrained (like God is) and could not do any better? If not, then humans have more degrees of freedom than God in your view.

            This approach amounts to a fine-tuning argument for God’s goodness. God is all-powerful, except he is constrained in exactly the right way to account for every instance of evil. Ok, that’s a claim. Let’s get busy: we’ll need at least 50 billion courtroom trials. About half of all 100 billion humans who have
            ever lived have died by the age of 5. Kids don’t die of old age. They die of rugged things like starvation, accidents, beatings, parasites and infections. Because God set the whole frightful thing in motion, he is a suspect, just as any manufacturer of unsafe toys would be. So, he has to show that in each case, he could not have done better.

            Now, to be charitable, let’s assume he can do all that. He’s innocent until proven guilty, and he gets off. Now what? You have a God who had no choice in setting
            this world in motion, a world that is a nightmare for most of its inhabitants. I see no reason to devote myself to such a being. If he’s that hemmed in, his attitude toward me won’t be swayed by my rejection of him anyway. He’s a pushover, a
            bystander. And an embarrassment to the concept of ‘God’.

            If the 1st and 2nd Great Commandments were reversed, and love your neighbor took precedence, then perhaps I could follow Jesus. But I can’t serve a God who treats my neighbor this way. I can’t love any God worthy of the word and my neighbor at the same time.

          • disqus_w1Gq8PcBK4

            If you read what I’ve already stated you can see I’ve already answered you. Let me just say some final words though. In arguing about the problem of evil and suffering I use to try to place God in
            a human category and say He must behave a certain way. What I failed to take
            into consideration is the holiness of God. Holiness when applied to God not only
            refers to moral purity but also to everything that sets God apart from His
            creation and His creatures. We are to imitate God in certain ways but there are
            also ways we cannot be like God. For example: God is self-sufficient, God is
            all-powerful, God is all-knowing, God is infinite in wisdom. These are just a
            few ways we are not like God. To try to be like God in every way leads to pride
            and arrogance.

            The Bible says God is love. It doesn’t say He is ONLY
            love. And while it says God is love it’s a Holy love. This is no mere human
            love. For the Bible says God is Holy, Holy, Holy. The Bible also says God has a
            Holy hatred as well. So, it’s my contention that the problem of evil and
            suffering doesn’t even get started. For God’s love is a Holy love. This isn’t
            the same omnibenevolence that we try to ascribe to God. For God has a Holy
            hatred as well. Nonetheless, God is completely Holy and deserves our
            worship.

            .Many times I’ve wondered why God would allow suffering and bad
            things to happen. It is good to question and try to figure things out. But I
            think when we are dealing with a Being who is infinite in wisdom and knowledge
            we must realize our limited capacity to understand and grasp things and all His
            reasons for doing what He does. God is in a category all by Himself. I also
            don’t see God as something to try and figure out. Rather, I trust in His
            infinite wisdom and goodness to run things no matter what they may look like at
            the present moment. I believe He brings beauty out of ashes. For I trust He
            causes all things to work together for good. His business is His business. My
            job is to trust Him, clean my own house, and help others as I persue to love and
            seek justice.

            People who complain that God could
            have created things differently fail to realize that the laws of physics are
            based on symetries and those symetries are based on mathematical necessity. God
            would have to make those mathematical truths false. Hence, God couldn’t have
            created things differently. He is a God of truth as well as infinite wisdom and
            perfection.

            As I already stated, God’s wrath or justice is holy.
            However, His anger doesn’t last forever. But it will not turn back until He
            accomplishes the desire of His heart – the salvation of all. While I believe
            there is a remnant chosen by grace in this lifetime called the firstfruits there
            are also the second fruits. They will be purified in the fires God’s holy hatred
            as God restores all to Himself. That is, God’s Holy Wrath destroys sin and the
            sinner in hell. They are then made new by grace and brought up into more of
            God’s love and grace. God does sometimes have a Holy hatred towards sin and
            certain sinners. This is why He destroys them and makes them new as He is driven
            and motivated by His holiness.

          • donsevers

            >we must realize our limited capacity to understand and grasp things and all His
            reasons for doing what He does.

            This is a distraction. The issue is not whether God has morally sufficient reasons to allow suffering. It is whether he could have set things up so that there was less of it.

            >I trust in His infinite wisdom and goodness to run things no matter what they may look like at the present moment.

            If we trust someone no matter what they do, we are in an abusive relationship. To trust no matter what is an abdication of moral discernment.

            >I believe He brings beauty out of ashes.

            But it seems he could bring the beauty without the ashes, or less of them.

            >For I trust He causes all things to work together for good. His business is His business.

            If no one audits God’s activities, it means nothing to say they are good.

            >God couldn’t have created things differently.

            Humans reduce suffering with Tylenol. If we can do it, it seems God could.

          • David3340

            “God is freely able to pick and choose a particular quantum event to occur just as long as he doesn’t disrupt the overall probability of events happening randomly”???? Definately one of the most nonsensical statements I’ve heard in a long time. It’s amazing how specific these God pronouncements can become. What silliness.

      • Don, this excellent comment of yours I made into the quote of the day:

        http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2013/04/quote-of-day-by-don-severs-of-skeptic.html

      • Larry Seppala

        You put in so few words, that would take so many of mine. Thanks for the time you spent condensing it.

    • Larry Seppala

      Infinite goodness? Infinite wisdom? How does that relate to what happens in real life? It boils down to the blame game, blame a god for whatever happens in your life. It wasn’t the other guys crappy driving skills or yours that caused the accident, it was some god that made it happen. I own a business with someone like you, and I wonder why a person so smart can believe in a god.

    • magnus08

      What do you mean when you say, “There is some evidence for God”? Exactly what evidence are you talking about? Is it definitely evidence of the Christian God (as opposed to thousands of other gods people have dreamed up)? Are you sure it isn’t also evidence of an evil creator who, in its infinite wisdom, allows good things to happen in order to confuse us but causes all things to work together for evil? If this sounds preposterous to you, think again about what _you_ said.

  • Lucian Craciun

    If he could have [included less suffering in the world] and just didn’t, then he is sadistic.

    Or maybe He doesn’t confuse evil with pain, and good with pleasure, and is aware of other forms of well-being and ill-being which are not only independent of pleasure and pain, but surpass them by far, so much so that they render the former ones obsolete. And since the human mind is made in the image of God, it also can experience these states. To experience any of them frees the mind once and for all from the illusion that pain and pleasure are the same as good and evil. And to experience the state of well-being, which no pain can take away, since it is not dependent upon any external factors, nor can it be in any way diminished by any of them, since its power and intensity surpasses anything else, is to find the answer to such questions.

  • Leopardus

    Very thoughtful. Brilliant post