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March 9, 2010

In recent discussion and arguments, I’ve become slightly annoyed at a shifting of arguments that some religious people seem to make when talking about their belief. It hinges of the definition of faith: belief in the absence of evidence. I think that there are two main sub definitions that are used in arguments, often interchangeably:

  1. Faith as an irrational position, when belief is acknowledged to be contrary to rational arguments and explanations.
  2. Faith as a choice, along the lines of “We don’t know whether god exists or not, I choose to believe”.

Whilst neither of these arguments would convince me that belief was a sensible choice, if there is a shift from one to another during an argument it can make the discussion very difficult, and is a source of some of the irrationality that I see in some arguments for god.

For instance, I was recently talking to someone who, as a reason for starting to believe in god stated that the complexity of the human genome and of our minds had convinced them that we must have a designer or creator. I talked about evolution, and for a lot of the discussion was confronted with faith as in the first sub definition I gave above. It was acknowledged that there was a theory of evolution, and the arguments against generally consisted of a rejection of this theory on the grounds that it disagreed with a preconceived notion of the creation of man.

However, at the end of the argument, my friend came out with the statement that evolution of man cannot be proven either way, so she has the ability to choose, and she chose god and had faith in his existence. This was not the faith position I had been arguing against, and the line of argument I had been using couldn’t rebut this directly. I hadn’t been showing that the evolution of man was proven as 100% certain – it isn’t and can’t be. I was showing that it was incredibly likely to be true. I left wiggle room for an argument from ignorance, and the room was used. This shift in definition can be much more subtle, and can (in my experience) throw an argument off track. It is easy to argue against a position that holds to one definition; arguing against both is much more difficult.

Both forms of faith I gave above I consider irrational. I do believe that faith once had a place in society, but what is it’s place now?

Faith had a place in society when religion was a form of protoscience. With no adequate knowledge (or methodology to gain knowledge) that would provide a causative explanation for the behaviour of the world around them, ancient people ascribed this behaviour to gods. These gods were often “part” of the material world, for instance the many gods of the sea that we still have the mythology of. They could be used to explain storms and calms at sea, and give ancient mariners some form of comfort when setting of on voyages that today would seem much less terrifying than in ancient times. Without our modern knowledge, it was rational to posit that some entity (or group of entities) was behind the behaviour that we observed in the natural world and to explain observations in terms of these entities. We could not prove the existence of these beings, but in the absence of any other explanation faith was fully justified as the rational response.

However, as the knowledge available to mankind grew, it became clear that there was no god in the sea, no god in the river, no god in the clouds. The gods had to be removed to a “higher place”, so they moved to areas still inaccessible, the high mountains and the heavens. For a time we again had an (admittedly less) adequate system for providing causative explanations of the natural world, but once again, once we gained access to the mountain tops, and to the heavens (thanks to the invention of the telescope and other tools of the modern scientific method), we realised that no, god wasn’t here either. Finally, the scientific method overtook religion, and the actions of gods were no longer necessary in descriptions of our universe. As Laplace said to Napoleon when asked why god was not mentioned in an essay on the orbits of Saturn and Jupiter, ‘I had no need of that hypothesis’. Science can’t yet give us all the answers about the universe and our place in it, but it is the tool that gives us the questions.

God has been relegated to some sort of incorporeal existence, with no place in modern scientific explanations of the universe and our place in it. Faith had its uses in underpinning religion as a protoscientific explanatory tool, but what use can belief in the absence of evidence have in a modern world? It is left with comforting and moral roles, and for both of these I would argue that humanism has more to offer than religion.

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