Should faith keep its fortresses?

Submitted by Matthew on 14 December, 2011 - 12:57 Author: Molly Thomas

While I am an atheist, I still respect people with faith (or superstition, as it is sometimes called). But should we respect faith itself?

Is there a real difference between faith and superstition, or are they just different words that people use for the same thing, depending on whether they want to refer to it warmly (faith) or coldly (superstition)?

Some people who are atheists themselves argue that faith should be respected as a valid way of knowing on questions which science cannot reach.

Stephen Jay Gould, a widely-read and left-wing science writer, claims that faith is a strong way of knowing in religion and morals. “The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria [science and religion] do not overlap... I may, for example, privately suspect that papal insistence on divine infusion of the soul represents a sop to our fears... But I also know that souls represent a subject outside the magisterium of science...”

Faith gets a good deal in Gould’s proposal. It has to hand over to science the grunt work, like working out how the planets move, or what causes epilepsy and how it can be fixed. In return it gets dominion over what is right or wrong, good or evil.

Others have granted faith a fortress in another way: by conceding that faith is not a way of knowing, but in fact a way of believing where knowledge is impossible.

Immanuel Kant, in the 1780s, demolished the traditional arguments for the existence of God, and formulated a comprehensive account of how the phenomenal world could be known by reason and evidence. He “made room” for faith as a mode of belief (not knowing) for things outside the phenomenal world: “I cannot even make the assumption... of God, freedom, and immortality, if I do not deprive speculative reason of its pretensions to transcendent insight.... I must, therefore, abolish knowledge, to make room for belief”.

Faith is seen as a way of knowing because it appears to provide people with answers and comfort. More than 95% of Americans profess belief in “God or a Universal Spirit”.

After the Queensland floods, church attendance increased as “people sought more comfort in their faith”. This faith is emotionally rational for the person suffering. Ostensibly, this outpouring of support shows the strength of faith as a way of knowing. However, these people are not seeking knowledge, like how to stop floods in future, but are rather seeking emotional support which has nothing to do with knowledge.

Karl Marx argues: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature...It is the opium of the people. To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness.” Faith here is strong, but not as a way of knowing.

When people go to their church (or to their synagogue, temple, mosque or shrine), when they read their religious text, and when they pray, they feel the influence or presence of a religious figure. Feeling is where their faith lies, not in any reason or evidence. Two friends of my family attended the same Catholic school. One has rejected the church while one has stayed loyal. For one, the Church's covering up of sex scandals and standing in the progress of science has destroyed her religious belief. The other sees her knowledge of the actions of the Church as having no effect on her belief because it is between her and God.

This personal aspect of faith makes it impossible to disprove as a way of feeling that one knows. As the Battle Hymn of the Republic says: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”. This perception is no more questionable than me feeling a pain in my leg. No doctor can prove or disprove that I feel pain. I can know that God exists in the same way I know that I feel a pain in my leg.

However, people can feel pain in their leg even after it has been amputated. It is perfectly admissible to experience pain that cannot be corroborated and indeed may not be rational (as with the amputated leg). However, with faith, many try to redefine their personal feelings as social knowledge. The only way they can do that is by forcing everyone to accept their way of feeling and persecuting those who reject it. The weakness of faith as a way of knowing is that either it is imposed or it will become solely personal feelings.

Many people find the absence of a god in their life “intellectually demanding and emotionally unsatisfying”. Lewis Wolpert argues that evolution has hard-wired the human brain to want to believe that everything happens for a purpose, though we now know that evolution, for example, does not happen through purpose-seeking processes. That explains the hard-wired bias towards feeling that faith gives knowledge, regardless of whether it is a way of knowing at all.

Wolpert says: “[M]any people would find it very hard to live without religion. But there is no meaning [of life]... [W]hy should there be a meaning? ... [W]e want a cause as to why we’re here, but...there isn’t one...”

I understand why it may be depressing to contemplate the meaninglessness of processes like evolution, but I do not think that embracing an idea to make myself feel better is a valid way of knowing.

As Hegel puts it: the person who “appeals to his feeling, to an oracle within his breast [as the way of knowing]... is done with anyone who does not agree.

“He has just to explain that he has no more to say to anyone who does not find and feel the same as himself... [H]umanity ..lies simply in the explicit realisation of a community of conscious life. What is anti-human, the condition of mere animals, consists in keeping within the sphere of feeling pure and simple, and in being able to communicate only by way of feeling-states”. Hegel himself was religious and attempted a scientific proof of the truth of (Lutheran) religion, a heroic but unsuccessful effort.

In a valid way of knowing, every truth is open to revision. Newton’s laws of physics had been corroborated thousands of times, but then Einstein showed that they must be revised.

Faith is invalid as a way of knowing not despite its certainty, but because of its certainty; not despite the fact that some of its tenets cannot be disproved, but because it relies on vague assertions which cannot be tested or disproved.

Science brings progress in knowledge from its proviso that tests must be repeated and authenticated. That may make it less emotionally appealing than faith. But as Hegel put it: “The man who only seeks edification, who wants to envelop in mist the manifold diversity of his earthly existence and thought, and craves after the vague enjoyment of this vague and indeterminate Divinity — he may look where he likes to find this: he will easily find for himself the means to procure something he can rave over and puff himself up withal. But philosophy must beware of wishing to be edifying”.

There are no laboratory experiments that we can do to separate good from evil as we might separate the hydrogen and oxygen contained in water. It does not follow that morals, ethics, and politics are beyond science.

Medicine is not an exact science, either; but we take it forward by reason and evidence, not by faith. Since Socrates and Aristotle at least there have been investigations of ethics and politics by way of reason and evidence, not faith; in fact, all investigations of ethics, rather than sets of arbitrary commandments, moral tales, and aphorisms, have been by reason and evidence, not faith.

Knowledge is antagonistic to faith. Suppose I experienced a convincing miracle; that I was ill and cured by holy water at Lourdes. The response of others would be to demand evidence. If the miracle were really established, then Lourdes holy water would become a prescription drug, and not a miracle.

Suppose we came to know (by research) that some superhuman being (or god) existed elsewhere in the universe. Then people would defer to that god because of the evidence, not because of faith.

Suppose we found that the Bible was all literally true. Instead of exploring the allegorical power of the Biblical stories, we would accept them as history. The Bible would no longer be a guide for people to follow but rather the anecdotes of people who lived thousands of years ago. Religion would cease to be the mystical construct it is today and would become a subsection of science. The personal element of faith, its true strength, would be degraded. People would believe in the god’s existence in the same manner that they believe in germs, vitamins, and DNA.

Ludwig Wittgenstein came to a similar conclusion. He was not religious, but had sympathy for religious feeling. He argued that: “These controversies [about religion] look quite different from any normal controversies. Reasons look entirely different from normal reasons. They are, in a way, quite inconclusive. The point is that if there were evidence, this would in fact destroy the whole business. Anything that I normally call evidence wouldn’t in the slightest influence me...” “A religious symbol does not rest on any opinion. If there is no opinion, there there is no false opinion”. Equally, there is no true opinion; therefore no knowledge.

Some tenets of religious faith cannot be disproved. But doubt is essential in gaining knowledge. Wittgenstein showed that, because of the lack of doubt, faith may be a way to belief, but it is not a way of knowing.

Faith is invalid as a way of knowing, and unsound as a basis for belief, because of its desire for exclusivity. In history, people have been forced to accept a specific religion or face incredible attacks. Even today the Pope declares: “if the certainty of faith were dependent upon scientific-historical verification alone, it would always remain open to revision”.

He is conceding to the “two magisteria” view in a way previous Popes would not have done, but for religion he wants faith to establish truths closed to revision, which cannot be questioned. Such “truths” are not knowledge, even in religion, and even less so in science.

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