October 10, 2003

Ya Gotta Trust Faith

A previous post netted a comment that I am a religious atheist.

The religious will sometimes claim that atheism is a religion. Look at the way it's presented: "You're beliefs are based on faith, too!" It's as if our telling them that their religion is based on faith is some sort of insult, so to attack back we are accused of having our own faith. The comment would appear to be more about insecurity than anything else.

Look - if I say your religion is based on faith, I'm not insulting you. In fact, isn't that agreeing with you? And shouldn't I tell the truth and say I don't have your faith?

I am simply not a theist. I lack belief. There is no replacement belief in there that sneaks in to take up space. You don't have to believe in something in god's stead. But some people can't fathom that.

I do not deny god exists. I am a "weak" atheist. I have reviewed the improbable hypothesis of a supreme being found the evidence wanting. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. And such proof ain't there. No proof of hell. No proof of an afterlife. No proof of god observing and meddling in human affairs.

For someone to adopt belief, a motive is needed. Other people have their own motives, and I respect that. I may get annoyed if their motives drive them to beliefs that cause other people problems, but the fact that they have arrived at a different set of beliefs bothers me not at all. Without motive, I have come to call myself an atheist. I think scientific evidence is a good motive. And when that fails (as I described above) you have to have faith to make the leap beyond scientific proof. I don't have that faith in my heart, so no proof + no faith makes me an atheist.

To say I willfully ignore evidence is absurd. I've heard the religious go as far as say that an atheist must willfully deny the evidence because otherwise it would shake him to the core! Well, I'm a pretty flexible guy. I'm sure that a sudden belief in god would not destroy me. I believed once. Heck, I have believed in a lot of things and had my belief change. It's called learning. So, I laugh at the idea that atheists are willfully ignorant to protect their psyches. I admit, they may ignore people constantly bugging them with religious pestering for the sake of their sanity, but just because I keep hanging up on credit card telemarketers does not mean I am afraid of switching credit cards.

I'm also comfortable being accused of plain ignorance. If it helps someone feel better about himself by claiming I'm ignorant, go ahead. I know I don't know everything, but quite a few things have come across my desk, and I think I'm old enough to come to a few of my own opinions.

One of those opinions is to be wary of people selling something, whether it be credit cards or a religion. I have spent too many naive years letting people "educate" me when they had some info that I was ignorant of which supported their particular religion. It was garbage every single time. If you, dear reader, have not gone through that process, I do not discourage you from looking at the tracts, books, websites or whatever that are proffered. Along the way you learn something about human motives and human nature. But you will get to a point when you say "enough." And then you will do what I do with telemarketers: "I'm sorry, but I don't do business over the phone unless I have initiated the call." Saves a lot of wasted time and garbage.

Back to misinterpreting atheism. Some people find it easier for them to view others through the lens of religion because they are so steeped in it. In my personal journey there is no need for the idea of a supreme being in my life. It's a superfluous idea. So, adopting such an idea on little evidence may make you do things that you would not do otherwise. Some of those can be bad things, some can be good things.

Thanks, but no thanks. I'll stick to the simpler explanation. My goal in life is to be a decent father, citizen, and friend. To try to leave things a little bit better than when I encountered them. To take a good look at the world. I can do all that without a belief in a supreme being.

On the overlap of religion and science, religious belief is generally not falsifiable. Religion is based on faith and so much of it is inherently un-falsifiable. Science is always falsifiable.Science tends to chip away at the falsifiable parts of religion, and when it does parts of the religion tend to fall off. Religion is safer when it retreats into the non-falsifiable faith-based belief. The Sun goes around the Earth, planets are gods, young Earth, etc. were all falsifiable and fell prey to scientific falsification.

Some people feel the need to prove to themselves that god exists because they have faith, but faith is not enough for them. I wish them luck. I hope they either find the proof that allows them to rest, or come to a different conclusion. That faith, in itself, is enough for a religious belief.

I, personally, feel no such need. I have no god faith. Without that and without compelling evidence, no theism materializes. I am a godless heathen, not an other-godded heathen.

Posted by James at October 10, 2003 3:32 AM
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> Some people feel the need to prove to
> themselves that god exists because they
> have faith, but faith is not enough for them.

I've encountered many such people in my wanderings and many have been folks who are not seeking proof, but whose faith is shaken by evidence contrary to their beliefs.

Either way, I find such a state of mind curious.

Science is belief based on empirical evidence. Faith is belief irrelevant of evidence. The two belief systems are by definition irreconcilable.

Which is not to say that you can't be a scientist and still be a theist. Many are, and either adjust their religion in accordance with science (adjusting the checkbook to match the bank statement), or simply accept both belief systems despite the fact that they make contradictory claims (keeping two sets of books).

Either practice is fine, but attempting to use evidence to support faith is an exercise in the impossible. If your Faith requires proof, then it's not Faith, by definition. Faith is belief without or even in spite of the evidence. If Science conclusively proved tomorrow morning that the human soul does not exist, persons of Faith should be unaffected.

If you are a person of Faith, and your Faith is weak, then perhaps you need to reevaluate your belief system. If you want to strengthen your Faith, don't look to Science, look to your religious teachers... your priest, your rabbi, etc. Science isn't in the business of reaffirming Faith. If that doesn't work for you, maybe you need to look into different belief systems.

I am presently not a person of Faith. As an atheist I do not have to reconcile Faith with Science. I am very grateful for this, because there are enough problems to resolve in life without having to adjust the shape of my belief bubble to avoid the intruding pins and needles of evidence. However, this does not mean that I don't understand Faith or religion. I was once a believer and became a nonbeliever through years of study, experience, and thought.

For me, atheism was the right choice. For you, it might not be. But if you are troubled by Faith that is aching from multiple contortions, I urge you to seek some sort of solace. There are many Faiths out there to choose from, and people invent new ones every day. Or seek to reinforce your own faith by talking to your fellow believers. Either way I wish you luck.

Posted by: Chuck S. at October 10, 2003 8:01 AM

Which is not to say that you can't be a scientist and still be a theist.

Quite right. Many scientists are theists, and many of them would tell you that they only hold the beliefs of their religion that rely on faith.

When religion's bits overlap with the empirically testable, there is a clash because a good scientist has to be willing to give up on a hypothesis in the face of evidence to the contrary and the verification of such evidence by peers.

But many people find comfort in their religious beliefs. More power to them, so long as their fist ends before it reaches my face (to awkwardly reference a popular phrase).

However, that ain't me.

Posted by: James at October 10, 2003 9:50 AM

I have wondered why the religious beliefs of so many people require the conversion of others. Shouldn't that be irrelevant? Faith is a personal belief that there is a loving God without regard for the beliefs (or lack of them) of your neighbors. It is personal. All who think the same way are welcome and heck, let's get together once a week and do some synchronized kneebends. But nobody is required to convert.

I'm wary of people who claim they adhere to teachings such as, "Do unto others as you would have them do to you." yet attempt to impose their belief systems on others. After the first attempt I can't simply write that off as enthusiasm. I doubt they would be receptive to any decent, devout, God-loving followers of other religions who do the same thing.

Posted by: Mike at October 10, 2003 10:49 AM

Well, that's why proselytizing is built right into some religions. Especially the less appealing ones, which require more aggressive recruiting tactics. If you don't get enough new recruits, you'll go to hell because you didn't save enough other people from going to hell.

That's not a religion, it's a pyramid scheme. What am I saying - many people who belonged to Amway said it was a lot like a religious cult (a lot of Amway meetings began with prayers).

On a smaller scale, this could take the form of trying to force others to obey the rules of your own religion, maybe so that you can trick God into thinking you've converted them. You'll go to hell when you die if someone else has an abortion and you didn't stop her. You'll go to hell when you die if you someone in your constituency has sex with someone who isn't on your approved list of People Who Other People Can Have Sex With. Well, go to hell for all I care, I'll see you there. And bring donuts, because when the food runs out we're going to eat YOU!

Sorry about that last bit, I think it might be time for lunch.

Posted by: julie at October 10, 2003 1:28 PM

I'll be frank that I'm coming to see significance in the instant presumption that religious people who dare enter into discussion are thereby attempting to convert others to their own specific doctrine. Why hasn't anybody attacked my more political comments by dismissing me as a conservative zealot bent on brainwashing liberals?

It all falls (or ought to fall) under the heading of discussion, which strikes me as an important component of personal and social progress, and one would think that a person who has gone to the lengths of putting up a Web site to offer his thoughts and field comments is open to discussion. Would you, James, declare that you don't need economic theory in your life and characterize my comment that a proponent of big government requires an economic theory just as much as those who espouse free market principles as an example of an insecure need to convert you? I don't suspect so.

Hey, if you don't care to discuss religion, that's fine, but you'll understand if I consider that to be further indication of an underlying faith (or antifaith, akin to "antimatter"). It simply isn't humanly possible to "lack belief." Our minds work through belief in every area in which our minds work, which is why people engaged in discussion use the phrase "I believe" even when the topic is not religious. If you don't believe in God but are not actively seeking to disprove him, you must believe that His existence does not matter to your reality. As I said in the other post's comments, if I knew you well enough, I might conclude the same, but that doesn't mean that there is no value in discussing what the implications of your conclusions are for others, society, the universe, and so on.

I haven't made the connection completely, but this seems to relate to another point of yours that I see as falling somewhere between incorrect and beside the point: "Some people feel the need to prove to themselves that god exists because they have faith, but faith is not enough for them," which you write in response to your assessment that I am looking for the "overlap" of religion and science. But note that I didn't write "overlap"; I wrote "link." If various aspects of reality are relevant to our existence, obviously there will be some sort of link (at least via our selves). This is seen in your comments about what "some people" feel the need for: personally, it is enough for me to "prove" that God *could* exist; faith takes it from there. The opening for religious faith is, itself, the link to science.

And that, ultimately, is why it is important to acknowledge that non-faith represents a faith-based system of belief itself, because all aspects of reality are... well... aspects of reality, and if scientists begin by ruling out God, soul, and related ideas, that will affect their interpretation of science. Take, for example, the Many Worlds Interpretation of the fact that an experiment giving a cat a 50-50 chance for survival results in quantum mechanical proof that the cat is both live and dead at the end of the experiment. Many Worlds is generally presented as a sort of branching off of self-continuous realities; we do, after all, experience reality as continuous. But if continuous experience is seen as a matter of soul, then other models come into play to explain the "many cats."

Like I said, if you're not interested in the conversation, that's fine. But then why concern yourself with "Brights' rights"?

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 10, 2003 1:36 PM

Oh, and before I go eat a non-Subgenius infidel, let me just add: discovering that a god exists would not shake me to my core. It would be a relief, or possibly a side-effect of a hard blow to the head.

Realizing that one couldn't exist - at least not one that's meaningful in any way - is what shook me up. I suppose I could have gone running back into the fold, but when I saw that the "fold" was nothing more than a very elaborate optical illusion, it didn't seem so comforting any more. A nice wool blanket - now that's comfort.

Sometimes a religious person will ask me to explain why I don't believe, and once in a while I'll oblige. It only takes a minute, and does not include any earth-shattering insights that have never been uttered before. (Hint: it's not "I prayed for a pony for Christmas when I was 11 and God didn't give me one.")

But when I'm done, it's as if they didn't hear a word I said. If they had, they might be able to actually rebut a specific point or three.

Which is why I've had little to add to this discussion. It's like yelling into the wind. The wind doesn't need it and neither do I.

Posted by: julie at October 10, 2003 1:45 PM

> I'll be frank that I'm coming to see
> significance in the instant presumption
> that religious people who dare enter into
> discussion are thereby attempting to
> convert others to their own specific
> doctrine.

Has it occurred to you that maybe the comments about proselytizing and conversion are not directed at you or anyone specific? I never took your comments to be proselytizing, rude and presumptuous yes, but not proselytizing.

> Why hasn't anybody attacked my more political
> comments by dismissing me as a conservative
> zealot bent on brainwashing liberals?

Personally I did dismiss your political comments and I had no interest in getting into a Liberal vs. Conservative war with you. What's the point? That war is being fought everywhere and it is winning very few converts as far as I can see. Having a discussion is interesting... having the *same* discussion over and over again is not.

In addition, I thought your political comments were also rude and presumptuous. You called Patti a "perfect parrot" as if she had no brain of her own simply because her political viewpoints are similar to ones you've heard of before. Your viewpoints were also nothing new... I'd heard all the same stuff before from conservative pundits who's personal integrity require a tunneling electron microscope to find, but I didn't call *you* a parrot. If you are going to begin from the position of "I've heard this argument before and everything you are saying is propaganda" then why would ANYONE want to discuss politics with you?

> It simply isn't humanly possible to "lack
> belief." Our minds work through belief in
> every area in which our minds work, which
> is why people engaged in discussion use
> the phrase "I believe" even when the topic
> is not religious.

Here I would agree with you. I can't speak for James but I believe (heh) that everyone possesses some sort of belief system. I would characterize mine as being based on empirical evidence. However one can easily extend this to say that I cannot possibly review all the evidence for every belief that I hold. For example, I believe that air is a mixture of about 4 parts Nitrogen, 1 part Oxygen, and some other trace gases. Have I tested it myself? No, but I do trust the principles of Science to the extent that I believe such a claim has been tested exhaustively at this point. One could argue that this is a kind of faith. But it is not the same as religious Faith in that such claims are tested and retested and may eventually be falsified. Religious Faith is *never* evaluated. You accept the beliefs, in spite of evidence, or you don't have Faith. End of story. Faith in Science therefore is not a "faith" so much as it is a notion of "trust".

> If you don't believe in God but are not
> actively seeking to disprove him, you
> must believe that His existence does
> not matter to your reality.

No, that doesn't follow. If you ask me if God exists, I say "No" not "It doesn't matter whether he does or not."

God does not exist. If you want to believe in Him that's fine. I doubt you would be willing to admit that His nonexistence does not matter to your reality.

> I haven't made the connection completely,
> but this seems to relate to another point
> of yours that I see as falling somewhere
> between incorrect and beside the point:
> "Some people feel the need to prove to
> themselves that god exists because they
> have faith, but faith is not enough for
> them," which you write in response to
> your assessment that I am looking for
> the "overlap" of religion and science.
> But note that I didn't write "overlap";
> I wrote "link."

Again, you assume this portion of James' post was referring to you. You certainly gave no indication that you are seeking evidence to prop up a weak Faith, and therefore I wouldn't assume James was talking about you.

I think it is safe to say that your commentary provided the impetus for his post, but it does not necessarily follow that every point in the post has to do with you. Many of the points may be toward other things that James has simply never found an appropriate post to add them to.

> personally, it is enough for me to "prove"
> that God *could* exist; faith takes it
> from there. The opening for religious
> faith is, itself, the link to science.

I fail to see why proving God *could* exist matters. Are you saying if I were able to prove to you that God *couldn't* exist you would give up your Faith?

> if scientists begin by ruling out God,
> soul, and related ideas, that will
> affect their interpretation of science.

Good. Science without Occam's Razor is not Science.

> Like I said, if you're not interested in
> the conversation, that's fine. But then
> why concern yourself with "Brights' rights"?

I'm not sure I see how this closing question follows from the preceding comments.

Posted by: Chuck S. at October 10, 2003 3:44 PM

I didn't realize we were discussing the societal implications of my atheism. I thought I was fielding a comment that my atheism is a religious belief. Since I've given my thoughts on that, I'm pretty content at the moment.

I'm not avoiding a discussion on religion. However, if I were seeking one, there are already excellent venues for such a discussion where I would encounter many views. I hang out at a decent discussion group you're welcome to join. It's called EAForums. It's not where I'd go specifically for a religious discussion, but we discuss all sorts of things there.

BTW, in case you misinterpreted, my use of "some people" is not a fuzzy reference to you. I'm using your comments as a jumping off point to elaborate on my own observations. That's part of what this website is about.

There is significance in people's sensitivity to prostelitizing. Folks are sick of being inundated by it. So even the whiff of it sets them off. I don't blame them. If that means that religious folks have to be even more careful if they are trying to start a discussion, then they'r elyign in a bed that other religionists (and possibly they themselves) have made. If that bothers them, then they should think about how related-religions prostelitizing reflects on them, and perhaps see that as an obstacle to their ability to communicate.

You don't have to stress that "you're going to take 'X' as an indication" that you were right all along about my faith. I've been in these discussions and I know that you think you're right, and if I say "X" you'll take that to mean you're right, or if I say "Y" you'll take that to mean you're right. Or if I sneeze. Been there, waste of time. I've been in plenty of productive discussions, and they "smell different" than the way this one started. And I cannot be goaded that way into hanging my head and saying "well OK, if it's the only way to convince you I'll go round in circles."

Because, why do I care to convince you of something about me that I have told you to take at face value, but you will not?

And, finally, my frustration with the name Brights is not that it is an arrogant name, but that it is mistaken as arrogant, and that's an unnecessary roadblock to work around.

Posted by: James at October 10, 2003 4:53 PM

Alright. We're not connecting.

I wasn't trying to play any rhetorical games, such as with my "take that as an indication" phrase. I've been around this block a few times, too, and I've gotten in the habit of offering "let's not go left" type indications in advance of a potential tangent.

Sorry. Carry on.

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 10, 2003 6:07 PM

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