Friday, July 22, 2011

Faith and Knowledge: The Polite Approach

My wife and I were talking last night about whether or not to talk to theists about their beliefs and how beneficial it can be to try to convince them or not. She is as much of an atheist as I am, but she tends to choose not to get into debates with theists because she finds it more or less pointless and ineffective. I, on the other hand, will jump into the 'God debate' at any chance, with anyone, at any time. I see this as not only my right as a free thinker, but also as a duty to spread such free thinking into the world. I understand that it is like trying to cut diamonds with a rusty chisel, but I am optimistic that the more we cut away at the issue, the more a culture of reason will be shaped into a beautiful stone for all the world to enjoy. However, she did make a good point that, if we approach the theists with the same kind of antagonism that they tend to show us non-believers, that nothing will ever change, and it will make them hold onto their beliefs even stronger. I certainly agree with this sentiment, and consider it a large part of what my own blog is about. It is in this spirit of non-antagonism that I want to approach the issue from calm, simple, and basic reason rather than the standard 'science is better than religion' paradigm, which can often turn into little more than the familiar 'my Dad can beat up your Dad' argument from our childhood. With this in mind I would like to present one of the most simple and basic issues of the whole religion vs. reason debate, the relation between faith and knowledge. It is an issue that is very clear and easy to understand and doesn't require any attacking to see how atheism is the appropriate stance to take.

Knowledge is generally defined as 'justified, true, belief', at it's most basic level. Now, what does this mean? It means to know something, a claim or a statement, you have to have reasons for it, the statement must be true, and that you have to believe the statement. None of these aspects of knowledge, taken on their own or without all three, are enough to know something. To make this point pragmatically dramatic, let's say that I want to walk on an old bridge across a thousand foot drop while hiking in the mountains. To my friend I say, 'I believe this bridge will hold us to get across.' Naturally, he will say, 'why do you believe that?' What he is asking for is my justification or my reasons or my evidence for my belief. But let's say I flatly refuse him an answer and just say, 'I don't have any particular reason to believe it, I just do.' So we have a claim, 'the bridge will hold us' and that is either true or not (at this point, on this side of the drop off, we're not sure yet whether this statement is true or false, but it is certainly one or the other). I also stated that I believed the claim, so that is one condition of knowledge fulfilled, but I denied evidence for the claim, so I can't be said to know whether or not the bridge will hold us or not. At this point, since I denied reasons for my belief, you can imagine my friend will be quite hesitant to cross the bridge, unless he goes into collecting his own reasons for believing it is safe to cross, since I'm obviously going to be no help in this regard. So let's say he does go about collecting some evidence to see if the bridge will hold us, which he should or else we could both die! He shakes the bridge a bit to examine the integrity of the ropes and boards and he also finds a carving into one of the posts that states 'we crossed June, 2011' (which was last month and seems to have been marked by people crossing from the other direction). Now my friend also claims, 'I believe this bridge will hold us to get across.' So we cross, and sure enough, it turns out true that the bridge in fact did hold us, and we make it safely across. Now, it would seem that we would want to say that I didn't know that the bridge would hold us, but my friend did. I believed it, and it was true, but I never decided to collect any reasons for my belief, but he did. So belief on it's own is clearly not enough to know something, and even true belief is not enough, you have to have reasons for your belief to really be said to know it.

Now 'faith', at it's most basic level, can be defined as 'belief without the need for reasons'. Even with as much ink that has been spilled by theologians about the notion of 'faith' it is nothing if not the definition above. Now, at first we might notice that, in a way, the notion of faith is redundant with regard to belief. It is like saying 'I believe because I believe.' There are, then, at least two kinds of belief, there is just plain belief that stands on its own (faith) and then there is belief that is based on reasons for the belief (justified belief). Justified belief, as we have seen, is two thirds of what one needs to have knowledge about their belief, while faith is only one third, and even if true, would not count as knowledge. We do not ever have to deny anyone their faith. Anyone can believe any thing they want. It is their right and their freedom to do so. However, we simply need to point out to them, as calmly as possible, that a completely faith based belief could never count as knowledge. In the case of belief in God, that is fine, as long as the person holding the belief is not particularly concerned about knowing that God exists and their mere belief is enough for them. So long as they understand the definition of 'knowledge' and of 'faith', then any moderately reasonable person will agree that faith is not enough for knowledge. Sometimes at this point in the conversation someone might say, 'I have faith in God's existence because...[insert any argument for God's existence or any reason for believing in God here]'. We must stop them right there, for as soon as one says 'because' followed by some argument or reason in support of the belief, they are no longer holding the belief because of faith. Faith is, by definition, belief without a 'because'. I am not concerned here to talk about what count as 'good' reasons or evidence for a belief, only to point out that faith does not, indeed cannot, involve reasons to back it up, and thus cannot ever be a basis for knowledge. Even if God in fact were to exist, i.e. the belief that 'God exists' were true, a faith based belief in him could never lead to knowing he exists. I think that for most people this would be unsatisfactory.

Wouldn't one rather know his or her beliefs than to just hold them for the sake of having them? It's kind of a catch-22. Faith is an individual's right to have and to hold, come what may, but it's kind of an empty right to have because it can never lead to knowing. However, as soon as one goes down the path of trying to develop reasons for their belief in search of knowledge, and thus abandoning faith, then everyone else has a right to dispute their reasons. Did not our friend crossing the bridge with us not have a right to demand more than mere belief for thinking that the bridge was safe to cross? You bet he did, in fact he had to be willing to bet his life on it. In the same way, we all have the right to demand good reasons for all beliefs that we care about their outcome for ourselves. So we can point out that it is fine for an individual to have any belief they want, with or without reasons for it, but if they want more, like most of us do, they will have to deny faith and look for reasons. If they still want to stick with faith, and deny knowledge, then let them know, as politely as possible, that they are on their own. The rest of us (even many theists) want more than that.


  1. There does not have to be a war between theist and atheist. I was actually taken back yesterday in my Philosophy class, one of my fellow students was presenting his paper and before he started he said: "I do not want to offend any of you atheists, but I am a Christian so my interpretation of this text may be a little different than your". This actually made me take him more seriously, at first I was questioning if he was being serious with making that statement, which come to find out he actually was. It was that notion that started me thinking. There are A LOT of religious people that not only think we are going to hell for not believing in god, but they also think we are immoral. Being negative and attacking theists proves them right and that is the last thing any of should do. Do not let them be right and have proof they will run with it and use it to solidify their belief. I am glad you are taking my suggestion seriously. I know so many atheists that will call Christians stupid, just merely on the fact that they believe in a fictional character.Would you call a child stupid for believing in Santa Claus? They are not stupid they just have yet to see the reason and knowledge some of us have. Some who choose to will turn their backs on their faith in search of truth, but it will take time. A little hand holding will go a lot further than pushing them down every chance you get. Look at them as children lacking the knowledge and in some cases lacking the ability to grasp and seek that knowledge. Guide them instead of insulting them in their inability. We as atheists have a long road ahead in gaining acceptance.

    Atheism is just now being accepted in some cultures. Religion has been around far too long to try and take it down with insults.Knowledge is easier to spread if you are not attacking the reader/listener. Look at the media, when they want us to buy a product they do not call us names or tell us that we are too ugly and need the magical beauty cream. They say phrases like "enhance your beauty with..." So let us enhance the knowledge of others and spread the word of atheism.

  2. I agree with all of that, but is it not insulting to say they are like children and that we are like caring and nurturing, yet superior, adults who need to hold their hand? My hope, especially with this particular blog, was to extend a bit of respect to the theist by acknowledging their faith, and even accepting faith as a mature decision, just not one that leads to any kind of knowledge.

  3. Well I would never tell them that I used this analogy I am just saying this is a way to approach it. I do not think we are superior. I know a lot of very intelligent Christians, but even they might need some hand holding. A child can be smart but lack the experience.

  4. In the majority of Christians their religion is deeply embedded from birth; passed down for generations, from parents to children. These are things that are not easily questioned by the human psyche. So Christianity along with how Granny made cornbread is just taken as they are handed to us and most people don’t question what their parents say or do, they just follow.
    A young woman at a family holiday was cooking in her grandmother’s kitchen. As she was cutting off the end of a ham she turned to her mother and asked “why cut off the end of the ham, it looks like good meat to me?” Her mother answered “go ask your granny”. The woman went to the back door and called her granny. When granny was close the woman asked “Granny why cut off the end of the ham?” Granny said “I don’t know why you would do it. I did it so it would fit in my pan.”
    So two generations cut ham and discarded it without ever asking why. This is what the majority of Christians do. What our parents teach us is very effectively buried in our conscious and subconscious brain making it extremely difficult to ignore or question.
    Six years ago I would have debated Christianity with all my heart and soul. It was only when my daily life slowed down enough for me to take the time to question and use my brain that I began to see how illogical Christianity is.

    So dumb? No. Stupid? No. Just ignorant.