Monday, 16 June 2014

The 'Faith' Debate

Believe me, it was this big
There has been much consternation among theists caused by Peter Boghossian's book, A Manual for Creating Atheists. Consider, for example, this list of rather splenetic reviews. Former believer Eric Macdonald discusses why he thinks Boghossian's definition is 'silly' here and here. Although the book is clearly aimed at non-believers, offering advice on how to 'talk people out of their faith' or, as Michael Shermer puts it in the foreword, to 'reprogram minds [something Orwellian about that!] into employing reason instead of faith, science instead of superstition', theists are, probably understandably, upset by it. After all, if you are told that you are only pretending to hold what you consider to be your most deeply held beliefs, I think you have every right to feel aggrieved! And this does appear to be what Boghossian tells the faithful when he defines faith as:
pretending to know things you don’t know (Kindle Locations 262-263)
Frankly, this seems a needlessly antagonistic conception of faith, but in context I think it's clear that it is part of a strategy to move people of faith to see things from without their worldview; instead of saying you have faith that God exists, for example, imagine that you instead say I pretend to know that God exists. Not very subtle, perhaps, but it's hard to argue that a significant number of believers do actually pretend to know things they don't. When I believed, that was exactly what I did, on the advice of theist friends (if the 'leap of faith' could be described as 'pretending to know', which I think it can). Biologos contributor Ted Davis agrees when he says that many Christians do match the stereotype of the unjustified leap of faith. And debates that long predate the new atheists presuppose an opposition between justified belief and something that is, at least, less justified; consider Clifford's exhortation that 'it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence' and William James's rejoinder,  'The Will to Believe', in the late nineteenth century. James describes his piece, written in 1896, as:
an essay in justification of faith, a defence of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.
This gap between merely logical intellect and faith is what Boghossian is attacking, so this is not some fresh accusation from the new atheists.

One response to Boghossian's definition has been to ask for empirical evidence that this is what faith is. Empirical evidence is not necessary to explore concepts, and philosophers specialise in concepts. The SEP article on faith explores faith without feeling the need to support the discussion with empirical evidence that these concepts conform with what theists claim faith is. It's a discussion of the history of ideas as it relates to the concept of faith. Christians are quite entitled to explain how they conceive faith if they disagree with the concepts as discussed (as we shall see), and they don't need to produce statistical population analyses to support their ideas; likewise, neither do non-believers like Boghossian. Empirical evidence may be used to discount particular concepts of faith, for example, but no-one could seriously suggest that Boghossian's definition does not derive from some part of the concept of faith. In that event, he is quite at liberty to exploit it for his 'evangelical' aims. Its success, however, will surely be limited by its application to individual believers.

I confess, it does seem to me to be an accurate description of one type of faith, even if it's pejorative. What I think it communicates is the volitional element of faith, hinted at by James above, without which religious faith becomes rather supererogatory; it is important that a person wills their assent to a religious belief, rather than simply responds with belief  to the normal empirical inputs of the natural world. There is no virtue in my believing that I am sitting at my desk typing this blog, but there is virtue, supposedly, in a theist's believing in Jesus, or Allah, or Jehovah, and so on. Now, to be fair, universalism exists, which suggests that ultimately this does not matter, but the most prevalent forms of religion the new atheists like Boghossian address surely do differentiate between believers and non-believers, with bad consequences for non-believers (or, at least, consequences that are not as good).

For me, any account of faith needs to make sense of this distinction; it will not be good enough to say tu quoque. For example, some may draw an analogy between competing religious faiths and competing scientific theories. Scientific theories are often (some would say, always) underdetermined by the data, so we cross an epistemic gap when we commit to one theory or another just as the religious believer does when she commits to a religious worldview. But this seems to render faith rather empty; if atheists are 'faithful' too, just what is it that is so virtuous about being a theist?

We do not think there is any virtue in believing one scientific theory over another; we accept that some people evaluate the evidence differently. Of course, some people don't value evidence, but I take it theists are not arguing that evidence is not important in establishing beliefs. Theism suggests there are some real consequences to the very act of believing something. And again, this is not because of the consequential acts of their belief, although they sometimes point to these things in justification. The belief distinguishes the faithful from the faithless in a way that makes the former praiseworthy, for some reason.

When people disbelieve scientific theories, we might criticise them for not applying rigorous scientific principles to their reasoning; for example, climate change denialists and anti-vaxxers. Of course, people can still believe scientific principles without being rigorous scientifically, and we may criticise them for that. But with faith the method does not define its ultimate worth. After all, the religious account accepts there are many who practice a faith but are wrong in the content of their belief. The method itself is not what wins god's rewards; it's important what the faithful actually believe. This seems unfair, since some of our beliefs, including many religious ones, seem to arise more from the environment we grow up in than from any impartial, supposition-free method of knowledge acquisition.

Religious faith is complex, that much is true. The SEP lists seven broad characterisations of faith:
the ‘purely affective’ model: faith as a feeling of existential confidence
the ‘special knowledge’ model: faith as knowledge of specific truths, revealed by God
the ‘belief’ model: faith as belief that God exists
the ‘trust’ model: faith as belief in (trust in) God
the ‘doxastic venture’ model: faith as practical commitment beyond the evidence to one's belief that God exists
the ‘sub-doxastic venture’ model: faith as practical commitment without belief
the ‘hope’ model: faith as hoping—or acting in the hope that—the God who saves exists.
The last three certainly appear to concord somewhat with Boghossian's characterisation, if we allow that pretending to know is an accurate way to describe believing beyond the evidence, which is what is communicated by doxastic venturing and hoping.

The SEP notes that Christians consider faith a gift from God and, as I indicate above, something:
...requiring a human response of assent and trust, so that people's faith is something with respect to which they are both receptive and active. 
The article also notes a similar tension to the one between concluded belief and willed belief, between the supposed 'gift' of faith and the willed venture.

Blogger aRemonstrant has helpfully compiled some Christian definitions of faith. Keith Ward says it's 'the practical commitment to a relationship with God that will progressively transform your life, liberating it from hatred, greed and ignorance, and enabling it to become a more effective mediator of transcendent beauty, joy, compassion and benevolence'. Well, maybe, but either this can occur regardless of what the faith is in, or it presupposes that the faith is not misplaced. How does one know it's not misplaced? In the same book Ward says 'the test of genuine belief in God is whether or not your life is directed towards sharing in and learning to increase in the world around you beauty, bliss and goodness'.

This is odd, since it seems to link faith (or at least 'genuine' faith) with its consequences. But we know many people who say they have 'faith' whose lives do not appear to be directed towards sharing in etc, and many non-believers who do appear to meet that test. One assumes, though, that Ward restricts genuine believers to just the small subset who believe in the right god, and whose lives are directed towards sharing in etc. Indeed, he accepts that many religious believers are full of selfishness, spite, ambition and ignorance; he wants religion to transform them, but until they are transformed presumably they will not be rewarded with the fruits of 'genuine' faith.

John Polkinghorne says:
Religious faith does not demand irrational submission to some unquestionable authority, but it does involve rational commitment to well-motivated belief.
As far as I can see, Polkinghorne's motivations for belief might go beyond scientific evidence, but he contends it is still  justified; just before the above quote he says:
...the beliefs of religious belief are sufficiently well-motivated for them to be able to commit themselves, despite knowing that in principle they may be mistaken.
This could be interpreted in two ways, I think. Committing to a belief in the knowledge that it could be mistaken looks very much like 'pretending to know things you don't know'. I think Polkinghorne though is talking more about how scientists mediate between theories; thanks to the underdetermination problem mentioned earlier, we often have insufficient data to choose between theories, so theories are adopted tentatively and considered provisional in principle. The motivation for that adoption is justified, but beyond the evidence. But it's not clear just how provisional a person's faith can be to qualify as genuine, and we seem to be flirting with the tu quoque again; if well-motivated religious beliefs are no different in principle to other well-motivated beliefs, like scientific ones, then everyone is faithful and there is no need to be a theist. Polkinghorne is careful to distinguish between the two, however; again in the same book he says:
Religious knowledge is much more 'dangerous' than scientific knowledge, for it can imply consequences for the way we live our lives, requiring not only the assent of the intellect but also the assent of the will.
There is that volitional element again, and consequences à la Ward. And here Polkinghorne seems dangerously close to drawing an ought from an is. More importantly, he distinguishes religious knowledge as being more 'dangerous' than scientific knowledge.

This highlights the dilemma for the faithful: as soon as someone like Polkinghorne makes such a distinction then a non-believer can attack it as an epistemic gap that justifies the characterisation of 'pretending to know'; but if they don't draw the distinction, then we are are all full of faith, and a non-believer is as virtuous as a believer.

A couple more 'faith' definitions taken at random to illustrate the problem:
By faith, then, as a first approximation, we mean trusting, holding to, and acting on what one has good reason to believe is true, in the face of difficulties.
Either the 'difficulties' are peculiar to faith, in which case there is a gap non-believers can attack, or they are difficulties we all face when we conduct our daily lives, in which case we are all really believers.
The Bible knows nothing of a bold leap-in-the-dark faith, a hope-against-hope faith, a faith with no evidence. Rather, if the evidence doesn’t correspond to the hope, then the faith is in vain, as even Paul has said.
Confirming evidence against hope is open to the charge of confirmation bias, to which we are all subject. But again, if the faithful are simply humans suffering from the cognitive problems to which we are all subject, why the reward for being subject to one set of biases, and not another? Why should one be rewarded for landing on the supposed one true belief amongst many competing ones because one has been given a hope based on one's upbringing, which is arbitrary?

None of these accounts of faith adequately tackles this problem, so non-believers are left wondering what exactly faith is that makes it so special while leaving it immune to the sort of attack Boghossian launches. Even Eric's analysis throws no light on the problem; perhaps because the problem is insoluble; his notion of faith as a worldview is something that is:
...not only epistemic. It has other dimensions of meaning that [Boghossian] has a vested interest in ignoring. It’s called confirmation bias, and he falls into this particular trap throughout the book. Of course, he has faith in his wife. He just calls it trust, even though trust is an aspect of faith, and perhaps the more important aspect.
Well, perhaps; but then Boghossian and I are faithful too, like the Pope! Well not exactly like the Pope, since he has no spouse. But there's the rub; the target of the faith is important.

I hasten to add, this is no endorsement of Boghossian's book, which I have not read in its entirety because its writing doesn't appeal. I'm not persuaded that faith is a cognitive sickness; I suppose it's possible we could describe humanity as suffering from a pandemic of cognitive sickness, but the processes involved seem so fundamental to what makes us human, it would cast everyone as sick, and that hardly seems helpful. My difficulty, after all, is providing an adequate account of the distinction between the faithful and the faithless. To me the faithful are simply mistaken, not sick. I'm no psychiatrist, though, I hasten to add.

But this means that believers too will need to establish much more rigorous (not more verbose, they could hardly be more verbose) accounts of faith than any I've seen if they want to persuade non-believers that there is nothing to the charge that they are 'pretending to know'. Some of us have personal experience that that is exactly what it is!


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