Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Faith of the "Faithless"

To see how this whole misapplication of what faith means plays out, I offer the assertions of the new atheist, Sam Harris, as an example.

Sam Harris was compelled to pen The End of Faith on September 12, 2001 and wrote his Letter To A Christian Nation a few years later. He is adamant about the fact that religious views, because they are not based in "evidence" (remember that the new atheists define "evidence" as "scientific data" and scientific data alone), are irrationally held. He is one of a growing number who equate the travesties perpetrated by Muslim terrorists with anyone who claims what he calls a "rigid" religious view. According to Harris, rigid thinkers are dangerous in this world because they become too extreme.

Keep that idea in mind as you consider some points of agreement that Harris claims to share the hard-core "Christian right." In summary, Harris agrees that (p. 3-4) ...
  • If one of us is right, the other is wrong.
  • The Bible is either the word of God, or it isn't.
  • Jesus offers humanity the one, true path to salvation, or he does not.
  • True Christians believe that all other faiths are mistaken and profoundly so.
For all the relativists out there I would like to point out that Harris, like me, appears to believe in the existence of objective truth. That being the case, we each must admit that one of us is right and one of us is wrong. It has to be so. We cannot hold completely contradictory views and both be right.

In other words, in taking the opposite view of the nutty Christians, Sam Harris is actually admitting to hold some "hard-core" beliefs himself -- beliefs that are exactly contradictory, and just as rigidly held, as those of his Christian opponents. He demands that Christians are wrong, that the Bible is not the word of God, that Jesus in not the one true path to salvation etc. He writes books meant to convince you that he is right and you are wrong if you disagree with him..

In short, Sam Harris has described himself as a rigid thinker who, according to his own allegations, must also be dangerous.

My only beef with Harris is that he holds Christians in contempt for having the audacity to think they are right about the way they see the world, while he is doing the exact same thing.

Bottom line -- Christianity may be true or false. We can debate the evidence (and we will). But whether it is true or not, the fact that Christians actually believe it to be true is not the problem. It is not a badge of honor to be wishy-washy. And it is not a prelude to oppression and violence to hold to concrete beliefs. It all depends on what those beliefs are, whether there is evidence to support them, and whether or not they comport with the way the world actually is. Harris cannot condemn religious belief until he first compares the nature of the religion, the worldview it creates, and the actions that result from its adherents.

Belief is not the problem. What matters is what one believes. That is what makes one dangerous. Those who actually practice Biblical Christianity should pose no threat to anyone. Conversely, following atheist ideas can be brutally dangerous to those with whom the atheist comes in contact. It goes both ways. But the simple act of actually believing something says nothing about whether or not it is true, or whether or not it is "dangerous."

Monday, June 2, 2014

The "Faith" Thing

Many of us have understood atheism to be defined as a claim that God does not exist. This, in fact, is the primary definition of atheism we find in the dictionary, and is based on the simple fact that a (Greek: not), attached to theos (Greek: God) forms a compound word meaning "not God."
1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.
The new atheists, however, have become fond of insisting that their stance regarding deities is that they "really just believe in one less God than you do." Another way of putting it is that atheism is not really a belief at all; it's just a "lack of belief in any god." This video is supposed to explain this point of view for those of us who just don't seem to get it.

From The Video
"Belief and Faith are not the same thing ... Faith can be thought of as confidence in that claim in the absence of evidence ... The more faith they have, the further away from evidence they travel."
On the first point ("belief and faith are not the same thing") I would have to agree. I have often illustrated the differences between some of these concepts like this:
Belief = mental assent: There may be several reasons for my holding some belief but that belief is nothing but intellectual acceptance of a proposition. I believe that airplanes can fly.
Faith = active trust based on evidence: I not only believe that airplanes can fly, I demonstrate my confidence in that belief by taking active steps beyond mere mental assent. I get on an airplane
Knowledge = justified, true belief: This is the philosophical definition of knowledge. I have a belief that is justified by its correspondence to reality (truth). I have measured my belief against the real world and found that it is actually legitimate. I get off the airplane in Chicago.
Notice that (1:14 in the video), faith and evidence are said to be inversely related -- that "religious" faith is actually confidence in the absence of evidence -- that faith is blind. Where I claim that faith is "active trust based on evidence," the video says that exact opposite. Further, the video claims that:
"if you ask a non-religious person if anything could make them believe in a god, the answer would almost certainly be, yes. Conversely, if you ask a religious person if anything would cause them to disbelieve, the answer is always, no."
Think about that one for a second. This would mean that if God showed up in my living room tonight and introduced Himself, I would therefore cease to have any faith in His existence. Do you see how ludicrous that is?

What's going on here?

Spoiler Alert: Words Mean Things

The first thing to note is that when atheists try to advance this argument, they are using different definitions of words and demanding that we accept them. For instance, at the point where the video claims that faith is confidence in the absence of evidence (again, at about the 1:14 mark), notice what is being shown on the right side of the frame. The inverse relationship being contrasted is not between faith and evidence -- it is between faith and "scientific data."

Big difference.

The atheist is demanding that the only way we can consider "evidence" is if it comes to us in the form of scientific observation. Most honest atheists are materialists -- they believe that the physical, material world constitutes all reality -- and that demands that our study of the physical world (science) provides us the only means to gather evidence. So, when an atheist demands evidence, he is demanding that physical evidence is the only thing that counts.

Problem: God is not physical. No thinking theist has ever claimed otherwise. For that reason, studying the physical world will never prove -- nor disprove -- the existence of God.

Notice what happens when you understand this subtle point ...

First, the atheist claims that, if asked if anything could make them believe in a god, their answer would be, "Yes." Saying this makes the atheist sound very open-minded, and rational, and unafraid of free inquiry. But what it doesn't take into account is that the only evidence they would accept is physical, material evidence ... for an entity (God) that is not physical.

In other words, they have defined "evidence" in terms that almost certainly can never be attained short of the second coming of Christ into their living rooms. At the same time, the historical evidence we do have for the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is unacceptable to them because it infers some kind of supernatural reality, and they have already ruled out that possibility by a simple, atheistic presupposition that such an explanation is not allowed.

Very convenient wouldn't you say?

Second, the video ends with the pronouncement that:
"atheism is not a belief and requires no faith since it's based in evidence"
From the prior discussion, it should be obvious that the faith/evidence claim is a convoluted mess that equivocates on both the definitions of faith and evidence. But here's another thing -- If the atheist really claims to have "no belief" regarding deities, all we need to do to show this to be false is to ask for a response to the following proposition: "God exists. True or false?"

There are only three answers:
  1. "I don't know" makes you an agnostic.
  2. "Yes" makes you a theist.
  3. "No" makes you an atheist.
All three are beliefs -- an assent or rejection of a given proposition. Everyone holds a belief about the matter.

Third, note that the video's claim that when religious people are asked if there is anything that would make them disbelieve in God, they answer, "No."

This is simply false. I can give a list of things that would make me quit believing in God in general, or Christianity in particular, tomorrow:
  • A reason to exempt the most profound effect (the entire universe itself) from the cause-effect relationship we accept in every other case. Atheist materialists try to do this all the time -- asserting either that the universe popped into existence without a cause, or that we are one of an infinite number of other universes that cannot, by definition, ever be detected.
  • A naturalistic explanation for consciousness (which cannot be demonstrated to be physical).
  • A naturalistic grounding for ethics.
  • A naturalistic explanation for the origin and content of information in DNA.
  • Evidence that refutes the resurrection of Christ -- this is not my idea, it is a tenet of Christianity itself and the demand of Paul in 1Corinthians 15.
Fourth, my conviction that Christianity is true is an active trust based on the Cosmological, Teleological, Axiological, Philosophical, Historical, Archeological and Experiential evidence I have before me. It is not blind and it is not a leap in the dark.

My position is that belief is belief is belief. We all hold beliefs. Religious ideas should not be held in some kind of separate category that atheists are allowed to define away. I believe religious ideas that they reject. That’s fine. But the fact that they reject them does not invalidate them. They hold beliefs that I reject but that doesn’t mean their beliefs are invalid. It means we disagree.

My religious belief is not “overwhelming” in the sense that I cannot be shaken from it. There are aspects of my beliefs that I question and doubt all the time. Any thinking human being who claims they don’t have religious doubts is a liar. But that doesn’t mean my beliefs are improperly held. Some of these ideas I believe in the same way atheists believe what they do about the makeup of the core of the Earth or the existence of a quark. They've never seen them but they accept them because they believe the evidence for them is more compelling than some other alternative. They take some of these beliefs on the expertise and authority of those they respect or whose credentials they hold in high regard.

The bottom line is that I don’t hold my beliefs in a vacuum. I don’t need to hold that with unquestioning certainty. I only need a 51% assurance that my view is true and that some alternative is not true. I have made an inference to the best explanation from the evidence I have in front of me. Both the atheist and I are operating on an active trust in the evidence we see.

The irony in all this is that the view I hold is actually the open-minded view that welcomes any kind of evidence and weighs it accordingly. I don't discount any kind of evidence or put limits on what is allowed into the discussion. The fact that many theistic believers may demonstrate otherwise does not constitute sufficient grounds to reject the evidence-based convictions of those of us who do.

Atheism is a belief that is not really open to serious inquiry. A simple discussion about these topics with mosts atheists makes that clear very quickly.