Faith and the Non-Answer

Posted by on November 3, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 11 comments

Twitter for many people I follow is a daily battle of “belief vs proof” with theists who insist that they know god exists, and therefore proof is not something they need to provide. You see, faith is in and of itself the belief in something without proof, so to try and prove a basis for faith is impossible, and yet, when pressed, many theists will at least attempt to do so. When someone professes a belief in a god or gods, and are challenged, they always fall back on the position that you can’t disprove them. And they are right; It is impossible to disprove the unprovable assertion.

In constructive discourse, if someone throws up a dubious claim and is challenged, for instance, that the Loch Ness monster exists and that she likes to eat peanut-butter sandwiches, it is up to them to present their case and persuade the skeptic that there claim is veritable. In the case of Nessie, it is quite easy to ignore it, for nobody holds such a claim with any sense of importance to their daily dealings with the universe. But when someone claims god, and is challenged, for the claimant the assertion is more than real, it may form the basis for their lives, at least, according to them.

What is interesting here is that for some their faith, at least in their minds, is what stops them from spinning into chaos, eating babies, raping and pillaging and the like, but I suggest that they just haven’t thought their faith through with any kind of critical analysis. People tend to be lazy with their “deeper” thought, and the kind of rigour of thought that has brought many (including myself) to the conclusion that there is no reason, nor any proof, of the existence of a god or gods, is a difficult process, and one that may challenge the very core of what the believer once saw as their reason for existing.

So when a theist is challenged with a question like “You claim god exists, can you show me proof?” they come back to answers which have more to do with their faith than any proof of their assertion. These answers serve as a conversation killer, and it’s easy to see why so many resort to them; It is easier to assert belief than to take into consideration the many facets of the universe that don’t conform to any given person’s idea of a deity.

My friend Iron Atheist (or @ironatheist) has collated a list of “non-answers” that have been given by theists when they are asked for proof of their god-claim. Most of these are the same answer, just phrased in a different way, and most hinge on the idea that you “have to have faith”, or that “you have to believe”. Faith and belief however are the antithesis of proof;  the assertion of truth despite lack of evidence to support it. Below are some of the answers compiled, in this case mostly from Christians.

Reinforcing belief with belief

“You have to have faith to truly understand god”

“Give yourself to and you will see god’s true power and feel his love”

“Because god loves you”

The idea that you have to believe in order to believe is just one of the many examples of circular reasoning that people resort to when questioned. To assert that belief is required to believe avoids the question entirely, and also assumes that not only the reason, but the outcome, are forgone conclusions. If a conversation leads to this type of statement, continuing is futile, and the person’s mind is already made up.

Reinforcing belief from a book

“Jesus’ sacrifice saved us from our sins”

“Because the bible says so”

“Because the bible is god’s word”

“You have to study the bible to catch the true meaning of it rather than the literal sense”

This scenario depends entirely upon the bible (or Koran) for its reinforcement, and is another kind of circular reasoning. The bible says it is the word of god, and how do we know? Because it says so right there in the bible! Of course this is no more proof that the bible is true than Lord of the Rings proves the existence of Hobbits. When trying to prove a truth claim, one must bring to the table more than simply the claim itself. Otherwise our wheels start spinning and we go nowhere.

Reinforcing belief from experience

“I have seen miracles that prove to me there is a god”

“Because people dreamed of god when they died and came back is proof”

Anecdotal evidence from experience is a tricky one. Experience is all we have to base our lives on. But when experience only comes from ourselves, or from stories of a “friend of a friend of a friend”, the experience becomes more like a game of “Chinese Whispers” than an actual fact. When people believe in miracles, they will look for them. Every little thing that happens is a potential miracle, if so ascribed by the one experiencing it. Those who are quick to claim “miracle” are those for whom analysis of the situation has ceased. For them, constantly waiting for a sign, a sign will appear in the form of something unrelated, like the face of Jesus in toast, or a small windfall in a scratch-ticket, is easily seen as an action from god. When something does occur, however small, ascribing “miracle” to this just means they were already looking for a miracle. Of course, our minds can play tricks on us. We know for example that we tend to embellish upon memories as time goes by, and the significance of an event may grow when we conflate unrelated ideas with the one that we started with.

A different approach to the same problem is the example from a story; “I was told once by my mother-in-law that Mrs McKechnie’s daughter’s mother’s friend from the bridge-club prayed for her cancer to disappear, and 5 years later after chemotherapy and radiation treatment, the cancer was gone!” An answer like this, or the “seeing god upon dying” as above are even less reliable, yet seem to serve as a strengthening of the case for a theist who is so disposed to miraculous stories. They can be flippantly thrown forth as indisputable evidence and can be ignored just as quickly.

Reinforcing belief as explanation for existence

“The wonder of the way the world & the universe are put together proves god’s greatness”

“Because without god there is no purpose in life”

“Without God what’s stopping you from killing everyone?”

The bottom line with this line of answers is the question, “If God created the universe, who created God?” The answer to this is invariably “God has always existed.” But of course this answer will never do. The same answer could apply to the universe, so why not just skip a step and discount god, saying the universe has always existed. But the theist is so stuck on the idea that their version of a god is the one “true belief”, so to this answer the response will likely be one of the responses outlined above. To a theist who thinks that god is everything, there is nothing that isn’t of or from god. The argument of “first cause” or “prime mover”, while may ask questions about the origins of the universe does nothing to prove the god of the bible as true. All it does is call for navel gazing and awe at the god they’ve already decided exists.

One interesting thing I have seen is in relation to the third of these examples: “Without God what’s stopping you from killing everyone?” This is a truly scary answer, for according to the theist who purports this line, if god did not exist then the universe would spiral into chaos and we would all kill each other and eat our babies. Of course this is just speculation, and since there is no proof of god anywhere, this answer could be ignored, except for one thing; If the theist’s belief in god is the only thing stopping them from killing and eating babies, these people are probably best avoided, because who knows what they are capable of in the real world?

There are many more examples I could give, but here I just wanted to highlight some of the frustrations many atheists have when arguing with theists online and in daily life. In most cases a conversation with a theist, asking them to prove their case, is futile, as they’ve already made up their minds, and will stick to it regardless of any question you may throw to them. So if a conversation ends here, or looks to be heading the direction of a “non-answer”, be prepared to give up with it as progress from most of these positions is halted, and can go no further.

The problem here is not the baseless assertions; The problem lies in the reasoning behind the arguments. If a theist comes to you and threatens you with damnation at the hands of a god that they assert exists, what they are really saying is “I don’t know the answer, but my belief helps me not have to ask the hard questions.” This is a pitiful space to be in, at least coming from someone who values knowledge and facts over fancy and the supernatural, as I do. Asking these questions, and then being challenged with logic, is not fun. For some it stands to unbalance what they see as the cornerstone of their very existence. True faith, one where the believer “truly believes” and isn’t just being intellectually lazy, is something that is deeply ingrained in a person, something that most of us are told we must have from an early age, and becomes for some part of their identity, their family life and the culture they live in. The threat to undermine what some see as their very existence will invariably be met with hostility, which is understandable. So if you feel you must engage with theists on this level, meet this hostility with cool-headedness and a calm, reasonable, rational, fact-based approach. You may not win them over, but you may at least, get them thinking. And isn’t that what we really need to see in this world, a planet of thinkers?

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11 Comments

  1. “From the point of view of truth and evidence, faith is exactly the same as prejudice. Declaring an opinion to be a matter of faith provides it with no new evidential support, gives no new reason to think it true. It merely acknowledges that you have none.” Jamie Whyte, Crimes Against Logic, page 36
    Brilliant post. Thank you!

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  2. Faith, that begged question and argument from ignorance, along with postulation and non-evidentialed definition can never instantiate the Deiy!

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  3. Love how you closed this and how it points to learning the stories of people who have transitioned from religious true belief to unbelief as essential.  The transition is a slow march to a tipping point that only seems sudden.  Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God is a perfect case.  The “out of nowhere” realization that there was no god that happened in her backyard was the product of years of processing.  It’s better to talk to people as if they’re on a long road instead of just insisting they’re lost.

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  4. This article doesn’t even get off the ground as far as being representative or persuasive to Christian theists who would, unless fideists (a minority), reject the definition given in the article of faith which describes not faith proper but blind faith. A proper definition of faith that would actually describe Christian faith would be along the lines of, ‘confident trust in a person, thing or idea’. Not only does this definition not exclude evidence but it necessitates evidence for it is only evidence of some kind that engenders confident trust in people.

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    • Scotsmanmatt “confident trust in a person, thing or idea” is not based on faith, at least for me, and many others that I know.  If I have confident trust in something, it is for a reason(s)…faith, has nothing to do it with it.  You are attempting to play a semantics game, based on a random definition of faith, probably from a dictionary, that is not applicable to this conversation.  Rather, the definition you are attempting to use is the common misuse of the word in every day speech.  When someone expects their spouse to be home from work at 6:00, they may say they “have faith that she will be home by 6:00”.  However, faith has nothing to do it with.  They have this conclusion because perhaps she  is home by that time every day, perhaps they spoke on the phone, etc…there is a reason why they feel this way and the word “faith” is often misused in this manner.  The real definition of faith—belief in something without evidence—never enters into the equation.

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    • Scotsmanmatt  
      1) While it is possible to find some occurrences of the word “faith” which use it in the sense of “confidence or trust in another,” it is at least as easy to find occurrences in which it refers to blind faith; for example, the “not seeing” of Hebrews 11 (“By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” [Hebrews 11:3]; there is no evidence to support this statement, and much to refute it; at the very least, we can say with Laplace, “Sir, I had no need of that hypothesis”); the opposition of “faith” and “sight” in 2 Cor. 5:7; and especially Jesus’ supposed pronouncement in John 20:29, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Not to mention the almost paranoid fear of doubt expressed, for example, in James 1:5-8.
      2) In any case, what kind of evidence would you propose as sufficient for someone to trust some invisible spirit who for all practical purposes appears to be non-existent? The non-theological parts of the bible (and koran, and book of mormon) have been shown historically and scientifically to be mostly false (and the fact that the bible mentions a few historically attested cities no more proves its narrative to be historically true than the mention of London in the Harry Potter books shows Ms. Rowling’s narrative to be historically true); externally, the theological parts are untestable assertions which can *only* be accepted by what you are calling blind faith (John 20:29 again), and do not appear to have any prima facie reason to be deemed more reliable than other, generically similar assertions in the koran or other religious texts. As the not-so-old joke goes, “You never see churches with free wifi because no church wants to compete with an invisible power that actually works.” Internally, any “evidence” you might imagine for any specific religious concept is nothing more than voices in your head—voices which are suspiciously similar to the predominant religious concepts in the culture in which you grew up.
      3) But, just so this response is not all negative, here’s a brief video that offers practical help with one’s prayer life: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZVUfLJVSdjg

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    • Scotsmanmatt Mark and ReasonBeing are reminding you that we can see clear a difference between Religious Faith and the “confident trust” we all have in mere earth-bound entities.
      Monotheism insists that we OUGHT to seek “confident trust” in something that isn’t physical and isn’t conceptual, but instead is something Divine (of, or from, or like that character in Genesis 1 etc). From where do they get this fable? Their bible.Historically each area of academia –originally well aligned to monotheism’s biblical teachings– has discovered more accurate explanations to the biblical version. And thus ousted to sectarian seminaries those who’ve turned out to be too loyal to their religious teachers, who for the sake of tradition MUST insist on their less well evidenced biblical interpretation (of this world and its morality) — thus  definitionally too confident, too strict, too biblical, too biased, too blinded.You’re correct that christians will tend to reject the definitions of non-christians. However that’s merely another brute fact about earthlings  that the holymen of monotheism are taking advantage of when they continue teaching what 21st century academia now knows to be a fiction: that the Divine miraculously enables christians to behave differently (think more clearly, act more kindly, and other nonscience) to the outsiders, the factually and/or ethically “mistaken”, those non-christians.

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  5. I see Matt is claiming that his faith in faith is justified. Brilliant.

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  6. Great post Martin.  I spend a decent amount of time on twitter having these conversations.  Most of the time I run into one of the scenarios that you describe above, or something similar.  I often realize that I will never change the mind of the person that I am tweeting with, if they are having this discussion with me, they are probably “too far gone” to be deconverted over Twitter.  However, I have many followers who are not atheists, nor are they devout worshipers of any religion.  It is often those people that I hope “have a seed planted”.

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  7. Martin: Sorry, I forgot to snip off the http:// from my reference, so it embedded the video. Please feel free to edit it appropriately.

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  8. Perhaps “Broken Telephone” rather than bringing that particular nationality into it? ;)

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