Ask an Atheist with Sam Mulvey

The Failures of Faith

We just received the following comment on our Facebook page:

I recently read an article on your webpage mentioning “hit-and-run theists” who comment here, and figured I might as well take my shot:
Empiricism, the idea on which scientific inquiry is based, suggests that human beings can know the truth, but can never know when they know the truth – hence, all we can do is gather information and make inferences. With this in mind, it deserves to be understood that humans today, despite our best efforts, understand extraordinarily little about the universe we live in, and much of current scientific thought indicates that it is chaotic and unpredictable. Furthermore, human logic is absolutist, and so our best models will never be completely reconciled with a world that is entropic by nature.
This is not at all meant to suggest that the existence of an omnipotent, anthropogenic god (or any other variety of god) is probable. It is simply to assert that the information we currently have access to is utterly incapable of informing the way we live our lives in any meaningful and complete way. For this reason, the act of living involves placing faith in things that we don’t understand.
Since it is quite clear that faith is at some level necessary in living what anyone would consider a sane and normal life, how is it objectionable to identify that which we do not understand with certain common symbols? In doing so, our society might be able to engage in discourse about the unknown, better understand the way it influences us, and determine how we should address its constant presence in our lives.
Certainly, religion has been complicit in many wrongs throughout history. But just as the mere existence of atom bombs and loan sharks does not render scientific research and credit useless to society, so symbolism of the unknown (which is the basis of religion) must also be considered for its merits.

I want to explain why I think faith is a counter-productive and even harmful thing to include in any discussion of the unknown.

People often have discussions about whether scientific theories like evolution are compatible with religion. The answer is that it depends on the religion. But if you were to ask if science is compatible with faith, then the answer is simply, “No.” It isn’t.

I can tell from your post that you aren’t a fundamentalist windbag, because those are fairly easy to spot. I, can detect however, a touch of religious ecumenicalism in your tone. And while it’s usually easier to talk to a person in that ideological position than to a member of Fred Phelps’  Westboro Baptist Church, I find the position no less misguided and no more grounded in evidence.

An ecumenicalist often tries to reconcile faith with science, out of a sense of compromise and fairness and diplomacy. But the facts don’t care about these things. The facts can’t care about these things.

Science and faith are incompatible, because they are diametrically opposite methods for determining truth.

I agree with you that we humans don’t know everything. This is why we do science in the first place. One of science’s strengths is that it doesn’t make wild assumptions and builds its knowledge off of the provable, the demonstrable and the verifiable. It also doesn’t rely on authority. It forces any new idea to run a gauntlet to see if the person introducing that new idea had crossed their “t”s and dotted their “i”s.

And when science finds a question that it cannot answer, it honestly says “I don’t know.” It doesn’t end there, because an “I don’t know” is an invitation to exploration, examination and discovery.

This refusal to make assumptions is the opposite of faith. Faith looks at an unanswered question and pretends to know the answer to it. It asserts much about things we don’t actually know. Sometimes it even makes assertions in the face of contrary evidence.

Let’s define faith. Faith is claiming knowledge of something not because you have evidence for it, but because you really want it to be true.

And true to faith, you seem to assume that when we don’t know the answer to a question that all potential answers are valid. This isn’t true.

I won’t pretend that humans know everything. No atheist or skeptic has ever claimed this. But when we do eventually solve a mystery that has previously long baffled scientists, it has never turned out to have a supernatural explanation. Not-Magic has defeated Magic decisively in every contest.

The problem with faith existing as one of many methods in a search for truth is that faith is just speculation without the need for investigation or evidence. It’s just the assertion of fact without the proof to back it up.

And often when science gathers enough data to draw an evidence-based conclusion, it’s the faith based assumption that creates an unnecessary barrier to demonstrable fact and creates nasty public battles where none need exist.
An example: for much of human history, we didn’t know much of our origins. But the accumulation of data and the preponderance of  facts led us to the conclusion that human beings are the result of a long chain of biology going back billions of years, being acted upon and shaped by environmental pressures.

But by the time we discovered this, humanity had an older and entrenched faith-based notion of our beginnings. Several of them, in fact. And we’re still fighting these battles between faith and science in our schools and in our halls of power.

Had we the humility to reserve judgment and just say that we didn’t know rather than arrogantly make faith-based assertions, we wouldn’t be having fights on school boards over whether Iron Age myth should be taught as science in high school biology class.

I really don’t know why you mention loan sharks as a result of scientific study. People have been scamming each other and shaking down vulnerable people for money for far longer than the scientific method has existed. And people didn’t need to know physics or chemistry to figure out the process of extortion.

But yes, science has given us the knowledge to create weapons. Yeah. Knowledge is a tricky thing and we have to have lengthy discussions as a society for how we will use knowledge. But what we shouldn’t do is to assume non-negotiable faith-based reasons for how we organize our society and our lives.

Science has also given us cures for polio and smallpox. It’s given us the ability to instantly communicate with anyone on the planet. It’s given us the ability to travel around the globe in a day. It’s given us the ability to drive RC dune buggies on Mars and live in houses that make the kings of medieval Europe look like paupers.

Faith-based thinking is in the exact same place that it was in the Dark Ages, where its best achievements are comforting lies about things that no human being could possibly know.

That “benefit” is all the sadder when measured against the harm that faith-based dogma has done in the world – the oppression of women and minorities, support for slavery, the suppression of science and education, sectarian violence, crackdowns on free speech, archaic attitudes about sexuality, witch burnings, terrorist attacks…. the list could go on.

Then you later say,

But if you wish to suggest that in a world without religion would be any freer of oppression and violence, I think you are gravely mistaken.

I want to be clear and say that I don’t believe that a world without religion would be a utopia. Religion isn’t the sole reason for oppression and violence, just one of the primary culprits. A world without religion wouldn’t eradicate violence or end all oppression.

But without religion, you get rid of one of the biggest and most successful methods for implementing violence and oppression. Not only is religion a handy way for powerful people to implement oppressive and violent policies, but it’s the only truly effective way to get otherwise decent and kind people to rationalize support for such systems.

I have had countless discussions over the years with otherwise progressive and tolerant believers who support gay rights, abortion rights and the rights of women. I’m talking about good people. And you would be shocked at the things I’ve seen such people defend when the topic turns to religious faith. I’ve seen defenses of Biblical genocide, of the murder of blasphemers, statements that proclaim that one can only be good when one has religious faith.

Some of the nastiest things I’ve ever heard people say about atheists have come out of the mouths of liberals.

You may think I’m being unfair and point to religious moderation, but my point is that bad ideas don’t exist in isolation. The same faith that made a man stop drinking can also make him hate gay people. The same faith that makes someone volunteer in a soup kitchen might convince them that evolution is one of Satan’s lies.

One needs a methodology for determining the true from the false.

Skepticism provides a framework for accepting or rejecting ideas based on their merit and correspondence to the evidence.

Skepticism is the humility to admit we don’t know all things that we need to be cautious with new ideas and to not readily accept them because they feel true or because they mesh with our preconceptions.

If it sometimes feels like we’re dismissively rejecting an idea outright, it’s often because that idea has already been thoroughly examined, was found baseless and sent on its way. But bad ideas have a habit of putting on a cheap disguise and getting back into the examination line.

How should we approach the unknown?

By acknowledging that it’s unknown and proceeding without the arrogance of pretending to know things for reasons other than actual evidence.

You later describe “faith” as “merely a degree of comfort with the unknown in our lives.”

I don’t want comfort in the unknown. It’s that inherent discomfort with not knowing, that draws us out of our caves and into the stars. It’s that boundless curiosity that created the telescope and the compass and the space shuttles and the diving helmet. And it’s that adventurous spirit that propels us out of ignorance and into answers that beget greater and more compelling questions.

The universe is beautiful and terrible, complicated and intricate. And we don’t even yet know a tiny of fraction of it holds or what is possible.

And to set that against a comforting chain of faith that teaches us to be content with not knowing something because we can just make magical assumptions about the world. Well, that’s just damned depressing.

About the Author: Mike Gillis

Mike Gillis is co-creator, and co-host of Ask an Atheist. He hosts the Radio vs. the Martians! and Mike and Pól Save the Universe! podcasts. He also enjoys comic books, the Planet of the Apes, and the band Queen.

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Johnathan Arriola

First off, lovley content filled with serious thought. I feel that one of the more fundamental issues between that elequent writer and yourself is that there is not a word that properly describes the ideas here so the word faith becomes the rallying point. Faith as defined by the poster includes a warm connotation that holds some comfort, security, stability, etc. For myself, Faith represents a false sense of comfort, security evolved from self rightousness, and stability obtained by stubborness and force. because of such a divergent denotation of Faith I think we need a different word to describe each… Read more »


The writer notes: It is simply to assert that the information we currently have access to is utterly incapable of informing the way we live our lives in any meaningful and complete way. For this reason, the act of living involves placing faith in things that we don’t understand. — — — The writer is wrong. The act of living does not involve placing faith in things we do not understand. It involves learning about the things we do not understand. Faith (belief without proof) is a dead end. If I already have an answer, why do I need to… Read more »

[…] recently wrote an excellent article about why faith doesn’t do the job people think it does.   Mike takes a different approach […]

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