Monday, October 08, 2007

Faith and Evidence

I was amused by this objection to Macht's post criticizing the trope that faith is belief without evidence. The author says:

Hot on the heels of our most recent XFiles Friday, I stumble across this objection to the idea that faith is belief without evidence. But this blogger isn’t mad at Christian apologists like Geisler and Turek. Like so many other things, this “offense” gets blamed on atheists.

Since Harris, whom Macht is discussing, does explicitly make arguments assuming that faith is belief without evidence, if using it as a presupposition is an offense it follows that atheists like Harris do in fact commit it. What's amusing though is that throughout the post the author talks as if Geisler went around saying that faith is belief without evidence. Since Geisler's form of apologetics is evidentialist that would be quite a feat, and Geisler on a number of occasions argues that faith is not belief without evidence (for one example that happens to be online, see here). In fact, it's easy enough to see that the author has made a fairly elementary mistake in reasoning in attributing the position that faith is belief without evidence. He takes passages like this from Geisler and Turek:

You may be thinking, "The atheist has to muster a lot more faith than the Christian! What possibly could Geisler and Turek mean by that?" We mean that the less evidence you have for your position, the more faith you need to believe it (and vice versa). Faith covers a gap in knowledge.

And concludes from it that they are saying that faith is belief without evidence. But this is logically excluded from what they actually say here; if the less evidence you have for your position, the more faith you need, it follows that you can have faith with evidence. If someone were to say, "The less money you have, the more you need to budget it in order to keep it," the natural conclusion is that you can have money and a need for a budget, not that you only need a budget when you have no money. But the two cases are logically analogous: we cannot in general reading statements of inverse ratio as if they were statements of mutual exclusivity. Statements of inverse ration naturally suggest that the two things in ratio are not mutually exclusive. And this can obviously be seen in the fact that they insist that the Christian has more evidence than the atheist, but clearly don't think that this means that the Christian has no faith.

It's clear enough what Geisler and Turek are doing; they are claiming that all reasoning on the basis of evidence in which the evidence does not yield the conclusion with perfect certainty involves faith. This is the way the Pauline phrase, "walking by faith and not by sight" is usually interpreted, in fact. Luther, Calvin, and Aquinas, to take just a few major names, all deny that faith is belief without evidence; Luther suggests that it is trust based on good report, Calvin that it is having confidence on the basis of promises that can be deemed trustworthy, and Aquinas that it is belief on the evidence of testimony rather than that of direct acquaintance or causal demonstration. And yet some people are so certain of the claim that Christians in general hold that faith is belief without evidence that they will assert it without serious evidence. Certainly such a claim requires good evidence, because if there are lots of Christians who don't believe that, then the claim is false, regardless of who says it, and arguments based on it are therefore unsound. Thus the amusing attempt to psychoanalyze Macht on the basis of his merely saying that Harris thinks that faith is belief without evidence isn't particularly relevant to anything. A false claim is a false claim; and it would remain a false claim even if atheists had taken it uncritically and without adequate rational examination from some Christians here and there.

In any case, it seems a bit silly to say something like "And though he protests at length that this is what faith doesn’t mean, he never quite defines for us what he thinks faith does mean," given that this is the blogosphere; you can simply search Macht's blog for discussions of faith and evidence, and you can find out more about his view of faith from posts like this one:

New atheists generally deny that "atheists have faith, too." This isn't surprising, since no matter how many times you try to beat it into their skulls they always come back to the belief that faith is belief without or in spite of evidence. You can grab their ears, look them straight in the eyes, say "no it isn't," have them repeat it back to you and then two seconds later they'll turn around and tell somebody "faith is belief without or in spite of evidence." It happens every time. You can tell them that faith is a trust in your worldview, your "vision of the good," your philosophy of life, etc. But this makes absolutely no sense within their acultural view of modernity. Atheism isn't any of these things, they say, so there is no need for trust. Atheism is just the rational nature you have left over when you, with all your cultural baggage, are shoved into the chicken nugget factory or when your burka is stripped off. And so what else can faith be other than part of that baggage?

The only way to answer this question is to help the new atheists realize that their "vision of the good" is indeed a "vision of the good." It's a worldview. It's a story about where we have been, what's gone wrong, how to fix it, and where we should be going. And that story is something you have faith in. It's something you trust, it's something you commit to. Now all we have to do is figure out how to convince them of this.

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