Faith and Freethinkers

It's very interesting to consider the appearance of the word "faith" in the Bible. The word shows up only twice in all of the Old Testament. Maybe that's because when your God is a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night — a volcano — you don't need faith.

The word "faith" appears 29 times in the four gospels. Often, it's when Jesus remarks how much of it someone has or doesn't have just when he's doing something so dramatic that you'd think there wouldn't be any need for faith.

In the single book of Acts the word "faith" appears 14 times. But in the epistles of Paul and the remainder of the New Testament, the word appears a whopping 186 times.

What is faith?

Well, Hebrews 11:1 says that "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." In other words, it's the substance of the insubstantial, the seeing of the invisible. The irrational.

My Webster's Unabridged Dictionary says that faith is "unquestioning belief."

The British philosopher and agnostic Bertrand Russell said that faith is "a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. Where there is evidence," he said, "no one speaks of faith." Apparently Russell didn't foresee today's breed of creationists. But he was right once again when he observed that "we only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence."

All In The Family's Archie Bunker said that "Faith is when you believe something that nobody in his right mind would believe."

These definitions of faith are all pretty much consistent with one another. They all refer to a departure from the usual way by which we can know something to be true, that usual way being a reliance on facts and reason.

And yet we have people going around these days saying that religious faith is not unlike every other sort of knowledge, and that to believe anything requires faith or at least "a kind of faith." Just recently, for example, I heard a well-known radio talk show host who claims to be a champion of truth with "talent on loan from God" say that he believed in creationism. Furthermore, he said, a faith in the Genesis story is not any different than a "faith in Darwin." "Either you believe in God," he said, "or you believe in Darwin."

Well, of course, this kind of comparison is utterly absurd. To begin with, there are many many people who accept the scientific findings of the evolution of species by natural selection at the same time that they affirm a belief in various theological doctrines. More importantly, there's a very great difference between "believing in God" and "believing in Darwin," the most important of which is that the Genesis story, said to be the "Word of God" by our fundamentalist brothers and sisters, is just that: a story. No evidence is offered for its claims, and, in fact, there is virtually conclusive evidence against it's version of events. We simply do not find, for example, fossils of cats and dogs and roses and saber-tooth tigers mixed in with those of trilobites. The work of Charles Darwin, on the other hand, though naturalists are still arguing about the details, explicitly relies on a large and varied body of evidence. And the evidence that Darwin relied on has since mushroomed into virtually the entire substance of today's earth and life sciences.

That's the difference between faith and reason. Faith says "believe!" While reason says "look at this, and consider that" and belief — though not the rigid and unquestioning belief of faith — follows naturally. It's like getting to the punchline of a funny story: the mind tends to immediately grasp the only conclusion that makes sense, even when it's the unexpected. Unsurprisingly, as thinking animals, we enjoy that feeling of "getting it," of that Eureka! — of recognizing an order in what had previously seemed to be disordered.

Faith demands only an uncritical obedience. Reason asks for a higher degree of cooperation: it asks for a considered judgment of the facts.

So much for the accusation that scientific understanding requires faith. Or does it? Let us follow the trail blazed by the 17th Century philosopher and mathematician Descartes for a moment. Let us ask ourselves whether there's any justification for our belief in the facts.

Will the sun rise tomorrow? Does a tree falling in a forest when no one's around make a sound? These are questions that students are confronted with in introductory philosophy classes, chiefly, I've often thought, as a way of making them feel stupid so that they'll do their reading assignments.

But think of it. What makes us so sure that the sun will rise tomorrow? What makes us so confident that fire burns or that water will quench our thirst? Why do we suppose — unquestioningly some might say — that when we board an airplane it will really soar into the air and get us safely to our destination? These may seem silly questions, but it took the 18th Century British philosopher David Hume to show convincingly that there is no logical necessity for our believing in such regularities of nature. We place a great weight on evidence, but the truth is that past experience can never guarantee future results.

What this means is that scientific understanding, while it is evidence-based, is essentially inductive, and not, as even Isaac Newton claimed, deductive.

When we find a watch, we recognize it as an article, every previous example of which we know of, that has been crafted by a watchmaker. Could a watch arise in any other way? Logically, nothing would absolutely bar it. But our experience tells us that the way things happen in the present seems to us very like, if not exactly like, the way that things have happened in the past. And so we assume — as a habit or custom, Hume said — that the future will be like the present and the past, and that if we find a watch we will be able to establish the existence of a watchmaker. That's all that's meant by the idea of a watch implying a watchmaker. Nothing more.

Now it sounds very powerful to say that our understanding of the world as freethinkers is based on facts and evidence, of course. But what we're really saying is that we simply prefer the habit or custom of organizing our past experience in as simple a way as possible in order to form a coherent conception of the present and then extrapolating from that to form our expectations of the future. Should we feel embarrassed at having nothing obvious to hang this preference on, nothing to justify it? Hume thought so. Hume suggested that every published work that consisted of anything other than the barest facts, or mathematics, should be consigned to the flames.

But even Hume stopped short, it seems, of realizing, as Descartes did, that even what we may think of as indisputable facts are no sure thing. It occurred to Descartes, for example, that perhaps some mischievous demons were responsible for creating our perceptions of the world and everything in it, deceiving us about the nature of reality. That's how he got down to what he considered the one irreducible truth, his famous cogito, ergo sum: "I think, therefore I am." Modern philosophers have pointed out that there is no way for us to know that we are not brains in vats, and that our perceptions of our bodies, each other, and the universe are not just neural stimuli being fed to those brains.

As for mathematics, numerous people have recognized it as basically self-confirming, or what is called tautological. That is, when you assume certain mathematical axioms, you can derive things from them that look like novel discoveries, but which are really just the logical consequences of the axioms you started out with. Moreover, when you start out by assuming different axioms on which to build, you get different sorts of mathematics as a result. And so, for example, there's Euclidean geometry and non-Euclidean geometries.

So what's left? Logic? Do you think, with Ayn Rand, that it's absolutely indisputable that "A is A" and can never be "not-A?" Why?

In fact, we think that A must always be A because that is and always and invariably has been our experience. No one has ever seen a square circle or a round triangle, for example. But can we absolutely rule out the possibility that we may encounter objects that we are unable to describe in any other way? If our devotion is really to facts and evidence, we cannot rule out such possibilities, however ridiculous they may seem to us. There are already physicists studying things that are at one and the same time both waves and particles, not to mention quantum fluctuations that they call "virtual particles," bits of matter that really aren't there at all. Not that there's anything in modern science that corresponds with the occult. But it is true that out on the frontiers of high-energy physics there are some fascinating things that test the very foundations of such elementary logical concepts as causality and identity.

So, as I said, it really does end with the fact that we simply prefer the habit or custom of organizing our experience in as simple a way as possible in order to form a coherent conception of the present. And we often do this without regard for how "crazy" or counterintuitive that conception may seem at times, as with things like relativistic and quantum physics.

Why? Because it's proven to be — again, relying simply on our experience and not on any logical necessity — a reliable starting point from which to extrapolate into the future. It "works," or, at least, it always has so far. Furthermore, no one has ever been able to come up with a workable alternative. Even trying to think of an alternative way of understanding the world, like supposing that the law of gravity will be suspended next Thursday, plunges us into an Alice-in-Wonderland unreality. Or, worse, into stark, raving, madness.

So if a freethinker has faith, it is a very simple faith. It is a faith that equates the organization of human experience and its extrapolation into the unknown of the future with what is proper and good. It is a faith that says that it is the right thing to prefer this simplest arrangement of our perceptions into what we call knowledge. From the ordinary observations that underpin facts and reason to the most complex systems of scientific theories, this is what it all stands on. This is what it's rooted in.

But we can go one step further, and that is to realize that what is proper and good, what is the right thing to prefer, and what allows us to live as the human beings we are, is truly not a faith at all. This is because, although the ground of rational human understanding cannot be justified by something else, it is self-justifying. For good is good for its own sake. What is right does not need any justification. Therefore, the principle which makes our reliance on facts and reason and the intelligible human understanding that flows from it possible is a moral principle. It's a moral principle which is, at the same time, the necessary and sufficient condition for us to live as human beings.

Now this formulation of the fundamental nature of human understanding has some interesting implications.

Firstly, it infuses all human understanding with a moral force. It dissolves that difficulty, raised by David Hume, of where an ought can come from what simply is. Because if, for example, we come to understand, as we have, that there are no essential differences that radically distinguish the races of humanity, or the sexes, or people with "noble" lineages and the like, then the fact that we all ought to respect each other as equals is already implicit in what we understand about what is.

Secondly, when the Tree of Knowledge is rooted in a moral principle, every appeal to departing from rational methods on moral grounds is exposed as a lie. Instead, the conditions are created whereby all arguments of a moral nature must rest on facts and reason. While relying on logic and evidence only as far as it is convenient, and then junking them for "faith" is shown for the hypocrisy and — where others are harmed as a result — the crime that it is.

Suppose, in other words, that someone were to say, "Well, facts and reason depend on faith too!"

The question that should now be put to that someone is, "Well, if it's true that facts and reason and scientific understanding require faith,' then you must have and endorse this sort of 'faith' too. After all, you do open doors before you walk through them, don't you? And you do suppose that when you put something in your pocket it will be there when you reach for it, don't you? And you do rely on all the modern technological conveniences that science has made possible, don't you? Given that you have this 'faith,' how exactly do you know when it's OK to throw it away and start relying on some other 'faith?' What justifies your arbitrary change in loyalties from such a demonstrably successful 'faith' that everyone must evidently rely on to some degree to this different 'faith' which cannot be demonstrated and is peculiar to your particular religion?"

If the someone is a Christian, as is often the case, it might also be useful to quote Matthew 12:25: " ... [a] house divided against itself shall not stand." That's a true statement by, the way, in a philosophical sense. Any time you have two or more principles, you can almost always come up with a scenario that pits them against each other. "No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other." (Matthew 6:24)

Thirdly, and finally, equating the basis of intelligible human understanding with a moral principle effectively accomplishes what has long needed to be done: it wrests morality away from superstition. It explains why, as William Kingdon Clifford said, and as we feel intuitively, that "It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."

It exposes religious "faith" for what it is: a deceitful and worthless fraud trying to pass for authentic human understanding. It explains why, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, "All faiths do harm ... [because] the substitution of emotion for evidence is apt to lead to strife, since different groups substitute different emotions. Christians have faith in the resurrection, Communists have faith in Marx's theory of value. Neither faith can be defended rationally, and each therefore is defended by propaganda and, if necessary, by war. ... [and] some of the most ferocious wars have been due to disputes between different kinds of Christianity."

And so, you see, we freethinkers can justifiably say to insistent believers: "Keep The Faith." Because we don't need it. They don't need it either, of course. But the nature of authentic understanding is such that, as we have had to find it for ourselves, so they will have to find it for themselves.

Thank You and Good Morning.

© 1996 by Tim Gorski