Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Faith Trap

It's considered an essential virtue in many religions, without which salvation cannot be attained. Believers often talk about wanting more of it, strengthening it, trying not to lose it, and even criticise others for not having enough of it.

But what is faith? And what does it mean to have more or less of it?

Let's take a closer look...

What is faith?

Everyone defines faith slightly differently, so I want to make it clear that I'm not going to try to cover every definition. I'm only going to look at one definition (and variations of it).

The Bible's definition of faith is as follows:
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see.
Hebrews 11:1 NET

On the surface this seems to be suggesting that to have faith that God exists is to be completely convinced that God exists. Further, if you read through the rest of the chapter, it provides many examples where people were completely convinced of their beliefs. In many cases they seemed to be convinced (enough to risk or sacrifice their lives) despite not having what we might consider sufficient evidence.

But other uses of the word "faith" throughout the Bible and in modern language do not support this view. For example, in the gospels, Jesus refers to people having "little faith". Several passages talk about the need to strengthen one's faith. And in modern vernacular, the idea of a weak or strong faith seems to refer to one's level of certainty or confidence that something is true.

If faith meant being completely certain, then it would be binary. You would either have it or you wouldn't. But since the Bible and modern believers refer to faith as something you can have more or less of, it follows that faith is more like a measure of confidence in a belief or claim. Thus it would not be a contradiction for someone to say they had some faith that God exists, but were not entirely convinced. The Bible seems to hold only criticism for such "weak" faith, but I would consider someone's admission of doubt far more honest and thus highly commendable.

Hebrews 11 seems to be at odds with the view that faith is more like a measure of confidence, and I will return to the Hebrews 11 view in just a moment.

What does it mean to increase in faith?

Using our above definition, increasing in faith would mean increasing in confidence that a particular claim (or set of claims) is true. I think this is consistent with what people really do mean when they talk about increasing their faith.

Likewise when someone discovers information that triggers doubt about existing beliefs, they may describe it as a loss of faith. In reality they may have actually gained information and perspective, but it can be difficult to see it that way at the time.

How does one increase their faith?

One way to increase one's level of confidence that a claim is true would be to discover new evidence that supports it. However, this is not the only way to increase faith. It seems that a person can increase in faith simply by being surrounded by others who agree with them. Having the same claim repeated multiple times can also increase someone's faith. Continual reinforcement of an idea, particularly if it is done since childhood, is sufficient to both produce and increase faith that the idea is true.

The critical point to note here is that how confident a person feels that a claim is true has no bearing at all on whether the claim is in fact true. It also need not depend on the quality of the evidence either. It is possible for a person to be fully confident that a claim is true, when in fact it is not true.

In some cases, evidence does not even factor in. In other cases, the evidence may be ambiguous, but a person may be biased and thus feel that certain evidence is conclusive when in fact it is not. Or they may feel confident that a claim is true due to only being aware of evidence that has been highly cherry-picked (perhaps unbeknown to them).

It is also possible (and common) for someone to hold a firm conviction in something they were taught since childhood, merely because they trust the person or people who taught them. They are then likely to pass on the same belief to their own children. Unless this cycle is deliberately broken, this can result in false ideas being perpetuated across several generations.

If we care at all about truth, we should attempt to question and research everything we were taught, regardless of who taught us. They were probably not deliberately lying, but may have been mistaken, especially if they never questioned it themselves. We should also teach our children the value of questioning things and discovering truth for themselves. It is also important to discuss and reason about our views with other people, in case they can provide insights we may have missed. Together we can venture closer to truth, which I believe provides many benefits both individually and to society.

The faith of Hebrews 11

The grand theme of Hebrews 11 is that faith is something that can provide sure hope and confidence in a belief or idea for which we do not have conclusive evidence. If there was conclusive evidence, we wouldn't call it "faith". It would be considered "knowledge" instead. Hebrews 11 is full of examples of people taking sometimes-heroic actions despite a lack of evidence in front of them. In many cases it says they believed they would be rewarded in an afterlife for doing so.

It seems common for people to argue that the faith of Hebrews 11 is like a kind of trust. That is, these people trusted what God had told them and it is that trust that carried them through. Perhaps that trust had previously been confirmed in some small miracle, and so they trusted that God would fulfil promises of a much greater one. I think this idea is probably sound in the (literary) context of this chapter, but it's difficult to translate it into a modern context.

It's not clear whether these biblical characters actually did receive unambiguous confirmation from a deity, or whether their trust was in fact misplaced. If modern believers claim to have received some revelation directly from a deity in an unambiguous way, then that needs to be demonstrated. However, if modern believers merely trust that some information they have actually originated from a deity, then they need to show how they reached that conclusion, and think very carefully about whether they are mistaken. The fact that many believers feel the same way about other holy books should provide a strong case for doubt.

Before one can have complete confidence that a deity has spoken directly to them, or even that a deity exists, one must first consider any alternative explanations. Given that it is far easier to fool oneself into thinking that a deity exists, rather than that a deity actually exists, it seems far more reasonable to maintain some level of doubt or uncertainty until conclusive evidence becomes available. In the same way, given that it is far more likely, and more common, for people to claim that a deity spoke to or through them, rather than for a deity have actually spoken through them, it again seems far more reasonable to be skeptical of any such claims.

Is faith virtuous?

But what about the idea of persevering in a belief despite a lack of conclusive evidence or even opposing evidence? Hebrews 11 appears to hold this as virtuous, but would it be considered virtuous for people of other religions to do this? Hardly.

If you are encouraged to hold onto a belief even when the evidence overwhelmingly doesn't support it (or worse, points the other way), how could this be considered a good thing? This idea would support gullibility, and could result in people believing any number of crazy ideas for which the evidence is weak or non-existent. How could such an idea lead to truth? It instead assumes that one already has truth ahead of time (how was that determined?), and completely closes the mind to alternatives.

If you wouldn't condone such strong conviction in the face of contradictory evidence from people in other religions, then you shouldn't condone it in your own religion either. Rather, everyone should be always open to new evidence, and be prepared to change their views accordingly as appropriate. This is simply the intellectually honest thing to do.

Is faith blind?

There is another popular modern definition of faith as simply "belief without any evidence", but I have heard so many believers disagree with that definition that I don't think it is representative enough. This kind of faith is typically called "blind faith", and even many believers seem to accept that blind faith is not really distinguishable from self-deception, and therefore not desirable. One could in theory have blind faith that there are large, purple unicorns on the moon. It's not of much use when it comes to determining what is real.

But what about faith that extrapolates beyond the available evidence? What about faith that offers conviction where the evidence is not conclusive, or where alternative explanations exist? Surely such faith is at least partially blind, in that it seeks to hold firmly to a conclusion that may in fact be false?

It's easy to think of scenarios where this kind of "faith" would not be justified nor recommended. For example, if a judge did not have enough evidence to prove a suspect guilty, but instead had "faith" that the suspect was guilty, should this judge be allowed to deliver a guilty verdict based on that faith? I think not. In such cases, clearly conclusive evidence is superior to faith.

Is faith reliable as a method for finding truth?

Is it possible for someone to have strong faith in a claim that is not in fact true?

Clearly, yes, it is possible.

As a Christadelphian, or a member of any faith-based religion, you would agree that people in other religions also have faith in things you believe to be false.

So clearly faith is not necessarily reliable. But can it be reliable at all?

Imagine a table upon which is a sealed, opaque, solid wooden box. Your task is to correctly identify what is in the box. You must choose only one of the following methods:

  1. You may use faith to determine what is inside the box.
  2. You may open the box and look inside.
Which of these methods do you think would be the most reliable?

Clearly the second method would be more reliable than merely using faith. Faith in this case would be no better than merely guessing, which is obviously unreliable. I would even accept prayer as a substitute for option 1 and nothing would change. You are encouraged to test this as many times as you like.

Based on this same reasoning I would argue that observation and experiment is always superior and more reliable than faith for determining what is true regarding reality. By contrast, faith is demonstrably unreliable.

But what about claims we cannot test? For example, what about the existence of God? Or what about miracle claims?

Well, all we need to do is return to the example above and ask a simple question:

Would the reliability of option 1 be affected at all by the removal of option 2?

And the answer to that is clearly 'no'.

Therefore, faith is no more reliable for untestable claims than it is for testable ones. And since it is demonstrably unreliable for testable claims, we can conclude that it is unreliable for untestable claims as well.

By the way, I was generous in the above example by suggesting a wooden box. Since such boxes are real, and finite in size, we would have a head start because we could have some idea of the kinds of objects that might fit in such a box, and the kinds of objects that would be likely to be in such a box. Since faith is essentially nothing more than a guess, we would expect faith to produce correct results no more often than blind chance. This could be tested via experiment, and I would be fairly confident of the results.

But suppose we didn't know what the box was made of, how big it was, or even if it was made of atoms (i.e. normal physical matter). Suppose there was a near infinite range of hypothetical possibilities for what could be in the box. When it comes to faith in things that might exist beyond our knowledge of reality, this is about where you stand. Do you really think faith is going to produce reliable results? How confident are you that you guessed correctly?

Why is faith required at all?

Having determined above that faith is inherently unreliable, it seems that it would be a poor choice for trying to determine what is really true in our world. We have a far better method available for that, namely the scientific method (or observation and experimentation).

As demonstrated above, the use of faith would almost never arrive at truth. The fact that most faith-based claims are also not testable only means we don't even know how badly we missed the mark.

So why would the Bible (and other religious texts) require faith and value it so highly?

I offer you two possible suggestions:
  1. God wants to reward only those lucky enough to guess correctly in a sea of possibilities with unknown probability (also highly influenced by and correlated with the beliefs of their parents and the country in which they were born).
  2. Those who wrote the Bible did not actually have any solid evidence that their god was real (though they almost certainly believed it), and insisted on the use of faith.
Perhaps there are more, but I think the point is pretty clear. The situation we are in matches exactly what we would expect if the Bible and other holy books were not actually inspired.

Just have faith? In what?

I have often been told by believers that "you just have to have faith", or "that's why faith is required". It's like the ultimate "get out of jail free" card when they've run out of evidence.

The thing is, most religions demand the same thing, and so there's no way to determine which of these untestable claims might be true.

Also, at this point, if we've reached the end of the evidence trail, surely any "faith" component that is needed to cover the shortfall would be decidedly "blind", no?

In these circumstances, I see the following options:
  1. Despite inconclusive evidence, jump to one's preferred conclusion anyway, and call it "faith".
  2. Withhold belief until conclusive evidence is found. In the meantime, any belief is tentative, and only as far as the available evidence reaches. Anything beyond that is speculative and an appropriate degree of uncertainty should be adopted.
It is a little disconcerting how many believers rush to option 1 here.

The analogy I like to use is that of evidence being the narrow, solid path you're walking along when forming beliefs and at its edge is a steep drop. In addition, the path is often surrounded by thick fog, representing how little we actually know. We are still discovering where the path goes. In this analogy, science at least provides fog-lights. Where I prefer to stop at the edge and search for more solid evidence, believers appear to adopt the faith option and gleefully leap over the edge, all the while believing they are on solid ground. When forming beliefs about our reality I can't see a good reason to prefer option 1 over option 2. Beliefs should follow evidence.

Reality does not conform to what we believe. Beliefs should be subject to reality. Sometimes I am not sure whether everyone understands that.

You are free to believe what you like, and have faith if you must, but reality does not care. You can step off a tall building with all the faith in the world and gravity will still do its thing. I don't recommend you try. You could claim that it wasn't God's will for you to fly, and I could claim it was Zeus's will that you didn't. It's always rather convenient that the will of the gods just happens to align with the laws of physics.

Where to from here?

In this article I have shown why faith is unreliable and is a very poor choice of method for determining what is true in reality.

If you really want to know what is true, you need to ask better questions. You probably already have a good idea of how to determine whether claims made by another religion are true. It's time to point that skepticism at your own beliefs. The goal isn't to attack your beliefs or tear it down. The goal is to determine what is true and enrich your world view. If your beliefs are not true, then why continue believing them?

Faith cannot provide answers. It only offers guesses at answers. It also often stifles further questions, which only prevents you from discovering truth.

Rather than use faith, try just following the evidence, and asking questions. It's ok to accept that you don't know everything. Accept the limits of your knowledge, and be honest about what you don't know. It's perfectly ok to be uncertain about lots of things. Life is inherently uncertain. It's just honest to accept and admit it.

Faith only offers a false sense of certainty. The feeling of certainty has no bearing on what is true. People of other religions feel just as certain about their faith-based beliefs as you do about yours.

If you are convinced about something where the evidence is inconclusive, what makes you so convinced? What makes you sure you're not just deceiving yourself?

How do you tell the difference between faith and self-deception?


  1. I was interested by your question about the examples in Hebrews 11, and whether the characters had any reason to believe. Thinking about it, I can see a disturbing level of hindsight justification and "the end justifies the means". Take for example the case of Moses. If he had been caught and killed at three months or after killing the Egyptian, probably no-one would have been writing about his great faith. How do we know the faith was right? Because it ended up successful. Good for Moses, much harder to apply today.

    But it's interesting, because I think similar reasoning does happen today: this decision ended up going right, so it must be the will of God and have been done through faith. However, it is rarer for people to accept the reverse (this decision ended up going badly, so it mustn't have been done by faith).

    1. So taking risks may or may not pay off, and here's a list of people for whom it paid off (allegedly).

      It's also a bit circular if you consider that probably no one was motivated to write about the more mundane stories and events. The content that made it into the Bible (and wasn't edited out) was the stuff they wanted to keep and remember. Essentially it was the highlights (and lowlights) - whatever was significant.

      We don't tend to read about "By faith Harold prayed for prosperity but things continued much the same as before". Those ones don't make headlines, and so the numbers of "by faith" stories with a positive outcome are perhaps artificially inflated.


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