The championship of faith/spirituality/emotions over logic/science/reason has a rich history. And it seems to be growing. The more we know about the universe, the more we are able to bend it to our will, the more the idea that science is a spiritually bankrupt pursuit becomes popular. The plot is now hackneyed: the hard thinking, scientific-minded, logical person struggles to overcome a problem. In doing so they learn that the universe doesn’t always function according to laws and that everything isn’t reducible to a mathematical equation. The problem is overcome and they have learned a valuable lesson – a lesson in faith. The X-Files‘ Dana Scully experienced this lesson approximately 376 times and I think it is yet to get through to her. We “logical, hard thinkers” can be awfully stubborn. (Incidentally, this Hollywood lesson in “what really matters” is very similar to another hackneyed moral that we are supposed to learn: that the rich are miserable and the poor are truly happy. But, that is a topic for another essay.)
However, what they really learned a lesson in is, to borrow a phrase from William James, the will to believe. The act of believing isn’t passive, it is exceedingly active. Believing is so inexorably intertwined with values and desires that it is nearly impossible to separate the two. It is striking that people so often believe to be true what they want to be true – an afterlife, karma, the death of a savior for their sins, astrology, a loving God, the inability of a lover to cheat on them etc. These beliefs are common and also incredibly convenient. Actually, it works the other way: they are common precisely because they are so convenient and, well, so nice. They are the beliefs we have faith in.
Lately, as I’ve been wondering through this world as an assertive intellectual, I’ve been running into a ridiculous phrase with increasing consistency. Well, actually it is one of many ridiculous phrases. It’s one of those pseudo-intellectual one-liners that insinuates itself into brains and is repeated until it reaches a monotonous drone. Many have come and gone in the past – fleeting cognitive fads like slap bracelets and the joke “Not!” For these fashionable pseudo-intellectual one-liners among my favorites have been, “communism looks good on paper,” “humans only use 10% of their brains,” and “Frasier is the smartest show on television.”
These statements are repeated endlessly without qualification and, usually, without attack. When the simple follow up “what do you mean by that?” is asked they dissolve like Alka-Seltzer – plop, plop; fizz, fizz. “Atheism is based on faith” is the newest terse vacuity that is driving me nuts.
The use of this phrase has grown concurrently with an increasing combative dualism in Christianity: a dualism to be both more about science and less about science. “Creation Science” and “Intelligent Design Theory” are just two examples of thoroughly non-scientific pursuits adopting the moniker of “science” to add credibility while entirely missing the central themes and aims of real science. However, ground is quickly lost when the force of actual science is turned against the Christian-pretenders version. They perform an about-face. An issue that was once, perhaps ten minutes ago in the conversation, about our ability to “scientifically prove” Christian beliefs suddenly becomes about the importance of faith – the importance of believing what cannot be proven. Now, it is the meaning of “proof” and “certainty” that becomes an issue.
It is around here in the conversation the fateful recrimination is often uttered: “Well, come onï¿½ Atheism is just based on faith too.” Counter. I ask, “what do you mean by that?” Parry and thrust. Plop, plop; fizz, fizz.
So what do they mean by that? Well, after the stammering, the redefinition, and the smoke-screens this recrimination boils down to this: Because atheists cannot damningly disprove God’s existence they can’t be sure that God doesn’t exist. But, they act so damn sure. Hell, you’ve been acting sure this whole debate. But you’re not, are you? Well, then you must create your certainty through faith. I embrace the existence of faith in my beliefs, you need to embrace yours.
Here we get one possible definition of faith:
Faith 1 – Acting like you’re certain of something, when you really aren’t certain of something.
I would agree that many atheists behave with more than a passing resemblance to religious (i.e. faith based) fervor. [Michael Newdow](http://www.restorethepledge.com/mike_newdow/), in his frantic fight to remove the word “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, has adopted a paternalistic and overbearing position that was once the near-exclusive realm of religious theocrats. Likewise, there are many “punk” atheists (my own name) who make a daily practice out of the heckling and overt derision of Christians – often going out of their way to do so. Atheism can become entangled with one’s identity in much the same way Christianity does. But, for most of these people they are more religiously anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment than they are “religiously” atheist. This is why their atheism so often comes bundled with many other conspicuously non-mainstream practices – i.e. punk/hardcore music, fanatic environmentalism, socialism/communism, and academia. Contrarianism is the alter these people pray at.
But, alas, it is true. No matter how fervent and in-your-face we act, we atheists aren’t certain God doesn’t exist. But, this is the nature of belief. Nearly all beliefs in your head – the exceptions being some very boring tautologies (i.e. all bachelors are unmarried men) that amount to little more than definition – are based on probability. (Arguments that God’s existence is itself tautological – i.e. the ontological proof – need not be explicitly addressed here. But, even if the ontological proof is true, it does little to comment on the nature of God, which is more important to Christian belief than His bare existence.) To believe that X is true is to believe that X has a higher probability of being true than not-X. To believe that God doesn’t exist is to believe that it is more likely God doesn’t exist than he does. This is likewise true of believing in God. Any honest atheist or theist would be able to embrace this fact – the fact that neither of them is certain about their beliefs. However, in an ideological war with high stakes, particularly with regards to ego, such concessions are rare. More often each side will cover up doubts with raised voices. Nothing brings out the fanatic-within more than an enthusiastic disputant. But, the theist calling the atheist a faith-based believer only serves to confuse the issue, ignore the obvious, and often anger the atheist. But, rather than getting angry, the atheist would do best to dissolve this unwarranted claim. Plop, plop; fizz, fizz.
You believe, I presume (and hope), that a human has written what you are reading now. You don’t believe that this essay was beamed down by aliens with the universe’s most powerful WiFi and submitted to this website under the name “Trevor Burrus.” However, are you certain? No. But, I suppose you would probably act fairly committed if your belief was called into question. Furthermore, saying you have “faith” that an alien didn’t write this essay would only obfuscate the issue and send an already complex and over-used term into a realm where it doesn’t belong.
No, acting certain when you aren’t is not what faith is. Faith is reserved for a very special type of belief – beliefs that are, at least in some interpretation, nice. This brings up a definition of faith that is much more accurate:
Faith 2 – When a probable belief is masqueraded as a certain belief due to a desire that the belief is true.
The term “faith” isn’t used for the undesirable. To clarify; take these statements as a helpful foil to the view of faith summed up in this definition: I have faith that we will lose tomorrow. I have faith that when I die I will be “worm food.” I have faith that our love isn’t forever. I have faith that there is no God. These statements border on the comically absurd. However, it is because they are so absurd that the desire-element of faith becomes so clear.
As any addict can tell you: beware of your desires, they will control you. But, we don’t need addicts to tell us this. As human beings living a daily life surrounded by the minutiae and the magnificent we are well aware that our desires can be dangerous and horribly misleading. When the prospects of an afterlife, or of a loving God, or that stars and planets influence our lives in predictable ways are dangled in front of our faces we all become like addicts – with the same feeble reasoning skills that come with addiction: “I don’t have a problem!” “I’m not addicted I just want one.” Self-delusion works overtime when our fervent desires are challenged. Because faith is so intertwined with desire it is an incredibly inadequate tool for understanding how the universe is. How you want the universe to be has absolutely no effect on how the universe actually is.
If it needs to be said: Why do we want true beliefs? Because true beliefs work. They allow us to achieve what we desire with palpable results. True beliefs make your desires actual, if they can be made actual. And, if they can’t be made actual – if I can’t put on a helicopter beanie and fly around the city – then we can economize our incredibly valuable time accordingly, putting effort towards the possible.
It is the nature of science to be able to bend to the actual. It is the nature of faith to ignore the actual. Science attempts to describe, as best it is able, the actual. Faith attempts to believe the desired.
People often ask me if I believe in miracles – amazing occurrences that break the laws of nature. I always answer in the negative. Anything that breaks the laws of nature only points out that the laws weren’t correct in the first place. Science updates its laws constantly – the most recent major example being the exchange of Newtonian physics for Relativity to account for “miracles” that didn’t fit Newton’s scheme. It is the beauty of science – the attractiveness that makes it infinitely more appealing than faith – that it is constantly trying to update, adjust, and prove itself wrong. The ability to change is precisely what makes science so different from faith and so much more helpful.
Many champions of faith will vehemently attack science for exactly this essential characteristic. “What is your science?” they’ll say accusingly. “Just 100 years ago you could’ve found scientists who believed blacks were inferior creatures. That’s your science for you.” It is instructive that they are judging science by a “faith-based” standard – one that judges the content and completeness of the “canon” of truths – rather than judging it by the procedural standard it should be held to. They apply their standards to the categorically inapplicable, analyzing everything as if it were a faith. Faith is a box out of which they cannot think. But science is a process, not a result; religious revelation, however, is a result, not a process. For whatever reason, they seem to be psychologically incapable of dealing with the glorious uncertainty of the journey of discovery – the one we travel as individuals and as a species. They want the destination, not the journey. In science, the journey is the destination. It may not have harps, angels and Saint Peter but it is pretty nice in its own right – and far less patently absurd (c’mon, harps?!?, angels?!?, Saint Peter?!?) The faithful want the whole truth without the wondering. I’d rather have the wondering without the whole truth.
Faith, however, would rather kill the naysayer than change. Literally. Burn them, imprison them, torture them, exile them, anything except letting them challenge their carefully coiffed world-view. Stop and think for just a moment how unbelievably ridiculous and dangerous this fact is. This attitude – “I want MY truth and you walking around wondering about the world is getting in MY way and making me ask questions I’m afraid of asking” – is the hallmark characteristic of faith. It is this hallmark characteristic that lets people fly planes into buildings.
We should be aware of our most fervent desires. We should be aware that they have the power to both make us and break us. What the facts actually are should be our first concern when we embark on the quest to try and get what we want from the universe – in other words, living. It is true that the facts usually give us little to raise our fists about – little with which to compose epic works of beauty or, equally important, commit horrendous acts of destruction. The facts may be cold and heartless but it is our job to give them heart and warmth – not to manufacture “facts” that, conveniently, come with heart and warmth included.