A Matter of Faith

It seems that recently one cannot open the newspaper without being immediately blasted by issues of religion and faith. These are charged and important topics since beliefs and standards of evidence in acquiring those beliefs play directly into how we live our lives and how we relate to other humans and communities. As such, it’s probably a good idea to spend some time trying to think clearly about the issues raised. This is what Grayling was trying to do whilst replying to something claimed in a report by the theology think tank Theos.

Grayling’s gripe was with a comment in the forward about atheism and faith. The authors claimed that atheism itself was a faith proposition and Grayling, in my eyes, rightly took issue with them. I think those that want faith to play a role in their lives tend to have two strategies for defending themselves against attacks mounted by non-believers. The first is an appeal to outrage and the second a tu quoque.

Perhaps one of the funniest things I’ve ever read on the issue of faith was a short passage dedicated to the subject in Jamie Whyte’s book Bad Thoughts. Here is a small chunk of it:

Rather than trying to obscure your prejudice, boldly declare it as a virtue. You have no reason to believe that you do, no evidence, no argument. Of course not. This is a matter Faith! Now you have captured the really high ground. Speak with a hushed and beseeching tone. Let the pain of your sincerity appear in small grimaces as you hold forth. Who but a philistine with no sense of the sacred, no respect for your deepest convictions, would expect you to provide evidence? (p26)

This is Plan A. You deploy Plan A if you believe something on no evidence and are unwilling to abandon the belief when presented with reason to do so. In the absence of evidence faith functions either to provide the requisite warrant for the belief or to deny that any warrant is needed in the first place. You don’t have to give up your belief because you have faith and this works either in the place of evidence or says that you can justifiably believe it without evidence. So, on being asked why you believe in an all powerful, all knowing and omnipresent being but can provide no evidence that would justifiably induce the belief in someone else, you claim it is a matter of personal faith.

But Plan A is coming under pressure from non-believers and is no longer cutting the proverbial mustard. The idea of taking things on faith has come to have scummy connotations; faith is becoming an epistemologically sinful concept. It’s time for a new course of action: Plan B. This plan is put into motion by putting the non-believers on the defensive. After all, isn’t attack the best form of defence? Yes! Here’s how it works:

Since you can’t abandon faith without also abandoning your belief in God you’re going to have to learn to live in sin. If Adam and Eve managed it then so can you. The beauty of the next move is to show that non-believers are in the same boat. To do this you’re going to be really clever and show that atheism is, unwittingly, also a faith proposition.

The fact that you have no evidence for the existence of God, yet believe in him irrespective, is constitutive of this being an issue of faith. The fact that they have no evidence against the existence of God (don’t worry about the argument from evil, just sweep it under the carpet) is going to work in the same way; it is constitutive of it being an issue of faith. Since atheists cannot reasonably induce in anyone the belief in the non-existence of God they are hoisted by their own smug petard. Smashing!

But the believer is mistaken here; this was Grayling’s original point. To be a theist is simply to lack positive evidence that would constitute grounds for a belief in the existence of God. Atheism, the belief in the non-existence of God, on the other hand, is formatted so as to be revised in the light of salient evidence. Were you to believe that there was no rhinoceros in the room, you’d certainly revise your belief, and be required to do so, on being shown one lurking in a dark corner. Just as in the above case, lack of positive reason to believe in God is a sufficient condition for not believing in his existence. But the position is not un-defeatable; it is, but only when the requisite evidence is presented, weighed and comes out on top. The fact that those of an atheistic bent are willing to revise when under epistemological pressure is exactly what makes it different from an issue of faith. To have faith is to detach belief from any evidential issue; belief becomes evidentially invariant. That is to say, no change in evidence brings about a change in belief. Atheism, by indexing belief on the evidence, does exactly the opposite.

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