Faith vs. Belief

In my previous Agnostic Extremists post, I discussed how atheism is not a faith—or if it is, then every other belief is a faith too, including the belief of these “agnostics” that we can never know whether God exists or not. And as I pointed out in that thread, this makes the word “faith” utterly meaningless. So to clear up this confusion, it seems we need to figure out exactly what faith is.

I think the central problem here is that theists—and theistic apologists—like to use the words “faith” and “belief” pretty much interchangeably, as if they mean the same thing. But they do not. It is true that all faith is a form of belief; however, it is not true that all belief is a form of faith. Faith is in fact a subset of belief: it is believing in something primarily because you want to believe in it—even to the point of denying the facts, or at least twisting them to suit your chosen belief system. But if you believe in something simply because that’s what the facts indicate, that isn’t faith at all.

This begs the obvious question though: how do we know whether somebody believes in something because they want to, or because of what the facts tell them? First of all, we need to determine a reasonable and logical starting point for establishing this. Common sense dictates that we should start with the assumption that something doesn’t exist until its existence is proven, at least to a reasonable certainty—and this is especially true when we are dealing with an extraordinary claim. For example, we don’t really need to prove that we have great grandparents, even though many of us have never seen them. The mere fact that we exist demonstrates to a reasonable certainty that our great grandparents must have existed as well. On the other hand, if I were to tell you there was a monster standing behind you, what would you do? You would turn around and look of course. If you see there isn’t any monster behind you, but I keep insisting there is, what would you say to me? You would demand that I prove it of course! No reasonable person would expect you to have to try and disprove there is a monster standing behind you—that would be totally nonsensical and ridiculous.

And so it should be with God. Indeed, God must surely be the most extraordinary claim ever made by anyone: a being who exists outside of the laws of our universe—and indeed the universe itself—who was powerful enough to create it, yet is incapable of destroying evil. A being who (according to most religions) controls everything that happens within the universe at all times, yet is incapable of ending pain and suffering. Indeed, if God created everything, then logically he must have created evil, pain and suffering as well—including the “free will” to do evil and inflict pain and suffering on others, which Christians say he gave us. A God who is all-powerful, all-seeing and all-knowing, yet who is evidently also highly incompetent, or cruel! You don’t need “faith” to not believe in something so unbelievable—yet it obviously does require an enormous leap of faith to believe in such a God!

So if the idea of God is so ridiculous, then why do so many people believe in it? Fundamentally, because of our most deep-seated fear—death (which is derived from our strongest animal instinct—survival). We desperately want to believe we don’t really die, yet we all know we do, so we want to think of it as merely a transition to a much better “afterlife”—eternal paradise. This naturally leads us to want to believe our suffering in this life is for some kind of “higher purpose”, and that we will be rewarded for it when we die. This in turn means we desire to know the meaning of our existence—we need to know how we came to be here, and for what purpose. And we are so desperate to fulfil these needs, that we are willing to believe in a concept as otherwise nonsensical as God to satisfy them.

Clearly then, God is something we desperately want to believe in. This is why so many of us are able to suspend our normal faculties of reason, so that we can believe in something that—under any other circumstances—would surely be considered laughable. If you do believe in God, consider for a moment how you laugh at religions other than your own—an atheist simply takes this to its logical conclusion, and feels the same way about all religions. This attitude is not faith—indeed, it is the very antithesis of faith. An atheist has to actively fight against their own deepest fears and instincts to reject a belief in God. An atheist has to accept the fact that death really is death, and that their existence does not have any “higher meaning”. This is acceptance of the cold, hard facts, in spite of what you want to believe in. So atheism really is not faith at all—it is in fact the complete opposite!

Right about now, I’m sure any theists reading this will be thinking something like the following:

That’s all well and good, but that’s so empty and depressing. If God didn’t create the universe, then how did we get here? If we don’t go to heaven when we die, then why be good? And if there’s no higher meaning to our existence, then why bother living at all?

And so on and so forth. Quite apart for the fact that wanting something to be true obviously doesn’t make it true, one of the biggest surprises I’ve had since becoming an atheist is that I am happier than I’ve ever been, and my life feels more meaningful than it ever has before. The reasons for this—and the answers to these questions—will be the subjects of several future posts!

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A very good post. Perhaps agnostics are simply weak-willed and can’t overcome their natural impulse to believe that they’ll live forever, somehow, because they’ve lived this long. Rather like the guy who fell off the 100 storey building and, as he whizzed past each floor, was heard declaring: ‘So far so good!’

Depressing to think, though, that so much mental effort (not to mention blood and tears) has been expended on religion, when people can live happy, fulfilled lives without it.

  
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Well Sachiko, as you know from scanlover, I was raised a Quaker preacher’s son, who was mandated from birth to become a Minister.

Fortunately or unfortuately, I was born, faithless.

As far back as I can remember, I have never had what is commonly known as, faith.

Yes, it took a long time for me to sort this out, but I have never had any desire to have faith of any type, nor to any degree.

I have fought this Faith vs No Faith Battle for some 40+ years now, and I can only say that your comments about Faith… Hit the nail on the head.

Very well stated young lady!

  
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Hi Sachiko,
I actually joined the blog because of your interesting contributions to the wider debate on religion. I very much agree with your concern to point out the irrational grounds that religious faith is based on. But I tend to feel that you are maybe giving short shrift to agnosticism, which I would define as neither accepting a belief that there is a God, or a belief that is no such thing as a God (I have the feeling that is much the same as your own sense of agnosticism). I think the question here concerns what it takes to establish something as a fact. I would want to argue that absolute facts, or absolute truth, can be very elusive. I think we can gather evidence to make a case that contention A is probably true and contention B is probably untrue, but it can be more difficult to absolutely prove or disprove something. You put together a darned good case for strongly doubting the existence of a God. But can you produce actual hard evidence that God does not exist? It seems to me that is a question of a different order and it is impossible to give an authoritative answer to it. I seem to recall that even Einstein qualified the theory of relativity to the extent that he confined its application to known space. I hope that explains why I lean more towards agnosticism than atheism.

The issue that concerns me more about religion is not so much whether or not there is a God, but rather the way it is used by temporal power structures, whether governments, or clerical organisations. These organisations use what we both agree are extremely dubious contentions to justify all sorts of political manipulation, violence and so forth. In the end I agree with most of what you write, so I hope you will excuse my quibbles over agnosticism.
Best wishes,
Papayaman

  
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Hi papayaman,

Thanks for your comments. No, I cannot prove God does not exist. But it is actually quite difficult to prove anything does not exist, which is why we have to start with the logical assumption of non-existence until existence is proven. The point I am trying to make in this post is that I don’t have to disprove the existence of God, and it is unreasonable and illogical to expect me or anybody else to do so. No one would require any other claim as extraordinary as God to be disproven; the question of the existence of God should logically be treated in the same way as every other claim.

Oh, and thanks for your comments too OldiesLover and valdemar!

  
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Sachiko, Your question, “So if the idea of God is so ridiculous, then why do so many people believe in it?,” is one inwhich has puzzled me for years.

In my younger Atheist days, I would argue and argue with those of faith, which studies show to be over 90% of the population these days, in a vain attempt to get them to see the light… so to speak.

All I got was frustrated and high blood pressure. I have never gotten a person of so-called faith, to change their mind, and I tried numerous times. Very rarely these days, though.

At the same time, all I have to do is mention that I’m faithless, especially to a supposed born-againer… and I’m in for a pile of BS that won’t end until I simply, walk away.

My take on Agnostic is a little different than yours. When I say I’m an Agnostic, it usually means, “No, I’m tired of arguing this craziness, leave me alone.” I kinda think of an Agnostic and a Burnt-Out Atheist.

Anyways, without getting all scientific here, I believe there’s something called a “Faith Gene.” I believe faith is coded into our DNA as a response to some 70,000+ years of human tribal development.

As Ayn Rand would say, 1000′s of years listening to the Chief and The Witch Doctor.

http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=index

  
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Hi OldiesLover,

I agree that a lot of “agnostics” are probably just atheists who don’t want to argue with anyone. :-)

Lee has actually converted a few people to atheism in his time (including me!), although it’s always a pretty slow process. So hopefully with him editing my posts, I might be able convert a few as well!

The “faith gene” idea is an interesting one, but I still think people’s tendancy to religion is mostly societal. With the interesting exception of the US, in general the higher a country’s socio-economic status and level of education is, the less religious it is. The majority of people in the Scandinavian countries are atheist, for example, and they are probably the countries with the highest per capita standard of living and level of education in the world. They also have some of the lowest crime rates (plus they are the most socially progressive countries), which I don’t think is any coincidence at all!

  
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The faith gene iis not a comforting idea.

Consider – a future regime in, say, America is dominated by Christian fundamentalists. It learns that a genetic test can identify people who are simply never going to be ‘saved’, no matter what you say or do to them. Gosh, I what such a regime might do to such genetic obdurates? And of course a charlatan could easily offer such a regime a fake genetic test that would – hey presto! – always work on dissidents.

I think I’ve just inadvertently outlined a scenario for a movie. Any takers?

  
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Wittgenstein said: “There is only what can be empirically proven or demonstrated. Everything else is just metaphysics and wishful thinking.” I think there’s a part of human nature that impels us to a belief in something which transcends our everyday existence, even if we cannot put a name on it. You can glimpse it during a really good performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Mahler’s last three symphonies. It goes beyond the awe and wonder of that which we cannot explain. If we reduce all of life to only what is logically demonstrable or what can be represented mathematically, then Beethoven becomes nothing more than notes and rests on a page and Shakespeare is reduced to “Words, words, words…” Life, under those circumstances is hardly worth living.
There’s something quite admirable about the character of Tarrou in Camus’ “The Plague,” when he says: “My goal, my ambition, if you will, is to become a saint in a godless universe.”
We are all born with a sense of incompleteness and emptiness. This is what impels us to form “relationships” in an attempt to complete ourselves or fill up the emptiness inside ourselves. Religion provides that for some people and I have no problem with that. What I take issue with is when their “belief system” impels them to act in a manner contradictory to their own beliefs.
Freud said that civilization only exists because there is a common consent that society SHOULD proscribe certain behaviors, which we can commonly agree are destructive. Like it or not, these bear an eery resemblance to the Ten Commandments: “Honor thy father and thy mother; thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not bear false witness…” etc. And these social proscriptions seem to be common to almost all cultures. Is there an innate human impulse to ethical behavior?
I don’t know. I don’t know why I cry at the end of “The Song of the Earth,” but I’m glad I do. I don’t think knowing why would enhance my life at all.

  
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Welcome Firefly!

Originally Posted By Firefly
What I take issue with is when their “belief system” impels them to act in a manner contradictory to their own beliefs.

Problem is, when people believe in something that is inherently false and contradictory (such as religion), then this is absolutely inevetible and unavoidable.

As to why we have developed similar “ethical” behaviours across many different cultures, the answer is really very simple: we are social animals, so evolution has compelled us to develop behaviours that reinforce the structure of our society. This is necessary for our survival, both as individuals and as a species. A more detailed discussion of this will be the subject of a future post!

  
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Oh, regarding your point about music, I don’t see any reason to have to over-analyse this (unless you want to of course!). If something makes you feel good – and you aren’t hurting anybody else by doing it – then just enjoy it! If you want to try and analyse exactly why it makes you feel good, go right ahead. But you don’t have to ruin your enjoyment through such analysis if you don’t want to!

  
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@Sachiko – Umm… how do we define “over-analyse”? A certain amount of analysis is necessary to establish any kind of critical criterion, or else Beethoven is on the same level with Britney Spears, since they both produce “music,” which is absurd.
One could also argue that this discussion is an over-analysis of belief. I think we can safely say that George W. Bush is “immoral” and a hypocrite since he claims to be a “Christian” but insists on behaving in a thoroughly non-Christian manner. Cheney, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to believe in anything and is, therefore, “amoral” instead, and in that sense, more dangerous.
In a broader context, what does “religion” mean itself? It derives from the Latin “ligio,” meaning to link, and “re,” meaning back. Therefore, religion is a means by which we link backwards to our ancestors in a common cultural heritage. Hence, “established religions” are as old as civilization itself, as a means of establishing both legitimacy of governance and what is socially “evil” and unacceptable. Historically, “religion” has always been involved in politics, and to the detriment of both. As Machiavelli pointed out, we would hope that “the prince” would always be motivated by a sense of ethics, but there are times when statecraft simply preempts this. The imposition of strictly religious issues into the political arena, therefore, corrupts both religion and politics.
In that sense, I’m not so much anti-religious as I am anti-clerical. Everybody has an agenda, and the more committed they are to that agenda, the more we should suspect their motives. As Yeats put it: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

  
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Originally Posted By Firefly
@Sachiko – Umm… how do we define “over-analyse”? A certain amount of analysis is necessary to establish any kind of critical criterion, or else Beethoven is on the same level with Britney Spears, since they both produce “music,” which is absurd.

I guess what I mean is, analysis to the point that we can no longer enjoy what we are analysing! I am very much a “feel” kind of person, so I don’t do much of this myself. On the other hand, Lee is an absolute music fanatic, yet he enjoys analysing it – unlike me, he can’t play anything at all, but he really knows music. But in his case, it enhances his enjoyment, rather than detracting from it.

  
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dear Sachiko,

are you familiar with the important 20th century freethinker Joseph McCabe?

http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/joseph_mccabe/

he is very inspirational to me and I think many of his writings are still very relevant. While I think he made an enormous error of judgemental about Stalin and Soviet communism, I still believe his is one fo the greatest atheist-rationalist thinkers in history.

  
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Thanks Doug – I have to admit I am not familiar with him, but I will definitely investigate further!

  
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I especially recommend his “A BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF ANCIENT, MEDIEVAL, AND MODERN FREETHINKERS” i have learned a lot from it.

I think it is sad that he fawned over cruel tyrants like Lenin and Stalin and supported Communist Russia. He think he was excited by their atheistic forms of government and lost sight of the facts.

But his writings on the origin of morals, and his critiques of christianity and particularly the catholic church are amazing to me.

Sachiko, where are all the other beautiful women like you that I can talk to about these intelligent topics??? :)

  
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Thanks Doug! I think there are a lot of very intelligent women out there (at least amongst Asians), but they aren’t encouraged to express it openly and freely. Hopefully I can help to change that. :-)

  
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Super woman, you are exceptionally lucid. We observe many who are good without God, and many who are bad with God. Belief does not protect us from evil or misfortune. God just doesn’t appear to be the most essential ingredient. Surely he would be, if He actually existed!

  
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Thanks for your compliments Mark! However, as I’ve mentioned before, the lucidity of my articles is at least partly down to the exceptional editing of my webmaster Lee, so I can’t take all of the credit. :-)

  
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