Can Faith Ever Be Rational?

The question was posed here: Can Faith Ever Be Rational?

Rational: agreeable to reason; reasonable; sensible; having or exercising reason, sound judgment, or good sense; of, pertaining to, or constituting reasoning powers: the rational faculty.

Faith: confidence or trust in a person or thing; belief that is not based on proof or evidence; belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion.


Let’s get the equivocating use of the term faith as trust out of the way first, which is what the cited Buchak paper gets into with:

Buchak characterizes faith as a commitment to acting as if some claim is true without first needing to examine additional evidence that could potentially bear on the claim.

Oh, you mean like the terrorists that act in the name of some faith, before actually checking if the foundation of their faith is supported by evidence? Right.

Trust can be rational. Trust is something you learn, as when you learn to trust your spouse. You can be wrong, or, you could be right but later turn out to be wrong because your spouse was trustworthy for some time but then changed.

And we cannot fact-check everything for ourselves. Indeed part of the scientific method works because we cannot rely on our personal fact-checking all the time, because we have biases, and fallible senses, and fallible reasoning capacity. So, when experiments are carried out and reported we come to trust a particular scientific claim. Or we come not to trust it. Either way we adapt our trust according to how the claims stand up to scrutiny. We do not trust blindly and unconditionally, but carefully, with experience.

We can come to trust a source, a scientists, an establishment, which becomes an authority – but this must always be tempered by the possibility of error or fraud, and so in turn we come to trust the other scientists who check the source. Trust in sources can be lost – and sometimes is dramatically lost, when some scientists turns out to have been fraudulent in many of his published papers. This loss of trust can be inconvenient in science. It can even be catastrophic, as when the Soviet Union put their trust in Trofim Lysenko – it would not be unreasonable to call this an example of blind faith rather than trust.

So this trust isn’t a universal locked-in trust. Trust can be revoked, if evidence comes to light that that suggests we should give up that trust.

We tend to trust doctors, because we know they are well trained professionals that are dedicated to maintaining or improving our wellbeing. But we can lose trust in doctors when they fail us. They are fallible humans, and so even the very best intentioned of them can make mistakes. It is unfair to have unconditional faith in doctors. They should generally be trusted, but with caution befitting of your own concern for your own wellbeing. If you have a minor ailment, trust them by all means. If it’s a life and death decision, ask for a second opinion.

So, generally, “I trust my doctor”, is a pretty reasonable and rational statement. But to be more accurate it should be stated as, “I trust my doctor, to a degree, and cautiously, being ready to adapt my trust in the face of my experiences with my doctor.” This is quite rational.

What about when a religious person says something like, “I trust the Lord Jesus.” Isn’t that the same kind of trust? The use of the word trust here is misleading. The problem is that it’s faith that has brought this believer to suppose there is actually a Jesus to trust. If Christianity were true in all its claims then it would be rational to trust Jesus, until such time that Jesus lets you down – which of course according to the fairy tale wouldn’t happen.

A similar statement to “I trust the Lord Jesus,” is “I trust in the Lord Jesus,” and when phrased like that we start to see the way in which simple rational trust in the character of a reliable person is morphing into the faith in both the character and the existence of a divine person. This is how religious rhetoric dupes people. Vagueness, equivocation, duplicity are the tools of religious rhetoric.

Religious Faith

When the question, “Is it rational?”, is asked of faith, the method by which a belief is maintained, then no, faith is not rational at all. Faith is the antithesis of rationality. Faith is what you use when you want to believe something, or are otherwise driven to hold a belief, when there is no reason or evidence to support the belief. And faith can result in belief in spite of counter evidence and reason.

When the question is asked, it may be asked of ‘a faith, a system of belief, such as Christianity or Islam. So, can Christianity be rational? Can Islam be rational? Well, they can contain elements of reason, rationality, in the arguments put forward to support them, but that does not make them consequentially rational.

It is not necessarily important how the belief is first acquired. For example, it might be that someone who starts to examine a belief is persuaded by some arguments for it. When examined thoroughly by someone more capable at analysing claims the arguments may not be at all persuasive. But it would be unfair to say that someone new to the belief, or someone who has not examined it well, is acting without reason, being irrational, just because they are persuaded by a poor argument. They might be trying to be rational, but are simply failing.

Many Christians may be persuaded by the arguments of someone like C. S. Lewis, or William Lane Craig, or Alvin Plantinga.

The problem for someone first persuaded by these conjurors of religious apologetics arises when they become so convinced that they stop using reason and turn to faith as the final arbiter of what they believe. They have been persuaded by these poor apologists and now take their word, on faith.

Often the arguments of the apologists contain assertions that one should use faith. The trouble is that once you do resort to faith your reasoning capacity has become limited, because faith is always supposed to override, surmount, or be better than reason. This is what religions rely on. This is how they lock people in, by first infecting them and then making them resistant to reason. Religions are viral, in that the persuasively rhetorical story is coughed up verbatim in order to infect others. One poor sap passes it on to another, quoting the supposed ‘brilliant’ apologists, and that second sap soaks it up and passes it on in turn. They never get around to actually improving their critical thinking skills and re-analysing the poor arguments of the apologists.

The basic lock-in rhetoric can be summarised by the following Simplified Bible claims, that represents how holy books work.

Simplified Bible

God exists.

This book contains the true and inerrant word of God.

God requires that you have faith in Him, and in his words as contained in this book.

When your belief is challenged by reason and evidence, this is the work of Satan tempting you, so beware, and maintain your faith.

Of course the intelligent faithful would not usually be conned by such a simplistic book. All the elaborate stories of holy books are constructed so as to be persuasive, much more persuasive than this. They are appealing to believers, in that the nice stories suck them in, with all the hope and promise; but they also add threats of damnation just to make sure you prefer the warm and cosy message. Clever carrot and stick rhetoric. They have had thousands of years to hone their persuasive books.

But the logic of the above simplified holy book is not much different than this:

Liar’s Bible

This book was written by a truthful person and not a liar. Honestly!

Believe anything the author of this book tells you.

When your belief is challenged by someone using reason and evidence, then that is the work of a liar tempting you, so beware, and maintain your faith in this trutheful book and its truthful author.

So, a liar has written a book in such a way that tries to lock you in. It uses these components:

  • The author claims to be honest, or claims to be revealing words provided by an honest entity (an imaginary God).
  • The book claims that the book is true and that the liar is honest.
  • It also warns you of naysayers, stating in fact that the naysayers are the liars.

So, if another person comes along and says, “I know the guy that wrote that. He’s a liar, and has written that book to con you, to control you.” Well, your Liar’s Bible has a defence for that. All it requires of you is to believe the book, and of course believe its claims about the liar that wrote it. [Hint: read how Mohammed dismissed the naysayers of Mecca upon his return.]

See how simple holy books are, when you strip away all the pretty words and stories?

Even if you are intelligent and capable of understanding reason you can still be taken in by religion, by the simple presupposition that God exists, and his requirement that you have faith in his existence, and in his word.

There is no logical reason for supposing anything exists that we cannot experience directly or test for in some way. There are simply too many things that don’t exist, that I think even a religious believer would see that it would be irrational to believe them just by presupposing them: fairies, ghosts, aliens probing you neighbour, pink elephants, flying pigs, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, Scientology, Russell’s Teapot, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, perpetual motion, astrology, homeopathy, … the list is endless. It would be nonsense to start presupposing all these are true, or having faith that they are true. The natural course of events for humans is to accept on trust something that is quite ordinary, but to ask for evidence and reason to support the claims about these more extraordinary other beliefs.

This isn’t a scepticism that’s reserved for the supernatural and spiritual. Scientists are sceptical about new scientific claims, even ones that have later shown to be correct according to the evidence. Scepticism is the default mode of thought in science. In religion scepticism is anathema, and faith is what is asked for, expected.

For a believer of some religion, or homeopathy, or astrology, their particular belief becomes untouchable because they have faith in it – and yet other examples of these unevidenced beliefs they continue to dismiss as untrue and irrational. The really gullible can indeed take on more than one such belief – so some Christians also fall for homeopathy, for example. But on the whole it seems to be no trouble at all for a believer to have faith in their belief, while denying other beliefs that are just as poorly supported by evidence and reason.

So Christians, for example, are not generally Muslims, because Christians believe in the divinity of Jesus while Muslims think he was a mortal prophet. This is usually a deal breaker, and only faith allows a believer to hold one while rejecting the other – because the reason and evidence for both Christianity and Islam is roughly equally bad.

Without the history of tradition and the equivocating vague and duplicitous religious language I don’t think holy books would be so persuasive. Of course many modern believers have had to change the way they think about their holy books – well at least that’s generally true for Christians, while Muslims are more likely to insist on the inerrancy of the Qur’an. Unless you’re a Young Earth Creationist Christian you have to accept these days that the Bible is not the inerrant word of God. At best it’s a human interpretation of the revelations it is supposed to contain. Some modern theists have almost squirrelled God away out of critical reach, making their Christianity virtually atheistic Humanism – which then raises the question of what they actually have faith in, and why they continue to put such store in a book like the Bible.

What idiot presented with the Liar’s Bible would be taken in by it? You would have to presuppose it was written by an honest person, and when sceptics pointed out the potential flaw in that presupposition you would have to resort to the faith the book prescribes in order to continue to believe it.

A believer has to presuppose there is a God that reveals the content of a holy book, so that they can then believe that the book was revealed by God. You have to presuppose God in order to have faith in a book that tells you there is a God. This is such a tight circular dependency you’d think it should be blindingly obvious; but when you are blinded by faith, you don’t see it!

This is the folly of faith. It is not rational but irrational. It is dangerous.

Dangerous? Really? The nice young Vicar at church on Sunday is dangerous?

Well, no, but that says more about him as a person, a normal human, rather than anything about his religion. It’s a remarkably happy state of affairs for many of us living currently that the main religions are generally supported by nice people. That he, the nice believer, relies on faith is the problem: faith, the enabler of dangerous beliefs and practices.

Not all non-believers are lucky enough to live in societies like ours in most Western secular democracies. There are plenty of places in the world where being among the religious ranges from minor persecution and prejudice to being life threatening. Ask the atheists in Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries where atheism carries a risk.
Even in secular democratic USA there are areas where atheism is looked down on, such that many Christians will not vote for an atheist politician no matter how good he is, or how corrupt is his Christian opponent. In the UK many Muslim communities are coerced into voting for Muslim politicians rather than voting on the actual merits of the candidate.

The very same faith that the nice Vicar uses is also the same type of faith that religious extremists use to explain why they do the terrible things they do.

A nice Vicar might appeal to all sorts of rational explanations as to why the nasty extremist is wrong to blow up buildings and people in the name of his God, to oppress women, to kill apostates and homosexuals, to beat rape victims; but the extremist only has to appeal to his faith, his conviction that this is what his God commands, and the mild mannered Vicar is stumped.

Extremist, to nice Vicar: “You have faith in a timid God! Well, I have faith in a vengeful God and he wants me to kill unbelievers!”

Reason and evidence don’t come into that debate, because for both of them faith trumps reason and evidence. The Vicar may appeal to reason and evidence to explain how bad terrorism is, but the extremist can ignore such an appeal to reason, because the extremist can appeal to his faith, his conviction in what he believes, a conviction which is no less impressive to him than the love of Jesus is to the Vicar.

No. Religious faith is not rational. It’s pretending really hard …

UPDATE: Jesus & Mo:

48 thoughts on “Can Faith Ever Be Rational?

  1. O.K., what’s the point? “Religious faith is not rational.”, I’m not sure thirty paragraphs is needed to argue the validity of the statement. You can not prove a negative, it’s not rational to try…works for me.

    1. Hi john, welcome.

      What’s the point? Well, it’s no more pointless than your 30+ words making the point you think there’s no point. Maybe it’s point enough that I merely wanted to write it. Will that do?

      Oh, and of course you can prove a negative. Try here: Or here: Or here: So, it is rational to try and prove a negative in some cases.

      Perhaps you’re thinking of not being able to prove the non-existence of something – absence of evidence is not evidence of absence? But that’s not about proof is it. It’s about evidence. Evidence is only supportive of a case, or maybe supportive of a counter case.

      But then again is the absence of evidence for fairies, astrology, homeopathy enough to warrant belief in them? We often take absence of evidence as not proof of absence, or even evidence of absence, but sufficient reason to infer absence as a working conclusion, until evidence of existence comes along.

      I thought I’d made that point with the paragraph that began, “There is no logical reason for supposing anything exists …”, but it seems you didn’t get it. So maybe thirty paragraphs wasn’t enough for you. I’ll try harder next time.

      1. Ron, thanks for the clarification, actually I enjoyed the read, just seemed to get a bit lengthy to me. Oh, I did get it, just didn’t phrase my comment well.


  2. Thanks Ron, I have found your rantings amusing to say the least. I am probably not as intellectually honed as you are as I have never done tertiary education so please forgive me for being a bit basic. Of all the things that you doubt that exist, Christianity, fairies and homeopathy included, are you actually capable of proving that they don’t exist any more than I am not capable of proving to you that a supreme being exists who created everything that exists? I think it all comes down to faith, you have faith that God doesn’t exist and I have faith that he does. If you read an article that says that there was a horrible earthquake in a country on the other side of the world do you believe that article even though you have not seen it with your own eyes? How do you know that it is true or false? If someone asks you what has been happening in the world, do you tell them about the earthquake? “ah, I believe that there was an earthquake in Guatemala but I’m sure because I wasn’t there.” If you hear on the radio that there is a traffic jam on your way to work, do you trust that report and find an alternate means to get to work or do you go the usual way to see it for yourself? The point that I attempt to make is that there are situations every day that require us to take information that we receive, in faith, as being correct because we can’t prove everything before we accept it. Choosing not to believe something is also faith, it is faith in our own ability to recognise and reject the lie that has been told to us. Can we trust ourselves though to know and recognise truth or reject it? We only have our previous experience to measure with and what if we haven’t learnt all there is to know to make a valued judgement yet or our experiences have been marred in some way which gives us a distorted viewpoint? When we say that we have seen something with our own eyes, in truth what has happened is that our eyes have received the light reflected from an object and the eye has converted that into signals that the brain receives as the firing of neurons and synapses and somehow we as people take that sequence of events as having actually seen the object. Can we prove that the object is actually as we perceive it? As for faith in God, the creator of us and all other things, Ron, to those of us who have chosen to believe, he has chosen to reveal himself, not in a way that is provable but with a peace in our heart and a reassurance that is not humanly possible. It is not unfounded faith, though it may appear that way to you who is on the outside, but it actually is very real to the person receiving it.
    If you have an article proving that God doesn’t exist then I would love to read it.
    Just one other thing while I am in your ear, if you and I were both to die right now and all that happened was that we fell asleep and never woke again, ceased to exist completely, you were right and I was wrong, then what have I lost by giving other people hope that there is a God of love if that hope has given them strength and comfort while they lived. Have I not made their journey a little easier? have I not given them hope that they are not alone as they travel? and so what then when they die too and find that there is nothing, they can’t come back to me and tell me that I lied to them can they? but at least I eased some pain and gave them a listening ear while they existed. But you my dear athiest friend, what hope or comfort can you give someone who is struggling in their life, as a non believer? nothing! you are useless are you not except to spread your doubt and disbelief and bring more despair because you have nothing to offer that brings hope or anything higher than yourself to look up to? But what if I am right and you are wrong? then the hope that I share with others is actually real and you have missed it completely even though it was right in front of you. You have missed having hope in this mortal life and you miss having real life in the one to come. God will say to you “congratulations Ron, you didn’t want anything to do with me in your first life, so I am going to give you an eternity with out me too.”
    This is all I have time for now, I haven’t really covered all your points. But have a think about it. Doug

  3. Hi Doug, welcome.

    “Of all the things that you doubt that exist, Christianity, fairies and homeopathy included, are you actually capable of proving that they don’t exist…?”

    No. And neither are you. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to commit your self to any of them, unless you have good reason and evidence to support them.

    “I think it all comes down to faith…”

    It often does, but why should it. Are you really convinced of fairies by someone declaring they have faith in them? The whole point of this post was to show how poor faith is as a reason or means of believing something.

    “you have faith that God doesn’t exist”

    I do not. This is what this post was about. I have no evidence that he exists and therefore no more reason to believe he does than I have reason to believe in fairies – neither have evidence to support them.

    “If you read an article that says that there was a horrible earthquake in a country on the other side of the world do you believe that article even though you have not seen it with your own eyes?”

    Very good point. And that is how governments used to be able to write their own propaganda.

    But generally we would have to balance reports against their likelihood. Today we get to see TV footage. But a long time ago this wasn’t possible so people could easily elaborate on stories. Take Sodom and Gomorrah. Imagine you are many miles away, and one hundred years after this event’s supposed occurrence you get several people telling you these stories:

    A) “God did it because he was displeased.” – This would go down well with common stories about gods being responsible for infrequent but catastrophic events.

    B) “It was a natural event” – unlikely then, but the expected explanation these days. If earthquakes occur infrequently, say longer than living memory, there would be no history of comparative natural events. In all likelihood such a person would probably not be believed.

    C) “It didn’t happen.” – Well this person may or may not be believed, depending on the audience. Someone might at least say, “Well, you can’t prove it didn’t happen.” – No he can’t prove that. He can’t prove that magic fairies didn’t build up Sodom and Gomorrah and then knock them down again. If there was no evidence of such cities ever having existed he would still have a plausible possibility on his hands.

    But still, in these times where we haev much better evidence, and some science to tell us that earthquakes do happen quite natrually, and we know why. But still, in this one case, there is still a debate about whether Sodom and Gomorrah existed as sister cities, and about the supposed event.

    “How do you know that it is true or false?”

    By evidence – that’s all we have. We cannot prove that homeopathy works. But we don’t have evidence that it does. So if you have a choice between life saving medication demonstrated to work, and the claims of a homeopath, which will you choose?

    ” If you hear on the radio that there is a traffic jam on your way to work”

    I weigh up the chances of it having cleared. I often drive along motorways in the UK, see signs saying “Queue ahead” and sometimes there isn’t.

    We cannot check everything for ourselves, so yes we use trust – see the main post on the difference between trust and faith.

    But we have millennia of people telling us about gods – and no evidence.

    “The point that I attempt to make is that there are situations every day that require us to take information that we receive, in faith,”

    No. On trust. If you want to take everything on faith, the sort of faith used for religious belief, then that’s up to you. Just this week we had a report that a US SEAL team captured a terrorist leader. Then reports that they hadn’t actually captured him. In day to day life, and in news reports about events around the world, we get mixed reports and we have to update our ideas as we go. We learn to trust people, or not. The fabrications about Iraq’s WMD’s has made people very suspicious about reports of which side used chemical weapons in Syria. And quite rightly, we learn to adapt our level of trust.

    But why do people continue to have faith in religions that never produce any evidence except reports in holy books? Why do people continue to pray when there is actually counter evidence showing prayers do not work? Why do the faithful continue to be so gullible?

    “Choosing not to believe something is also faith”

    It can be. Christians choose not to believe there is no evidence to show their God exists.

    But generally we don’t use faith when not believing something. We merely ask that if you are making a claim you should provide evidence.

    Your car brakes fail, nearly causing a serious accident. You take it to a mechanic, who is also your part-time Pastor, and he says, “I’ll pray to Jesus that I fix it for you.” You return and he claims it is fixed because the Lord helped him. But your car brakes fail again a mile down the road, nearly causing another serious accident. So you return it, and he says, “Well, that’s because you didn’t have faith in the Lord. But let me fix it again for you.” You return the next day, and you say, “Look, my daughter is going to drive off in this now because she needs it. It really must be fixed. I don’t want to risk her life.” And he says, “Trust in the Lord that it is fixed, and it will remain fixed.”

    Who do you trust? Do you have faith in what your Pastor is saying, as you trust what he says every Sunday? Do you have faith that Jesus would not present you with this dilemma, unless he was testing your faith – in which case, hand over the keys to your daughter without a moment’s concern, because your faith in Jesus is strong.

    “We only have our previous experience to measure with”

    Yes, and what’s your experience about all the actual claims about God. How many times has the world been coming to an end? How many End Times have we been through? How many times have you had prayers answered when what you wanted would have happened anyway? Sick people get cured, and some die – no matter who prays for them.

    What experience do you have, other than reading what some ancient guys wrote in a book, that Jesus was divine and resurrected? We have lot’s of supportive evidence of various kinds for many Roman’s around the time of Jesus, so at least we know many of the reported events were probably true – though they may have been elaborated, as histories are often twisted to suit the victors.

    An important point about historic evidence is to ask, “What if it’s wrong?”

    What if Julius Caesar wasn’t actually killed as history has it? Suppose new evidence appears that he actually committed suicide and that the well known death report was a political construction? Well, the consequences would be that we have to change a bit of history. This happens every now and then with recorded history as new documents appear or new artefacts are recovered.

    But what if Jesus was just a mortal man, a mere Jewish rebel making claims about god as many have done before and since? What if documents came to light that showed that the Christian story was a fabrication by a rebel group that had seen how much more easily people follow religious leaders rather than political ones? This would be devastating for Christianity. Every Christian would have been totally duped. You would have been praying all these years to a confidence trickster.

    And the same can apply to Islam and the tales about Mohammed.

    Now one of these religions must be wrong. Which one of you has been duped? Of course both Christians and Muslims have faith in their story. So clearly faith can’t be any good.

    “Ron, to those of us who have chosen to believe…”

    Exactly. You have chosen to believe. For no good reason at all.

    ” he has chosen to reveal himself, not in a way that is provable but with a peace in our heart”

    Well, not quite. He has not chosen to reveal himself. You have chosen to believe he has revealed himself. Can’t you see that what you are claiming is no better than a child claiming Santa is real? Of course the child wants the gift bearing Santa to be true, so he chooses to believe it. The child’s peace in his heart is just like yours, a wishful desire and a commitment to believe – you are satisfied just by telling yourself this story.

    ” a reassurance that is not humanly possible”

    Of course it’s is humanly possible to believe stuff without evidence. Muslims do just what you do. So do children believing in Santa. There are experiments that can be performed in labs where it is possible to make people believe all sorts of stuff that isn’t true. Human brains are very capable of believing stuff with an assurance that is humanly possible.

    ” if you and I were both to die right now and all that happened was that we fell asleep and never woke again, ceased to exist completely, you were right and I was wrong, then what have I lost by giving other people hope that there is a God of love if that hope has given them strength and comfort while they lived. Have I not made their journey a little easier?”

    Well, it seems a pretty big waste of this life to pray to something not demonstrated to exist. Why don’t you believe both Christianity and Islam? You’d have double insurance then, and you could spend twice as much time showing God how dedicated you are.

    “have I not given them hope that they are not alone as they travel?”

    You have given them false hope. If they live and die with that belief then sure they may have been happy:

    “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.” – John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1863)

    But it isn’t just about this satisfaction. A lot of bad stuff is done for religious belief. Homosexuals are still persecuted by the religious in the US, and are threatened with death in many parts of the Islamic world. No, religion isn’t just about one’s own inner peace. If it was, if every religious person got on with their belief instead of insisting that others follow the word of Jesus or Mohammed then they would be left in peace by non-believers. But that’s not the history of religion. It’s ironic that the religious now feel persecuted just because the non-religious are speaking out against the way religion dominates out lives.

    1. Just want to say this. I don’t believe in Christianity and Islam because they’re irreconcilable. Christ teaches love while Islam teaches hatred.

      Lewis put it pretty well in The Last Battle. Aslan says that no service that isn’t good can be done to him, and no service that isn’t vile can be done to Tash (or Allah).

      1. Hi jgedri,

        My problem with Islam is that it consists of one book by one source, so it’s hard to segregate the hateful stuff from the loving stuff – and all is, of course, tinged with this ‘god’ think that is totally unevidenced.

        Christianity is similar in some ways – Jesus was a Jew, so much of the vile OT still applies. But at least Christians can take the NT, or even just Jesus, and cherry pick the nice stuff. But still, all of the stuff on Jesus is unevidenced too. We have no record of what Jesus said, only of what other people said he said: hearsay. For all I know the man Jesus doing the rebellious Jew bit could have been a complete ass and was totally dressed up by the gospel writers.

        C.S.Lewis is a joke.

    1. João de Deus Brasil,


      “I know it! Period!”

      I think you mean you think you know it. Your specific claim is already irrational, since there is ample evidence that humans can be mistaken in what they know.

      Judging from the post about your book ( it seems that you entirely misunderstand atheism. It seems to be nothing more than a poor attempt to criticise Dawkins, and in particular his book, The God Delusion.

      This statement is telling: “Between the lines of his own words, one can clearly see his subconscious knowledge about the life of the spirit, anterior and posterior to material life.”

      Well, that sounds a pretty poor way to judge what he says. Maybe your book contains more details that provide a better argument. If you’d like to send me a free copy I’d happily review it here. You can contact me through email: ronmurp, at gmail.

      1. Ron Murphy, thanks for your comment. When I say that God exists I really mean it. I have had enough evidence in my life that leave no room to doubt. God bless!

    2. João de Deus Brasil,

      “When I say that God exists I really mean it.”

      And when a Muslim says Mohammed really did receive the Qur’an from Gabriel, and that Jesus is a mere mortal prophet, then he really means it too. So, what is it about what you believe that is any more real than what he believes?

      “I have had enough evidence in my life that leave no room to doubt.”

      So you say. And so does the Muslim.

      The thing about evidence is that it has to be shared, verifiable, testable, falsifiable – otherwise it could just be your brain fooling you. How do you know you are not fooling yourself? Remember, simply to say, “I know I’m not fooling myself” isn’t going to work, because if your brain is fooling you then you wouldn’t know it, because you’d believe it, even if it was false.

      This is the problem of personal testimony – it cannot be relied upon. And your faith in your personal experience in these matters does not help.

      If you are so convinced then all you can say is that you believe it. But it’s no use saying you’ve had enough evidence if you can’t share that evidence.

      You might think it’s evidence, but anyone else must consider what you say from two perspectives.

      A) There is your personal testimony. What you are offering is your claims to what you have experienced. To a third party such as myself, you could be lying (I’m not suggesting you are, just pointing out the possibility), or you could be interpreting your experiences unreasonably. So, your personal testimony itself, as evidence, is poor evidence,

      B) Without being shared, the actual evidence you testify to may not exist at all, because of the problem of personal testimony, (A), and so cannot be classed as evidence. It is not evidence.

      Though in this instance we are talking about your personal testimony, the same principle applies to ALL the personal testimony that Christian Scholars use, when trying to show that there was a real Jesus (mortal man) and that Jesus was divine. All they have is the Bible, and some other documents that are a very poor reference to the Bible, and some unrelated documents that have some very dubious links to some man named Jesus. There may be enough to just about support, for the sake of argument, that there might have been such a mortal man; but there is nothing to support his divinity.

      Personal testimony of all the early Christian writers amounts to nothing like good evidence, and in many cases should be dismissed as evidence.

      It isn’t unusual that so many people believe what is a myth, and then attribute their personal experiences to that myth. The Greeks and Romans believed in many gods, and probably with as much conviction and personal evidence that you claim.

      1. My belief in God has nothing to do with religion. God is a superior being, a superior intelligence that permeates the whole universe. The God I believe in may get various names, but that doesn’t mean that He inexists. We, human beings, with our limited conscience have been unable to understand that.

        The numerous supernatural phenomena I have witnessed in my whole life cannot be explained by science although there have been attempts to do so.In my book you will find more details.

      2. I can appreciate your strong belief, faith, but just because science can not explain something at this time, doesn’t make it “Divine”. Science has barely scratched the surface of the mysteries of the Universe. One of the reasons that science is “slow” in this regard, is the requirement that thoughts, theories, proffers, and such, stand up to scrutiny, proof. Until God can be proven, belief in God will continue to be based only in faith. It is a very simple thing, God either exists as a true reality, or as a collective reality of a society based belief. True reality is neither good or bad, it just is. A collective reality, can be either good or bad,it is not based on fact, but rather belief….and that can be a dangerous thing when it comes to differing religious beliefs. I have some beliefs that are not based in fact, but you will never see me try and defend them, let alone fight for them! Are my beliefs in things not based in fact rational? Certainly they are…in my reality, they are just not arguable is all. The same holds for your belief in God.

      3. João de Deus Brasil,

        OK, your not talking about a specific religion. But you are talking about religion, in terms of general theism, the belief in a supernatural being, a God.

        So, where did you come to have the concept of God, even the term ‘God’?

        “God is a superior being, a superior intelligence that permeates the whole universe.”

        How do you know that?

        “We, human beings, with our limited conscience have been unable to understand that.”

        Well, I could just as easily claim that we human beings, with our limited conscience, have difficulty appreciating that we invent gods in our own brains. They are just as imaginary as any mythical figure.

        “The numerous supernatural phenomena I have witnessed in my whole life …”

        OK, so could you describe some of these experiences.

        “In my book you will find more details.”

        I would be happy to read your book if you could send me a copy. We can arrange this through email if you wish.

  4. They say that the man that invented the game of roulette, committed suicide, because, after years of trying, he could not devise a system to beat the game. Reminds me a little, of the man who invented God, then dared anyone to prove his invention wrong. A bit of an opposite, but much the same “quest”.

      1. Oh, I figured it was probably just a gamblers “story”, but sometimes the story is more interesting than the “Now you know the real story”. 🙂

  5. Ron, would a belief in some form of intelligent design also be viewed by you as irrational? Although I am not religious, I do believe that the first causality contained the potential for intelligence, in fact I am certain of that, you and I are here! If we reverse engineer “Paley’s Watch Maker” analogy…it might go something like this, suppose I am an outside observer, I see a watch, and surmise that it’s the product of intelligent design, I then see you building a watch, I surmise that you are the intelligent designer of the watch. I wonder what you are the product of, I observe that you are the product of the Universe…a part of the Universe, I surmise that the Universe is intelligent, and capable of observing its self. I wonder what the Universe is a product of, I observe a “first cause”, and I surmise that the first cause contained the potential for intelligence…an intelligent design of some form. I can’t know beyond first cause, it is beyond my observation powers, I can only wonder. If this observable Universe’s first cause contained the potential for intelligence, there is no reason to believe it is the only one….but that is of no concern, we are certain of one. One could argue that intelligence is a result of random chance events…causality after causality, but it would be hard to argue against the “potential” absolutely existing in first causality…wouldn’t it? In fact we are witnessing the manifestation of that potential on a continuing basis, it is a reality, no longer a potential, it’s fact. As an outside observer, I surmise that the Universe exists as a result of intelligent design….not necessarily spelled with a capital “G”. I take my leave as an outside observer, I have caused no effect, I was not a part of anything. We cut “before first cause” out of the equation, as it is forever beyond our observation. Now, you and I observe what I have proffered here…being a part of the observation, our very observation will have an effect on the “answer”! The Universe is the “creator” of intelligence, we are of the Universe, we are our own creations, capable of observing and pondering our own creation….The Universe observing its self, Universal intelligence… design. A necessary symbiotic relationship.

    1. john,

      Given that we don’t have the slightest idea how our universe came into existence, or what lies ‘beyond’ our universe, anything we say about these things is pure metaphysical speculation.

      So, we are free to imagine all sorts of possibilities, as speculations. We can use logic, reason, and evidence from what we do know, to come up with some rational speculations on what might be the case. But we also need to keep in mind why we are ‘inventing’ those speculative scenarios – i.e. ask, “Why would we think that?”

      We could imagine any number of scenarios. Of course with some of them we may have to ask, “Well, what then brought that about?”

      And once we have contemplated some ideas we can ask of each, “Why is that one so special?” or “Is it sensible to make this a belief?”

      Let’s try that out on a few ideas.

      Our universe came into existence from the contact between multi-dimensional membranes. Why would we think that? Because this is a possible solution to some specific ideas in cosmology, based on some maths. Well, what brought these multiple dimensions into existence? We don’t know, since they are only speculative solutions. It’s not worth speculating further. Should we believe this yet? No, because it is no more concrete than any other.

      Our universe is all there is, but expands and collapses endlessly, and we’re in just one phase. Why would we think that? Because our inference about the Big Bang makes that a possibility. On the other hand, if the universe is expanding forever then this would be the only instance of that, or the last in an endless sequence back in time, … (add whatever support or objections you wish). Well, what brought this endless cycle about? We don’t know. It’s not worth speculating further. Should we believe this yet? No, because it is no more concrete than any other.

      Some intelligent entity made our universe, intentionally. Why would we think that? Well, we notice that we are intelligent entities and in our hubris, and through rather silly arguments about watchmakers, we imagine that intelligence is some fundamental ‘thing’, rather than a purely mechanistic process of a particular arrangement of complex matter. Yes, our experience of our intelligence is the only reason we conjure up such super-intelligence. But, this is speculative metaphysics, so let’s run with it. Well, what brought that intelligence about? We don’t know. Can we say any more about that intelligence (i.e. God stuff, good, benign creator, interested in us, etc.)? Not one bit – i.e. since this super-intelligence is just one more piece of speculative metaphysics anything else we say about it is speculation sat on top of speculation: religious hot air; wild imagination unconstrained. Should we believe this stuff, to the extent that it dominates our lives, so that we pray to this imagined being, so that we convince ourselves of ancient stories and go out of our way to ‘prove’ them, to rely on the personal testimony of people making claims about this stuff? Not one bit.

      Some intelligent entity made our universe, intentionally, but that’s all we can say: ID, without any religious connotations. Why would we think that? For the same reasons. ID is based on the very simple mistake of assuming our experience of our intelligence is telling us something about the universe. Given we don’t know much about the universe I’m not sure why the ID proponents think they know enough to presume that complex stuff needs a designer. Should we believe this yet? No, because it is no more concrete than any other.

      We have no knowledge about the business of universe creation, and so we have no reason to prefer any of these speculations. If anything, the only evidence we do have of how things come about is from the physics we observe inside this universe. And that tells us that brains are just material stuff, atoms, molecules, reacting dynamically in regular patterns. We are at a stage where the ‘mind’ no longer exists, except as a crude model for the complex physical stuff happening in the material brain. From the Big Bang to us, it seems that complex stuff is only ever made from the reactions of simpler stuff coming together during the unfolding of the universe according to the laws of thermodynamics (another model). On that basis alone it is quite reasonable to think that universe come into existence from similar natural processes – from simple stuff to complex stuff, which eventually will unwind and fade away.

    2. OK, so let’s look at some specifics of the ID case, as you put it. I’ll respond as if addressing an IDer.

      “I see a watch, and surmise that it’s the product of intelligent design.” – Only because we already know that they are designed. An alien landing here might think it the result of some unintelligent life process.

      “I then see you building a watch, I surmise that you are the intelligent designer of the watch.” – If I’m the first human an alien sees he might not presume intelligence but some rather odd behaviour of an unintelligent creature. We don’t attribute too much intelligence to spiders – we don’t imagine they are ‘designing’ a web, but rather merely doing what their simple brains are programmed to do.

      Well, actually that’s not the whole story. As we consider ourselves to be intelligent we rather too easily attribute intelligence to all sorts of inanimate things. That’s how this whole God business got started – imagining angry beings causing thunder and lightning because they are displeased with us. We talk to our pets as if they understand our language in far greater detail than they do. The Japanese Tamagotchi craze had kids looking after cute mechanisms, ‘keeping them alive’. There is no end to the human’s capacity to attribute intelligence to non-intelligent objects. Isn’t it far more obvious that this is what is going on with religion and ID?

      “I wonder what you are the product of, I observe that you are the product of the Universe”

      And this is where it starts to go wrong. This is the link from a simple deduction to a wild speculation. I can deduce that a rock I see weather over 20 years is being caused to change. I have no reason to presume that there is some intelligent agent desiring that this rock should change. I have no reason to presume there is some intelligent designer wishing that I exist. There really isn’t. It’s extreme hubris born out of the need to make ourselves so important that some great being should have wanted to design us. Exactly what is it about human biology that has to be designed?

      “I surmise that the Universe is intelligent”

      Then don’t, and the ID problem goes away. There is no reason to surmise this at all. This is plucked right out of the IDer’s ass. Once this particular error is made everything from religion follows.

      “I wonder what the Universe is a product of”

      That’s reasonable. What is unreasonable is to suppose we have an answer, just because it sort of feels that way, just because it sort of feels as if we are so special we ought to have a super-duper-designer. Hubris, that’s all it is.

      ” I observe a “first cause””

      No you don’t. You don’t observe anything of the kind. We have observed nothing in the matter of universe creation. This is another step of the religious, another magical leap, to convert speculative imagination into ‘observed’ reality. It is pure and utter nonsense.

      “and I surmise that the first cause contained the potential for intelligence”

      Why would you think that? Even if we allowed a first cause, and even if we allowed it intelligence (two entirely speculative ideas in themselves) then why could it not be that this intelligence isn’t at all too bright and that the universe was a fuck-up, a chemistry experiment gone wrong, in the school of gods that exists. In the extra-universe of gods they only ever make more gods, but this dumb schmuck of god screwed up and made this universe, with a whole pile of torment happening to creatures on a gazillion planets. He was told very specifically not to produce a universe capable of Evolution, because it causes so much suffering, but did he listen?

      See? This is how speculative you can get once you ‘surmise’ intelligence. There really is no limit to the stories you can concoct. Only the thing is, the religious want their stories to be really nice and cute: a little something to explain the pain on earth, a sprinkling of sin perhaps, and a glorious after-life for all the good people. And of course, it’s always ‘me’ that deserves to go to heaven, while someone else is going to hell.

      “I can’t know beyond first cause, it is beyond my observation powers”

      There’s an error there. The whole point of the first cause, the reason the religious dream it up, is that there is no ‘beyond’ the first cause, and so no reason to have to explain it. This is the big get out of jail card for the religious, so I’m not sure why you would bother wondering what is beyond it.

      But no matter, because the frist cause is beyond your observational power anyway. It is just one more speculation.

      “If this observable Universe’s first cause …” – It isn’t observable, so anything else that follows in that statement is irrelevant.

      “One could argue that intelligence is a result of random chance events…”

      Well, that could be the randomness of quantum physics, which results in the atomic physics that gives us chemistry, biology, evolution, human intelligent brains – all natural physical stuff unfolding in some energy gradient that is the solar system.

      “… it would be hard to argue against the “potential” absolutely existing in first causality…wouldn’t it?”

      Yes. But so what? It would be hard because we observe our intelligence and we observe, from inferences from other observations, that the universe started simply and became more complex. But that gives us clues about naturalistic explanations. There is no reason to attribute intelligence to that potentiality.

      ” As an outside observer, I surmise that the Universe exists as a result of intelligent design”

      You’re not an outside observer and never can be. Your thoughts are influenced by what you experience here, inside this universe. It is entirely because of the historical way in which philosophy and religion have left their mark on the world of thinking that we entertain these ideas. Who knows what we would come to think now if we could ‘reboot’ history.

      “We cut “before first cause” out of the equation, as it is forever beyond our observation.”

      We should cut the first cause out too, since it is pure speculation. And specifically, we should cut out anything that proposes to tell us anything at all about the first cause. There is no reason to reject the notion that this universe is a schoolboy error in the school of gods. This is just as fitting an explanation as any other.

      And here’s a serious part of the problem. It’s not good dreaming up ideas that are simply consistent with the observable universe. Yes, some religious God is consistent with it, but entirely speculative. Yes, some panpsychic intelligence is consistent with it, but entirely speculative. Yes, some multiverse explanation is consistent with it, but is entirely speculative. All these speculations are only that, speculations.

      “The Universe is the “creator” of intelligence, we are of the Universe, we are our own creations, capable of observing and pondering our own creation….The Universe observing its self, Universal intelligence… design. A necessary symbiotic relationship.”

      More speculation. Is there one intelligence or many? How is the physical brain of a single human at all anything to do with the universe observing itself and any sense? How is this any better that Allah? What else is this idea telling us that is at all useful? If it’s just an entertaining fantasy, then OK. But is this going to contribute to our life here on earth? Is it going to tell us anything about how to live our lives that couldn’t be told some other way?

  6. Ron, I agree with most all you offer in response to my question. I suppose my dilemma, stems from the frustration I feel with the limits of my “intelligence”. There are many concepts that I have trouble wrapping my brain around, but there are three that have bothered me more than any others….infinity, eternity, and love. It seems to me that language is inadequate in any attempt to describe those concepts. Mostly, we can describe what those concepts are not, but not what they are to any satisfaction, at least for me. For myself, I have come to accept that the three concepts I mention, do not really exist, only the potential for them to exist is there. I guess you could say that “potential” is my go to solution for most everything I can’t comprehend. In quantum physics, they are starting to accept that there may be a limit to “small”, so beyond that limit, I see a potential existing. If there is a limit to small, then I have no reason to believe there is not a limit to big also. Beyond a limit to big, I see a potential existing, that seems to satisfy my question of infinity to some degree. Is it really a cop out, to say that potential is the answer to those things beyond our knowing. There was the potential for the Universe to unfold as it is, there is the potential for space to be ever accommodating, there is the potential for the “smallest” particle to blink into existence, there is the potential for ID? I would probably be at loss if someone asked me to adequately describe my concept of potential, especially if I spelled it with a capital “P”. Oh, as for the concept of love, I just threw that in because its always been a source of wonder for me….”unconditional love”, seems about as descriptive, as “unending space”. 🙂 I suppose as a true materialist, you have no need for a “go to” speculation concept, hu? I sometimes wish I were able to package everything up neatly into a materialist “box”, maybe I’m getting closer to that….I enjoy reading your points of view.

    1. Infinity is a concept that represents some unknown upper, a possible unbound upper, in some system. This might be in numbers, or in physical universe. Infinity is just a model, a representation of that unknown. It’s a human concept, a model that we use to describe something we imagine. We have no evidence of anything actually being infinite. I’d put this down as one of the unknowns about universes, along with causation, time.

      Eternity is just the infinity of time. And so we have no experience of that either.

      Love is something humans do:

      Some other thoughts related to knowing stuff:
      (Incidentally, are you the john kerr that commented here? The ‘potential’ idea seems familiar)

      “Is it really a cop out, to say that potential is the answer to those things beyond our knowing.”

      I wouldn’t call it a cop-out, unless you wanted to derive something else from that concept, since it’s a speculative concept. Deriving certainties from unknowns is the business of theology.

      Personally I might speculate about whether there are any unknown ‘laws’ that dictate that consciousness (human or otherwise) might be an inevitable outcome of a universe that is built like ours. Some biologists do wonder about these things. But until we have some good evidence to support such speculation it’s not something I lose sleep over. To be honest I’m not even committed to materialism, since solipsism is hard to refute: But I’m happy to go with materialism as the best working model we have.

  7. Thanks for the references Ron! Yes, that was my response expressing a “potential” concept. After years of butting my head up against my own limitations of understanding, that concept gave me some relief. I think it was trying to wrap my brain around the concept of particle entanglement that led to that. In some ways I regret not having pursued a higher education in some of the disciplines of science, but on the other hand, I think I might be enjoying my independent quest for knowing, more so than a structured path. What I have found is really amazing to me, that most scholars are more than willing to share their thoughts, ideas, and knowledge with me. With little expectation I contacted Astrophysicist George Greenstein about several of his books, to my delight, he was quite willing to share some thoughts of his, as well as critique some of mine. There are many others that have offered the same, including yourself. I find this allows me the freedom to let my brain do much the same as Don Quixote did, in letting his horse choose the path to follow. I went back and read the references you offered, or reread them I should say, I suspect I might have to review them again, as I “think” about their content. I think it was a physicist at the University of Adelaide in Australia, that offered a list of “unanswerable questions” concerning everything, he offered to communicate with anyone that thought they might have an answer to any of those questions. Of course I didn’t really have any answers, but it was fun discussing some thoughts with him. You mention some of those same questions in your writings. My greatest fear is that I might die before I know everything, and since I don’t buy into, “All will be revealed to you….”, it is not a small thing. You offered me some good advice on dealing with the brain and “duality” in another thread, I wonder if you have some advice on dealing with my frustration that I just might not get to enjoy “knowing” everything. I know that probably sounds absolutely absurd, and like you, I don’t loose a lot of sleep over it, but it is like an itch to me, that I just keep scratching. Sometimes I think I should just create my own reality that answers all my questions, and accept that! But then, I would have to stop reading anything, or listening to anyone else….some people build castles in the sky, but I would be living in one! 🙂 Ron, thanks again for sharing!

    1. I think most people with an interest in understanding the world are frustrated by the inability to learn fast enough – or worse, not being able to understand. I think that applies to the knowledge currently available to humans, as much as the current unknowns. I have a long reading list that I know I’ll never finish. But it seems a better prospect to relish that potential experience than to be overly frustrated or depressed. These are facts of life we have to come to terms with. As yet there is no prospect of my life being extended significantly. But everyone who has already died will not know stuff I will come to know. I’ve put my frustrations to rest and I’m just enjoying it while I can.

  8. Well said, and well taken! Being a person that tends toward instant gratification, I often put the cart before the horse…..”the knowledge currently available to humans”, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of that availability, I want to know the unknown, with a very weak foundation to support that quest. I probably need to go back and try and fill in some blanks before I start shooting any more arrows into the air! I look forward to reading more of your thoughts, thanks!

  9. I generally agree that religious beliefs are silly, but since you don’t define what you mean by religion, just explicate it by saying “like Christianity or Islam” it’s hard to know whether your thesis is plausible. Do you include, say, small raft Buddhism? Schopenhauerian pessimism? Elvis worship? If it’s a religion, just in case it’s some goofy bronze age nonsense, you’re not saying much. Again, if you’re saying something like “Take the beliefs that the vast majority of people who call themselves religious in the year 2013 have: those are not rational”–who knows. A lot of people who call themselves religious don’t really believe anything specific. They just like the idea of being spiritual or something. Probably half the people in the world who call themselves Catholic don’t believe any churchy thing.

    Anyhow, I think it would be best if you said something a bit more specific, like “The idea of a personal God is ridiculous.” I heartily agree. But if a person’s “religion” is, I don’t know, optimism or something. There may be a psychological benefit and other possible utility gains, with no cuckoo theories connected. I don’t see anything wrong with that, myself.



  10. Hi Walto, welcome,

    “you don’t define what you mean by religion” – The short response is I mean the ones you generally think that belief in is silly.

    The problem is that religions do vary so much that there is little point in being specific, sometimes. This post was about faith, so I guess it applies to all religions that use faith as a significant part of their belief system. If someone wants to claim that there religion does not use faith then we could discuss that, and if we agree, then I’d accept that their religion doesn’t use faith and this post would not apply, in that regard.

    “Do you include, say, small raft Buddhism? Schopenhauerian pessimism? Elvis worship?” – Do they use faith?

    “If it’s a religion, just in case it’s some goofy bronze age nonsense, you’re not saying much.”

    That’s a little unfair on goofy Bronze Age religions. I wouldn’t be particularly critical of religious belief of any kind from an age of ignorance – and I don’t mean to use ‘ignorance’ pejoratively here, but rather as an explanation of their access to knowledge compared to ours. The sun looks like it goes across the sky while the earth doesn’t feel as though it’s moving, so it seems quite reasonable to think that the sun moves across the sky. Much modern science will look ignorant to future generations.

    “…if you’re saying something like “Take the beliefs that the vast majority of people who call themselves religious in the year 2013 have: those are not rational”-who knows.”

    I am saying that in 2013 the vast majority of people who call themselves religious, who also use faith to sustain their belief in that religion, are being irrational in their use of faith. There may be people who don’t rely on faith but who really think they have evidence for God; and for those I don’t think they are necessarily irrational, just misinformed about what counts as evidence.

    “A lot of people who call themselves religious don’t really believe anything specific.”

    Then why are they claiming to be religious? Tradition? Family? They may have many ‘reasons’ that are quite rational. They may be sustaining emotional attachments with their community. Now although emotions are not specifically rational, in that they are biological drives, it turns out that we humans are a mix of emotion and reason, and we walk a fine line balancing emotion and reason. Emotions drives our reason: We love our children, and that becomes the premise upon which we give reason to all we do for them; but sometimes we don’t get the balance right and emotionally give in to their demands when it’s not good for them – we don’t always act rationally.

    Humans are not some pure reasoning entities. We are humans, mostly driven by biology, with brains that reason to some extent. Being partly or occasionally irrational is what comes with being the creatures we are.

    But there are human developments in philosophy and science that have been hard work to achieve, over many centuries of near unbroken civilization. They have been achieved collectively and are probably beyond the capacity of any single human brain to come up with. We stand on the shoulders of all who have learned these lessons. And a seriously good lesson is that faith is a dumb idea. And many religions rely specifically on faith. And so to that extent I think the use of faith in religion, or elsewhere, is irrational, by today’s standards of knowledge.

    “The idea of a personal God is ridiculous”

    I don’t think that is necessarily a ridiculous ‘idea’.

    There are a series of speculative ideas one might have about the universe. The first is its origins. We really have no idea about that. We have no idea what the limits of conscious purposeful intelligence are. We only know of one example, which is life on earth, where conscious intelligence seems to be related to brain size and makeup.

    We don’t know if we can make intelligent machines, though some of us suspect we can. We certainly don’t know that there is not some intelligent entity that goes around making universes. And of course we don’t know that there is.

    The ‘god’ hypothesis, for want of a better term, is as good as any other. But there really is no evidence to support it. So, before we establish there is such an entity, to go asserting that there is one, and adding to that the notion that he is interested in us, so is a personal entity, a personal ‘god’, does seem to be stretching the speculative metaphysics a little too far.

    The problem isn’t with the particular speculation that there might be such a universe creating entity – e.g. “I wonder if there might be an intelligent entity that created our universe for us, … and keeps his eye on each of us … and loves us ….” – but rather with:

    1) “I assert that there is such an entity,”

    2) “I use faith to convince myself that there is such an entity,”

    3) (Worst of all) “I assert that this entity wants me to prescribe and proscribe YOUR actions on his behalf, that I get to determine what YOUR morality should be, based on MY belief about that entity.”

    This is the way in which religion, founded on faith, is irrational, and with (3), the way in which it is dangerous. It takes what are no more than speculative ideas, turns them, through faith, into absolute claims about ontology and epistemology, and then uses all that to coerce others to the same way of thinking or at least into some conforming behaviour.

    So, if I’ve been a little too general in my reference to religion, if I haven’t been specific enough, I hope that clears up what I mean, without having to be overly specific about particular religions. Christianity and Islam just happen to be the two that have to most impact on the world at the moment. Schopenhauerian pessimism and Elvis worship not so much.

    1. The term “faith” doesn’t really convey much to me. It either means “belief” (in which case every belief–“religious” or not–requires faith. Or, it means “unwarrented belief” and, of course, anything that is based on unwarranted belief is, well, unwarranted. So, I generally agree with you, except that I think there may be other “reasons” (in an odd sense) for believing something than evidence for it. There may be utility considerations that swamp the “ethics of belief” that you are very concerned with in this post.

      Remember that old paradox about the two boxes with $1 million in one and $1 thousand in the other, in which whoever took both boxes only got a thou and whoever took just the mil box got the mil? That’s an example of the type of “reason” I’m talking about. Entirely pragmatic.




  11. Walto,

    I think there’s a significant difference between faith and belief when it comes to the religious context. When I’ve had discussions with religious people some might point to what they think is evidence for their belief, or a proof of their belief, and yet when this evidence and proof is challenged and shown to be unconvincing they fall back on faith and say that faith is more important, more profound, that it overrides reason and evidence, and so on. Clearly in that context they are not talking about ‘belief’ in the same way in which you are using it.

    Belief is *what* we believe. Reason, evidence or faith are ways in which we are convinced of that belief, or ways in which we convince ourselves that the belief we hold is true.

    With the empirical sciences we are using evidence and reason, reasoning about the evidence, to *infer* that what we believe is most likely to be the case, or is the best explanation available to us at the moment. This is quite different from religious *faith*, which is more an expression of commitment to the belief, often in spite of the lack of reason and evidence, or even in spite of counter reason or evidence.

    I agree that there may be other reasons (i.e. causes) for someone holding a belief – such as the comfort it brings. In some respects this can be considered rational, if one feels it is rational to succumb to one’s need for comfort – perhaps someone person who really wants Santa to be real might persist in their belief in Santa, perhaps because they feel a little uncomfortable giving up the belief when friends around them are telling them there is no Santa. Abused spouses often believe that their abusive partners will change, in spite of evidence to the contrary. So in some regards it remains somewhat irrational to rely on comfort as a cause of maintaining a belief. In a strong Christian community it might be much more comfortable to fake belief rather than one of the other options: declaring one’s atheism, or forcing ones self to believe.

    As for your example of pragmatic reason, well humans do that all the time. We rarely have complete information, so we go with what we’ve got and take a chance. Nearly every engineering problem contains such compromises. I know from dealing with an aged relative that co-morbid conditions make it impossible for doctors to give a clear choice for the patient: drug X is saving you from potential stroke, but at the same time it’s not helping with your weak kidneys or your diabetes. Or I’m offered vanilla or chocolate ice cream and I can’t decide – but eventually I do in what seems like the flip of a mental coin, a sudden ‘decision’.

    But I don’t see that having anything to do with the long term considered reliance on faith. There’s simply no need for it. It’s irrational. We may not be able to figure out anything significant about the origins of our universe, but there seems little sense in opting for one of the ancient religions and then using faith to convince oneself that this must be the right explanation.

    1. Ron, I hope you didn’t consider your last paragraph a response to anything I’ve ever written (here or anywhere else–recently, or before you were born). I have no interest in ancient religions and of course it’s ridiculous to base any belief on anything like “faith” or convince oneself of something based on it (whatever that would mean exactly).

      The point I was trying to make (which I apparently made quite badly) was quite different. It was that, just as there are utility considerations for actions, there may be utility considerations for beliefs that are entirely independent of the warrant that one may have such beliefs.

      These posts suggest to me that you have what philosophers call an “ethics of belief” that I take to be a bit on the school marmy side. That is, you consider that a belief should be only be had if there is some reasonable basis for its likelihood of being true. What you don’t see is that others may be more latitudinarian than you about that. E.g, take the well known placebo effect. Suppose you will die unless some drug will work, but it will only work if you believe in its effectiveness. There’s no double-blind trial that suggests the shit works. But if you can manage to believe in it, you will live. Would you rather die than be “irrational”? That’s school marmy, I think.

      I’ll take the one box for a cool mil, while you try to convince the multitudes that there’s no good reason why taking both boxes wouldn’t get you $1,001,000 if there’s really a million in one of the boxes. That’s the rational approach, but according to numerous trials, it always nets only $1,000. When, in _Martin Chuzzlewit, Tom Pinch says “There is a higher wisdom than the wisdom of logic,” that shouldn’t suggest to anybody (as I guess it does to you, based on these posts) that such wisdom is more likely to produce truths. Religious tenets obviously are not true: they’re absurd. But sensible religious people (and I agree that there aren’t many of them) aren’t religious in an attempt to get to truths. If they are, they’re just silly.


      1. No. I’m saying this god stuff ins’t needed to attain comfort. But then pretty much anything can be used as a comfort given the appropriate psychological conditioning to it. Some children seem to like a cosy blanket.

  12. Walto,

    On the utility point, try again a couple of things I said:

    “As for your example of pragmatic reason, well humans do that all the time. We rarely have complete information, so we go with what we’ve got and take a chance.”

    The case you give of the placebo effect: when a sugar pill works it works because the user does not have complete information – they do not know that it has no direct effect. But there is an effect, which is physical, but psychologically caused. The pill is acting more like a catalyst for a brain effect. But it does require that the user believes there will be an effect.

    “But if you can manage to believe in it, you will live. Would you rather die than be “irrational”?

    This raises the question of whether you can knowingly take a sugar pill and convince yourself it will have a desired effect – can you be knowingly irrational and actually believe it works? Here are two approaches you might take:

    One is that you try to convince yourself that the pill is doing the work, but that seems rather counter intuitive in that you are trying to believe to be true something you already believe not to be true. You have to unlearn what you know and learn what is in effect an opposite belief. But this isn’t as strange as it seems, in that it has something of a basis in praxis – the religious methodology of practicing belief until you come to believe, a form of self-indoctrination. The human brain is pliable enough for this to be possible, so if you think you could do this in some scenario where your life is on the line, then good luck to you.

    Another approach you could take is to continue to believe that the pill is just sugar, but still to use it as a means of focusing your mental effort into bringing about the brain effect that would help you. This too isn’t too farfetched, since during meditation many people use artefacts to help them focus – such as a candle. I would be sceptical of the benefit of a pill in this scenario as opposed to a damned good meditation class.

    Note that this isn’t the same as acting irrationally while holding rational beliefs. I know rationally I would be healthier eating less crap, but I can still act irrationally – i.e. be driven by desires for sweet food.

    Similarly, it might be the case that a believer can’t help but be irrational, in choosing faith. They may have a strong desire to believe, and manage to do so by faith, against all reason and evidence. This is an issue about personal psychology, how one finds oneself in the world. Any rational arguments against faith are simply that, arguments. They do not need to have the ethical angle you suggest – but see below.

    The other point I made was: “But I don’t see that having anything to do with the long term considered reliance on faith.”

    The short term and subject specific placebo effects are not quite in the same league as a long term belief system that incorporates speculative metaphysical fantasies, so while I appreciate your point about placebos that’s not what I’m getting at here.

    On the whole the only utility of a false belief system (rather than a specific placebo) seems to be if the believer actually believes the false belief, and not so much if the false belief is not believed. That sounds like a vote for ignorance, but there is no way to tell, in any specific scenario, if the believer wouldn’t in fact be even better off if they stopped believing the falsehood and approached the problem (i.e. the problem that is supposedly being relieved by the false belief) from a more open and honest perspective that they might do much better anyway. On the whole I think there is no evidence to support any long term social benefit to religious belief, though an individual believer might go through their whole life in religious bliss – but might be even happier without the belief. I don’t think the greatest happiness principle is decidable beforehand – one of life’s indeterminacies.

    “but according to numerous trials” – Which trials? I thought Newcomb’s Paradox was a thought experiment. There are many flaws to it, being rather non-specific about randomness, varying the way the game is described which alters the strategy for choosing and so on.

    “I’ll take the one box for a cool mil” – This seems to be a statement of your confidence in a hypothetical, as if it were are real situation. In any real situation how would you know the predictor would predict your choice? How does any real person make a prediction like that, without colluding with you, the chooser, before hand? What is it about you that the predictor has access to that enables him to predict and be ‘almost certain’ in his prediction?

    “These posts suggest to me that you have what philosophers call an “ethics of belief””

    They are nothing to do with ethics specifically, as far as I’m concerned. I’m interested in the long term pragmatic value of reason and evidence versus faith, and the greater potential for error through faith.

    I’m a secularist in that regard. Since none of us are in a position to make great claims about ultimate reality and origins I have no problem with some people attributing the origins of the universe to some intelligent creator, even though I see no evidence to support such a case, or an reason to presuppose it – theism just seems like unnecessary clutter in that regard. But I have no ethical case against such a belief. I support the freedom of belief and here only argue against it on intellectual and practical grounds.

    That’s not to say the argument cannot be made ethical, and indeed it is, usually by theists. Theists are the ones that are making specific moral assertions about how I and other non-believers should lead our lives, based on their specific beliefs, supported by faith in the context of this post. I reject their claims to prescribe and proscribe what I do based on religious belief. I’m quite happy to debate any particular moral issue based on reason and evidence, but as soon as a believer asserts some moral position because their god demands it, then I reject that assertion. That’s not to say I reject the moral point they are making: if a believer declares their god insists it is wrong to kill people then I will agree it is wrong to kill people, but not because their god says so.

    In other specific cases I do think an ethical issue can be made against religion. That believers would discriminate against homosexuals, for example: I think it’s ironic that their supposedly moral reasons for their homophobia turns out to have a particularly immoral consequence of discrimination. Religions generally are also divisive: ironic again that their claims about inclusion and community only stretch so far, since the differences between faiths are often irreconcilable.

    There is a problem that believers don’t seem to appreciate: that atheists may be making more than one point simultaneously. First, as a secularist I support freedom of personal belief. Second, I would make moral arguments against some aspects of religion. Third, I would make intellectual and practical arguments against religious belief based on faith.

    This means, for example, that I’m happy to affiliate myself with religious secularists that also support the freedom of personal belief and the separation of religion and state. But I might disagree morally with such theists, for example if they oppose gay marriage. And I’d be happy to argue with them about their actual beliefs without any moral implications at all.

  13. Hi Ron,
    Just a quick reply…. I’m sorry I haven’t read the whole post nor all the comments, but hopefully I have the gist.
    My beliefs are rather pragmatic, and mostly I believe in the power of the gospel more than anything else, when I say power, I mean the ability to affect things and when I say gospel I mean the teachings and life of Jesus. It is my experience that this gospel radically changed my life for the better in a huge way, but that could be a one-off, of course. But in my line of work I see it happening over and over, people secretly come up to me and tell me they aren’t angry like they used to be and they think it might be this faith-thing, or they say that people have started commenting at work how happier they are and telling them that it is since they have been coming to the group where you discuss faith…. over and over and over it happens. I believe that my faith in the power of the gospel is fairly evidence-based, although, of course, not a scientific study!

  14. Hi Lesley,

    I think it’s a great pity that that gospel isn’t an anagram of placebo. It would make for such a succinct response to this very effect. I’m tempted to invent a new word for – plegosbo: the placebo effect caused by venerating the gospel or word of any religion that makes the believers feel fine and dandy, without it having any direct and specific causal efficacy. Of course the placebo effect is unreliable, in that by the nature of the ineffectiveness of the actual drug it’s a bit hit and miss when it comes to the actual induced effect.

    I can never figure out why the New Testament does it for Christians, the Quran for Muslims. Doesn’t the variability of content of the religions’ gospels suggest that something else is going on, rather than the actual literal or allegorical meaning and metaphysical implications of the content? What is it about religious stories that by believing them in some respect is better than theatre or prose of any kind? Is it because of the acknowledged short term nature of the fantasy of secular fiction, stopping the belief on exiting the theatre or putting down the book, as opposed to the extended fantasy of belief?

    In this regard I don’t dispute the millennia of evidence that people can benefit from believing something; but this is evidence of the effect of belief, not the effect of the truth of what they believe. It seems not to matter whether it’s a belief arrived at by reason and evidence, or faith, or authority – believing stuff and being content that you have it right, and it’s a nice story, is satisfying.

    If truth is irrelevant in this regard, then it leads me to wonder what are the pros and cons of believing based on faith. And I think a crucial point is one I made above, that nice warm loving faith enables mean extremist violent faith, because when faith is perceived as the right path to truth then any falsehood can be passed off as truth simply because the believer declares their faith in it. No evidence is required. As I said, the placebo effect of faith is a bit hit and miss.

    By the way, are you still following Pete Rollins, or reading Spong and other heretics? Did you ever consider being Unitarian? They seem to welcome the flexibility and pragmatism of belief that you’ve often professed, and don’t have the irritating hassle of the anti-women stance of the C of E.

    1. Hi Ron

      Much as it is fun debating with you I don’t have time to so I can’t comment any more. But just to answer a few bits…

      Yes I still read Pete Rollins and I read Spong, I don’t really believe in the concept of Heretic as I’m sure you know 🙂

      I love the Church of England for a thousand reasons and it is a fantastic place to be a vicar so no desire to be Unitarian this side of eternity 🙂 Not that I have a problem with others being Unitarian….

      It the risk of starting a debate that I’m sure we’ve had before, it seems to me like you are suggesting that we should outlaw football because it enables hooligans.

      1. Hi Lesley,

        No problem if you don’t want to respond further.

        If football was a real faith and not just an entertainment then I might have an objection to football faith being used to excuse hooliganism, but would not have any objection to football itself. And of course football hooligans use football as an excuse, but it’s hardly based on faith the way inter-faith crusades are. I would object to football club chairmen being given automatic positions in the House of Lords and other privileges.

        But I have no objection to people enjoying dressing up on a Sunday and getting together to wish the world and each other well. Like Dawkins I grew up in the C of E and have some affectionate memories of it on the whole.

        And I haven’t suggested we outlaw religion. As a science proponent who sees no good evidence for any specific metaphysical explanation of our origins I think freedom of belief is reasonable, and as a secular humanist atheist I think it is morally necessary to support the freedom of belief.

        My objection here is not what one believes but on what grounds we profess our beliefs, and faith is an enabler of dangerous beliefs that are immune to argument and evidence – one only has to declare one’s faith. Faith in football is just as bad as faith in religion. Many mistaken theists argue that atheists have faith in science, which is incorrect. Faith in science would be bad too.

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