This is a piece written by Don Severs, an active member of the Iowa Atheist and Freethinkers Group in Des Moines, IA. I didn’t have anything prepared for this week so I thought his write in would be great and on topic for this blog. Reproduced with permission. -Jason K.
“I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist!”
Ever heard this and cringed? Perhaps you laughed in agreement. I’m one who cringes at it, but it took me a while to see why.
Does it take faith to rule something out? Well, we can’t rule things out automatically. First of all, we have to take the time to understand an idea before we rule it out. Otherwise, we aren’t really ruling it out, just our misconception of it. This is called The Principle of Charity in philosophy. It means we don’t reactively slap down ideas. How can we? We have to know what we’re slapping down first.
This is one of the criticisms leveled at Dawkins and Harris regarding their dismissal of theology. Dawkins call it ‘the study of ignorance’. Harris calls it ‘ignorance with wings’. Dawkins has replied that he doesn’t need to read all the books on Leprechology to dismiss leprechauns. A philosopher of religion might accuse Dawkins of begging the question; he’s assuming what he’s trying to prove, that leprechauns don’t exist. That’s a logical fallacy.
So, how much do we need to know about something before we can rule it out?
Well, it depends. The LHC is trying to discover the Higgs boson, which means the same thing as trying to rule it out. If the theory and experiment are robust, they will succeed no matter what the result. If nothing is found at the energies predicted, then the Higgs boson, as theorized, will be ruled out. Period. Theoretical physicists will have to go back to the drawing board.
One shortcut to dismissing bad ideas is to classify them. For example, if superstitions are baseless, and Idea X is a superstition, we can dismiss it without knowing all about its bullshit qualities, history, etc. Harry Potter is in the Fiction section at the library. That’s all we need to know.
But now we have the problem of “how much do we need to know about something to classify it?” Theologians will argue that their beliefs can’t be immediately classified as superstitions. Here is where nonbelievers catch a break: The Burden of Proof.
Believers have the burden of proof. They have to show how their beliefs are different from other superstitions. Nonbelievers do not have to show that religious beliefs are the same as superstitions. The burden of proof lies with those who make claims. If we find an ancient text with what appears to be a fairy tale in it, we are justified in treating it as a fairy tale until we have good reasons to do otherwise. All believers already do this in regard to the scriptures of other religions. It is only with their own texts that they make special pleading. This right there is a sign something is wrong. We can’t have things both ways.
So far, so good; but what are ‘good reasons’ to believe something? Methodological Naturalism, or Science, is a set of methods designed to test hypotheses about the world. The idea is that when a precise experiment yields results that conform to the predictions of a hypothesis, then that hypothesis grows in stature. We never proclaim that a theory is True in any absolute sense, since all knowledge gained this way is provisional. But over time, we become more and more justified in relying on the interpretation that successful theories provide. Are we are going to find out that the Germ Theory of Infectious Diseases is untrue? Perhaps all those microbes found in patients with strep throat, syphilis and meningitis are merely opportunistic and are not the cause of those conditions. Well, those scenarios have been ruled out, giving broad support to the theory. We have good reasons to believe the theory. Good reasons are scientific reasons.
But, what about human nature? Surely there is more to human nature than science. What about Love and the taste of chocolate? You’re never going to find a scientific reason for those things.
We might, we might not. But science never claims to be all-encompassing. It is simply a set of methods to discern what nature is doing. Philosophers of science will tell you that some things lie outside of science. For example, we have good reason to believe that the universe continues beyond the reach of our telescopes, but we can’t see farther than a certain distance in the cosmos because light has a finite speed. Here’s the key idea: without light, bearing information from those regions, what can we say about them? How do we treat the unknown?
There are some things we can say about the unknown. It is generally accepted that Inference to the Best Explanation is a reasonable, even if provisional, approach. In the case of the distant cosmos, we can be fairly sure that there are stars out there, but estimates of their numbers are dodgy. We can be quite sure that gravity and electromagnetism will be found; but the farther out we speculate, the less certainty we have.
So, where do religious ideas fit in all this? Naturalists want to treat religious ideas like other hypotheses. Under this treatment, they fail miserably; so theologians and believers often insist that their ideas can’t and shouldn’t be treated like other hypotheses about nature. Ok, I’m listening. Why not? I read a lot of Christian apologetics and philosophy of religion. Those guys come up with a lot of clever and subtle reasons for exempting the God Hypothesis from the rigors of Methodological Naturalism.
Go ahead. Step outside of science and knock yourselves out. Perhaps the evidence for your god is available only to those who already believe. Perhaps your god exists outside of space and time, but he has just enough interaction with your brain for you to know that. If such ideas are persuasive to you, you are free to believe as you wish. But remember how you got that freedom. You left science behind. You can believe whatever you wish, but you can’t claim to be scientific while doing so. Scientific beliefs are those that survive scientific analysis and treatment. If you place your beliefs outside of science, then your beliefs won’t have scientific validity.
Does it take faith to not believe in the Easter bunny? Does it take faith to not believe that Harry Potter is true? No, it is reasonable. So it is with religious faith. You can believe it, but you can’t be reasonable at the same time. Perhaps you’ve met unreasonable people before. Do you like dealing with them? Most of them keep their unreasonable side tightly controlled; most of my friends are religious and I like them. They simply hold different values than I do. They can discard science when it suits them; I can’t.
Our beliefs mean a lot to us. They are the scaffolding, the worldview, within which we act and perceive the world. All our friends and relationships are in that world. What could be more important? When we buy material items like TVs and food, we demand a scientific standard of evidence to believe that they are safe and accurately represented. How can we accept that our overarching worldview be subject to a lesser standard?