I'll be giving a lecture about faith and atheism for the UC Davis student atheist organization AgASA tonight (Thursday, April 28 at 6:00pm, Young Hall, Room 198. The slides for the discussion are here:
The F Word
This is a slightly revised version of The F Word talk I have given in recent months. A more detailed prose explanation of one of the main points, to go along with the perhaps cryptic slide bullet points is here: Open the Floodgates
Some believers have protested that my account faith isn't accurate or adequate. A wide range of examples of ordinary usage of the term like these have led me to a provisional definition:
- I have faith that my husband will come home safely from Afghanistan.
- I have faith in my wife.
- I have faith that the Detroit Lions will win the Superbowl this year.
- I have faith in the President despite his recent problems.
- She’s lied to me so many times before, it would take a huge leap of faith to believe her now.
- Loaning him the money to start his own business was an act of faith.
- “Let’s have faith that right makes might; and in that faith let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” (Abraham Lincoln)
- “To follow by faith alone is to follow blindly.” (Benjamin Franklin)
- “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” (Martin Luther King)
- "Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted in spite of your changing moods." (C.S. Lewis)
- Inadequate: on the whole, the evidence shows ~p.
- Inadequate: on the whole, there isn’t enough evidence to justify p.
I argue that there are a number of problems with believing through this sort of faith. The internal problem, or the issue that the faithful believer himself ought to be troubled by, is The Floodgate Problem linked above. The external problem concerns the degree to which one person's faith can function as a reason for someone else to believe. If Smith has faith that p, then can Smith recommend that Jones do likewise? I argue that at the very least, having faith is a sort of indulgence not justified by the evidence on Smith's part, and that Smith cannot have any recourse to claim that to failing to have faith is a mistake, irrational, or part of some failure to fulfill Jones's epistemic duties. Smith can't make a leap of faith and then insist that Jones would be epistemically culpable for not doing likewise. Atheists often ask me, "What do you say when someone says that they have faith?" The partial answer is that no answer is needed--unlike cases where Smith gives Jones reasons, arguments, or evidence for p, if Smith goes beyond the evidence to believe p by faith, Jones can reasonably ignore him. Evidence for p would impose a rational obligation or epistemic culpability on Jones--if there is a sound argument for p, Jones would be remiss to refuse to accept the conclusion. But if Smith has faith, he's gone beyond what is rationally required by the evidence and this (irrational) indulgence can't be similarly recommended or prescribed to Jones. In fact, there are a number of reasons for Jones to reject this sort of epistemic policy and that should trouble Smith than they often do.
I have been assured several times that this account of faith, despite is nearly ubiquitous occurrence among believers, is inaccurate, and that a proper Biblically or theologically based account offers a much stronger position to the faithful believer. I have read, reread, studied these other themes in what I can find about faith for years, and I confess that for the most part, I find them either to be incoherent gibberish, or they are close enough in spirit that the problems I outline in these arguments apply directly or indirectly to them.
So I will offer a plea--if the account of faith I am considering here and elsewhere in my work is mistaken and there is some widely used sense of it that avoid the problems I'm raising, then please tell me what that is and tell me exactly how is steers clear of the problems I have raised. But I also request that you do it without citing Biblical sources as if those claims are uncontroversial or obviously true. That some claim occurs in the Bible falls far short of giving me, or any reasonable person, grounds for thinking it is true, or even that it makes sense, by itself. In fact, indulge me--if it makes sense, then it should be possible to explain what faith is without citing Bible passages at all. The only people who find those citations to be illuminating are the ones who have faith and the ones who find what the Bible has to say to be philosophically sophisticated and relevant. Those of us on the outside aren't helped by it much.
And if you are in the area, please come by the lecture tonight.