16 February, 2012

In Defense of Attacking 'Faith'

Those of you who don't already follow Grizwald Grim's blog (the link is in my blogroll) really should. His posts are well-thought-out and very well written. In fact, one of his most recent posts, entitled "Atheism in 2012 - The Faithful Deniers of Faith," is the subject of my own blog post here today.

In his post, Griz delineates a subset of atheists who become abraded when they hear things like the accusation that they have as much faith as any religious group, or that atheism is itself some sort of religion (however interpreted) He goes on to compare this group, which he describes as a disproportionately vocal minority of a minority (as it were), with the various 'Occupy' movements, inasmuch as he claims that they both sense a problem but that they also both lack a coherent answer for how to solve it.

I won't go into great detail here summarizing his excellent article,  but I recommend that you read it immediately after finishing this post in order to retain an understanding of context.

Just What IS Faith?

As Griz, and many other commentators on the subject, have quite accurately noted is that the word 'faith' is, like many words in the English language, one with multiple meanings. If quoted from Dictionary.com (like so many people are wont to do), the definition of faith is:

1. confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another's ability.
2. belief that is not based on proof
3. belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion

Key to the discussion here are the slight differences between the various definitions provided. But before we go any further, I would like to interject with what I think is a rather more complete definition of the word, this one taken from the Oxford English Dictionary online. The OED defines faith briefly as, "belief, trust, confidence," and then goes on to say,

[faith is] confidence, reliance, trust (in the ability, goodness, etc., of a person; in the efficacy or worth of a thing; or in the truth of a statement or doctrine). In early use, only with reference to religious objects; this is still the prevalent application, and often colors the wider use,"
“[faith is] b
elief proceeding from reliance on testimony or authority.”

This definition, which also provides some of the context of etiology, is more instructive in the correct meaning of ‘faith’, however it may be used colloquially today.

The point that I wish to make here, in my own rather obtuse way, is that precisely what a word means is in constant flux, and any word’s precise meaning at any one time is highly dependent upon the context in which it is used.
The Functional Definition is the Important One

That having been said, I think that the definition that is most germane to most discussions about the relative merits of faith is the last one, provided by the OED. Discussing the merits and demerits of ‘having confidence and trust in a person or thing’ would be daft, and a waste of almost everyone’s time and effort.
It is also a rather sneaky red-herring, or perhaps a poor attempt at a straw-man, to try to draw the discussion away from the (presumably) generally understood meaning of faith (that is to say, from faith as a ‘confidence… in the truth of a doctrine… [often] with reference to religious objects’ or ‘a belief proceeding from reliance on testimony or authority’) to a rather unrelated definition of faith as some benign confidence or trust in another. Clearly, the readers understand which meaning of faith is intended, and germane, and to draw the discussion away from this definition by proffering another that is technically correct but contextually incorrect is fallacious at best, malicious at worst.

For the purposes of this discussion, as well as any other that I participate in on faith, I think that it is no great leap to assume that you, dear reader, will know quite well which definition of faith that I am referring to, and which I am not.

The Fallacies of Defending Faith

Since it flows rather conveniently from my above point, I would like to take a moment to outline some of the more egregious fallacies that I have found often come up during a discussion of faith, address them each in turn, and then proceed to dismissing them altogether.

Usually, the first objection proffered when I criticize faith is a decidedly droll comment along the lines of, “You criticize it, but you yourself have faith. You have faith that you won’t fall through the chair when you sit down in it [et cetera, et al, ad infinitum…].” Whilst this objection may or may not be true (for a further discussion on the issue, please refer to my blog entry entitled ‘Do We Need Faith?’), it nevertheless commits the fallacy of tu quoque, itself a subtype of the ad hominem fallacy. Essentially, this fallacy is committed when, instead of addressing my argument, the respondent addresses my person; in this case, specifically when they cry ‘yeah, well, you do it too!’ For those not fluent, ‘tu quoque’ transliterates into ‘you too.’

I mentioned it above, but I think that the red herring fallacy deserves a bit more attention, since it is at once subtle and prevalent. Briefly defined, a red herring occurs when the respondent attempts to ever so slightly divert the argument (and discussion) away from the issue at hand and onto a related, but distinct, issue in an attempt to divert the argument away from the point they wish to defend. It gets its name, illustratively, from the practice of dragging a reeking herring fish across a scent path to throw off a bloodhound.

This fallacy occurs all the time, but in the scope of this post, it tends to crop up when I attempt to pin down precisely what faith is, and is not. In order to really criticize something; in order to really attack it; one must first immobilize it. One can far more easily direct the artillery of argument at a stationary target than a fluid and moving one. The defenders of faith seem to know this, consciously or instinctually, and so they consistently resist my attempts at defining faith in general, or their faiths in particular. This is a red herring, and nothing more, and should rightly be dismissed as such.
The final fallacy which I will address specifically here, but by no means the only other fallacy committed in the course of discussions about faith, is the fallacy of the straw man. Time and time again, my arguments are intentionally misrepresented in a rather grotesque and exaggerated manner in order to present a better target for response. 

Claiming that I advocate the repression of religious freedoms, that I intend to abolish religion, or that I find faithful people to be evil (as has been done) is just a rather obvious attempt at redefining my argument as something which it is not. At no point have I made any of the above (rather absurd) arguments; I have only claimed that faith itself is a detrimental mental process, and one which ought to be avoided.

Critique of 'Atheism As Faith' 

Related to each of these fallacies is the counterclaim often posited by the fine folks whom I am often at-odds-with over the issue of faith. This counterclaim comes in two distinct subsets, each of which I will deal with in turn.
The first is that it requires more ‘faith’ to ‘believe’ in atheism than it does to believe in (insert your pet religious dogma here). This is patently incorrect for two independent, yet mutually damning, reasons.

The first reason is rather quotidian, so I need not enter into a long elaboration. The definition of atheism, when one breaks down the word syllabically, is ‘without a belief in god.’ It most emphatically does not mean a belief in the lack of a god, or any other perturbation of those words. It means, quite literally, to be without a belief in god. Therefore, an atheist is one who lacks a belief in god.

I understand that I am repeating myself a bit here, but that is only because the point is so important. Atheism is not a positive statement of belief, it is rather a lack thereof. Consequently, one cannot have faith in atheism, since atheism is not a belief in which faith could be placed.
The second reason that claiming that atheism requires more faith than religion is so absurd is that observational, experimental, and logical evidence all lines up in favor of one and in denial of the other. The simple fact is that faith, the confidence in an idea based upon testimony or authority, is simply not necessary to deny religion, yet is absolutely necessary to accept it. It is religion, not atheism, which requires the buttressing of faith.

Which brings us right along to the second counterclaim; that is, that one must have faith in atheism, as one must have faith in any idea that one holds to be true.

The error this statement commits should now be obvious to you. This is a blatant attempt to use the wrong definition of faith. Clearly, yes, one must have confidence in the efficacy and truth of one’s ideas as a matter of course in holding them to be true. This much is a tautology. But the definition of faith that one would commonly understand to be the one in use when discussing religious issues is the confidence due to authority or testimony and a belief that is not based on truth

To use any other definition of faith, explicitly or implicitly, is to not only miss the point, but is also to derail the discussion from productivity to mere point-and-counterpoint semantic quibbling.

Moving Toward a Better Understanding of Faith as a Whole

Obviously, the issue of faith; the question of whether or not it is a good thing; is one which is not to be resolved definitively anytime soon. There is a lot at stake on either side, and each side has a vociferous and committed advocacy.
I think that in order for us to genuinely move forward constructively on the issue, both sides must be willing to approach the discussion with a modicum of decorum and maturity. Part of that decorum must include a mutual willingness to avoid ad hominem attacks of all kinds, and part of that maturity must include a mutual willingness to understand which meaning of a word like faith, which has so many different meanings, is being used.

Clearly, the word ‘faith’ has a different meaning to different people. It also has a different meaning depending on the context in which it is used. Approaching each discussion with the time-honored dictum of seeking first to understand and then to be understood will go a long way toward healing some of the misunderstanding that has regrettably taken place on all sides. 

Uniting Under a Common Banner 

Within the atheist circle, there is a related split; one which Grizwald so clearly delineates in his own blog posts of late. Summarily, there is a widening gulf between atheists of a more benign tack who simply disbelieve in god, and those of us with an admittedly more caustic approach to religion- not simply disbelieving it, but refusing to draw parallels between it and ourselves.

Each has its own validity, and refereeing between them is a role which I don’t intend to take with this post. However, I think that whilst there are very key differences between all atheists (just as there are among all theists), I likewise think that our similarities outweigh these differences.

If we come together as a confederation of reason, and agree that whilst our specific ideas regarding the role of faith in belief, and the goodness or badness of faith itself, may differ widely, our common commitment to reason and skepticism as a means toward understanding the universe will surely serve to bridge those (largely semantic) chasms. 

Why I’m Still Going To Attack Faith

All of that ecumenical rhetoric aside, I would like to make it clear that I intend to continue to decry faith as an outmoded, unnecessary, hugely inaccurate, and potentially very dangerous method of attaining truth. I see faith as a detriment to our modern society, and as I would any other detrimental poison, I intend to criticize it and publically denounce it.

Faith, in the religious sense, is an evil, and the sooner that we recognize it as such and begin the long, uphill battle toward replacing it with reason, the better off that we will be.


This blog, while not specifically intended as a criticism of faith, has certainly laid the groundwork for such an assault. I encourage you, reader, to begin thinking critically about every idea that you hold to be true, and ask yourself a few questions:

1. Why do I hold this idea to be true?
2. Do I hold this idea to be potentially falsifiable?
3. What would it take for me to abandon or modify this idea?
4. What process led me to this idea- reason? Intuition? Faith? Some other process?

In doing so, I think you will find that there are ideas that each of us hold true that we shouldn’t; ideas which we hold true that need more support of some kind or another.

It is only through this sort of introspection that we can begin to systematically and categorically eliminate the bias of faith from our beliefs and begin to reach a reasoned, rational understanding of the universe.