Ignominiously Defining (Evidence)

In Ignominiously Defining on June 25, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged:

Fundamatheists frequently misdefine faith as “belief without evidence.” Not surprisingly, you can look in vain for such a definition in quality dictionaries (see, e.g., here). Indeed, in the past I have described such efforts as arguments disguised as definitions. But even that is far too generous. Truly, the claim that faith is belief without evidence is a bald assertion disguised as a definition. Moreover, it’s a misdirected assertion not just because it’s not so defined by dictionaries.

  1. It’s misdirected because atheists have no standing to tell believers how faith is (or should be) defined. That’s not how Christians define faith, and their (our) views should control here.
  2. It’s misdirected because we already have a great word in English for the concept fundamatheists are driving at. It’s not faith they’re talking about. It’s credulity, commonly defined as “readiness or willingness to believe especially on slight or uncertain evidence.”
  3. Most fundamentally, it’s misdirected because it’s false.  Christianity is, for example, supported by historical evidence (what happened in 1st C. Palestine to the man Jesus who was called the Christ) and testimonial evidence (people’s testimony about their personal experiences of God).  This evidence can be problematic and is also subject to multiple interpretations, of course, but it is still evidence.  The appropriate quarrel is over the nature and quality of the evidence rather than its status as evidence.

So, the next time you visit a typical fundamatheist website and see faith misdefined as “belief without evidence” (which happens so quickly and so consistently as to be essentially Pavlovian), remind the crowd of would-be and alleged rationalists of the error of their ways. Faith is not credulity and vice versa.


16 Responses to “Ignominiously Defining (Evidence)”

  1. So, using your cases of “evidence”, which you acknowledge as being highly suspect, faith is belief that is out of proportion to the evidence. Hence: credulity!

  2. First off you should cite how atheists define faith, not claim that they espouse some definition without citation.

    I’m sorry but this is silly. First off you forget that many atheists are former Christians hence understand the concept perfectly well. Some are actually deeply studied ministers.

    And rather than actually quote the dictionaries you just claim that it’s not what atheists say it is. Let’s quote:

    • noun 1 complete trust or confidence. 2 strong belief in a religion. 3 a system of religious belief.”

    Hmm. Well assume that atheists do hold your definition, is it really incompatible with these definitions? Well, yes it does with the first. But this is not how faith is used in religious discussions.

    Certainly atheists would be good to content aspects of faith. If faith is evidence based, I don’t see a quabble.


    “I have faith in general relativity. Last rockets all reached the moon, so the next one will too.”

    This is not a religious statement. This is a generic statement of sensible certainty based on evidence.

    “I have faith in god because it was revealed in his holy book”

    Is religious faith, it does not require actual tangible evidence, but just commitment.

    So should an atheist say “faith is belief without evidence” they clearly critique the contentious part of faith, not the one that doesn’t require faith (see how that works in colloquial language).

    So yes, call it credulity.

    But no there is no sufficient evidence for Christianty. There is no evidence for the virgin birth. There is no evidence for the resurrection.

    But even if there was evidence for both, neither event would prove a deity. It could still have been space aliens, or the flying spagetti monster.

    To believe that causations exist that don’t actually exist is still credulity, or more colloquially “religious faith”.

    You should read the New Atheist’s books. They cover all this in detail.

    • You should read the New Atheist’s books. They cover all this in detail.

      I haven’t read them all, but I have read Dawkins, Hitchins, Harris, Dennett, and others. They routinely say that faith is belief without evidence. That’s not a definition — it’s a claim. I understand why they use is as a rhetorical device. But nobody should pretend that it’s more than that.

      I believe that I can support my beliefs with evidence. You’re free to disagree and contest my position. I think reasonable people can indeed differ over the nature and quality of the evidence and can interpret the evidence differently. But the claim that faith is belief without evidence is designed to avoid that process and jump straight to an undemonstrated conclusion. That’s bad form.

  3. See this is how hard one has it arguing this. Gould insisted that religion and science are non-overlapping magisteria. And when then one argues that religious faith has no evidence, one gets called “bad form”.

    I think you misread this. People don’t argue your personal defintion of faith. They argue what they are presented with as definition of faiths by defenders of faith, like Gould.

    See any serious atheists is not hung out about the word faith at all. They are hung up how “faith” is used. Read how Dawkins discusses it. It’s about the negative impact, not about the definition.

    If someone have “faith” and act on it, but that turns out to have negative consequences, one surely can both describe the negative consequences AND the fact that “faith” was used to justify the action in the first place. This is how the critique actually works.

    It’s not an attempt to mischaracterize faith. It’s a description of how faith is used as justification yet in the failing cases clearly in the absence or as substitute for evidence.

  4. “Christianity is, for example, supported by historical evidence (what happened in 1st C. Palestine to the man Jesus who was called the Christ) and testimonial evidence (people’s testimony about their personal experiences of God).”

    You do your argument a disservice by putting up only weak, easily refuted “evidence,” when better stuff is available. By the two criteria listed, Stephen King is a prophet. Many of his books are set in real Maine towns, and refer to actual places, people, and events that are historically verifiable. He then adds elements of the supernatural — ones like ghosts or aliens, that any number of loopy people have personal anecdotes about — and publishes said book.

    I’ve read scholarly support of Christianity, and conversed with theologians, and much of their evidence — whether or not one is personally swayed by it — is stronger than the stuff you’ve cited.

    • Hi Kirth — I wasn’t commenting upon the nature and quality of the evidence. I was merely establishing the existence of evidence. The analysis of evidence and its interpretation is a very subjective thing. Something I find persuasive you may not and vice versa.

  5. “The analysis of evidence and its interpretation is a very subjective thing.”

    Agreed — that statement is still true, even after centuries of refining our abilities in those areas. I would submit, though, that it is less true (among those trained to do so) than it was, and that there is room for it to become less so still. I see a large difference, for example, between a double-blind confirmation experiment on the one hand, and a statement of “well, sounds good to me!” on the other.

    Overall, I wonder if, given the ability to remove some of the subjectivity from the process, there would be some way to eventually derive a standard of evidence-weighing that Christians and atheists alike would both accept. Sadly, I don’t think there can be — but not because the evaluation is subjective. Rather, I think it’s because the basic assumptions that underlie the need to evaluate are so different.

    • I agree that there has been great improvement to this point. We can all hope for better analysis and more consensus to come. I would suggest that part of the reason for my expectation that we won’t get anything like total consensus is the subjective element, particularly with respect to matters that aren’t amenable to conclusive demonstration. But part of the reason, I agree, is that some people just see things diffferently. And it isn’t limited to matters of faith. Getting consensus is as hard in politics as in religion — and for essentially the same reasons.

  6. “Getting consensus is as hard in politics as in religion — and for essentially the same reasons.”

    Again, no disagreement here. In fact, in a 2-party system like in the U.S. it’s even worse in politics, I think, because of the public scrutiny. Any appearance of cooperation with the “opposition,” or failure to demonize them at every opportunity, makes a candidate’s own party turn on him like a pack of rabid dogs.

    • You make an excellent point and one that troubles me a lot. It’s in the long-term interest of the country as a whole for both (all) sides to compromise and try to get the best overall result. However, as the Democrats saw with President Bush and the Republicans believe with President Obama (and they’re right based on the polling data I’ve seen reported), it’s in their political interest (at least in the short term) for the minority party to obstruct the majority (or merely the President) at any and every point. I don’t have a suggested fix, but I think the problem is obvious.

  7. This is a very interesting topic but very off-topic too. I think that there are layers of polarity.

    The parties work much better together than it led on. Why? Part is show. Both parties know they need to rally their voters, they need to appear distinct and not just one random blob of Washington. The second is that the media does not cover consensus cases. Even today in an admittedly hyper-partisan culture there is a lot of consensus going on but one has to look very closely and very carefully to see it.

    I don’t want to suggest there isn’t a massive problem, there is. The filibuster has become a completely unaccountable mechanism. Senators don’t even have to explain anymore why they block votes and the inflation of its use is a real problem.

  8. “The parties work much better together than is led on… part is show.”

    Sadly, much of the populace lacks your insight. For example, I work in a traditionally conservative field (oilfield geology) in a very conservative state (Texas). If I were “outed” as an atheist liberal, I’d most likely be let go (or at least find that my work mystetriously evaporated out from under me), because most of the people I work with strongly and outspokenly believe that cooperating with any part of the “Evil Godless Liberal Communist Conspiracy” will “destroy America.”

    • I worked on Capitol Hill back in the 70s (can I be that old?). And while I can agree that some behind the scenes cooperation does take place, there is far less of it today than there used to be. Far less respect for the opposition too.

      • I blame the 80s and after. Christian Coalition, Moral Majority, Reagan inventing a new form of conservatism that is much more dogmatic.

        The reaction in later years was what I would consider the left squeeze. Democrats also became radicalized because now topics that were formerly center or even right became left and no longer consensus topics.

        And in order to not appear so left they moved center.

        Clintion squeezed the center radicalizing the right even more. Knee-jerk politics became amplified during the Clinton years. Gingrich promoting a gloves off oppositional congress.

        Then one of the most right wing presidents in history and a conservative revival that resurrected words that used to be dead like a revived new form of “red scare” but now it is targeted not at fringe political groups but at democrats. “socialism” “progressivism” all bad. Tea party history hijacked for a new right wing populism. And increased privilege of large corporations both backed by the SCOTUS and the congress.

        Yes it is much more partisan nowadays. But even then it is not as bad as the news media/talking points tandem makes it out to be. We see conflict also because that drives the story.

        Obama currently does the second squeeze incidentally. He is obstencibly a centrist, yet just to have some electorial space the republicans try very hard to paint him very left. This means that perfectly sensible compromise positions are demonized. And it’s more about electrocial leg-room than anything else.

      • I tend to think the Republicans simply got tired of being steamrolled and, when they got in power (think Contract with America), upped the ante (so to speak). Either way, we are more polarized than ever.

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