Faith & Skepticism

“What I have a problem with is not so much religion or god, but faith. When you say you believe something in your heart and therefore you can act on it, you have completely justified the 9/11 bombers. You have justified Charlie Manson. If it's true for you, why isn't it true for them? Why are you different? If you say "I believe there's an all-powerful force of love in the universe that connects us all, and I have no evidence of that but I believe it in my heart," then it's perfectly okay to believe in your heart that Sharon Tate deserves to die. It's perfectly okay to believe in your heart that you need to fly planes into buildings for Allah.” 
― Penn Jillette

I enjoyed Pen and Teller when it was on television and I enjoy watching magic tricks in general, especially those big production ones like Criss Angel. It's especially interesting to watch the crowd respond to what they are seeing. At the reveal, the crowd often has this look of disbelief which captures their amazement and wonderment at what they just witnessed. It's as if they want to believe what they just saw really did happen, even if they know it's just an elaborate trick. I imagine some people really do believe in the magic, and some might even believe in their hearts that magic is real and worthy of being adored and poured over. The question for me is, how do we know when our beliefs are justifiable and when they need to be thrown out?

While I understand the sentiment of Jilette's statement regarding faith (if indeed he did say it ... you never know these days), I find it problematic on a number of levels.

For one, not every belief and every action are equal. Is the belief in flying planes into buildings equal to the belief in showing love to one's neighbor? And is that belief equal to the belief that magic is real? And is that equal to a belief in pseudoscientific cults like homeopathy? Is the belief in a God whose essence is violence as valid as the belief in a God whose essence is Love? And is all of that equal to the belief that hard science is the only way to save humanity? In my view, it's highly problematic to say that all belief must be considered equally valid (or invalid) simply because belief is held in the heart. If all beliefs are equally valid, then there is no functional difference between believing in santa clause and believing that it's OK to kill children for fun. In this sense, I agree with Jillette's statement as a destroying argument against relativism.

However, the idea that all beliefs are invalid is self-invalidating ... because it's a belief. It's impossible to prove that all beliefs are invalid, therefore to say all beliefs are invalid is a statement of belief. I will grant that not all beliefs can be simultaneously true, so some beliefs are invalid. If this is true, then some beliefs must then be valid. The questions, of course, is "which ones are which?"

If you look underneath Jillette's statement, he is making a moral appeal based on the idea that killing people by flying planes into buildings is bad. But where did he get the idea that killing people and flying planes into buildings was bad? In short, it's a belief; a very strongly held belief America (and Canada) holds in our hearts.

So love and killing people can't be 'basically equal'. They are polar opposites. However, Jillette is unwittingly saying that these two beliefs are equal, because he is categorically denying faith based on a view that beliefs held without irrefutable evidence are invalid. What about the belief that I should not kill people? That's Biblical. Is it invalid as well? Furthermore, what authority can be pointed to support the invalidity? You see, you don't have to push the idea very far for the whole thing to crumble.

The hard part is it seems that no one can agree on set definitions of what is good and what isn't. The postmodern mindset, typified by the internet, has forced everyone to their own 'devices' to figure out morality with no moral ground; no moral authority to turn toward. In this climate, even gigantic leaps in logic can look like reasoned arguments. I believe this is what happens when truth becomes relativized, and why it's important to test beliefs against reason and the person of Jesus.

The criteria that I suggest for such a test is "does the belief create the conditions or give me permission to do harm to my neigbour?" If the answer is yes, then it's not a belief worth holding onto. It's a very simple litmus test, and I think it will stand up to even the scrutiny of hard science-based skepticism. It's also thoroughly Biblical and Jesus-centered. A second criteria might be "can the believe be shown to be false beyond reasonable doubt?"

Finally, a central problem is that we all have beliefs which we hold in our hearts that we can't completely quantify, yet we believe them anyway (I would add, to our mutual benefit much of the time). When I'm flying home, I believe the plane will land safely even though I have no way to be absolutely sure this is the case. I could point to statistics and do research to give myself reasonable grounds for holding this belief, but the fact is I believe it because that's what I've been told on good authority, and I've experienced enough safe landings to believe it will keep happening. I also believe that people have intrinsic value and worth, and are deserving of respect and love. Can I prove that in a water tight argument? No. But I believe it anyway.

The fact that I believe things in my heart because of experiences I've had doesn't make them automatically invalid (but it doesn't mean I shouldn't question my beliefs). My experiences are my experiences. At the same time, belief doesn't give me permission to do utterly despicable things. So, is faith is always destructive because there is good faith and bad faith? For this idea to hold water, we would also have to admit that all black people are dangerous because some black people are dangerous, or all white people are racist because some white people are racist.

In conclusion, the statement that all faith is invalid because some faith is destructive is a significant over-generalization that doesn't hold much water.

The cultural climate has seen the problems with Religion, and has attached Jesus to the problem because people who claim to represent Jesus can often be insufferably naive and small minded, if not flat out hypocritical and bigoted. It's not Jesus, but rather the religious garbage which has gotten attached to faith which needs to be dealt with and removed.


jstainer said...

I don't understand Penn's quote to be saying actions based on faith are valid or invalid. They could fall into either of those baskets, and so the best framework we have for trying to test those beliefs, is the scientific method. That method does not claim to be the answer for everything. It's just a method for trying to zero in, as much as possible, in our best understanding of why things happen.

The scientific method can only take us so far though. There are limits to what we can know, both now (until new discoveries allow us to increase our knowledge of the world), and possibly even forever (the answer to what existed before the Universe came into being may have a hard answer, but may never be something we could ever discover, no matter how much knowledge we gain).

Penn seems to suggest that once we hit the edge of what we can reasonably understand and know using the best tools available to us, he's not willing to use faith to fill in the rest of those gaps, because that faith isn't backed by a process of understanding. It can be backed by absolutely anything at all. If faith is the driving force of behaviour and belief, and that faith is determined by an endlessly shifting morass of anything at all, then those behaviours and beliefs are not really of much use.

A couple weeks ago my mom called me up and said she visited an acupuncturist for an incredibly sore shoulder. She had tried physio and it had failed her. She was in a great deal of pain. She is a very smart person and was very skeptical about acupuncture, yet she felt like she needed to try something to get relief.

It worked for her.

Acupuncture is one of the most well studied processes there are, and it does not work. It cannot work. It is nonsense. And yet, it worked. What do we do in this situation? We could take it on faith that there is something about acupuncture that is unknowable and untestable by the scientific process, and say that it works because of that. In this case faith, strengthened by a personal experience, is now driving future decisions about health care, despite huge mounds of evidence that say it does not work.

I'm starting to think that how a person reacts in that situation might be more personality based than anything else. To me, her getting better could have been a placebo effect, a random healing of her shoulder that was going to happen anyways and just so happened to correspond perfectly (in terms of timing) to her acupuncture appointment, or something else entirely. I am unwilling to change my beliefs and behaviour based on one account, mainly because there is a massive body of evidence that says it cannot work. Could that body of evidence be wrong? Yup. But to show that would require an equally large body of evidence that goes the other direction. One personal anecdote doesn't get to override that.

But faith says 'Yes, it does!' It says 'I don't understand what happened there, so despite what our best understanding says, I have faith that acupuncture works.' For a guy like Penn that type of faith can be used to justify nearly any action. It's a little scary to me as well.

When you get to questions of morality and how to understand it and define it both with or without some sort of religious framework, it gets really messy. For one perspective using science to understand morality I'd invite you to watch Sam Harris' Ted talk on it (which is just a super shortened version of his book on the topic) which can be found at

Ryan McGuire said...

At the end of the day, there is no water tight argument for having faith. Although I would contend that Jesus gives as clear a picture as we'll get as a case for faith in anything religious. But even then, the evidence isn't absolute. There's a heck of a lot of gray space.

But to reject faith categorically is also to reject everything else we put our trust in every day, both personally and corporately ... the most poignant being love.

The main issue I've grown to see with the pure science worldview is that head knowledge is set up as the only kind of legitimate knowledge. This casts aside a lot of excellent wisdom, which cannot be understood by knowing facts. So there's an element of heart that I think science tends to reject. Academia is, overall, highly suspicious of mystical and emotional experiences. To some extent, it's natural to be skeptical of the heart as it's capable of tremendous good and tremendous evil.

At any rate, I've had too many experiences and brushes with the mysterious and mystical to just toss it aside. That's only 1 anecdote, and I've never gone into any of it lightly. I'm over-skeptical of spiritualism. Yet I keep having the experiences. To "nothing buttery" it just doesn't seem appropriate.

jstainer said...

I agree that faith should not be rejected either. It just sits in a different space in life than things that are knowable.

Like music.

Music is a wonderful thing that can be experienced, whether that is personally or in community with others. It adds a depth to people's lives in ways that are hard to really quantify in real ways.

What we don't do with music is suggest that it does more than that. We shouldn't use music preferences to drive public policy. We shouldn't place Nirvana lyrics on a tablet in the State Capitol grounds.

I think it's just important to place faith in a different category from things that we can understand via the scientific process, and set limits around it's usefulness based on that. It doesn't take away from the value of it, but we have to be honest that it is exists in a different place.

Academia has to be skeptical of emotional experiences because they have been proven to be unrealiable. Proven to always be wrong? No, but unreliable.

I think if an individual wants to believe they can exist without food (breathairianism) then that's their choice. It's completely contrary to what we know about the world, and it's not something that has ever been shown to be true, but as long as that individual is not making their children live a life of Breathairianism, or trying to push for the teaching of Breathairianism in science classes in school, then they should be free to have faith that it works. But we owe it to the rest of the planet to not try and classify the faith that that individual has into the same place as what we know to be true about the world. To raise the level of that faith to the same place as our scientific understanding is, in my mind at least, very dangerous.

I really think there is a place for faith in this world that can potentially add a lot of value to life. I know it did for me for a long time, and it does for so many others every single day. I just really feel it's appropriate to keep it separate from the type of knowledge that is generated from the scientific process.

Ryan McGuire said...

Yes! I'm with you. An evidential epistemology should be the basis for education and policy making. The one point of contention I'll raise is that being evidence-based shouldn't be limited to forcing everything through an evolutionary lens. There are other helpful lenses with which we can and should explore, but the overarching principle of being evidence-based is the most helpful lens at present when it comes to both faith and practice.

The reason I say this is because there is mounting evidence that even data and "hard facts" can lie, and science itself is prone to do reversals of what was considered immutable facts in the past. But since science is evidence-based itself, there are some built-in mechanisms for such reversals, which is important.

A person who believes in God should likely look at the evidences for their belief. I don't think there needs to be immutable empirical evidence for the existence of God, because by modern definitions, God is both not real and real at the same time - quite the paradox. But there should at least be evidence that your beliefs are not harmful to yourself or others. For me, this idea comes from the Bible - "Love does no harm", but is supported by sociological evidence. For someone else, it might come from a purely evolutionary psychology background. But the value is the same, and in some way I think that good science helps give credence to good faith.

This kind of evidence-based inquiry, I think can help move us forward regardless of faith position. But there are certain values we need to agree on as vital. Like humility, dialogue, respect, and evidence? I think this kind of third way can help weed out extremism and other destructive belief systems.

In fact, the way God is often presented in Churches as a general, distant deity who occasionally comes to visit (only after much petitioning) and do things (And other times not, despite much petitioning) is as far from the truth of who God is in the Bible as it would be to make a golden calf and say that it's God.

In that sense, being evidence based with faith is to take a serious look at the authoritative sources for belief and ask the question: What am I missing? What assumptions am I holding that should be tested? This is basically how I operate with regards to faith.

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