The Faith/Evidence Paradox


To what extent can a religious believer actually argue their faith, reasonably? Not very far, it seems to me.

There are two quantities to consider here, by which all human beliefs can relate back to: Faith and Evidence.

Let’s look at the first. Faith, by its very definition, is ‘belief without evidence’. It is a gut feeling, and it cannot be proven wrong. Why? Because, for something to be ‘proven wrong’ evidence has to come into play, and Faith stays strong regardless of counter-evidence to its claims. When considering God, the only argument one can ever draw is that ‘God can’t be dis-proven’. Whether this is a strong argument or not for a specific religion’s creator is irrelevant – people still use the argument, failing to accept/realise that it can also be applied to Zeus, or Santa…

The other side of the attempt to justify religious claims is, well, to say that there is evidence for them. I of course disagree with this post-hoc, presumptuous mindset, but I can see why people like Pope Pius XII have, over the years, jumped at the chance to declare that science has proven what they knew all long. It’s a simple desperate grasp at reconciliation with reality.

Why do I mention Pius? Well, in response to The Big Bang Theory in 1951 he made this claim:

It would seem that present-day science, with one sweep back across the centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to the august instant of the primordial Fiat Lux [Let there be Light], when along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, and the elements split and churned and formed into millions of galaxies. Thus, with that concreteness which is characteristic of physical proofs, [science] has confirmed the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction as to the epoch when the world came forth from the hands of the Creator. Hence Creation took place. We say: “Therefore, there is a Creator. Therefore God exists!”

The only problem was that once Pius declared evidence for Genesis, the absolute truth of Creation became falsifiable. If the Big Bang Theory¬†‘proved’ the existence of God, yet was open to criticism and review like any other aspect of science, then Creation had lost its absolute ‘truthfulness’.

Others around him realised this, and after ‘advice’ he never again said a word on the subject.

Pius experienced first-hand the Faith/Evidence paradox. I don’t know if this phenomena has a set definition (or if I am calling it by its most widely-used name), but I imagine it goes something like this:

  • Faith-based claims are unfalsifiable by nature. They cannot be ‘proven wrong’.
  • Evidence-based claims are falsifiable by nature. They have the capacity to be ‘proven wrong’ if counter-evidence comes to light.
  • A claim cannot be both unfalsifiable and falsifiable.
  • Therefore, a claim cannot be both faith-based and evidence-based if it is to be considered intellectually honest.

So, it seems that, unless my logic is flawed, believers most certainly can’t have their faith-cake and eat it too. They can either admit that their beliefs are nothing more than faith-based (and therefore acknowledge that their respective holy books are mere metaphor as opposed to literally true), or attempt to ‘prove’ all of it. The latter is often called fundamentalism.

But, of course, it’d be naive to suggest that religious folk only come in two flavours – religious agnostics or die-hard fundies – as this is obviously not the case. What is sadly true though, is that the very nature of belief, of faith, is one of complacency.

It simply doesn’t matter to the average believer that they demand so much evidence for, say, a fact like evolution while they hypocritically simultaneously declare that their chosen holy book is proof of itself. It should, but it doesn’t… Because if it did, they’d surely join the ranks of the ex-religious (as a significant, ever-rising number continue to do).

This is basic reasoning people. Use it.

Carnun :P

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10 thoughts on “The Faith/Evidence Paradox

  1. Nicely done. The Santa comparison… It’s easy for a child to believe in a myth, but eventually, minds mature and evidence becomes evidence.

  2. I have a problem with your first premise, that faith-based claims are not falsifiable by nature.

    True, faith can be defined as belief without evidence, but that belief does not come about in a vacuum.

    Faith is also defined as a certain high amount of confidence and trust. This confidence and trust also does not come about in a vacuum.

    So what informs faith-based beliefs it not some kind of evidence – be it reason or authority or revelation or conspiracy or what have you? Faith must be based on something.

    Because this basis of any specific faith-based belief must be founded on something, that something can be revealed to be not worthy of a high amount of trust and confidence because of what reality tells us about it. I think that’s how people who offer trust and confidence to their faith-based beliefs often (over time and usually with a great deal of angst) move away from, change to, and sometimes discard entirely their reasons for holding that faith. As is often the case, people I know that moved away from holding confidence in some faith-based belief is because they found better, more compelling, reasons to do so than the reasons used to stay fixed in their faith.

    According to your definition, how would you explain this movement if faith and the claims made upon it are immune from evidence, immune from falsifiability?

  3. Sure, faith can also mean a “high amount of confidence and trust” – but that is not the definition I am using. When I say ‘faith’, I’m specifically referring to a ‘belief without evidence’ as you pointed out.
    Plus, ‘trusting’ God still begs the question of whether there is any evidence for that God (as I’m sure you’ll agree). The fact of the (often genuine) ‘trust’ says nothing of the validity of that belief itself.

    Or, in other words, there can be reasons behind a person’s ‘faith’, but that does not mean that their faith necessarily has any solid objective evidence behind it. That’s all I mean, and that’s the premise I’m using – the ‘you can’t dis-prove it!’ argument which faith tends to boil down to.

    “people I know that moved away from holding confidence in some faith-based belief is because they found better, more compelling, reasons to do so than the reasons used to stay fixed in their faith.” – fair point… They simply ‘lost faith in their faith’, so to speak.

    I think the problem here is one of semantics, frankly. There are two different, yet distinct, meanings of ‘faith’ to consider – and that is where I think the confusion is coming from.

    Thanks for the feedback :)

    • I wrote that Faith must be based on something because it’s an important point to keep in mind. Faith also understood to be a high amount of trust and/or confidence in something (without needing any compelling evidence, that is to say) reveals a very important aspect of how faith is maintained: its object-of-trust, so to speak, doesn’t require something out there for which there is no evidence! All it require is faith in the faith itself as the object-of-trust!

      Dan Dennett calls this kind of faith ‘belief in belief’ and this is what I come across all the time (especially with liberal believers, or that remarkable class of people who have ‘special’ insight into their interpretations called Sophisticated Theology). These are the folk who utilize their a priori faith to be able to successfully interpret scripture and magically know which bits are metaphorical (the bits shown by other methods of inquiry to be in error or the unpleasant bits revealing divine but dubious morality) and which bits are literal and historical (the bits like the Jesus as a single historical figure doing all kinds of reality-altering feats and, of course, the resurrection). What these folk believe in is their uncanny ability to know which is which and trust that interpretation whole-heartedly (no doubt because they are such nice, not to mention humble people who just so happen to have been granted this ability by god’s grace). And we can appreciate the accuracy of observation because not one of these folk can produce a reliable method by which we can copy their inquiry and arrive at the same interpretation. They have faith because they believe in their faith-based beliefs rather than allow reality to arbitrate claims made about it.

      So the point isn’t to squabble about semantics but raise a very important aspect to how faith works, how people fool themselves into believing in their beliefs first rather than wait for the adjudication of reality to play a key role. That’s why so many religious folk like creationists of all stripes must refuse to recognize or even discard compelling contrary evidence.

      I find that the trust in this process – of trying to maintain believing in belief – is what crumbles when students leave their religious cocoons and enter the real world filled with compelling evidence that reveals the depth and scope of their blinding indoctrination. The result is usually a very deep-seated feeling of anger, resentment, and betrayal of all those who participated in the intentional but pious coverup of reality, but that comes after a valiant attempt to deny all kinds of knowledge like evolution and astrophysics and genetics and geology and linguistics and history and so on; eventually, the trsut breaks down because reality arbitrates it to be misplaced.

  4. The main problem here is that the author is confused about what the word evidence means, and is playing semantics with false pretenses.

    No, a religious person shouldn’t act like their intuition is anything but a subjective truth. Wise people understand that it takes life experiences yourself to integrate something intuitive, and that it’s not readily transferable.

    However, atheists as well shouldn’t act like they have something more than subjective truth, which is simply a disbelief based on their life experiences. It is a matter of ‘faith’ that they don’t believe in spirituality. (I’m hesitant to say God, since for some people that means only the Christian faith, as if no other exists).

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