Thursday, October 31, 2013

Reviewing Randal Rauser's "The Swedish Atheist.." Chapter 7

Chapter 7: Faith
We come to the chapter on faith. Instead of covering three chapters all at once as I have been, I’m going to focus on dissecting the Faith chapter a little bit more in depth, as whenever a Christian, or for that matter theologian, begins to talk about faith you can be sure it’s not going to be a short walk in the park.

After waxing on about how doctrines like idealism and solipsism have been well defended in the past, Randal uses this analogy to try to get Sheridan to see that such paradigms are generally accepted as sound paradigms without having to be explicitly based on evidence, mentioning “we  all take a step beyond the evidence.”

Sheridan refuses to accept such a proposition and balks, “I believe based on evidence, not faith.”

I would correct Sheridan and say most atheists tend to believe in things based on the reliability of the evidence, and that we also hold beliefs that aren’t based on evidence, but consider such beliefs provisional. That is, we hold a certain amount of trust in them as either true or false, and this sort of confidence in certain beliefs is a type of faith, but it's not religious faith. That's an altogether different type of faith (but more on this later).

Suddenly we shift topics and we’re not talking about evidence based faith, but are now talking about religious indoctrination as a form of child abuse. The shift was so sudden that I was a little disoriented by it, because in a realistic conversation, even one that meanders a bit, the subject wouldn’t change completely mid-sentence, out of the blue.

At any rate, Randal pulls out a copy of Richard Dawkins’ book A Devil’s Chaplain, and quotes from the book, but then largely ignores the quote, when Sheridan challenges him on the front that teaching children to fear hell is child abuse.

Randal responds it could be, and goes on to say, “It depends, among other things, on whether the doctrine is true and how it is taught.”

Wait. I’m going to stop here just to say that, as an educator of children (Elementary and Junior High) I can honestly say that teaching them fear based doctrine (often guilting them into agreeing with you--because you don't want to make Jehovah sad) is ALWAYS abuse when you neglect to teach them to think for themselves. 

Christians don’t say that Hell might be real, so make up your own mind. No! They say that Hell is real, so you better believe this way and act in this fashion, or else!

A couple of things: 1) This isn't teaching the child how to critically evaluate the concept of Hell for themselves, and actually has the opposite effect by teaching them to fear the very notion of Hell so they don't question it; and 2) Hell is a fictional place, and until an ounce of evidence for Hell’s actual physical address can be brought to light, then I’m afraid that’s the only consideration anyone needs to give it. 

If Hell is meant as more of a metaphor for the absence of God, then it’s not in tune with the Biblical description of Hell being a real place of physical suffering and torment, with fire and chains, wailing, and the gnashing of teeth and what not. Much like Heaven, everything we know about Hell comes from Christian conjecture, and that’s simply not good enough to hang a belief on. Let alone force children to believe it along with you.

“I don’t think it’s abusive for a Christian parent to teach his child the Apostles’ Creed or various Bible stories,” Randal informs.

Well, yes. We can assume as much, since Randal is a Christian, after all. But that doesn’t mean simply because he’s a Christian that it is right to teach Children certain Bible stories. I mean, do we want our children reading about God murdering, well, lots of innocent children? Do we want children to read all those bits about incest? What about all those bloody wars?

See, the problem I have here is that the Bible isn’t taught as a book of stories. If it was taught like The Brothers Grimm, as a collection of morality based fables and myths, I would have less of a problem with a Child wanting to read the Bible. Little Red Riding Hood is a very gruesome story with an excellent moral, and we teach it to children, but we do not teach it as a veritable account of history. 

Christians, on the other hand, do teach  the Bible as actual history, even though much of the Bible’s historical reliability has been disputed, and with good reason.

But a small child is extremely impressionable, and my greatest regret is the time I spent as a Christian Bible camp counselor brainwashing young children into believing in the truth of the Bible and blackmailing them (emotionally) to believe in places like Hell—where’d they go if they didn’t accept Jesus into their hearts.

So yeah, I have to strongly disagree with Randal. If you’re going to teach the Bible, then you have to make the child aware they’re reading only stories, not history. If you don’t do that, then minus the evidence to support your claims, you are in danger of using fear and authority as an incentive for your child to believe in the Bible as true, and that would be child abuse.

By now Sheridan has devolved into a silly puppet, with Randal’s hand up his ass, as he hops around saying absurdly rude things. The caricature has grown silly, and now it seems that Randal is just mocking atheists, unless he actually thinks, for whatever reason, that atheists really are like this? But I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt here, and I think he’s just mocking atheists in general by making Sheridan more and more thick skulled and idiotic. Haha—look at the silly puppet dance and say stupid things! Silly atheist!

But at least we have made it back to the basing belief on evidence conversation. So Randal cites W.K. Clifford’s essay “Ethics of Belief” in which Clifford states it is always wrong to believe things on insufficient evidence.

Sheridan agrees and falls right into Randal’s trap. Randal then proceeds to inform his naïve atheist friend that there are some serious problems with Clifford’s maxim.

“Clifford offers no evidence for it: he just assumes that it’s true. But if we accept Clifford’s maxim, then we need evidence for it since according to the maxim, we need evidence for all claims.”

What Randal is doing is trying to engage in a semantic argument over the literal meaning of Clifford’s maxim. But without the context of the essay, we cannot say whether or not Clifford intended it as a literal, absolute, claim. We only have Randal’s word for it.

Still, the question remains is it wrong to believe in things on insufficient evidence? It may not be wrong in all cases, but certainly there are many cases where it would be an extremely bad idea. We could probably say it is always wrong to believe things on bad evidence. Insufficient is a rather vague term, and that’s why the conversation changes into one about the semantics involved.

So if you take the statement literally, as Randal does, then you can say the statement fails to support its own claim.

But I don’t believe most statements about philosophical principles are intended to be taken literally. Like I said, it depends on the context, but I’ve never known that many philosophers to be overly literal. A mathematician, as Clifford was, certainly could be forgiven for leaning toward the literal, but perhaps not when writing on ethics and belief—which are not black and white, true or false, subjects like mathmatics but are more or less subjectice.

Semantic discussions become important here, since the ‘meaning’ of a maxim might extend beyond what the original author intended, and so although the grammar leads the maxim to be self-defeating, that would only disprove that one particular interpretation, in this case Randal’s interpretation. 

The maxim might, however, still be sound, generally speaking. But Randal isn’t interested in different interpretations, and holds to a legalistic reading of the text. This often lends to limited interpretation of a text as well as poor textual analysis, but instead of boring you with all the dirty details of what constitutes good critical theory, we'll push on.

Coming back to the book, Randal rejects the Clifford's maxim altogether, feeling that it contradicts its own conditions—which it does when you’re unwilling to allow for other interpretations apart from the literal one framed by the grammar of the maxim. Randal states:

“If we require evidence for everything then we face an infinite regress since every evidence provided for a belief would itself require supporting evidence, and that evidence would in turn require evidence, and so on forever.”

It seems that Randal is trying to raise the same criticism that William James did in his lecture “Will to Believe” which was a direct response to Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief”. This is not at all a light topic, mind you, and it deserves its own grande conversation for another time.

Before continuing on however, I think Randal could have benefited from some footnotes. If I hadn’t read my William James, and I'm sure there are those who haven't, there simply is no way to make the connection that Randal wants the reader to make with respect to his bringing up Clifford. At least, footnotes would have helped in the areas Randal just breezes by.

Skipping ahead, Randal moves on to defining reason. (Again, it’s sometimes hard to keep up with the subject changes, which always seem to come quite suddenly.) Subsequently, Randal quotes the philosopher Anthony Kenny, who informs us that reason is the regulatory device that allows us to find an optimal balance between doubt and belief. I'm inclined to agree with this definition.

After talking on Descartes and reasonable doubt, Randal states, “Obviously it’s reasonable to doubt at times, but other times it’s reasonable to believe, even though you could be wrong.”

This statement I agree with. The one that follows it I do not.

“Sometimes stepping out in faith is the most reasonable thing to do.”

Do you see the problem here? Randal first says it is reasonable to doubt at times, which is true. He then says it is reasonable to have faith at times, which is also true. Then he says having faith is sometimes the most reasonable thing to do.

Wait. What? Why?

Why would having faith, knowing very well that we might be wrong, be more reasonable than doubt, if it did indeed turn out we were wrong? And if we were right, then all that means is we were lucky. We guessed right. But that simply makes us imprudent, not reasonable.

I often find myself in agreement with the late Christopher Hitchens who lamented that faith is the most overrated of the virtues. Additionally, we must note that there are different types of faith.

Most atheists, for example, are critical of religious faith, but faith in general is akin more to having trust or confidence in the reliability of certain claims, full well knowing we could be wrong. 

But this leaves us wondering, how is having confidence over not having confidence more reasonable, let alone, the most reasonable thing to do?

Personally, I would have said that sometimes having faith is necessary, because we don’t know. We have faith in the Big Bang Theory, because we don’t know of any other paradigms that can replace it, even though we know that we could be wrong. In fact, its incompatibility with Quantum mechanics suggests that something is severely wrong with one, if not both, theories. But there cannot be a revolution in thinking until a better paradigm comes along (this was, coincidentally enough, Thomas Kuhn’s main thesis in the aforementioned The Structure of Scientific Revolutions).

Notice that Randal seems to be conflating two separate definitions of faith. Typically speaking, atheists mean to criticize religious faith—which is belief in the doctrines of religion based on spiritual conviction instead of reason (Oxford Dictionary of English, 2005)—and nottrust or confidence in the reliability of a belief or claim (ODE, 2005). Alas, it seems Randal has been working under the assumption that the two forms of faith are one and the same, otherwise he’d agree with Sheridan’s initial criticism about blind faith, which he clearly doesn’t.

Again, I can’t help but see this as the semantics ploy of the apologist to rhetorically strong hand the reader into agreeing with them. Conflate religious faith and common faith, ignoring the distinction between the variant usages of the term, and then say atheists are guilty of dismissing faith too easily (when in fact they are only dismissing one type of faith, religious faith). It seems a little dishonest, doesn't it? But if you’re familiar with Christian apologetics, you’ll find such semantic gymnastics all too familiar.

Randal is obviously using an apologetic tactic designed to sew semantic confusion in order to persuade the reader. It works because people who are in confusion typically want to come to a definitive conclusion, so the trick is to get their head spinning long enough to give them a nudge so they come down on your side of things.

But let’s not be fooled, we’re clearly talking about very different kinds of faith.

Right after a brief description of how scientists rely on faith (i.e., trust) Randal exclaims that belief, faith, and reason are all tangled up. 

This is more or less true, as far as common experience goes, but Randal has in mind religious experience as well, and there is a reason that religious faith is defined as being predicated on conviction and not reason, because it is. 

So although Randal isn’t wrong here with regard to general, every day, faith—he is still mixing up two very different kinds of faith. He even quotes Mark Twain’s definition of faith, which is: believing what you know ain’t true, and cites it as foolhardyBut Mark Twain was remarking on religious faith, the kind familiar to him in the pious South. So clearly Twain’s definition of faith has nothing to do with common trust and confidence in our everyday experiences but rather deals with the credulity of the religious believer.

Randal concludes chapter seven by affirming that “the starting point of knowledge is faith.”

This very well may be true. But knowledge is more complicated than just having faith in a belief proposition or not. Many different factors contribute to the formation of knowledge, and that also deserves its own grande conversation, for another time.

This concludes chapter seven. Chapter eight is entitled: So Which Beliefs Are “Properly Basic”? As you can guess by the title, Randal will be getting into some epistemology. 

Now I enjoy epistemology as much as the next person, but if it’s anything like this chapter, then I think we’re in for a real roller-coaster ride and a flurry of dizzying information, randomly selected out of thin air, all of it twisting and winding every which direction, tying us in knots, seemingly all at once. Are you up for it?

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist