Living in Faith v.s. Living Together

Guest Author: Don Severs (reposted due to server errors)

Have you ever had a friend in an abusive relationship?  We feel love and compassion for them, but also a mix of disgust and impatience.  How could they settle for such an unworthy situation?  How can they not see it the way others do?

The answer, of course, is that our friend is on the inside.  We’re not.  The view is always very different from the outside.  This is one of the arguments for religious faith, that you can only understand it when you already have it.  It’s a gift, like being in love, that we don’t have to explain to those who don’t have it.  We can’t explain it.  If they had it, they would understand.  Believers want to say that we commit an error when we critique faith without having it.  Let’s call this the Faith Fallacy.

But this is also what makes faith a problem in society.  We live with people, so our motivations and decisions should follow rules that are communicable to others.  When they aren’t, we are not really in relationship and there is no contract between people; our actions and the reasons for them appear more like the weather.  Our friends need to know what drives us, but there is nothing negotiable in religious faith.  It’s a unilateral position that others simply need to accept or navigate around.  It’s anti-social.  In relationships, our reasons have to be mutually understandable and negotiable.  These are not words that describe faith.

Back to our friend.  Let’s say she’s a Christian.  That places her in relationship with Yahweh and Jesus.  What do we know about those guys?  Lest we fall victim to prejudice, let’s get all our information from our friend.  When I ask Christians what they believe, the most common thing I hear is this:  “Jesus died for our sins”.  This statement is full of assumptions, so  let’s unpack it.

First, “Jesus died for” implies that vicarious atonement is possible and desirable.  Yet we never do this in our culture.  When a crime is committed, we punish the perpetrator.  No one can come forward and volunteer to do time for another.  That wouldn’t be just or fair.  To see this, all we have to do is replace the cast of characters with humans.

Let’s say you are justly accused of a crime.  You await punishment, but the judge, in his mercy, tells you that he has decided to let you off the hook.  But he’s not going to just forgive you.  He still requires that someone be punished.  In fact, he’s going to arrange the torture (let’s say with leatherworking tools) and death of his own son, an innocent man, so that you can go free.

Are you grateful?  Perhaps, but we would also be repulsed at the injustice of such an arrangement.  And we would be concerned about the young man.  And we would question the morals of the judge.  At minimum, this is a dysfunctional ruling that wouldn’t survive on appeal.  At worst, the judge is off his nut and should be committed himself.

Second, we have “sins”.  What sins did Jesus die for?  His sacrifice was for everyone, so what sins has a 3 month old committed?  Or a disabled 20 year old who has never been out of her bed or off her ventilator?  The usual theological explanation is Original Sin, or the ‘curse of Adam’.  Adam was disobedient, so we are all responsible and must be punished.  Again, we just don’t do this in our culture.  Guilt does not flow down the generations, or from one person to another.  It may have in some cultures, but this idea is certainly outdated, to say the least.

Ah, but wait.  We are committing the Faith Fallacy.  We are looking at this arrangement from the outside.  When we view it from the judge’s point of view, it’s a beautiful, compassionate sacrifice of incredible mercy.  If you would only buy into it, you’d see it that way, too.  And you would wear miniature leatherworking tools around your neck and kneel before giant leatherworking tools in prayer and erect enormous leatherworking tools on the pinnacles of your buildings, all in honor of this immeasurable and poignant sacrifice.  Did I mention that I’m sacrificing my own son?  That’s, like, the most loving thing a father can do.

How do we react to such an idea?  It depends on our vantage point.  From the outside, it’s clearly malignant.  When we’re inside, the view is very different.

Lawyers, doctors, judges and police officers sometimes recuse themselves from working on cases because they are too close to them.  We all recognize that personal or family involvement can prejudice us in ways we can’t detect or resist.  In religious faith, this wisdom is reversed.  Here, the prejudice and loss of perspective that come from being too close are declared to be virtues.  In fact, they are requirements to get on board with certain ideas at all.

This is why I say religious faith requires a halo.  Not the angelic kind, but the rigid metal ones that screw into your skull to hold your head in one position.  If you shift out of that position, the appearance of your belief will change radically, often in ugly ways.  So, it is vital that we keep our vision fixed in just the right way so that

Vicarious atonement appears just and fair.

Torturing and killing an innocent man seems loving.

The option of simply dropping the charges against us without a blood sacrifice is not even noticed.

The whole Christian project depends on Yahweh’s bloodlust, but it equally depends on this fact being invisible from the inside.  A blood sacrifice is simply required, but the focus is on God’s mercy in punishing Jesus in our place.  “You don’t know Him like I do.  He doesn’t want to punish us.  He’s actually a really loving guy.”

This is why stepping outside the faith and asking questions is bad form.  Religious faith is a sort of hologram that disappears when you shift your perspective.  It relies on a fixed vantage point that is only available when you already believe it.  Faith has evolved several companion behaviors, like a posse of lampreys accompanying a shark, that deflect and discourage analysis from the outside.

One is taking offense.  When someone asks a reasonable question, but one that comes from the outside, believers often take offense.  This hijacks our existing cultural norm of courtesy.  People are conditioned to back off when they offend someone.  But asking a question from the outside of faith is not offensive, it is reasonable.  But it is reasonable from the social perspective:  “I want to understand you better, so I have a question about your faith.”  But believers aren’t operating from a social perspective; they are inside their faith.  Misapplying ‘taking offense’ is a ploy, like a squid squirting ink.  They weren’t offended; they were flat-footed.  You asked a question for which they had no answer.

James Carse says that ‘belief is where thinking stops’.  It has to be.  Belief systems are closed systems of answers.  That is one of their main offerings:  “Believe this way and you’ll have a complete worldview; your search is over.”  Bombs of curiosity coming from over the horizon have to be deflected, and misapplying ‘taking offense’ is a survival tactic.  To the frustrated believer, they shouldn’t have to deflect outside inquiries.  It’s only necessary because there are still some poor souls outside their bubble.  It’s a pity, but nonbelievers can never understand what they have.  The only answer to questions from outsiders is “you’re not supposed to ask such questions”.

Another is willful ignorance.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with ignorance; we all have it.  Recognizing our ignorance is the beginning of knowledge.  But willful ignorance has nothing to do with that.  Its aim is to preserve a belief in the face of contrary evidence.  We all do this, too, to some degree.  In science, we have mechanisms like peer review, repeatability and double-blind studies to counter human weaknesses.  But willful ignorance avoids those corrective measures, too.  Beliefs are selfish this way.  They want only to survive and they have evolved defenses for self-preservation, facts be damned.  And getting along with others has to be secondary, too.

Fielding outside questions is built into science.  It is actively discouraged in religious faith.  Science promotes open standards, while faith sprouts walled gardens that are inherently, and by design, inaccessible to outsiders.

Which approach is most helpful on lifeboat Earth?  There is one scenario where faith is socially feasible:  when there is only one faith.  If everyone were Muslim, for example, then the walled garden of faith would have no outsiders.  If everyone were Christian, it might work, but we would still have to settle on which Christian sect to choose.  And notice I said “socially feasible”; religious social systems are feasible, but autocratic.

There is no solution involving religious faith that is compatible with a free civilization.  To live together, our worldviews must be accessible and understandable to others.  Scientific Naturalism offers such a worldview.  Religious faith spawns myriad, incompatible ones.  Persisting in faith means walling ourselves off at a time when we can only survive by working together.

Most religious believers are in dysfunctional relationships with abusive gods.  The gifts of faith are great, but come at an even greater price.  Believers have been trained not to see things from the outside.  To rejoin the wider world, they need to step outside their faith so that they can share, and answer, our concerns.

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  • Donald Severs

    Some follow-up thoughts:

    William James defined religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”

    Utterly subjective, through and through. This is the issue. Do we base our worldview on subjectivity and mystify our fellow man; or do we seek and develop a common worldview, limiting ourselves to claims that are communicable to others?

    In our age, personal liberty is paramount, so we hate to be told what to think, even by nature. Further, postmodernism leaves us feeling that there is no sure knowledge. As Simon Blackburn points out in “Truth: A Guide”, there are two main reactions to this situation. We can plant our stake in foundational claims; or change philosophies as we change our clothes: anything goes.

    I think science offers the best route between the horns of this dilemma.

  • Brandon

    There is no solution involving religious faith that is compatible with a free civilization. To live together, our worldviews must be accessible and understandable to others.

    The above statement is entirely false. Unless you have built walls around yourself, and only let people that share your world view in; you will see you live and work with people who have different views than you and it can work just fine. That’s where tolerance and understanding come in.

    It is a very elitist and arrogant lie to say scientific naturalism offers the only world view that we can unite under. We don’t have to unite under one world view. How about we unite under you don’t harm me and my property, and I won’t harm you and yours, you don’t infringe on my rights, I won’t infringe on yours. That can exist across faiths and non-faiths and across world views.

  • Don Severs

    >you will see you live and work with people who have different views than you and it can work just fine.

    It depends on the view. I can love chocolate for no reason. But if I say the creator of the universe talks to me and is obsessed with your sex life, I really need a good reason. Good reasons are scientific reasons in every area of human cooperation. Except religion.

    >It is a very elitist and arrogant lie to say scientific naturalism offers the only world view that we can unite under.

    I agree it sounds elitist. But scientific naturalism isn’t one of the world’s religions, and they routinely claim to have sole possession of the truth. SM is not an authority. It is the way we listen to nature, and nature is the authority, but no man made it that way. If you want to complain of elitism, take it up with nature.

    As long as we admit there are facts about the world and that it is possible to make judgments between claims, science is the best way to do that. Every religious believer I know agrees with this in every area except religion.

    If your accountant said his figures were based on faith, you would fire him or charge him with a crime. We don’t tolerate faith claims in neurosurgery or flying airplanes. The main reason we tolerate faith is to avoid conflict. We hope against hope that the beliefs of other people won’t leak out and cause trouble. This hope is in vain because people vote and they raise children.

  • Don Severs

    The philosopher, William Clifford, has this to say:

    “No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action.”

    I’m willing to grant that some (trivial) beliefs can be kept private and remain benign, but not all of them. What I’m concerned with is when religious beliefs intrude into the civic sphere. But the allied point is this: many progressive, liberal religious people seem to hold that we can coexist indefinitely with people who hold incompatible worldviews. They place all their hopes on ‘tolerance’.

    First, many religious believers we are trying to get along with don’t share our love of tolerance. They benefit by it, but don’t reciprocate. They use our liberalism to advance their fascism. This is going on in Europe and the UK right now as Islam uses Western-style freedoms to push for Sharia law. We shouldn’t let our great virtues be exploited in this way. We need to be smart about it. We should be tolerant of most things, but not of anti-social belief systems. Sharia law is not compatible with Western democracies and we shouldn’t let ‘respect’ or ‘tolerance’ blind us to this fact. Christian supremacy is in the same category.

    Second, there is no good reason to be tolerant of claims that are at odds with known facts, or that require that we embrace contradictions. Most people I know believe in a loving, omnipotent god. I love many of those people, but I don’t respect that idea, because it is an impossibility (due to the fact of human suffering). To hold that belief is to say you are a married bachelor. Religion has trained us to think embracing contradiction is reasonable. It’s not.

  • anti_supernaturalist

    Science can no longer be snuffed out by theocrats and thugs

    As far as I can tell from numerous religious and atheist blogs, bloggers and responders alike do not understand philosophy well enough to discuss an alleged dogma of science, so called ‘naturalism’.

    Fundies would love to slap the label “naturalism” (or even more stupidly “materialism” ) on the foreheads of practicing scientists and on scientific texts and monographs. They see science as presupposing an atheistic philosophy called ‘naturalism’ which rules xian metaphysical claims out of court by fiat. In other words, naturalism is an alternative religion to be attacked and thereby attack the foundations of science.

    • Here’s a bit of aid, even comfort, for fundies who cannot speak about reality because they cannot use philosophical concepts coherently.

    1. Watch those conceptual mistakes. Fundies who see everything in terms of their narrow gauge perspective simply cannot tell the difference between a religion and a philosophy. They fall into the classical trap of a “category mistake” — that is, they put ideas into wrongly labeled buckets. Their gross error treats philosophical viewpoints as if they were religious.

    A philosophical viewpoint does not present anything to “believe in”. There are no dogmas, creeds, rites, rituals, no priesthood, no holy texts, no scheming institutions making illegitimate claims to secular power.

    Philosophy presents rational arguments — it uses reason and does not base itself upon faith, trust, belief. No one “converts” to a rational philosophical viewpoint — everyone is welcome to disagree by showing good reasoning about what seems problematical. There is no room in philosophy for ultimate irrational assertions like “Well, if you don’t accept my viewpoint, you’ll be damned forever.”

    2. Remove bias toward religion. Part of fundie blindness is deep bias toward belief structures — and a completely worthless presupposition of religious superiority. What any person thinks about a matter of fact is irrelevant to its truth. Pointing to an alleged social bias in the US towards religion merely points to a cultural practice of indoctrination by parents, schools, media and society.

    3. Stop using cliche. The phrase “metaphysical naturalism” attempts to bias through association with use of highly ambiguous words ‘metaphysical / metaphysics’.

    ‘Metaphysics’ can refer to many thought structures from witchcraft to magic, from cargo cult to mormon christology, from Parmenides’ universal monad to A. N. Whitehead’s process philosophy. Astrology and tarot card reading are popularly dismissed as “mere metaphysics” — that seems to be the unspoken attitude of fundies towards a view they label ‘naturalism’.

    • Scientific naturalism does not exist

    Fundies have no idea about the conceptual status of scientific statements. Science offers no certainty about any of its views, however well attested. Only fundies seem to need high levels of reassurance that what they read in ancient texts is “for certain” the word of “God.”

    Following Popper, a statement to be empirical must be falsifiable. Certainty is a chimera — certainty is an illusion chased by Greek philosophy, and injected into xianity from middle neo-Platonic thought, early 3rd century CE. (Ultimately however xian “certainty” always resorts to and reduces to fideism.)

    If ‘naturalism’ implies that theoretical entities in science provide an ontology for philosophy; then, naturalism simply cannot exist. The current state of science will never lead to any final state.

    • Solid (certain) knowledge of the world is impossible

    “Naturalism” in science seems best described as a heuristic. As a principle related to Occam’s Razor — it would be a touchstone for method in science generally — do not multiply theoretical entities needlessly nor invoke new forces without observable change in behavior or relationships among processes in the world.

    The whole supernatural realm of beings, objects, processes, and their relationships even if it existed, would have no standing in science because it does not leave any empirical trail.

    “Naturalism” understood this way is not hostile to xian metaphysics — just indifferent to it. Absolutely the correct attitude towards any xian metaphysical claim.

    But this is mere foreground, a fundie fog machine.

    • Truth is irrelevant to fundies.

    The “religious” issue is secular political power. True believers across the US demand that scientific knowledge should be dictated by some ideology rooted in 16th century Protestantism, or 13th century Catholicism, or 12th century Islam. These sheep are the theocrats’ dupes of choice.

    Atavistic irrationality could stop science in the US — as it stopped German science under the Nazis, as it stopped Soviet biology, history, and psychology under Communism.

    Scientists will emigrate to freedom elsewhere. The US may enter another dark age of xian ignorance enforced by the state, but the world is no longer coterminous with territory politically influenced by the Big-3 monster theisms. Science can no longer be snuffed out for a thousand years.

    The de-deification of scientific discourse about nature is a task for the next 100 years.

    the anti_supernaturalist