Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Question of Faith

"Faith" is a term that has many nuances of meaning. It connotes belief in someone or something. It implies confidence and trust in its object. It is up to reasonable people to infer the condition that faith should be based on evidence and experience. Although it is a perfectly good word, it has been tainted by its religious use. Religions call for unquestioning obedience to dogmatic principles that have no rational justification. They ask for faith without factual evidence and offer no experiential basis for trust. Religion provides no better justification for faith than anecdotal evidence and appeals to nebulous spiritual ideas. This kind of faith has no practical application to the real world. In fact, religious faith can make people act contrary to common sense. For example, someone who has faith in God may believe that they are more likely to get a better job by praying for it than by improving their employability through education, experience and appearance.

To counter such disparaging remarks about their dogmatic faith, religious people (especially fundamentalists) sometimes say that faith in science is the same thing as faith in God. This argument sounds hollow. Generally speaking, those who can be said to have “faith” in science don't have a blind belief in the infallibility of scientists or of the scientific results. I just don’t think "faith" is the best term to describe their confidence in science. I think it behooves us to use the words that best indicate what we intend to say. Only if you intend to convey a blind following of scientific dogma would you be correct in using the term "faith". But this isn’t usually how rational people think of science.

It simply isn’t necessary to have blind faith (unfounded belief) in science. Science proves itself every day. We are the beneficiaries of innumerable products and conveniences that have been brought about by science. Many diseases have been eradicated through science. None of this scientific knowledge came from God. And religious faith doesn’t produce any such results. With science, it becomes less about confidence and more about what is obvious. Whether God can be proven true or false is beside the point. Either way, the reality of nature is staring us right in the face. Historically, we have been able to make the most progress as a species when we weren't worshipping Gods but are working with nature and observable facts.

Life and the universe are mysterious and they give up their mysteries grudgingly. And it is good to be open to any way to achieve understanding. But it is questionable whether anything valuable can be learned by following ancient superstitions and myths. One big thing religion claims to do is help people live moral lives. Perhaps that’s true in some cases, but overall there is no basis for that claim. Statistically there is no positive correlation between morality and religious belief. Trying to live a good life is a noble thing. I personally think it imparts meaning to life in the process. However, it doesn't require God or religion to do so. Nor does it require science. But here, there is definitely a conflict between religion and science. It is expressed in the difference between trying to find meaning that makes us comfortable and trying to find meaning in reality. In the end, there may be no ultimate purpose or meaning to life. That doesn’t mean our lives are meaningless. It just means we have to find meaning in the experience of life itself.

The common view of the relationship between religion and science is that science attempts to answer the "how" and "what" questions of observable and verifiable phenomena, while religion attempts to answer the "why" questions that deal with morality and purpose. Actually, science looks to answer all relevant questions that deal with reality. Religion doesn’t really answer any questions although it claims to have all the answers. It gives us comforting stories with lots of nice sounding metaphors and analogies to our own human experience. It promises us rewards for good behavior. In contrast, science definitively answers many questions. But because science goes where the evidence leads, we don’t always find comforting and pleasant answers. Unlike religion, science doesn't start with a predetermined conclusion.

Religions claim to tell us where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going after this life. Science has answers to all these questions, but they don’t make us all feel warm and fuzzy. The reason answers to these big questions don't appeal to some people is that we sometimes don't like the simple, unvarnished truth. The answer appears to be that we have no external purpose and that each of us has to determine what we want our purpose to be. It’s simple, but not comforting. Imagining a more satisfying answer leads us to difficulty and often delusion.

Don’t get me wrong. Imagination is one of the greatest things mankind has. Science is advanced by our imagination. It takes imagination to come up with a "what if" question and then test our theories against the facts, especially in the face of "conventional wisdom" that tells us the answers lie elsewhere. It leads us to greater understanding of our existence and can usually lead us to consistent answers that everyone can use. Religion (organized or not) leads to a lot of possible but implausible answers. By its very nature, it cannot give us consistent, unambiguous answers with consistent results. But it can make us feel good. Science may not be appealing to some people because it is utilitarian instead of warm and comforting. But it has a track record that warrants faith in scientific answers.


Trog said...

Hey Will,

Found you from your link on the EA message board and I thought I'd come visit ;-)

I hold similar perspectives but came to them through entirely different avenues.

Anyhow, thanks for the blog and the insights.

My perspective is that a truly religious person does not comprehend what science means and when they try to speak in scientific terms they end up treating it as the thing they DO understand: Dogma. It's akin to describing color to someone who has never seen. Some seem to try to bridge the gulf by offering terms of "fellowship" as they've been shown, but more often then not, it just makes them sound parochial.

Anyway, I'll check back to see how your blog is doing from time to time.

Oh and I highly suggest Bill Bryson's "Short History of nearly Everything" as a non-threatening/easy to understand science primer for your book list.


Will Friday said...

Thanks Trog. I think you have a good point there. Religious people do tend to view science through a filter. I'll try to look at the Creation Museum done by with that in mind. I don't think that would apply to people like Dr. Francis Collins though.
I agree with you about Bill Bryson's book. I read it last year and I loved it. I gave copies to all my kids for Christmas.