Justified faith

Today I’d like to continue my look at religious faith. I’m currently reading Richard Carrier’s Sense and Goodness without God, and in it he makes a very reasonable point about what justifies faith. In a nutshell, we can have faith in something if it has proven to be reliable in the past.

In my lifetime, the sun has risen almost 14,000 times. This means that I am justified in having faith that it will rise again. In fact, given the precision of the sun’s repeated rise, I am justified in having faith that it will rise again at a very specific time.

Crucially, though, the reliability of the sunrise does not justify faith in any specific causal mechanism behind it. The reliability of the sun, in other words, does not tell me much about what causes it to rise. The best I can infer from the strict periodic nature of this phenomenon is that it must be governed by some periodic mechanism.

Instead, if I want to discover the mechanism responsible for the sunrise, I must investigate the sunrise much more closely. Luckily, astute scientists before me have done the work and the result, as everyone knows, is that the sun rises because the earth is spherical and spins on a central axis, causing objects in the sky to appear as if they are moving across it, and therefore rising and setting.

To recap, then, there are two important features of justified faith:

1. Experience of a phenomenon is what justifies our faith in its future occurrence.

2. Justified faith doesn’t usually tell us much about the cause behind the thing we have faith in.

Let’s look at how these points apply to religious faith. I will use the definition of faith that some of my Christian friends have recently provided for me: to have faith is to trust that God will do what he promises to do. Let’s look at the answering of prayer as an example. Is faith in God’s ability to answer prayer justified?

To start, let’s look at point 1 above: What experience do we have of God answering prayers? Only if God has reliability answered prayers in the past can we have faith that he will do so again in the future. If there is no sign of his having answered prayers in the past, then what could possibly warrant our faith in his promise to do so?

As I’ve discussed on this blog before, there seems little evidence that God answers prayers. What people pray for sometimes comes to pass, and sometimes it doesn’t. God of course gets a free pass here, because he’s allowed to ignore our prayers if they go against his will. So when it boils right down to it, there is no indication at all that prayers are answered. As many good things happen to Christians as happen to atheists and Buddhists and Muslims. As many bad things happen to Christians as happen to atheists and Buddhists and Muslims. It’s a wash.

On the first point, then, faith in the answering of prayer is not justified.

On the second point, we see that even if prayers did seem to be answered, this would only justify faith in the answering of those prayers, not on any particular explanation for why they were being answered. It could, in fact, be some other god than the Christian god who was answering the prayers, or there could be some entirely natural explanation.

The same results apply to other promises that God has made. God promises to save the faithful. But what experience do we have of this occurring? How many people have died and then returned to tell us that they had, in fact, been saved, and were living with God? In fact, wee have no reliable experience whatsoever of people going to be with God after their death. In fact, we have no experience that would suggest the existence of any sort of afterlife at all (near death experiences are now understood to be a psychological response to the shut-down of certain brain functions).

Once again, then, faith in an afterlife with God is not justified.

And the list goes on.

This leads me to conclude that religious faith is not about using one’s past experience to form reasonable expectations about the future. It’s much more about what the believer wishes will happen in the future. Religious faith, in other words, is the hope that one’s desired explanation will turn out to be the right one, whether there is evidence backing it up or not.

We all do this. Even scientists hope that their favorite hypotheses will turn out to be true. Luckily for the rest of the world, though, scientists don’t cling to their favorite hypotheses when the research demonstrates them to be false.  Much of civilization, including all technological and medical advances, rely on scientists avoiding unjustified faith in their ideas.

Fortunately, most religious traditions can practice unjustified faith without causing much harm. In fact, it can even promote much good. But sometimes the harm is there: violent conflict between two unjustified faiths occurs often, and is surely one of the most futile exercises ever conducted by mankind: a battle over whose false worldview is better.

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