Friday 8 June 2012

Is Faith Reasonable?

Image from True Belief Comics

This was the title of an event organised by Church Central and Oasis Church. I’d been invited by my friend who was the main speaker of the night, Jonny Mellor. The format was to listen to short talks on whether faith is reasonable, eat some food and ask questions. It was a very good event and I enjoyed it thoroughly.  Jonny is a charismatic guy in both senses of the word and I’ll try to put down some of his arguments here with some of my ideas.

Apologies to Jonny if I miss out or misrepresent some of his points, I’m working from scraps of paper I borrowed on the night and scrawled rough thoughts upon. But I’ll point him in the way of this post and he can always comment. To be fair to him, he was covering a wide range of ideas in a very short time so he couldn’t be as nuanced as I know he can be. He expressed these ideas much more fully than I am allowing for here. Hopefully the two of us will be recording a discussion for the currently dormant Birmingham Skeptics Podcast sometime in July. The nub of his main points are in bold italics.

There are aspects of science that can’t be proven but scientists continue as if they are true and base their work around them. There are then at least some elements of science that are comparable to faith and are therefore not superior in terms of being more reasonable.

His examples of this are the proposed existence of dark matter and the Higgs Boson particle. He states that both of these phenomena are required by scientists to make sense of the universe, but neither of them can be proven or observed, like God. 
This argument totally misrepresents the scientific view.

The examples might be considered by many scientists to be the best current explanation of observable phenomena but they aren’t sitting back and writing them down in sacred text books that can never be altered. The Large Hadron Collider isn’t a vast technological temple to the glory of an immutable scientific deity. It is an experiment that might, amongst the mass of data it produces, indicate the existence of the Higgs and place that piece into the jigsaw of the standard model. But what if they don’t find it, what if they find indications of a totally different explanation for mass and matter? Well then we will be living through a scientific paradigm change and most scientists will be thrilled and not dismayed at this. The same holds true for the existence or not of dark matter, it is the best current explanation that a large number of scientists accept at this point in time, but that might well change.

If you think of science as being similar to religion then you might think that it imposes its laws upon the world. But it isn’t and it doesn’t. So-called scientific laws have been tested and tend to get called that because we know that trial after trial they will give us the same result. That’s why your aeroplane tends to lift off the ground and your house doesn’t drift off into outer space. Science doesn’t demand that you accept these laws; you are welcome to test them yourself. In fact we all do and we live with them every second of every day. Some of the experiments require a bit of extra equipment, we can’t all have our own rockets or colliders, and at this point science can leave a lot of us behind. But no matter what one scientist is doing, there are a host of others trying to copy them or reading their reports looking for the mistakes. Science doesn’t work on blind acceptance and unquestioning orthodoxy it works on peer review and evidence.

You can take any so-called scientific law or theory and you can devise some process by which you can prove it isn’t true. You can define some set of criteria that if fulfilled or unfulfilled will show that the theory fails. If faith is the same as science, what are the experiments that we can use, how shall we falsify God?

Our experience shows us that all things have an origin and a cause and therefore the universe and humankind must have a cause. The simplest and most logical explanation for the first cause is God.

This is a reiteration of the cosmological argument and cosmology is a good arena for Jonny as many of the scientific edges are blurred. Like most, if not all, arguments in this sphere it has been echoed again and again. Jonny is a clever man with a background in philosophy and theology, he knows his stuff here.

The first standard counter is to ask who caused God? This doesn’t work if you’ve accepted as true the initial term of the argument “first cause”; as by definition it is then first and therefore needs no cause in itself. But I don’t really see why you need to accept that as it is a philosophical construct and not based on any observation of reality. As far as I am concerned asking who created God is a totally valid question.

There is also the problem that it is too simplistic to compare the circumstances of the origin of the universe with those in the present. To say that because our universe behaves in this way now it must have done so back then, and infer from that the existence of a deity is not in itself logical or reasonable.

Jonny points out that the scientific “belief” in the big bang doesn’t make sense as there is no explanation of what caused it and scientists therefore have faith in their explanations.  As with the initial argument, scientists don’t have to have faith and do what they can to test their theories, to gather evidence. They can't explain the origin of the universe as science has limits, but that doesn’t mean we need to create a metaphysical entity that has no cause in itself to be the ultimate cause and then call that the most logical argument.

There are many more variations to the cosmological argument, all with counters and counters to the counters. For me it’s not an argument likely to change minds as there is nothing tangible on either side that will convince people away from their starting point. It’s an interesting philosophical diversion though and a quick search on Google will throw up lots more information on it.

Without an absolute deity there can be no objective morality. If we have made up the rules that we live by, why do we need to obey them, why can’t we just do what we want including rape and murder? 
This is the argument from morality and is the one that Jonny puts forward with the most passion. It is also the one that gets me the closest to feeling angry. He doesn’t deny that it is possible for atheists to live what appears to be a moral life, but he fails to understand why they should, where the “ought” imperative comes from.

He cites the Nuremberg Trials where the appeal to a higher law was used to overcome the defence that the accused had been following the legal mandates in effect during the rule of Hitler. This apparently shows that we acknowledge in our being a divine law and sense of justice that must come from an external deity. It can’t have evolved as evolution is about the survival of the fittest and taking what you want whereas morality is protecting others and being just.

Where to begin? Evolution is not about survival of the fittest it is about the eventual survival of some random mutations that give a benefit to the possessor and are therefore continued and spread. This can and does often involve traits that promote cooperation and mutual protection; at a cellular level let alone amongst complex organisms such as ourselves. Human beings as a species are much more successful as a society and societies are much more successful when they have rules. Those rules form over long periods of time and in the days of magic and superstition how much better if those rules were backed up by an invisible being that would punish transgression?

I find much of the language of religion to be dishonest in this sphere. Christians talk of their God as loving and just, but these words don’t mean the same as we understand them. Morality for them can’t be about how we act as actions are nothing in themselves. An atheist can live a selfless life helping their fellow human being and it will ultimately mean nothing to certain types of Christians, for without faith God will still damn them to eternal punishment come judgment time. How is that just, how is that loving?

There is no need for an objective morality, we live and are formed as part of a society that instils in us a code of conduct, a sense of right and wrong. We don’t need the threat of hell to know that rape is wrong. If we were raised in a different society where rape and murder were considered fine we would think that way. Look hard enough through time and across the globe and you will find societal variations of moral codes and imperatives. It is unlikely that you will find many that outright condone murder and rape, but perhaps that proves how poor a survival trait for any society that would be. I might be replacing the moral impositions of a deity with the programming of a society here but so what, does that make it less valid? I can think about my actions, I can understand why I act this way, I know that it works and I don’t need God to tell me it is right.

There is a stark contrast between the harsh moral legislature of the Old Testament and that of the New. The change in religious tone is the change in a society reflected in its God, not the other way round. The codification of these moral injunctions may once have served a purpose for binding a people together but it surely now acts to separate us and to tether us to ideals that were set down hundreds if not thousands of years ago when the experiences and needs were very different to ours.

I don’t want to give the idea that this, or any other of the arguments used are simplistic and stupid. They’ve exercised theologians, philosophers and people in pubs for centuries and will continue to do so. This is already an overly long blog post but I could easily have stretched any of these points on for another few thousand words. I doubt that anything that I’ve said here has changed anybody’s minds and that tends to be the case with this kind of argument.

I’m not sure if the initial question should have been “Is Faith Rational?” rather than reasonable. It’s a semantic point perhaps but worth a thought. I can reasonably expect people from certain backgrounds and circumstances to have faith, but that doesn’t make it rational. I have as much respect, perhaps more in some ways, for those that don’t bother to try and justify their faith in rational terms. Faith is that which requires no proof, something that bypasses logic and mundane experience. It’s a step into the supernatural and if you take it, for whatever reason, you relinquish in part any claim to full rationality. 

This blog post was written by Patrick Redmond (@paddyrex).

1 comment:

Andy said...

Excellently written, Patrick. I think your final point sums it up beautifully. Regarding the morals issue: it's instructive to consider the relatively low percentage of atheists in US prisons to see how the evidence contradicts the God-given morality argument of the religious protagonists. And that's only the tip of the iceberg...