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Can the so-called virtue of faith justifiably arrive at the truth? I think not. The whole justification part is absent from the exercise of faith. If science is a process of guess and check, then faith is just the guess part. And so I wonder: how can anyone call this mental blindness a virtue?

In the article “Unholy Alliance” from Discover magazine, I read this from George Coyne:

I did not tell Richard Dawkins that there was no reason to believe in God. I said reasons are not adequate. Faith is not irrational, it is arational; it goes beyond reason. It doesn’t contradict reason. So my take is precisely that faith, to me, is a gift from God. I didn’t reason into it, I didn’t merit it – it was given to me as a gift through my family and my teachers … Dawkins’s real question should be, ‘How come you have the gift of faith and I don’t?’ And that’s an embarassment for me. The only thing I can say is that either you have it and don’t know it, or God works with each of us differently, and God does not deny that gift to anybody. I firmly believe that.”

[Michael Mason:] “Are you saying that the Bible should not be held up to scientific scrutiny?”

“That is correct, absolutely.”

This is appalling thinking. If someone has to resort to calling faith a gift from God as the only way that we can righteously believe, it is the same as admitting that there are no actual reasons for believing.

(1) Faith can indeed be attached to a true belief that could not otherwise be justified by reason. (“it goes beyond reason.”) But faith only works as much as a guess does. For the most part (or the whole), faith gives you a wrong conclusion. There is no religion on Earth that holds the majority of the planet’s population, and so even if one is right the majority of the faithful are wrong. Thanks to faith. In super-general, the chances of faith being right is the number of true beliefs divided by the number of false beliefs. That’s practically zero.

(2) To accuse all atheists of secretly having faith in God is supremely arrogant and condescending. He apparently has enough faith to believe we’re all lying to everyone and to ourselves, and he firmly believes it.

(3) If the Bible shouldn’t be held up to scientific scrutiny, then we are restraining our right to think for ourselves. Freethought is fundamentally against this. Why can’t we investigate it? Isn’t a sincere investigation the right way to believe in something?

Beyond the belief sphere, there is the real world. How does faith work in practice? Can faith really be a good thing?

A virtue is something that leads a person to behave ethically and avoid causing suffering. So I wonder, is faith truly a virtue?

Faith in something that commands you to behave ethically will lead to good behavior. Faith in something that runs on hatred, fear, intolerance, bigotry, ignorance, or self-denial will lead to pain and suffering. And for “intellectual” faith – holding an amoral belief for the sake of belief – there is only misunderstanding, and that’s no good. Faith is only a virtue if you have faith in something virtuous in the first place. Thus, faith is not individually a virtue. It is not faith that leads you to good ethics, but rather the objects of faith.

Timothy Keller, in The Reason For God, gives a different definition of faith. (The book didn’t actually give a reason for God, just “deep clues.”) Keller attacks Dawkins for an epistemology he calls “strong rationalism,” which is where you ask for absolute proof of any belief before believing it. Obviously, no one could survive in the real world with strong rationalism. Keller suggests a better epistemology he calls “critical rationalism,” where you hold on to the belief or explanation that has the best evidence over competing ones. In this way, we have a sort of “faith” that goes “beyond reason,” in the sense of outside perfect proof. We hold provisional beliefs because we are without conclusive evidence of most things.

But Dawkins isn’t actually a strong rationalist. Dawkins invokes the ideas of probability and evidence, which suggests if the probability or evidence were sufficient enough for belief (to his eyes) he would believe. And most atheists aren’t asking for 100% proof of God – we’re asking for sufficient reason to believe. There have been some interesting attempts at giving us such reasons, but they have failed.

And this provisional belief that we hold under critical rationality is different from faith. Faith is blind, it does not relate to evidence at all. If you mix a little reason and faith together it still doesn’t justify belief. There is a reason faith is called a leap, and that is because it is the only way to get across a gap in logic to get to a desired belief.

Some apologists have even picked up on this. Have you ever heard the phrase “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist”? There is a bit of victorious irony in the reversal done with that statement. Supposedly, it’s to say that atheists who criticize faith are actually hypocritical. But it implicitly concedes the fact that faith is not a reliable epistemological method, and is in fact intellectually detestable. I wonder, do people who tout this clever quip for atheists feel good about their religion being called a “faith”? And what does it mean when we start seeing apologists losing faith in faith?

A Conversation

Einstein: "God does not play dice with the universe."
Bohr: "Einstein, stop telling God what to do!"