Belief without evidence (1 of 6): Skepticism versus religion

Religious believers believe things without sufficient evidence.

This is a common accusation leveled by skeptics of religion (and many other belief systems). Believers respond, in general, with one or both of the following tactics: “faith is a good thing” (the so-what response) and “skeptics have faith too; and anyway their faith is even more extreme than ours” (the I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I response).

Now, the first approach is simply silly and indefensible. For example, faith as belief-without-evidence* is categorically not a virtue. Perhaps I’ll spend some electrons elaborating on that some other time. But my position seems so self-evidently true that, for now, I’ll just assert it.

But the second approach has a kernel of truth in it. There are some things that even the most ardent skeptic accepts without evidence. Instead of the knee jerk response (“am not!”) that I am tempted to offer, I thought I’d take the accusation on in a more considered and honest manner.

I will begin by offering a frank list of some of the things (facts and values) I accept without rational evidence (and some I don’t).

Following that, I will compare this list to some things religious believers accept as true without rational evidence.

Finally, I will discuss why the skeptical list of assumptions is preferable to the religious list.

Naturally, I would like this to add up to an airtight case for religious skepticism. In my fantasy, everyone who reads it will end up agreeing with me. But, you know, feel free to point out how reality deviates from my fantasy. In particular, please tell me if you spot an error, omission, or whatever. (You can also tell me if you think I’m spot on – I like hearing that too.)

Footnotes:

* Yes, I know that “faith” can cover more than just “belief without evidence”. But the element of faith that skeptics object to is believing without evidence, and that is a key part of the broader definition of the word.

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7 Responses to “Belief without evidence (1 of 6): Skepticism versus religion”

  1. silenceofmind Says:

    Faith is the belief in that which cannot be proven.

    Therefore, atheism is a 100% faith-based belief just like the religions you are criticizing.

  2. Timothy Mills Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. I hope you will stick around for the remainder of this series, where I lay out how I see the similarities and differences between the humanism I defend and the religions I seek to understand.

  3. Hugo van der Merwe Says:

    I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with!

    I’ve wondered how much “faith in my own abilities” could line up with this. If I believe I can’t manage something, the chance of being able to manage it are smaller. If I believe I can do it, it helps with my motivation, focus and drive. But once done, in hindsight, I obviously have evidence that the belief was justified. (Or I fail, expecting to fail, and then have “evidence” that this was justified too. Self-fulfilling prophecy.) Which means this likely falls outside of the realm of things you’ll be considering.

    • Timothy Mills Says:

      That is outside of what I’m considering in this series, although it is a very important dimension to what people often mean by the word “faith”. I think that the faith you talk about is worth addressing – I’ll see if I can come up with something useful to say on that count.

  4. jasonincontemplation Says:

    I think the problem with the way you’re viewing religious faith lies in what you will and will not consider “sufficient evidence.” I think what you’re doing is trying to smuggle in materialism. “Only empirical evidence counts,” that’s what I hear you saying.

    As a Christian, I maintain that I have much more than evidence. I have spiritual proof that Christianity is true. If you do not like my claim, you are free to reject it, but I also reject your assertion that I believe what I believe on insufficient evidence.

    So rather than rehashing the weaknesses you see in Christian apologetic arguments, I suggest you do a deeply spiritual reading of the Bible with a good commentary. Perhaps you could discuss your impressions of the study in a series of posts. I recommend starting with the book of Romans and this excellent commentary:

    http://www.amazon.com/Epistle-Romans-New-Testament-Commentary/dp/0802843417/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1402287682&sr=8-4&keywords=Epistle+to+the+Romans

    • Timothy Mills Says:

      Jason, thanks for your thoughts. In fact, this series is meant to focus mainly on my own beliefs-without-evidence. I will touch on religious beliefs at the end, but I am not using this set of posts to directly criticize religion.

      I think what you’re doing is trying to smuggle in materialism. “Only empirical evidence counts,” that’s what I hear you saying.

      Well … yes, only empirical evidence counts. That seems pretty basic to me, but perhaps we’re working with different meanings of “empirical”. To me, any experience or sensation that a person can have is an empirical experience.

      When this approach is applied broadly to claims about the world, and claims are carefully tested using reason and an open mind, we get the best of modern philosophy and science.

      Depending on what you mean by materialism, my approach may or may not “smuggle in materialism”. Either way I don’t think I’m imposing an undue bias in my epistemology. Either you make claims that I can test in my own life, in which case I will weigh them according to my own experience, understanding, and values; or you make claims that I cannot test in my own life, in which case I am unlikely to care.

      Applying the basic empirical filter to claims tends to leave religious claims in the “unproven” or “false” category. As far as I can see, this is because of weaknesses in the religious claims, not in the epistemology used to evaluate them.

      Please let me know what you think, and point out any errors you see in my reasoning.

  5. jasonincontemplation Says:

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. My response has grown into a post of its own. If you’d like to have a look, it’s here:

    http://jasonincontemplation.wordpress.com/2014/06/11/responding-to-belief-without-evidence-1-of-6-skepticism-versus-religion/

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