Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “Atheists Have No Use for Faith”

So, we’re at the second last chapter in Bannister’s book, and this time the the topic is faith, and whether or not atheists need it or rely on it. The underlying argument that I think Bannister is going after here — remember, I’m not reading Bannister’s book, and so have to rely on Seidensticker’s summaries of what Bannister is saying — is the idea that the only rational beliefs — religious or no — are those that conform precisely to the evidence. And, if we accept that, then there is no room for faith.

Bannister’s example this time is this:

In today’s episode, our hero is about to enjoy a quiet lunch when he spots Fred, who looks shockingly thin. When offered some lunch, Fred not only rejects the idea but knocks our hero’s sandwich onto the ground. “Haven’t you heard of the Panini poisoner of Pimlico?” Fred asks. It turns out that Fred is terrified of eating a randomly poisoned sandwich. He refuses to put his faith in the government’s health and safety agency and won’t eat anything that’s not proven safe, though he’s starving himself by playing it safe.

Seidensticker quotes Bannister’s summary later:

“Faith is the opposite of reason!” may make a great bumper sticker or tweetable moment, but when it bangs into reality—the small matter of how each and every one of us lives, every day, in the real world—it fails spectacularly. Try if you wish to live a totally faith-free existence, but that will require doing nothing, going nowhere, and trusting no one. . . . Faith is part of the bedrock of human experience and one on which we rely in a million different ways every day.

Seidensticker summarizes Bannister’s position as demanding certainty, and from the quote that does seem like a fair criticism. If we look at the example story, it seems that the person refuses to eat because they see a possibility that the food might be poisoned and that they can’t be certain that it isn’t. Thus, Bannister seems to be arguing that unless we have certainty of something, believing it to be true requires an act of faith. This does seem to be incorrect, as it is reasonable to say that if we know — or are justified in believing that we know — that something is true, then it isn’t an act of faith to act on it, and knowledge — or at least justification — doesn’t and can’t rely on certainty. And so, it seems, if Seidensticker wanted to go after Bannister here, he’d make a move along those lines: the things that atheists rely on that are not certain are, nonetheless, things we know, and so atheists don’t rely on faith.

Of course, that’s not what Seidensticker will do, or at least not to that extent. Instead of trying to defend the atheist argument, he’ll go on the offensive, trying to argue that Bannister is equivocating — and Seidensticker implies that it’s deliberate — on the meaning of the word “faith”:

Predictably, he’s determined to obfuscate the word “faith.” In fact, it can mean two different things:

  • Faith can be belief that follows from the evidence. This belief would change if presented with compelling contrary evidence, and it is often called “trust.”
  • Or, faith can be belief not held primarily because of evidence and little shaken in the face of contrary evidence; that is, belief neither supported nor undercut by evidence. “Blind faith” is in this category, though it needn’t be as extreme as that.

Acknowledging these two categories, assigning different words to them (may I suggest “trust” and “faith”?), and exploring the different areas where humans use them isn’t where apologists want to go. In my experience, they benefit from the confusion. They want to say that faith can be misused, but we’re stuck with it, which allows them to bolster the reputation of faith while it opens the door to the supernatural.

The problem with this is that, if we reference my above summary of the atheist argument, “trust” doesn’t seem to fit it very well at all. It’s hard to imagine that someone could be claimed to really trust someone if they only trusted or believed them precisely as far as the evidence they had suggested. We do seem to argue that to really trust someone means trusting them in cases where there isn’t sufficient evidence to know that they are going to or not going to do a certain thing, and in fact even when the evidence suggests that they might violate our trust. If we only trusted someone to not violate our trust when we knew that they wouldn’t or couldn’t, it wouldn’t seem like we actually trust them. You could hardly be said to trust your spouse not to cheat on you if any time there was any indication they might or even might be in a position to do so you at least no longer trusted them not to, for example. So at a minimum, even “trust” seems to involve trusting someone beyond what the evidence strictly says, a fact that Seidensticker acknowledges by having to add on “… if presented with compelling contrary evidence (emphasis added)”.

But this gives the game away, because adding that last part on gives theists a way out, by arguing that the counter evidence offered by atheists is not compelling. A good many theists make this exact claim, and I have to admit that I’m on their side; the evidence offered by atheists is not compelling. Seidensticker’s position is further undermined by his earlier entry in this series of post where he argued against atheists having the burden of proof. If atheists really had compelling counter evidence, then there would be no argument over the burden of proof; they’d be able to meet any reasonable burden of proof and so would have their conclusions proven. So on what grounds can Seidensticker claim that the typical theist is acting on what he calls “blind faith” rather than on what he calls “trust”?

The only move he can make here is to argue that all of the examples of what we’d call “trust” are cases where we are making inferences from previous evidence, and thus using induction to get knowledge. This risks turning trust into knowledge, but it isn’t even a good counter to theists, given the arguments that theists often make. Inferring a God from our observations of the world is just as much induction as what atheists would be doing, and so again he’d face the need for compelling counter evidence. The most he can do is try to argue that those who believe based only on the Bible don’t have that sort of reason … but then he’d have to get into a deep analysis of when it’s okay to believe based only on a purportedly historical document, which we’ll touch on in the last post. Suffice it to say, things aren’t as simple as Seidensticker seems to believe.

Seidensticker can also claim that theists are actually immune to counter evidence, but he’d have to establish this in principle and not just based on what evidence atheists typically try to muster against theists. For example, he can trot out the quotes that if a scientific and religious claim clashed, some theists say that they’d trust their religion over science, but this doesn’t work because a) that’s just a clash over what methods they most trust and b) most theists will actually try to reconcile the two so that they don’t have to choose between them. And, at the end of the day, Seidensticker would have to argue that theists are ignoring compelling evidence to maintain their belief, which again he has not been willing to do.

Seidensticker’s final move would be to claim that theists have far too much confidence in their belief given the evidence they have. Sure, it might be okay to believe in God based on the evidence they have, but the notion of faith is to raise their confidence in that belief to the level of knowledge, if not to the level of certainty. While atheists may still be more confident in their “trusting” beliefs than the evidence would strictly permit, they also have a lot more evidence for those beliefs. Even in cases where they might seem to be holding an irrational belief in the face of evidence, they still base it on, at least, a long-standing experience with the person and a feeling that they know them well, and in the case of science with a past history of it working out. Thus, the theistic “faith” is more problematic because that extra confidence on less evidence also makes it more resistant to change than it ought to be.

If Seidensticker had actually made that argument, he might have a point. But this is still problematic because at this point the difference is not one of kind as Seidensticker asserts, but of degree. Thus, we might very well be able to find cases where the “trust” of the atheists is just as much “faith” as that of the theists, and that possibility destroys Seidensticker’s argument. It may be the case that the theists’ faith is a problematic case of faith, a case where their faith is misplaced or misused, but that faith is still not unreasonable because it’s faith, and so Bannister’s point that atheists do rely on faith and that the fact that sometimes it’s misused or misplaced does not mean that faith is invalid holds. Thus, from there Seidensticker would have to focus on demonstrating that in that specific case faith is being misused, but not only is that not what the original atheist argument argues, but that conclusion would also go against what Seidensticker himself says in the quote above.

Bannister moves on to Christian applications of faith. He imagines falling down a cliff and reaching for a branch to save himself. “What I know [about trees] can’t save me; rather, I have to put my facts to the test and exercise my faith. Now what goes for the tree goes for everything else in life. Facts without faith are causally effete, simply trivia, mere intellectual stamp-collecting.”

Here again, the comparison fails. Botanists are in agreement on the basic facts about trees, but not even Christians agree among themselves about the basic facts about God. First let’s get a reasonably objective factual foundation for your hypothesis and then we can worry about accepting it. You haven’t gotten off the ground.

So, as far as I can see it, Bannister’s point here is that nothing that he knows about trees will let him know that grabbing that branch while he’s falling will save him. The branch might not be strong enough. He might be falling too quickly for the branch to hold. The branch might have been weakened by something. So what Bannister suggests is that we need to act on our beliefs — ie “exercise our faith” — and then see what happens. To me, this is the heart of what a reasonable “everyday reasoning” implies: form beliefs, act in the world as if they are true, and if contradictions occur adjust accordingly. And such an approach seems to be the best we can do; for everyday reasoning and thus the majority of our beliefs, we don’t have the time and resources to test them out entirely before acting on them, and acting on them is usually pretty good at weeding out the ones that are false. I don’t think this requires faith, though, because obviously we want to act on our beliefs in accordance with the confidence we have in them and the potential consequences of being wrong. If there’s an action that I’m not certain of and that the consequences of my being wrong mean my death, I think the only rational move would be to go and check first. But in Bannister’s example we don’t have the time to check and the consequences of being wrong aren’t any worse than the consequences of not trying, so we just go ahead and act. Seems reasonable and not really faith to me.

But note Seidensticker’s reply, or rather non-reply. He argues that Christians don’t agree on all of the facts about God. So? I see Bannister as advocating that each Christian act on their specific beliefs and see if it works out. Seidensticker would be insisting that Christians have to test out all of these beliefs and settle on the “right” facts before acting on it. Seidensticker also ignores Bannister’s point that none of those biological facts can justify the action here, beyond that sometimes branches are strong enough to save someone falling off a cliff. So, sure, we call agree on those facts, but those facts aren’t going to justify the action that we’d be taking there. This, then, is a complete non-sequitor, and nothing more than Seidensticker trotting out his own favourite canard out. But again it doesn’t do anything to defend the original contention, or to refute Bannister’s argument here.

Seidensticker has two sets of questions and italicized answers here, but I’m going to skip the first set and focus on the second. Here is the preamble:

Bannister proposes that we consider different factors to see if they argue for God, against God, or neither. He gets us started with a few examples.

From this, it’s clear that Bannister is going to try to argue that at least some of the examples that are purported to argue against God at least don’t do so strongly, and by implication we can argue that they won’t provide compelling evidence against the existence of God, which would then mean that we might have “trust” and not “faith”. Remember that.

Evolution. He uses the Hypothetical God Fallacy (let’s assume God first and select facts to support this conclusion) to say that this fits in the Neither bin. Who’s to say that God couldn’t use evolution? Nope: evolution doesn’t prove God, but it explains a tough puzzle, why life is the way it is. This is a vote against God.

Well, putting aside the fact that we still have puzzles … why does this still count as a vote against God, just because it solves — in Seidensticker’s mind — the “puzzle” better? Again, the counter is that God could very well choose to use evolution to achieve his goals. If this is not inconsistent with God, then evolution does not provide compelling counter evidence against the existence of God. At least, accepting that God could have done that and remained consistent with our idea of God weakens that potential counter argument, and Seidensticker never actually addresses that counter argument. This is putting aside the fact that I’ve already addressed the Hypothetical God Fallacy and found it wanting. For evolution to count as a vote against God, it has to be the case that us having evolved is some kind of contradiction — even of expectations — of our idea of God. To assess this, we have to ask the question “If God existed, what would human development look like?”. If evolution is consistent with that, then Seidensticker has no point … which is probably why he wants to avoid allowing theists to ask that question despite the atheist argument depending on doing that first.

Evil. He concedes that this may be a vote against God, though he falls back on the “How can an atheist say anything is objectively wrong?” fallacy. Atheists don’t make that claim. Atheists are waiting impatiently for evidence that objective morality exists.

Okay, first, there are some atheists who make that claim like, for example, Sam Harris, mentioned earlier in the post. Second, and more damningly, if objective morality doesn’t exist, then how do you get the “Problem of Evil” off the ground? Even the weaker versions of the Problem still rely on the purported contradiction being a good and moral God allowing so much suffering to exist in the world when God could clearly stop it. This also relies on us judging God by our moral standards and claiming that we understand morality well-enough to know that God ought to be morally obliged to do so. If morality is not objective and is instead subjective, then a) our moral standards can’t be directly applied to God and b) we have no case to make any claim about moral standards at all. The best the atheist could do, then, is say that they wouldn’t like a God whose moral position would allow that much suffering, which is hardly a contradiction or any evidence that God didn’t exist. So Seidensticker’s reply that atheists don’t believe in objective morality or that anything is objectively wrong actually makes the entire “Problem of Evil” meaningless and irrelevant. That’s hardly the way to defend it as being a “vote against God”, which from the first point we are led to believe was Seidensticker’s goal here in addressing the examples.

Reason. How can there be reason without God?? This is a vote for God. Nope. Reason is an emergent phenomenon. If you’re saying that science has unanswered questions about human consciousness works, that’s true, but Christianity doesn’t win by default. Christianity has never answered any scientific question, so there’s no reason to imagine it will this time. This topic is related to Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, to which I respond here.

I’m … not sure how this is a response here. At best, Seidensticker provides an alternative explanation that is compatible with naturalism, but simply saying “It’s emergent” is not a proof of that, and the link to the argument against Plantinga — which I’ve provided here for convenience — is simply the old argument that natural selection would weed out such beliefs. So at best Seidensticker argues this to a neutral position, which sure is not what he wants to do. And as he provides no proof or evidence for this position and seems instead to be relying on the old canard about Christianity not providing scientific answers, I suspect that he does that because he doesn’t actually have an argument for that, and likely has no idea what it would mean for a phenomenon to be emergent … or what the consequences of reason being one would be.

Next time is the final post, talking about history in general.

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2 Responses to “Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “Atheists Have No Use for Faith””

  1. Andrew Says:

    Like you, I haven’t read Bannister, so might be mis-representing his argument…

    “Faith” requires some pre-existing assurance, an assurance that one will test through action.

    If I am falling and believe that some trees can save me, grasping a nearby tree isn’t “faith”. I am putting my hope in that tree, but for it to be faith requires that I have a prior assurance that this particular tree will support me.

    And the faith isn’t so much in the tree, as in the assurance.

    I may believe God exists – but this isn’t of itself faith. I may believe he has spoken – but this also isn’t of itself faith. Faith is taking these truths and acting on it in some way (which might itself be by believing something). Faith always involves having some information that you have reason to believe is true and choosing to act as if it is true.

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