Friday, May 28, 2004

Challenging Faith

Sometimes it seems like porn has an unsung competitor for the most common theme on the internet. The darkhorse in that particular race is Christian apologetics. It's also quite the cottage industry in paper publishing circles.

Why the emphasis on "reasonable" faith? Isn't faith the "substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," and therefore beyond reason?

I suppose it is, in theory. But I don't think many westerners, including Christians, find that very satisfying. Hence, the 616 000 hits in a google search. We don't find it satisfying because of the fundemental basis for western culture - that the universe is a rational place. We expect rationale and logical thought to be accurate guides to truth; so when a concept is irrational, we suspect that it is incorrect.

When questioning the rationality of an individual's religious beliefs, I find there are a number of responses.

1) the person insists their beliefs are rationale. They cite historical sources to support the truth of events recorded in their sacred text. They attempt to use scientific language to argue that natural processes cannot account for the origin of matter or life, and therefore, God did it. Etc, etc. These statements may or may not be accurate. The point is, that they sincerely believe their beliefs are entirely rationale.

2) The religious person insists the unbeliever is spiritually, willfully blinded to the truth. The unbeliever is incapable, for whatever reason, of seeing how rationally true a particular faith is. I think this tends to be the second step in a lengthy discussion. It's hard to argue against; it's entirely possible that one has some kind of spiritual or subconscious block that limits their abilty to form proper conclusions. However, the religious seem to ignore the fact that this argument is a double edged sword - that maybe the religious people are the ones with the block.

Originally, I was going to build this post around a thread I started here. It's a science fiction author's forum; the author is a Mormon. There is a large number of Mormon members at the forum, so I started a thread with questions like "Why does the Book of Mormon say there were horses in the New World before Columbus?". Clearly, this is a huge issue for a Mormon attempting to maintain a rational faith.

There were two answers. First, some posters said that archeologists are willfully ignoring evidence for horses and a Jewish civilization in Mesoamerica in the first few centuries after Christ. The second answer was a moderator deleting the thread.

That is response #3. Ignoring challenges to the rationality of faith.

So three responses. Produce evidence, say the doubter is willful, or to ignore the question entirely. Sometimes you'll get all three responses from the same person.

This applies to everyone with strongly held beliefs about philosophy or religion, of course. Theists, atheists, agnostics, we all have these three responses.

I say all this because of something one of my Christian friends says a lot. Whenever we talk about the rationality of faith, he says there are two fundemental positions that will completely guide how you see the evidence. Either you believe in God, or you don't. This, he says, is the basic question of life.

I think he's pretty clearly wrong: the basic question of life is whether or not the universe is rationale. Western culture in general says it is, and eastern culture (think of zen koans here) says that isn't necassarily so.

If the universe is a rational place, let's act like it. We've got a criteria for truth that helps distinguish between competing ideas - rational thought. Let's use it.

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