In recent years, discussion on the topic of religious faith, i.e., assuming that which you have to prove, has become clouded by a pseudo-intellectual line of thinking which can be posited in the format of the question asked to the sceptic,‘What about your beliefs? Trust in science involves just as much faith as religion’ (not only asked by undergraduate college students). In the last couple of months, two articles have appeared in the New Statesman based around the topic of religion, faith, evidence and reason, which concern the above two questions and their implications: one is titled ‘Giant Leaps for Mankind’ by John Gray. The other is ‘The Goebbels of the English Language’ by Alan Moore.
In his review of Brian Leiter’s book ‘Why Tolerate Religion?’, John Gray discusses the difficulty in defining religious belief: ‘there is nothing particularly irrational or otherwise lacking in religious belief. After all, what counts as a religious belief?’. Defining a nuanced idea of religious belief may certainly be no easy task, but we can at least form an idea of its necessary conditions: religion must involve some belief in a supernatural creator of the World, and/or Universe. If this is not so, the belief does not accord with any recognizable or traditional interpretation of the original three monotheisms, the ones with which I’m sure Gray is primarily concerned. Gray then however goes on to bizarrely and irrelevantly conflate certain acts and events of history as equal to having faith in a god – acts which were mostly driven by the huge power of certain individuals. He claims that the horrors of Soviet Russia imply that ‘faith’ claims about the actual workings of communism are flawed, and that the 2003 American intervention in Iraq was a secular ‘faith’ driven adventure. (Meanwhile he also invokes the ‘hunger for oil’ argument; so the monopolization of oil by dictatorships isn’t worth defending and protecting against? Either there was an evidential or actual reason to go into Iraq or there wasn’t, regardless whether it was the right decision; Gray seems to affirm both). The arguments have nothing to do with what ‘faith’ actually is in context and Gray fails to acknowledge that some ‘faith’ is more justified than others. The faith I have that I shall be nourished by my lunch today contains more merit than the faith that an overseeing, all-powerful spaghetti monster shall await my death so that I can transgress into heaven.
Is Gray seriously claiming that belief in a God who created the world and everything in it (including presumably, shellfish and homosexuals), observes our earthly movements and who judges us upon our death (for sins which were brought upon us without our having any say in the matter), contains the same level of rationality as the study of empirical evidence to make judgements and decisions in the material world? Gray seems to me to condescend the layman by bringing religious claims onto a par with real, complex but accurate scientific ones (which he doesn’t specifically mention, but it is implied and might be the gist of the whole article) in an effort to show how religious faith for the masses is a good thing. Aside from annoying this ‘militant’, ‘new’ atheist (mainly because he employs the facile oxymoron in the first place – how can one be ‘militant’ in their unbelief of something? This is the misunderstanding typified), Gray never actually explains how and why ‘most of our beliefs are always going to be unwarranted’, one of the biggest symptoms of his failure. Then again, neither is there anything ‘new’ about confusing theological nonsense with scientific discipline.
This leads me onto the second article I mentioned by Alan Moore. The subtitle of Moore’s piece is ‘We cannot state conclusively that anything is true’, and that is a fairly accurate summary of the theme and intentions of it. His main beef with the concept of evidence seems to be that its validity relies on, well, evidence. This seems to be true – such a proclamation is indeed, self-evident – but in terms of pragmatics, the concept is not so circular. We could not live without evidence. We surely need it for helping to solve crimes, create life-saving medicines and conduct scientific experiments. And yet Moore seems to define the concept of evidence in strange, anthropomorphic terms, as though it were an individual event or quantifiable foe: ‘A glance at evidence’s backstory reveals a seemingly impeccable and spotless record sheet…’. For Moore, it is not so much an unregulated practice as most of us might think.
Moore is within his rights to make the distinction between ‘evidence’ and ‘proof’ (though the former often constitutes the latter), because proof can be had without evidence – in the way we use language, anyway. But when Moore invokes philosopher Karl Popper’s theory of falsifiability, he commits an error of categories. It is certainly true that nothing can conclusively be proven to be true (for we would have to have infinite time and ability to assess it all), and that the principle of falsifiability (that we can only demonstrate at most that a hypothesis has not yet been falsified) is the best way to go about conducting scientific enquiry. However, religion is primarily a scientific question, for it makes bold empirical and perhaps eventually, testable claims; one should not take the jump of making a truth claim about god’s existence simply because it hasn’t been proved he does not exist. Again, there is nothing new about what is being said here, but the burden of proof lies with they who make the claim in the first place. Evidence is crucial and it is absolutely right to ask for its consideration, especially when so much is at stake as it surely is with religion.
The verification principle is useful for questions of scientific enquiry, but not supernatural claims. Such questions are certainly not meaningless (there has to be an answer to them after all), but by ignoring the distinction between ‘faith’ and beliefs based on reason, Moore falls into the same pointless trap as Gray in trying to defend such a manner of thought. Do these two Gents not trust science, or the concept of evidence? If not, they are kindly invited to climb to the top of a ladder and jump off to test their ‘unreasonable’ faith in gravity – however, I’m sure neither would want to do any such thing. The basis for their attempts to create a level-playing field for reason and faith, for skepticism and credulity are flawed, and they should realize the implications of what they are saying… if they want to be relativists about truth, they should be consistent.