9/16/2007

BTC#2: WHAT IS THE NATURE OF RELIGIOUS BELIEF?

An intelligent, albeit ascerbic personality over at PZ’s place observes:

“You've never explained how it is that your religious beliefs survived the gauntlet of skepticism that you so frequently praise. Furthermore, you've made vague assertions about your religious beliefs being beyond the bounds of scientific inquiry, which is only possible if they're incoherent and devoid of meaning.”

More than one person has raised this objection, and (as I’ve posted previously here) that’s one of the things that prompted me to start this blog in the first place.

I’ve been very slow to address it in any sort of detailed way, though. I’ve been feeling my way through a topic that is not at all familiar or comfortable, and for which the potential for self-deception is large. However, I do believe that I’ve come to an important conclusion, one that bears on the above question, and which is independent of the question of whether religious belief is either true or meaningful:

What is the nature of religious belief? It is fantasy.

Now, by that I mean not merely that religious beliefs are fed by subjective impressions (which is true of claims which are not religious) but that they require an active role for fantasy. The ‘leap of faith’ is, at least in part an imaginative ‘leap’ from that which can be demonstrated to that which can only be taken on faith. *

Now, if religious belief depends upon an element of fantasy, does it then follow that:

a) it is beyond the bounds of scientific inquiry?
b) it is incoherent?
c) it is meaningless?
d) it is compatible with reason, and can survive “the gauntlet of skepticism”?

My short ‘answers’ at this point to each of those questions are as follows:

a) not necessarily: depends on what we mean

b) yes

c) no

d) possibly, but I am uncertain how this be true, and I may well be wrong—and, in fact, part of the point of putting these ideas out here is to receive criticism and advice on these topics.

I will discuss these points, in the order given, in subsequent posts. I explicitly invite criticism, even anonymous criticism: otherwise, what's the point?

* The philosophically well-read (I don't include myself in that group) will probably recognize that I am indebted to Kirkeggard, though I wasn't conscious of it at the time I was thinking about the problem.

19 comments:

Billy said...

Briefly:

a) it is beyond the bounds of scientific inquiry? "Not necessarily: depends on what we mean"

This seems to be a cop-out, initially. There does seem to be some consensus on both sides that the higher claims of religion are essentially not amenable to scientific enquiry. However the nature of religious belief is clearly amenable to it (Sam Harris certainly believes so...) although the results of that research might not please everybody.

b) it is incoherent? "yes"

In your later post, can you clarify what you mean by "incoherent"? I'm hoping that you don't mean "impossible to talk about"....

c) it is meaningless? "no"

This should be an easy post for you.

d) it is compatible with reason, and can survive “the gauntlet of skepticism”? "possibly"

This is the crux of it, but you don't seem half as certain here as with the other questions. Clearly it is compatible with "reason" in the broader sense, otherwise there wouldn't be so many religious and philosophical texts on the subject. Skepticism, I'm not so sure about...

Starwind said...

Scott Hatfield:

The ‘leap of faith’ is, at least in part an imaginative ‘leap’ from that which can be demonstrated to that which can only be taken on faith. *

Now, if religious belief depends upon an element of fantasy, does it then follow that:


That 'leap' is not always lacking examinable evidence. You allude to that which can be demonstrated, but quickly proceed to a premise of 'faith' that does not consider that which has been demonstrated and presents evidence which can be examined.

Two notable biblical claims, an exacting 'supernatural' prophecy several hundred years in advance predicting the coming of the Messiah, and a 'supernatual' resurrection of Jesus Christ present evidence that can be examined, even scientifically.

So while faith is indeed required in some aspects (e.g. salvation to eternal life), some fundamental claims do offer demonstrated evidence.

Why do you seemingly not consider such evidence? Why is the archaeological and historical evidence confirming Daniel's prophecy of Dan 9:24-26 and the Shroud of Turin at least not considered as demonstrated evidence that can be examined in addition to faith?

One may dispute the conclusions (with difficulty), but one can not presume the demonstrated evidence of Christ in whom we place our faith as entirely nonexistant.

Scott Hatfield . . . said...

Billy, Starwind:

Keeping in mind that I am a theist attempting to honestly grapple with questions raised by non-believers, forgive me for not attempting a particular answer at this time. As I proceed through this series, I will doubtless include your observations as we go.

By the way, the lack of coherency is a criticism brought by Caledonian, on PZ's site, and this thread in part represents a sincere effort on my part to engage him/her.

Ian said...

Very interesting. I think I may steal your idea, and try the same exercise myself.

peak_bagger said...

Now, if religious belief depends upon an element of fantasy, does it then follow that:
a) it is beyond the bounds of scientific inquiry?
Yes, religious belief is faith in the supernatural, or supra-natural or above nature. So by definition, it is not subjugable to scientific inquiry. This does not make religious faith right, better or wrong (in my opinion). It is faith – a belief in something for which you don’t have scientific evidence. In my own life, I feel like I have personal evidence of God’s existence. It may be delusional to others but for me, it works.

An atheist will no doubt think I am an idiot for such a faith system but it is what I choose to believe, especially since I assume there may be more out there than what my five senses can perceive. I just make sure I don’t foist my religious faith into places it shouldn’t go, namely science.

b) it is incoherent?
No, I don’t think so.

c) it is meaningless?
Absolutely not.

d) it is compatible with reason, and can survive “the gauntlet of skepticism”?
Depends on the rules of engagement. I try to reason out my faith, make it coherent and consistent (still lots of work to do). And I work within a community of faith where together, we can make our faith reasonable. It’s a work in progress. I’m willing to subject my faith to a gauntlet of atheistic skepticism. But, since atheists and believers operate with completely different ground rules (believers are not bound to philosophical naturalism), it won’t do much good.

Scott Hatfield . . . said...

peak_bagger"

Welcome! Thanks for commenting! I'm going to be developing this thread further, but in the meantime, I just want to observe that one can be an atheist without being committed to philosophical naturalism. One could allow that there might be other non-natural realms of experience, without affirming God's existence.

Anonymous said...

so are you married?

peak_bagger said...

Scott,

Thanks for the welcome. Point well taken that atheism is not dependent on philosophical naturalism. Look forward to your explication of that maybe in the future.

Anonymous said...

You're killin' me, Mike.

Richard said...

peak_bagger said

An atheist will no doubt think I am an idiot for such a faith system but it is what I choose to believe, especially since I assume there may be more out there than what my five senses can perceive.


I am an atheist, and do not think of you as an idiot. But I am interested in your phrasing: "what I choose to believe". Have you considered that your belief is a product of genetic/environmental conditioning of your thought processes, and is more related to an addiction than free choice?

There is good experimental evidence for such phenomenon. Does such a concept affect your thinking of the nature of religious belief?

Richard said...

starwind--

I read Daniel 9:24-26 but was unable to see any evidence of prophecy, and to my knowledge, all confirmed scientific research on the the Shroud shows it to be a product of the middle ages.

How does this factor into the nature of religious belief?

Starwind said...

Richard:
I read Daniel 9:24-26 but was unable to see any evidence of prophecy

See Proof of Daniel's Prophecy of 69 Weeks for an elaboration of the prophecy, authenticity arguments, and the historical record.

and to my knowledge, all confirmed scientific research on the the Shroud shows it to be a product of the middle ages.

See Summary of Challenges to the Authenticity of the Shroud of Turin (.pdf) and I also recommend you read the referenced papers therein.

Billy said...

I notice that those two examples are heavily contested not just between believers and non-believers, but also between different factions of believers. So are you saying that we should put those in the file that supports the argument that religious belief is not within the bounds of scientific inquiry?

Starwind said...

Billy:

So are you saying that we should put those in the file that supports the argument that religious belief is not within the bounds of scientific inquiry?

Hardly, rather the the exact opposite. I'm advocating additional scientific inquiry into the evidence.

Further, it is peoples' (dis)beliefs that are "heavily contested". While not 100% completely proven, over the years the detailed evidence is increasingly uncontroverted for the authenticity of these two examples.

Richard said...

Thanks starwind, I will check out your links.

Richard said...

starwind--

Only took a second to check out your links. Your Book of Daniel evidence is the same old stuff totally ripped apart by others, and the Shroud of Turin likewise. I will admit did not read them in detail, I have limited time to plow through the same old nonsense over and over. (Anything by Raymond Rogers is completely contaminated by bias--his research I have read in the past). But here is a staring point:

1. I do not accept using the bible to prove prophecy in the bible. I do not know of convincing evidence that a person named Jesus possessing supernatural powers was killed in 30 AD, or lived at all.

2. I do not accept contamination theories/conspiracy theories/wrong sample theories on the shroud. If someone has a better carbon dating of the shroud, they should publish it. If someone proof that there is blood from a 2000 year old Jew on the shroud, they should publish it.

3. I am only convinced by positive evidence, not "I can't disprove it so it must be true" evidence.

But thanks for your reponse anyway.

Starwind said...

Richard:

I will admit did not read them in detail, I have limited time to plow through the same old nonsense over and over.

Then until you do, there is little you can credibly dispute. Yes, the price of admittance is the possibility of wasting ones time on something they think they already know.

1. I do not accept using the bible to prove prophecy in the bible.

An odd response for someone who initially couldn't even find the prophecy in the first place. You were offered the extra-biblical historical events that confirm fulfillment of Daniel's 69-week prophecy. Drawing that correlation between the biblical and the extra-biblical quite naturally involves detailed analysis of both, together. If you can show the historical evidence is false, or if you can show an error in the correlation, you'll have a point.

I do not know of convincing evidence that a person named Jesus possessing supernatural powers was killed in 30 AD, or lived at all.

But others were convinced that he lived and had supernatural powers for which they offered alternative explanations (e.g. Celsus claimed Jesus learned sourcery in Egypt), not that Jesus never existed or never had any poweres in the first place, but rather they formulated alternatives to the understanding already then in circulation. If someone offers (and cotemporaneously writes about) an alternative explanation to history, that someone has obviously accepted that there was a history to begin with, they just didn't like the explanation.

2. I do not accept contamination theories/conspiracy theories/wrong sample theories on the shroud.

But if a sample was not taken as the protocol agreed? If a priest agrees to supply a scientific sample and then instead supplies an unscientific sample instead, you expect that to go unremarked?

Otherwise, you weren't offered any such theories, but rather much "positive evidence", but again you wouldn't know that until you actually read it.

3. I am only convinced by positive evidence, not "I can't disprove it so it must be true" evidence.

But your approach is the "It can't be true, so I won't spend the time to look at the positive evidence I'm sure doesn't exist".

peak_bagger said...

Richard said:
I am an atheist, and do not think of you as an idiot. But I am interested in your phrasing: "what I choose to believe". Have you considered that your belief is a product of genetic/environmental conditioning of your thought processes, and is more related to an addiction than free choice?

Response:
Thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt. You make a good point and all I can do is diligently scrutinize my own reasoning and motivations. I'm no psychotherapist though. But I have gone through a time of crisis - what is it that I believe? What is it that I want to believe? When one ponders/questions the veracity of the Bible and God's action in the world, beliefs become less of an assumption and more of a conviction. So with some epistemological humility, I want to claim it is a choice I have made, not a conditioned response. But I could be wrong. I tend to assume people have a choice. Some say Britney is Britney because of environmental pressures but I'd say she has some choice in the decisions she makes. And I would say the same for myself.

Again, your point is well taken.

Anonymous said...

Scott,

For good or ill, you may find Santayana's non-theistic but sympathetic view of religion compatible with your own. See his Interpretations of Poetry and Religion and Reason in Religion.

--emerod