I had an interesting conversation yesterday with a church leader type person. I’ll call him The Priest. He’s a good guy. He thinks he’s fighting for my soul, which is very nice of him. He has some funny ideas, but they’re the same funny ideas that I had until recently. I think I understand his view better than he understands mine.
He was talking about the importance of having faith. I don’t like the idea of faith because if a theory is really valid, it works whether you believe in it or not. Nobody gets all funny about having to believe in gravity — it just works.
So he asked me, “What is faith?”
I thought it was perhaps a rhetorical question, until he repeated, “What is faith? I’m asking you.”
Well, he asked for it. So I told him what I’d written in my journal some weeks earlier:
“Faith is the willingness to suspend critical reasoning facilities in the service of a belief for which there is no adequate evidence.”
He was silent for quite a while after that. He didn’t seem happy, but he listened as I explained.
“What if I told you,” I said, “that there was a race of blue fairies that lived in the shrubbery outside? You’d expect some kind of evidence before you believed it, I hope. But what if, instead of providing you with some evidence, I merely told you to have faith?”
He’s not likely to believe in the fairies. It doesn’t do anything for him. Maybe if his mom and dad and everyone he knew believed… well, let’s just say that people can be induced to have faith in a good many things. And this has a lot to do with the way we reason.
We are bombarded by data all the time. Luckily, we have some pretty good cognitive tools that help us to group things and cut down the complexity. We can recognise that a group of shapes coming towards us is a bus, and we can get out of the way. We can categorise ideas (right- or left-wing, new-agey) or occurrences (coincidence, miracle, odd, mundane). Finding patterns in data helps us make sense of the world.
A problem comes when we used biased reasoning. Bias tends to confirm what we already believe, whether it’s valid or not. I view faith as a kind of bias, where the believer
Over time, as this cycle repeats, the certainty of the believer increases. It quickly reaches the point where, when confronted with facts that contradict the belief system, the believer dismisses the facts and keeps the system.
One example of ‘exercising faith’ in my religion of origin is the practise of the ‘laying on of hands’ for the healing of the sick. It’s not unusual for someone to ask for a ‘blessing’ when ill. Sometimes they get better, and they have a great story to tell at church. Sometimes they don’t, but believers never seem to take this to mean the practice is ineffective. Some other explanation is invoked, such as the need to ‘understand God’s will’. I don’t know if anyone’s done the numbers to see if people with blessings get better more quickly or more often than people without. I suppose that having faith means not conducting such a test in the first place. And then explaining your way around it when it doesn’t seem to work.
For me, learning about critical thinking broke the cycle of faith. I learned that I was engaging in many different kinds of bad reasoning in my religious practice, including selective sampling, wishful thinking, confirmation bias, and cognitive blackouts when a line of thinking became too threatening to a cherished belief. (I plan to treat each of these in future posts.)
I could go back to ‘exercising faith’ after learning about all of this. But to do so, I’d have to be willing to suspend my critical reasoning skills, and instead just believe the beliefs. Accept the pattern. Start interpreting things according to the theory. In time, it’ll seem like it’s true.
Of course it would. Any system is more believable if you’re willing to believe in it. But that’s not good evidence.
This kind of talk upsets The Priest. His faith makes so much sense to him. As you might expect.