Is Faith Crazy?

Question from Alfredo:
The “What is an Atheist?” video did a terrific job of explaining the terms “atheist,” “agnostic,” and “theist,” pointing out that it is possible to be an atheist-agnostic. Logically, if one can be an atheist-agnostic, one can also be a theist-agnostic, but the video made no mention at all of theist-agnostics. (Logically, it should even be possible to be an atheist-gnostic in the same way that one can “know” that super-position, quantum-entanglement, and quantum tunnelling are real phenomenon, but be unable to (really) believe that the universe works this way in one’s gut.)

At one point in the video, Jake addressed the popular notion that an agnostic falls somewhere between an atheist and a theist. He used the analogy of being a little pregnant to convey the idea that believing and not believing at the same time seems a bit muddled. I’m inclined to think that the reason that most people think of an “agnostic” as being half-way between a theist and an atheist is that popular culture often muddles “belief” and “knowledge.”

A theist believes in God, but also KNOWS that there is a God. An atheist doesn’t believe in God and (as many understand the term), KNOWS that there is no God. Therefore, an “agnostic” is someone who doesn’t believe in God, but doesn’t know FOR SURE, the way that an “atheist” does.

My question addresses the BELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the typical theist, and how it contrasts with the DISBELIEF-AGNOSTICISM of the “weak atheist” and the DISBELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the “strong atheist.” (I’m posing this question within the context of the full-broad issue of whether or not there is a god or gods– not the narrower, and much easier to answer, question of whether or not the Islamic-Judeo-Christian God exists.)

Even Richard Dawkins defines himself as an atheist-agnostic with regard to the full-broad question of whether or not any sort of god or gods exists. I’m going to tentatively assume that we all agree that the DISBELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the “strong” atheist is just as absurd as the BELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the typical theist, as long as we aren’t talking about profoundly anthropomorphic, logically self-contradictory entities.

Belief and faith are intimately interconnected, but there are two kinds of faith. There’s conventional religious faith, in which one defines one’s belief to be knowledge– to be fact– either because one wants it to be fact really, really badly and thinks this justifies defining it as fact, or because one is incapable of distinguishing between belief and fact. Then there’s secular faith– the faith that one has in one’s children, in one’s country, or in the human race. If my daughter has cancer and I say that I have faith that she’ll be okay, I’m actively and willfully marginalizing the thought that she may die in my mind, but I’m not denying the possibility. I also have some rational justification for believing that she’ll be okay, otherwise my secular “faith” is actually nothing more than hope. Secular faith is more than hope, but less than knowledge.

So, here’s my question in a nutshell: If we can differentiate between agnosticism and atheism, why can’t we differentiate between faith and psychosis? Why can’t we make a distinction, conceptually and verbally, between a religious person who believes and has faith, but is agnostic with regard to the existence of god– in the same way that Richard Dawkins disbelieves and lacks faith, but is agnostic with regard to the existence of God? Why, in other words, is being a theist synonymous with being batsh*t crazy?

Answer by SmartLX:
Being a theist, from the perspective of an atheist, is simply synonymous with being wrong, or at least likely to be wrong. There’s no need to lump crazy in with it at the conceptual level. Of course it is sometimes accompanied by some level of crazy, but so is atheism or any other position. I wrote about this once before, and I’m still happy with my earlier piece.

A rational mind can accommodate an irrational faith if it has a “rational justification” which is flawed, and does not see the flaws. Rational is not the same as infallible, and no one expects us to be right about everything, only to try to be.

Otherwise, the “rational mind” can simply be somewhat irrational with regard to the object of faith, not accepting its flaws, and mostly rational the rest of the time. A parent with a deathly ill child might be like this. Some degree of irrationality is intrinsic to our nature as instinctive, emotional beings. It’s why we should try to be rational when we can, to compensate for the other times.

9 thoughts on “Is Faith Crazy?”

  1. Hi Alfredo
    It appears to be a distinct characteristic of human nature that we are capable of self-delusion and cognitive compartmentalisation. That is we are capable of thinking perfectly rationale in some spheres of life, yet behave in a self-deluded or irrational fashion in other spheres. If we look to the past of our species it is not difficult to see how certain individuals with a particular balance between neurotransmitters, would demonstrate an ability of hyper detection or hyper vigilance toward inferring agency. As we walked through the savannah, for example, a swishing noise nearby in the grass might be a poisonous snake and so the individuals who were hyper-vigilant and so made repeated false positive judgements, would be more likely to reproduce than those who assumed it was a movement of wind, devoid of agency. Similarly, it is more advantageous to mistake a boulder for a bear than a bear for a boulder. Thus we find ourselves a species that infers agency all too easily. This does not necessarily mean we must infer a god; most human societies have not done so historically, rather they have inferred supernatural agency in the forms of ancestors, or non-creator entities, as have most of Asia and Africa, or have devised some geophysical notion, in which the earth itself is a supernatural agency, such as native Australians did. When taken literally, most of these beliefs, including that of a god(s) can reasonably be considered as irrational in light of our expanding knowledge of how the universe works (perhaps it’s better to say ‘non-rational’, as theistic notions can certainly be usefully employed and enjoyed in some creative ways, in the absence of literal, or any belief). In previous centuries there was no need to compartmentalise faith and knowledge because we hadn’t a clue how the universe worked and there was no reason other than to perceive that it acted in accordance with the religious belief in any given culture. It’s interesting nowadays, then, to observe the extent to which our vestigial agency detection is compartmentalised and acted on in ever decreasing ways. We no longer consider that evil spirits are responsible for milk going sour and put talismans next to the milk, but some scientifically illiterate people held the opinion that Christopher Hitchens’ cancer was a targeted punishment from god for his blasphemous wit. Indeed theistic scientists are in some ways the best examples of compartmentalisation; when they go into the laboratory they have exactly the same mindset and use exactly the same methods as do atheist scientists. Most don’t expect for a moment that some supernatural agency affects the collection or the quality or statistical treatment of the data. They accept that this is an entirely naturalistic process. They don’t even bring their theism to bear on the conclusions drawn from their research. Rather, what differentiates them from their atheist colleagues is that theistic (or non-naturalistic) notions kick in when considering the wider implications of their research. In terms of religious style faith being considered a form of mental illness, this has long been a discussion point in clinical psychology. Both of the diagnostic manuals used worldwide (DSM and ICD) state that any single religious belief is not pathological (i.e., delusional) unless “the belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture”. However, “cultural and religious practices” are listed as the grounds for “non-pathological explanation of disruptive behaviour” which would ordinarily be treated as mental disorder. This is undoubtedly a politically correct copout. When looked at objectively religious faith fully meets the criteria for delusion; it has simply been given an exemption for cultural reasons. In my experience, the vast majority of psychologists and neuroscientists (I’ve worked in the field) consider that religious type faith is, at the very least, a form of non-optimal processing. There was some pressure to relax the diagnoses for faith as pathology in the most recent DSM-5, but it didn’t happen.

  2. Alfredo writes: “I’m going to tentatively assume that we all agree that the DISBELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the “strong” atheist is just as absurd as the BELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the typical theist, as long as we aren’t talking about profoundly anthropomorphic, logically self-contradictory entities.”

    I wouldn’t assume that. Far from it actually. I am going to generalize here for the sake of brevity, but the typical atheist holds their position based on the lack of evidence supporting religious claims, whilst the theist holds their position despite the lack of evidence supporting religious claims. From a logical point of view they can’t both possibly be absurd because one of them is right.

    On another note, Dawkins is agnostic because he doesn’t actually know, with 100% accuracy, that there is no god. No one does. And if there truly is no god then no one will EVER be able to know with 100% accuracy that there is no god, because you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist.

    Being agnostic is not a belief, it is an accurate assessment of one’s ability to definitely say whether there is a god or not.

  3. Alfredo wrote “DISBELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the “strong” atheist is just as absurd as the BELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the typical theist”

    I think that “DISBELIEF-KNOWLEDGE,” here, means “THE DISBELIEF OF AN ATHEIST plus CERTAINTY THAT NO GOD EXISTS.” This is an atheist-gnostic position, with the knowledge (gnosticism) being 100% certain and negative.

    And I believe that “BELIEF-KNOWLEDGE” means “THE BELIEF OF A THEIST plus CERTAINTY THAT GOD DOES EXIST.” This is a theist-gnostic position, with the knowledge (gnosticism) being 100% certain and positive.

    In both cases, absolute, certain knowledge (for or against) is being claimed– which is why the claims are equally “absurd.” You said in your post that no one will ever know with 100% accuracy that there is no god, because you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist. I think you’re saying the exact same thing. I think you both agree on this point.

  4. Tim,
    To clarify– the first part of the two positions are opposite (atheism vs theism) so either one or the other is right. However, the second part of the two positions is identical (positive gnosticism and negative gnosticism), and the gnosticism part (claim of 100% certain knowledge) is false in both cases. One of them or the other is right about the existence or non-existence of god, but both positions are absurd in that they both claim certainty which is intrinsically impossible. They should both be agnostic. The theist can believe in god, but should be open to the possibility that her belief is mistake, and the atheist should disbelief in god, but be open to the possibility that she is mistaken– since no one can know for certain UNLESS the god that’s being discussed has intrinsically impossible characteristics.

  5. John – I understand what you are saying, and I think (if I remember correctly) that is how I took his statement to mean. But I still disagree that they are equally absurd. As usual I probably did not explain myself very well.

    I base my statement on the fact that there is plenty of evidence that directly contradicts many religious claims (like global floods and so forth). The existence of some universal laws makes the existence of a god basically impossible as well. Still, we can’t say with 100% accuracy that there isn’t a god out there.

    On the other side of the coin, there isn’t any evidence out there to contradict the atheist claim. Again, we can’t conclude anything with 100% confidence, but it seems more logical given what we do know that this side of the debate has the stronger position.

    Neither side can say for sure that they are right, but I think we can conclude that one is more absurd than the other. At least that is how I see it….

  6. Is faith crazy he asks… Well to answer that question I would have to say no. For instance, I have faith in myself, my wife and family. I do not consider faith such as this crazy, But, faith in the bible or a supposed god of that bible I would have to say borders on insanity. Or a form of it. Maybe not as insane as a homocidal maniac, But crazy never the less. There is hope however , this madness can be overcome. I know because I did it. to accomplish this, one has to open their minds to rational thought and get rid of that emotional crutch that they are leaning so heavily on. Take the blinders off their eyes and see that
    the bible is a collection of ancient fictional writtings, with the purpose of gaining control over the masses. God did not invent man—Man invented god. The truth of our origins, how the universe came to be, all of that, is out there, if one really wants to know.

    1. Hi Larry
      I’m going to take issue with your notion that we all have faith of some kind (“I have faith in myself, my wife and family”). It’s something that bugs me. It depends crucially on how we define faith.

      Traditionally Christian ‘faith’ was a completely different thing to what is often implied in modern usage. You can see this by referring to theological writings from years past. The argument used by theistic apologists that “we all have faith” (it is simply a measure of confidence), is rarely found before the 20th century and it is demonstrably disingenuous.

      When I board an airplane modern Christians would say I have faith (measure of confidence) in a number of things, e.g., the skill of the design team, the regularity of the airline’s maintenance schedule, the sobriety of the pilot etc. OK, let’s accept that definition. If I suspect any one of those variables to be less than optimal I, or any rational person, would change the model of plane, or rearrange the flight, or boycott the airline. If Christians really accepted their own ‘modern’ definition of faith they too would be encouraging people who had doubts to do the same; change the model of religion, rearrange their beliefs, boycott certain teachings etc.

      The fact that they don’t do that, on the other hand they usually recommend further immersion in the ‘faith’, tells me that they don’t really buy into their own modern definition. They simply use it as a means to belittle (or de-rationalise) those with no religious faith.

      If you removed the notions of faith found in e.g., Hebrews 11:1 or John 20:27-29 the epistemological basis for Christianity would undoubtedly collapse but, importantly, empirical methods of discovery would remain unaffected.

      1. A timely example to illustrate my comment above. Straight after hearing the story of Abraham and Isaac in a sermon at church a woman re-enacts the scene with her 2-year old daughter. Any reasonable person can guess what happened. The plane crashed in a ball of flames.

        And the pastor’s response to the sermon and its aftermath?:

        “There are no answers and no explanations…..the only thing we have is to….turn to our God who surely cries with us ”

        So, its right back on the plane with the drunken pilot. That’s faith – and its certainly not something everyone has.

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