"Is Religious Faith Reasonable?" My Debate Opener Against Dr. Jim Spiegel

This debate took place at the Fort Wayne Library last night. Videos should be forthcoming. See what you think.

Is Religious Faith Reasonable? by John W Loftus.

I’m very grateful and honored to be here tonight, and I thank everyone who made this possible, especially my new friend, Professor Jim, who has agreed to try defending what cannot be reasonably defended. ;-)
Jim, I’m going to ask believers to do something, and I’d prefer it if you didn’t respond just yet. Please raise your hand if you’re certain or nearly certain your religious faith is correct. You have little or  no doubt you’re faith is true. Thank you! Maybe the rest of you are probably nonbelievers. My goal is to show you have a false unreasonable misplaced sense of certainty, which is a by-product of your faith. If I can just show this, will you concede a win for me tonight? ;-) I aim to do more than that, but it’s my bare minimum goal.
You realize, don’t you, that you all cannot be right about your religious faith, much less certain about it. Not all of you have the same exact faith, so how can people who believe differently all be certain they are correct? Most all of you have adopted the religious faith of your parents to a great degree. Coming from a long line of Irish Catholics, I was raised to be a Catholic by my parents too. Can you be certain you were raised by the right parents who just happened to have the correct religious faith? You could have been raised to believe differently by different parents. Religious faiths are almost always products of when and where you were born, by the parents who indoctrinated you to believe. As this happened to you, it happened to your parents before you, and their parents, and their parents before them, just like it happened to my parents before me.
By definition faith is always about that which has low probabilities. Actions based on faith are risky, are they not? Yet faith produces certainty. How is that even possible?
The fact is you cannot claim to believe what you do with certainty. Otherwise, why not say you know it, rather than that you believe it? Surely you know lots of things that have a greater degree of probability than that, most notably that you are here experiencing all the sights and sounds in this room right now. The certainty you claim is doing little more than pretending what isn’t true. It’s a very clear indication you need to rethink your religious faith.
Neurologist Robert Burton explains this misplaced sense of certainty this way, “Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. The sense of certainty arises out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.” Burton says “the feeling of certainty should be thought of as one of our emotions, just like anger, pleasure, or fear. This feeling is unrelated to the strength of the evidence of what we believe. This feeling of certainty can be extremely powerful—so much so that it wins despite contrary evidence that should mitigate it. Not only this, but our brains are very good at making up reasons to justify this feeling of certainty rather than following the evidence to the reasonable conclusions.” [On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not].
Dr. Jonas Kaplan is an assistant research professor of psychology at University of Southern California. He and his research team studied the brain scans of people while being challenged about their political beliefs. The study uncovered a correlation: When a belief is directly challenged by new information, the brain kicks into defensive mode exactly as if it was being physically threatened. Kaplan: “The brain can be thought of as a very sophisticated self-defense machine. If there is a belief that the brain considers part of who we are, it turns on its self-defense mode to protect that belief.” LINK
[Say fairly loud with confidence:] I am an atheist and I’m here to convince you there is no God. Did you feel that? You may have felt physical discomfort. That’s your brain kicking in. How can you hope to honestly investigate this question if your brain won’t let you?
Author Guy Harrison put the problem this way. When someone challenges an important belief “the brain is likely to instinctively go into siege mode. The drawbridge is raised, crocodiles are released into the mote, and defenders man the walls.” He goes on to say, “The worst part of all this is that the believer usually doesn’t recognize how biased and close-minded he is. He likely feels that he is completely rational and fair.” [Think: Why You Should Question Everything, 67].
Billionaire stock investor extraordinaire, Warren Buffett tells us, “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”
If this applies to political beliefs and investing in the stock market how much more does it apply to one’s religious faith? Most people identify with their faith so much so, it defines who they are. And that kind of belief will be defended by the brain more than all others.
The job of the evolved human brain is not primarily to get at the truth. Its primary job is to protect us from harm by keeping us in a socially acceptable caring tribal grouping with whom we feel support, and can turn to for help in times of need. This means the brain makes us conform to one’s own tribe. Nonconformists could be kicked out of the tribe, and that was dangerous. 
So the biggest barrier to honestly desiring the truth is our tribal grouping. You want to know the truth? You may have to love the truth more than your own tribe. Most people cannot do this. Most people don’t value truth enough to do this. I asked one woman whether she honestly wanted to know if her faith was false. She said she didn’t, that she was happy, and that was that. She knew the implications if she concluded it was false. It would involve some adverse social repercussions she didn’t want, so she chose not even to consider whether she was wrong.    
In any case, we know the human brain doesn’t function quite properly. And we also know the two-step solution!
The first step is to acknowledge this problem as a serious one. [cf. Alcoholics anonymous.] The problem is the evolved brain won’t allow us to seriously entertain facts that disrupt our personal, social and tribal comfort zone. So it will do everything it can to reject them.
The second step is to resolve to disarm the brain. The rational side of the brain should take over and reject what the irrational reptilian side of our brain wants. It should demand sufficient objective evidence, scientific evidence if possible, for what will be accepted as true.
You should do this as outsiders would as much as possible, by applying the same objective standards to your own religious sect as you do to the many other religious sects you reject. You should require the same kind of evidence as you require of an ancient Chinese religion if it made a claim about a virgin giving birth to an incarnate god. Think about this. What would it require? If you’re a Christian, treat your faith as if you’re non-Christian, and if you’re a Muslim, treat your faith as if you’re a non-Muslim, and so forth. Hypothetically become a nonbeliever. See what it looks like to someone who does not believe, like an atheist. ;-) For if it doesn’t convince nonbelievers, it won’t convince anyone else either. When I did this I saw that my faith was unreasonable, just as others were.
Here are some examples: Do you really believe the Bible without any objective evidence when it says the earth existed before the sun moon and stars, which were created on the fourth day? [Day one, night and day; Day Two, the firmament in the sky and the sea; Day Three, land and vegetation; Day Four, the stars, the sun and the moon] Do you really have any objective evidence that a snake or a donkey talked? What about a sun standing still in the sky? Or backing up? Or turning red as blood? Or blackening out for three hours? Is there any objective evidence that a star led three astrologers to a manger in Bethlehem and hovered over it? [“The star they had seen went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” Matthew 2:1-12]. What actual evidence is there that a virgin conceived an incarnate son of god? What about Jesus levitating with two dead men in front of the disciples, or soaring up into the sky? What about the claim that dead people arose from the grave when Jesus died, waited in their tombs for three days, then appeared in Jerusalem along with Jesus on Easter Sunday? What about the claims that shadows, clothing, pools, and handkerchiefs healed people?
Religious faith cults make these types of claims. All the time. Braco “the Gazer” is believed to heal people by simply gazing into their eyes. Do you believe these things just because they say so? Of course you don’t. That’s because when it comes to religious sects you were not raised to believe, you demand objective evidence. But when it comes to the religious sect you were raised to believe, you don’t.
Rene Descartes is considered the father of modern philosophy. He said: “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life, you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” Comparatively speaking, believers just don’t do this. Hardly ever! It should be a right of passage into adulthood. When challenged, like I’m doing now, their brains will convince them that reading books by authors who defend their own religious sect is doing all that’s required. But doing so is seeking to confirm what they already believe. If you aren’t reading books outside your comfort zone you’re not really searching for truth. You are scared of the truth. This is your brain in action.
Don’t pat yourselves on the back too much for being here tonight. That doesn’t mean you’re interested in the truth. My guess is you’re here to root Jim on, hoping he demolishes me. :-)

So, is religious faith reasonable?

No! The answer can even be found in the definitions of the terms used. 

To be “religious” is to accept the claim that there is a superhuman deity, most notably a personal creator god, who is to be worshipped and obeyed.
To be “reasonable” is to follow the rules of logic, and to require sufficient objective evidence for knowledge claims about the world we live in, including the religious claim that a personal creator god exists.
To have “faith” is to accept a claim based on flawed reasoning and insufficient objective evidence. For our purposes it’s to accept a miraculous claim as true, such as a virgin giving birth to an incarnate son of God, without sufficient objective verifiable evidence. It’s to allow the reptilian brain to keep us away from honesty seeking the truth by a number of cognitive biases, most notably confirmation bias which seeks above all to confirm what one already believes, rather than to disconfirm it.
Saint Anselm’s motto is the prime example of why faith is folly: “Faith seeks understanding.” First there is faith. Then believers seek to understand it by making the necessary distinctions that make it palatable, and by coming up with arguments and desperately searching for any evidence showing it’s true. This is the core of what confirmation bias is all about! By following Anselm’s motto Christian defenders can and do avoid any and all evidence to the contrary if they can get away with it. Philosopher Stephen Law explains: “Anything based on faith, no matter how ludicrous, can be made to be consistent with the available evidence, given a little patience and ingenuity.” (Believing Bullshit, p. 75). They’ve had about 2000 years to do this. Anthropologist James Houk argues that “virtually anything and everything, no matter how absurd, inane, or ridiculous, has been believed or claimed to be true at one time or another by somebody, somewhere in the name of faith.” (The Illusion of Certainty).
Therefore, putting the definitions together, to have “religious faith” is to accept the religious claim that there is a superhuman deity, most notably a personal creator god, who is to be worshipped and obeyed, based on flawed reasoning and insufficient objective evidence.
This is not just a semantic issue. It’s at the heart of our differences. BTW: Jim is wrong! ;-) If faith is trust there is no reason to trust faith. If we are to trust in god we need to have sufficient evidence to know that he exists and that he can be trusted.
 The only sense I can make of the way believers use the word “faith” is that it’s an irrational leap over the probabilities. They add faith to the low probabilities in order to stretch an “improbable” conclusion to reach a “probable” one, and that is quite simply irrational.
I’m arguing along with atheist author George Smith that “faith as an alleged method of acquiring knowledge, is totally invalid.” (Atheism: The Case Against God, p. 120). It’s not just your religious dogmas that are unreasonable. It’s how you arrive at and maintain them. For as Peter Boghossian has argued, “Belief in god is not the problem. Belief without evidence is the problem. Warrantless, dogged confidence is the problem.” (A Manual for Creating Atheists, p. 77). He adds, “The most charitable thing we can say about faith is that it’s likely to be false.”
When we have sound reasoning based on sufficient objective evidence faith adds nothing to our conclusions. Faith has no method for acquiring objective knowledge. Faith is folly. Reasonable people should all think exclusively in terms of the probabilities by “proportioning their conclusions according to the strength of the evidence”, as philosopher par excellence David Hume said. When you do that you'll see why religious faith is unreasonable.