‘The Brain on Faith’: What We’re Up Against

Theology fails the honesty test

Those who are distraught because they’ve discovered that Christianity can’t possibly be true—and are going through stages of grief—commonly say, “I lost my faith.” Something once treasured is now missing from their lives; they face the so-called ‘god-shaped hole.’

Those who are not upset by the “loss” of faith—something once taken for granted or endured has been left behind—commonly say instead, “I didn’t lose my faith. I saw through it.” They don’t face a ‘god-shaped hole.’ They are closer to embracing the human experience honestly.

I was a latecomer at seeing through the Christian fog. I made it all the way to graduate work in seminary before I snapped out of it. A couple of offhand remarks by professors shocked me into awareness of major fallacies. I was lucky, but why hadn’t I wised up much earlier? For those who have been urged, from toddlerhood, to love and embrace faith, making the break usually never happens at all.

It turns out that faith plays deadly tricks on the human brain. Believers rave so much about faith, and there are eloquent texts touting its value. In Hebrews 11:1, for example, we read: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This is the NRSV rendering, but translators like to be creative and pump up meanings. The so-called Passion Translation reads: “Now faith brings our hopes into reality and becomes the foundation needed to acquire the things we long for. It is all the evidence required to prove what is still unseen.” Wow, 15 words become 31, and that’s a pretty bold ending: “Faith is all the evidence required to prove...”

Surely that is misuse of the word evidence, i.e., something is true because faith says so. Who would take that seriously? Peter Boghossian sheds light on this phenomenon in an essay included in John W. Loftus’ 2014 anthology, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails. The essay is titled, “Faith, Epistemology, and Answering Socrates’ Question.” It is an eloquent plea for honesty—and Boghossian reveals that he was shocked to find out that there really are fideists, those who argue that faith counts as evidence.

For some of us, doubt starts early, and Boghossian reports that he received a jolt in the sixth grade. A Jewish girl in his class whispered to him: “My dad told me not to tell anyone there’s no Santa. He said Christian kids would get upset.” Christians, it seems, are especially allergic to myth busters.

“I was stunned. A grand—perhaps the grand—conspiracy had just accidentally been revealed to me.” But he feigned worldly wisdom: “Of course I know that.” He was curious, however: “I needed to know if she knew of any lesser conspiracies.” So he tried a bluff: “I know a lot of other secrets, too. She quickly replied, ‘You mean that Jesus isn’t the Son of God?’ Shock. Dead silence. Despair.” (p. 75)

While Boghossian was not especially religious, he describes this as one of the “two moments in my life” that impacted his understanding of faith. His mother pointed out that different religions have different beliefs, but even in the sixth grade he saw the fallacy: “Doesn’t it have to be the case that [Jesus] either was or wasn’t the Son of God? How could someone’s beliefs determine what is true?” (p. 76)

The other moment in his life came about twenty years later when he was teaching a college class. He ran into a real, live fideist. He had mastered the concept of fideism while doing his graduate work, but here was a young man who “told me matter-of-factly that it [the Bible trumps Darwinism] was his faith and thus did not require definitive evidential support or argument.”

“I brought the discussion back to epistemology (how we know what we know) and asked him—again—how he knew the claims of evolutionary biology were false and what passages in the Bible lend support to this claim. He replied, ‘I just told you, it’s my faith. I know it because of my faith. And you don’t seem to get that. It’s my faith.’” (p. 76)

And this is what we’re up against: “…I realized the role that faith plays in religious beliefs. Faith is an epistemology—it’s a method of coming to knowledge (or of claiming it)—and conclusions that result from this epistemology are knowledge claims.” Hence, as we try to deal with religion, Boghossian says that there is “no way around” three facts: (1) “faith is an epistemology,” (2) “…In religious contexts, the term faith is used when one assigns a higher confidence value to a belief than is warranted by the evidence…” and (3) “…some people live their lives (make decisions, inform actions, etc.) based upon their faith-based beliefs.” (p. 77)

But as secular thinkers are more than willing to point out, professional theologians and apologists know that this approach puts them on thin ice:

“…unlike rank-and-file believers, [they] understand that conclusions resulting from faith-based epistemology are inherently suspect; intellectually they understand that faith is a process that produces arbitrary conclusions that cannot be considered knowledge.” (p. 78) (emphasis added)

One way around this is a form of special pleading (“But ah, things are different with religion”):

“Consequently, they obfuscate the fact that faith is an epistemology and instead claim that Christ, or ‘the witness of the Holy Spirit,’ is living within them; they claim to have faith that their feelings stand in lawful correspondence to external reality…”(p. 78)

But some of the most determined defenders of the faith know thin ice when they see it. Dismissing the need for evidence—faith alone will do—is not so smart. So they manufacture evidence, or exaggerate slender threads of what they say is evidence, e.g., Boghossian points out, “…they will invoke a history of ‘scholarship’ surrounding Christ’s alleged empty tomb…” (p. 79)

I was gratified that he mentioned this particular weak link in the Christian chain. If only the apostle Paul had mentioned an empty tomb! His certainty about the resurrection came from his visions, so an empty tomb was irrelevant. The four gospels do not agree about what happened at the tomb on Easter morning. Nor is there an account of the resurrection itself.

We suspect that folklore grew with the telling, especially since Mark’s account—the first to be written—came some forty years after the “events” described. Yet conservative scholars have worked overtime to assure the faithful that the gospels provide evidence. Boghossian is quite right that such scholarship is “…frankly, too tedious, too disingenuous, and too corrupted by confirmation bias to deserve serious intellectual consideration.” (p. 81).

One of the most brilliant slams in his essay comes when he dismisses the idea that we can’t understand what’s going on down the rabbit hole unless we’ve spent considerable time there ourselves; no, theology is not a profoundly deep topic that only a select few have mastered:

“Being told…that one is unqualified or unsuited to discuss an argument because one is unfamiliar with the history of Christian scholarship is akin to one being told,

‘That’s not how Spock used that word in Star Trek episode #10, ‘The Corbomite Maneuver,’ and episode #52, ‘The Omega Glory’. Clearly, you’ve not read the surrounding literature in Whitman Books, Wanderer Books, Archway Paperback, etc. And if you had read Shatner’s Dark Victory then you’d never have that interpretation. You need to deepen your understanding before you can speak meaningfully about such issues.

“The problem with these statements is that they assume further study is needed before one can come to the conclusion that people don’t fly around in warp-capable starships or beam across large distances. These are also an attempt to evade substantive criticism of an argument by making one’s interlocutor appear ignorant of exogenous minutiae that have no bearing on the fundamental arguments.” (pp. 81-82)

The apostle Paul was high on woo, and spoke from the authority of his visions; modern theologians count on their esoteric shop-talk to get away with their god-claims. I have so often written in the margins of theology books, “How does he know this?” and “How do theologians learn to talk like this?”

Boghossian eloquently suggests that they give honesty a try:

“Before engaging in a serious discussion about faith or epistemology, the following statement should be made at the start of the conversation:

• ‘There is insufficient evidence to warrant any confidence in a set of propositions—most of which are knowledge claims—but I’ve decided to lend my belief to them in spite of this.’

“This sort of blunt, honest, forthright statement would be clearer and more sincere than the history of obfuscation that has mired and continues to obscure faith and its trappings.” (p. 82)

But such honesty is beyond the reach of preachers and priests precisely because of faith. I’ve seen it countless times as well with laypeople who seize up with fear—even panic—at the very idea that their beliefs might not pass muster, and they don’t want to go there: “I believe it, I’ve always believed it, my parents believed it. It’s the faith of our fathers, so it must be true.” Faith is the evidence.

We see it also in the responses of the apologists who haunt the Debunking Christianity Blog. No matter the evidence and rational arguments presented, they can’t absorb them. They display the brain damage that comes in the wake of faith.

Boghossian ends the essay with an appeal to Socrates’ famous question: “What sort of life should one lead?” This is the challenge to Christians: “Should some people live their lives (make decisions, inform actions, etc.) based upon an epistemology in which one assigns a higher confidence value to a belief than is warranted by the evidence?”

Well, it’s a dangerous business; after all, his essay is one of twenty-three in a volume titled, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails:

“Many of the chapters that follow answer this question by detailing the harms that result when people act on the failed epistemology that is called Christian faith…Reason, rationality, honesty, authenticity, epistemic humility, and assigning confidence value in direct proportion to evidence take us toward the good life. They’re ways to escape from the cave.” (pp. 83-84)

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press.

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