In a comment on my first post, I was asked the following question by TDW: "What about the concept of belief? You appear to extend this disbelief towards religious ideals, but end it there. How does the concept of belief (to believe in something without sufficient or even moderately sufficient logical evidence) play out in your world view. The concept seems, from your post, to be used in a slightly hypocritical manner, or perhaps you've compartmentalized the use of the concept? Or perhaps it is simply something I have not considered, which is why I ask."
This brings up something that I was planning to post about anyway, so I will answer it in the context of this post.
I have an unfortunate tendency, as TDW points out, to use 'believe' for things that I think to be true because of evidence, in the same way that I use 'believe' for religious beliefs, and that leads to a lot of confusion. What I should really be using is "religious belief", or "faith", which carries with it the connotation of "belief without evidence". I will endeavor to make this distinction better in the future, although I may slip up from time to time; feel free to call me on this.
I consider the two types of belief to be fundamentally different. Many people do not. I cannot count the number of times I've heard a variation of the argument that "it takes just as much faith to believe there isn't a God" or "it takes just as much faith to believe in evolution" or something else along those lines.
No. It does not. In the case of evolution, or many other scientific theories, believing them is a matter of believing the evidence. I do not "have faith" in the theory of evolution; if, somehow, it were entirely disproved tomorrow I would not continue believing in it in the face of contradictory facts. Of course, I would want to hear how the facts supported whatever replaced it. I approach just about everything in my life this way as well; whatever I believe is generally whatever best fits the facts. When I say I don't believe in something, that means that either I see no evidence for it or I see evidence contradicting it.
Let me expand on this for a minute. It illustrates perfectly my problem with the statement "it takes just as much faith to believe there isn't a God" - it's not so much a positive belief on my part as a lack of one. I think pretty much every atheist is like this, although some express more certainty than others. In fact, I think the entire spectrum of agnosticism and atheism (and, ultimately, religious belief) is pretty much one big sliding scale of percentages - the percentage chance that person gives to the existence of God. The truly waffling agnostics put this chance at about fifty-fifty - those are the people who refuse to take a stand one way or the other. Atheism is just a matter of crossing the threshold to the point where the probability you assign the existence of God is so vanishingly small that religion isn't worth considering seriously. All atheists are (or should be) in this position - yes, we cannot absolutely disprove the existence of God, but we consider it so improbable that we effectively disbelieve it, in the same way we effectively disbelieve Bertrand Russell's teapot. This position does not require faith - it is, in fact, the opposite of faith.
Earlier, I referred to faith as "belief without evidence". Let me expand this definition a bit - I think there are in fact two distinct kinds of faith, one more dangerous than the other. The first is my original definition. Believing that some sort of supreme being created the Universe is belief without evidence - there is no evidence directly against this (at least until we start assigning the creator testable properties), but there is no reason to think that there was some sort of creator without evidence of some kind. While it is much better to believe things only if there is evidence for them, this isn't necessarily a bad thing - optimism, for example, is often a case of believing without evidence that things will turn out alright. It is, however, a spectacularly bad supporting argument - "I have faith that this is true" should not (and does not, in my case) convince anyone of anything. I therefore tend to see this kind of faith as mostly useless, and something to be avoided in any case where I can actually gather evidence for one point of view or another. A lot of the "wishful thinking" aspects of religion fall into this category.
The second, and much more dangerous kind of faith, is "belief in the face of evidence". It is in this category that the most egregious religious offenses against reason fall - creationism, for example, is one big exercise in this kind of faith, especially young Earth creationism. There is a mountain of evidence that tells us the Earth is billions of years old. To ignore this, and believe it is some 6000 years old instead, or to make similarly ridiculous claims, is something that needs to be actively discouraged.
"But Micah," you might ask, "isn't it the right of everyone to believe what they want as long as they keep it to themselves?"
Well, yes. But unless you're living in a cave somewhere, this kind of faith is extraordinarily hard to keep to yourself, because even if you don't go trying to do things like put it in science classrooms, it does crippling damage to your ability to think rationally, and someone without the ability to think rationally opens themselves up to all kinds of extremely dangerous things. First, if someone actively ignores factual evidence and ignores rational arguments, there simply isn't any way to convince them they're wrong if they hold extremely harmful beliefs. We see the results of this most clearly in Islamic fundamentalism - how do you argue with people like that? They reduce the scope of rational argument to interpreting the passages of an ancient book - and nothing outside that book is a valid counterargument. Effectively, they have removed themselves from the scope of rationality, and in doing so have become civilization's greatest threat.
Now, obviously, not everyone who believes completely irrational things in the face of evidence will end up as a suicide bomber. But it opens you up to that kind of extraordinarily harmful fundamentalism, because if someone can convince you that the source of authority on which you base your irrational faith also supports harmful things, or things that are just blatantly untrue, there simply isn't any other avenue to convince you that you're wrong. When people say things like "There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that would convince me I'm wrong about the existence of God", I cringe, because what else do they apply this impossible standard to?
Why, therefore, do we as a society speak of a “man of faith” as if this is a positive characteristic? As I see it, depending on the kind of faith, it ranges from a slightly to extremely negative characteristic – and yet there is nothing more necessary for a political candidate in today’s society, and we constantly invite professional “men of faith” to share their opinions as if they have significantly more moral authority than the rest of us. It is especially mindboggling because it is only seen as a virtue in the case of religion – ask an economist to support their point of view, and if they cannot give you data to back their theories up, you have every right to laugh them out of the room. In the case of the hard sciences, you cannot even get published without exhaustively backing up your theorems.
It is my opinion, and I do not think I am being unreasonable in the slightest here, that belief backed by evidence is superior to faith, and especially to faith that contradicts evidence. And no belief, or faith, should be immune to challenge.