The following is an excerpt from my book, Ten Reasons To Lose Faith: And Why You Are Better Off Without It,dealing with this curious phenomenon that seems to be an occupational hazard in clerical circles.
There is probably a very good evolutionary explanation for the tendency to check the evidence before making a life or death decision. Those who did not check had a greatly reduced likelihood of passing on their genes, so the genes for not bothering about evidence would tend to lose out in competition with their counterparts which regarded evidence as important.
So, when it comes to life and death decisions in real life, normal people not only rely on evidence but look for it and regard it as the best available basis for the decision. Importantly, they regard absence of evidence of cars as perfectly reliable evidence of the absence of cars. Why would they not? What would be the purpose of looking for evidence then regarding its presence or absence as evidence of the same thing?
Absence of evidence of approaching traffic is perfectly good evidence of the absence of approaching traffic. This is not a faith-based decision; it is just as much an evidence-based decision as is a decision based on the presence of evidence.
Again, in the real world, evidence, not faith, is the only sane thing on which to base important decisions. This, of course is because we know very well that evidence is a higher standard of proof than is faith, requiring as it does a prior belief in the required conclusion – which alone should render it useless. When important decisions are required, the higher standard of evidence wins every time and the idea of doing otherwise is almost too ridiculous to contemplate.
For the same reason, no sane, rational person would believe in fairies or invisible hippopotamuses by faith alone and dismiss absence of evidence as not evidence of absence.
For example, I could claim that my loft is full of undetectable hippopotamuses. I could claim I know this by faith. But we both know there are no undetectable hippos in my loft, do we not!
We know this because faith is not good enough and the probability of there actually being invisible hippos in my loft is so low as to be functionally zero. In fact, if I seriously started to make that absurd claim I would rightly be considered certifiable and a possible danger to myself or others. The idea is just too absurd to even consider.
But when it comes to belief in the presence of gods, because there is no evidence, a much lower standard of proof becomes acceptable to the believer. The standard of ‘proof’ that would get you killed crossing a road, wrongly convicted of a crime or considered insane, is suddenly elevated to the status of a virtue and worn with pride. People even dress accordingly, adopt special hair-styles, wear symbols to show off their dependence on it and refuse to eat certain perfectly good food! Some people even allow it to dictate their entire life.
The uncertain and unreliable nature of faith is why the well-known phenomenon of losing one’s faith is a perpetual occupational hazard in theological circles. Struggling with a crisis of faith is considered a right and noble thing for any cleric who has either suddenly or gradually come to realise that actually his or her faith was not enough to sustain belief in the face of doubt; that it could all be pretence of knowing something he does not know.
Seen from the position of a rational materialist, it seems strange that losing faith by allowing the fact of no evidence to dictate an opinion is even regarded as a problem. It seems strange that other clerics see this as a regular occurrence needing special measures and contingencies to support those who have doubts or have lost faith, yet never seem to question just why it should occur at all. Surely, if faith were at least as good as evidence or, as many clerics will claim, superior to it, these crises of faith would never happen, would they?
Do you know of anyone of sound mind who has a sudden crisis of faith about electricity continuing to work, day following night or water flowing downhill?
Imagine a scientist having a ‘crisis of faith’ in gravity or the Laws of Thermodynamics! Scientists will constantly question what they think they know and will actively seek ways to falsify even the most fundamental of scientific principles. This is not regarded as a ‘crisis’ or problem to be coped with by seeking reassurance from colleagues or spending time in meditation, struggling with it. Doubt is the lifeblood of science. Doubt and uncertainty are the great virtues of science and the things that give it its power. Certainty is the thing to be avoided. The moment a scientist claims to know the answer to a problem by faith alone, would be the moment he lost credibility as an objective scientist.
There are many, many examples of town and city councils saying prayers before a meeting, but for your sake and the sake of your fellow citizens, be sure to sack the lot of them at the next opportunity if they ever start to hear the voice of God telling them what financial or planning decisions to make rather than looking at the facts.
And yet clerics, monks and nuns have these crises of faith frequently, and may leave their religion because of it. For every atheist who suddenly ‘finds God’, or rather for every self-proclaimed ‘former atheist’ who suddenly claims to have ‘found God’, there are probably hundreds of former clerics or devout Christians and Moslems who lost God and found reason. Perhaps the difference between a religious person having a crisis of faith and a religious person ceasing to be religious is that losing faith is no longer regarded as a problem; the realisation that depending on faith is a crisis of rationality.
All opinion polls and measures of movements in public opinion throughout the developed world shows that there is an inexorable and accelerating movement away from faith and towards non-belief, often via disaffiliation from the established churches. Incidentally, the fact that complete non-belief is often preceded by disaffiliation is a clue to why ‘faith’ has such a strong psychological hold on people, as we shall see later.
Almost nowhere will you find examples of a mass movement from non-belief to belief. The real measure of the abandonment of faith in favour of reason is in these figures, not in the highly suspect examples of ‘former atheists’ who suddenly appear on the scene, often as fully-formed evangelicals complete with professional-looking websites with of course a donate button and all the phony and fallacious standard apologetics and techniques of sophistry that, as an atheist, he or she would have seen through in a moment. In very many of these cases, either the ‘former atheist’ is using a private definition of ‘atheism’ or they are frankly lying for effect, probably for money and often because they have a trashy book to sell.
Ten Reasons to Lose Faith discusses not only the reasons faith is a fallacy, incapable of revealing the truth of anything other than by chance and accident, but is actually harmful to the individual and to society. I systematically dismantle the traditional religious apologetics and show them to be vacuous and dishonest. I also show why doubt and uncertainty are hugely more preferable to the simple certainties of religion - certainties that pay no heed to the truth so long as biases are confirmed. Doubt and uncertainty are why science progresses and why we now have an advanced, technological society capable of posting articles like this in a medium which can be almost instantly read by anyone anywhere.
I make the case for a better, more inclusive, kinder and more humanitarian society based on humanist principles and policies and opinions based on rational, evidence-based decisions.
Ten Reasons to Lose Faith is available in paperback or as an ebook for Kindle.