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Monday, September 19, 2005

Faith means “belief without supporting evidence”?

Because I must now read a bunch of books full of flimflam dressed up as science that attempt to explain (= explain away) religious belief, I will likely be posting a fair number of stories on the subject in the next few weeks, as they mess up my windshield like so many prairie grasshoppers. Here’s one from when the snow was still flying fast in Toronto earlier this year. Ian Sample reports of foolish attempts to use neuroscience to explain or explain away religion, and immediately puts his foot in the soup by announcing that

Faith has long been a puzzle for science, and it's no surprise why. By definition, faith demands belief without a need for supporting evidence, a concept that could not be more opposed to the principles of scientific inquiry. In the eyes of the scientist, an absence of evidence reduces belief to a hunch. It places the assumptions at the heart of many religions on the rockiest of ground.

Well, of course, if you start out thinking that faith means "belief without a need for supporting evidence," it will certainly remain a puzzle. In By Design or by Chance?, I used the following definitions of faith, which seemed to conform to observation and experience pretty accurately:
Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is theoretically possible.
- William James

Faith means intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person. - Walter Kaufmann

Most science propositions are not held on any better evidence than that, and statements to the contrary are wishful thinking.

To me, trying to explain away religion is like trying to explain away “government” or "relationships." The word "religion" is a generalization for a vast variety of activities that no doubt have individual explanations, but the category itself cannot have a single explanation, or a simple one. The book of which I am the co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard will shed light on this question.

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