Others distinguish between normal belief and chosen beliefs. They call these chosen beliefs faith. Atheists generally put down this type of thinking, claiming it is stupid to believe in the impossible in spite of evidence to the contrary. Certainly, this is true most of the time. It would be stupid to decide on a whim (without any evidence, suspicion, or reason to think so at all) that you are able to fly if you wear mismatched shoes and then decide to jump off a tall building (even though the last four people that tried it failed). The problem with believing something without (and in spite of) evidence is that there is no reason to choose that belief over any other belief and all mental processes become completely random. For example, halfway up the stairs to the roof you might decide that you were never able to fly – but you can walk through walls if you wear a tie. There is no reason to stick with any belief, yet people do. Some say that since we are all going to die anyways it doesn’t matter what we believe, but this type of thinking is only possible if we believe we are going to die. What if we don’t?
It was not until after I graduated high school that I heard of a more limited version of faith. Many Christians equate faith and trust. Because a bridge held the last six times you drove over it, you trust that it will do so again. Because you have observed how your friends treat yourself and others in a trustworthy manner for many years, you have faith that they will continue to do so in the future. Because the predictions of a scientific theory have held up under repeated experimentation, you trust that it is a good model to use. Because God came through for you in the past, you trust that he will again. In the complicated world in which we live in, there is always contrary evidence (the bridge shakes a little more every time you cross, your friend is arrested, one study doesn’t show the same correlations as the others, one prayer goes unanswered for an extended time), but if we changed our minds every five seconds nothing would ever get done. Trusting forever in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is stupid, but so is giving up on every project you start and never trusting anyone just because one tiny thing goes wrong. There has to be balance.
This last type of faith gets stronger with evidence and begins to approach pure belief as the need to choose withers away. However, there are other Christians that say that faith can only exist in the absence of knowledge. If we have proof, no faith is required. Faith is a stopgap measure we must use when proof cannot be found. What keeps this type of faith from degenerating into the form of insanity that causes you to wear mismatched shoes and jump off buildings? For one thing, it only exists in the absence of knowledge. If you “know” that you can’t fly, it is impossible to have faith that you can. It is only when you don’t know for sure, that you can “choose to believe” one or the other. Since the existence of God has never been disproven, it is possible to put faith in him even without proving his existence either.
What should guide our faith then? There are those that invent new religions, such as Scientology, and those that adopt old religions, such as Wicca. If faith can only exist in the absence of knowledge, it would be impossible to put faith in a religion we know to be made up. Scientology is known to have come out of Hubbard’s imagination. Wicca is so ancient that nobody alive remembers truly how it started and therefore there is the tiny possibility that there is something to it. Yet, people put faith in new ideas all the time.
This brings me to the concepts of “burden of proof” and “Occam’s razor.” In the American legal system, one is officially innocent until proven guilty, not guilty until proven innocent. The burden of proof is on the one making the accusation. Many people apply the same principle to philosophy, science, and religion in general. Those claiming that X is true and those claiming that NOT X is true both have the burden of proof, but those claiming that they do not know whether X or NOT X is true do not. Under this system, both theists (God exists) and atheists (God does not exist) have the responsibility to prove their assertions, while agnostics need not prove anything. However, others do not interpret this the same way. Many atheists do not believe they have any burden and we should assume God does not exist until proven otherwise. Many Christians think God’s existence is obvious and that those they see as deliberately rejecting him must answer instead. I have heard some atheists claim that the very essence of science is to see how far we can get in our understanding without having to resort to supernatural explanations, while I have heard Christians say that if you begin an investigation by discounting one of the possibilities (God did it) at the outset, it becomes a rigged game and isn’t true science.
Occam’s razor is the principle that when faced with multiple explanations that equally fit the evidence, one should choose to believe the one that requires the least additional tenets. For example, if the night after a big storm a tree is found knocked over, it makes more sense to believe the wind pushed it down than to say that an angel did it. Since wind has been known to knock down trees and wind was observed in the area the night before (whereas angels are not known to even exist) wind seems a reasonable assumption to make until further evidence comes along to refute it (such as video footage). However, many people do not accept Occam’s razor. I once met a lady who saw several people in a row with red shirts. Rather than assume that it was a statistical fluke, or that there was some holiday she didn’t know of, she ascribed the phenomenon to the two-dimensional arrangement of stars and planets as seen from Earth (even with clouds blocking the view). I asked her if it wasn’t more likely that currents of magma deep within the Earth would affect human behavior than the stars, which are so far away that their gravitational and electromagnetic influence on us is weaker than the magma, but she told me I was crazy. She had much faith in astrology.
What guides my faith? I make necessary operational assumptions. I assume that the world is as I perceive it to be because believing otherwise is self-defeating. I assume there is a future. If I didn’t have faith that time would continue instead of the universe suddenly coming to a halt five seconds from now, I wouldn’t have bothered to start typing this sentence. In order to function in a world that feels real, it is an absolute psychological necessity to make various assumptions. In the same way, I assume that I will survive the destruction of my body and go to heaven without proof because I must believe this. This I will do even when shown absolute proof of my future destruction – because I must. This does not degenerate into the form of faith that has me jumping off buildings because it is limited only to those most NECESSARY assumptions. In all other things, I keep an open mind.
Love is closely related to faith. When our children or our romantic partners leave us, we have faith they will come back because we must have faith. We are committed to them returning. We are committed to seeing them rescued from drug addiction or cancer. In this way, faith is more a path or set of actions than a belief (chosen or otherwise). It is not that we somehow know for certain that we will make it to the bomb in time to cut the wire, it is that we know that considering the alternative is a waste of effort. We plan on living and so we commit to making it happen. We speak in faith when we tell others that everything is fine as we run out the door with the wire cutters.
This last form of faith has no measurable intensity. It is either there or it isn’t. On the other hand, many variants of Christianity claim that our prayers are answered if we believe strongly enough, requiring effort on the part of the individual rather than God. For many years I thought this way and tried to measure my intensity of belief to make sure I was okay. I discovered that such measurements are meaningless. The internal states of mind only exist relative to other internal states. The only way to say whether someone has faith is to put them in a situation where they have to act. When persecution comes, the most pious monk may flee while the barely-reformed criminal may steadfastly preach. Marketers have known since the fifties that the purchases people actually make in the real world when their own money is at stake is often different than what they say they will do in surveys. People don’t know themselves.
When I used to believe that my faith was what got my prayers answered and my doubts were what prevented them from being answered, it occurred to me that there was a dual feedback loop. Those who discovered they had high faith in a particular outcome could be even more sure of that outcome, giving them more faith, making the outcome more likely, giving them more faith, making the outcome more likely…and so on. Those with doubt could only expect more doubt. Since I always had some doubt and some faith, there was no way to know how the system would evolve. The mind is complex enough for faith and doubt to coexist. Measuring faith became not only pointless, but was the very thing that led to the feedback loops. However, there is no way to stop measuring faith by simply choosing not to measure it. I am still aware of the content of my thoughts. How can I escape my own mind?
Since they are related concepts, I should attempt to define science and miracles, too.
Science has never proven anything ever. That isn’t the nature of science. Science only disproves. One hundred positive results do not prove a theory because the 101st experiment might be the exception. Math proves. Math shows that two statements are just different ways of saying the same thing, so if one is considered true, so is the other. Science is nothing like that. Those who say that global warming is settled science lie because anything that is settled isn’t science.
Science requires theories to make testable predictions (even if only in principle). Thus, a theory with the only prediction that an infinity of other universes exist that can never be detected from this universe is not scientific. Atheists resort to this theory to explain why it is we find ourselves living in a universe so finely tuned for the existence of life, which would be impossible if certain physical constants were just slightly different. Also, a theory that things behave the way they do because an omnipotent god did it is also non-scientific because there is in principle no experimental observation to which one could legitimately say, “An omnipotent god could never do that!” However, just because an omnipotent god is outside of science doesn’t mean he/she/it is outside reality. God may exist anyways – as could those infinite number of other universes. Science is not everything and was never meant to be. Those that only believe what has been discovered by science are missing out on most of the universe.
Science requires experiments be reproducible. Science studies ongoing phenomena, such as the electromagnetic force, not miracles. Miracles are usually defined as one-time events that cannot be recreated in experiments and therefore are outside of science. There is one exception: forensics. Forensics is the study of a unique past event (usually a crime) by those who were not there to witness it. It is not reproducible, yet our justice system is based on it. In the same way, one can look at clues in cosmology to make a guess how the universe began. That such a guess might include a miracle or an intelligent designer should not make it any less forensic science, but this is not what most atheists will tell you.
Miracles are not reproducible because if they were they would not be called miracles. It is a game of semantics. Most ordinary people would say that the creation of something out of nothing is a miracle, but modern gauge theory is based on this. It is accepted science. Under quantum mechanics, all forces are believed to work through a sea of particles popping in and out of potentiality. It’s called the quantum vacuum energy and it is literally everywhere. It is random but governed by statistics. There is no limit on the amount of mass that can pop out of nothing, but the larger the mass the less time it has before it has to pop back into nothing. Sets of particles with zero net mass/energy can remain indefinitely. Our entire universe may be such a set of particles. Attractive forces count as negative energy and gravity is always attractive. When one adds up all the matter in the universe and subtracts all the gravitational energy, the result is very close to zero. Thus, the creation of the universe itself – the greatest miracle of all – might be fully explainable by physics and therefore not a miracle anymore.
What is God? If there were absolute proof that life on Earth was designed by an intelligence and could not have formed under the conditions of early Earth without outside intervention, would this be proof of God? Or that of ancient alien biologists? Perhaps we were a science fair project left running. Would it be right to call these aliens “God?” It’s a semantics game again.
Forensic science has no problem with lesser gods; it is only an omnipotent god with no pattern of behavior that cannot be tested. Could an omnipotent god exist? It depends how you define omnipotent. Certainly even an omniscient, omnipotent god cannot know what he doesn’t know or create a rock too heavy for him to lift because these are contradictory situations. It is not that they are impossible for god to do; it is that the situations as described are nonsensical non-situations. Just because God can do anything, does not mean that he can do any non-thing too. Not even God can violate mathematics, but there are those that believe he can. How it is possible for one to hold to nonsensical non-tenets is beyond me, but this is what people tell me. How do they even hold the concept in the mind? Perhaps this is yet another type of faith.
This brings me to the doctrine of the trinity. No one knows what it means (though I have heard about a dozen different ideas) but some say if you don’t believe God is a trinity, you aren’t really a Christian. What if one day we learn that the trinity means Islam or Hinduism? A lot of people will feel very silly. How can one believe something when they don’t even know what it is they believe? Perhaps this is yet another kind of faith.
Other people shift the emphasis from the chosen belief to the choice itself. They ask, “Would you want to believe if you could?” This approach focuses on the heart of the individual instead of the mind, which can be deceived. This way, one can have faith in one thing and belief in another.