Evidence-based Faith part 2

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In my last post (Evidence-based Faith part 1) I started exploring holy books as a kind of evidence that can underpin religious faith. I thought about some of the questions I might ask if I wanted to know if I could put my trust and confidence in scriptures. It seemed to me that the written word isn’t a good way to precisely communicate the will, intent and values of a supernatural entity, but it occurred to me that perhaps that isn’t really what holy books are about. Maybe they serve as a record of religious experiences, from which the general framework of a religion emerges. I have found that when I ask religious people why they believe they often tell me about an experience in which they found evidence supporting their beliefs.

It isn’t very difficult to find examples of religious experiences online and I would like to paraphrase a few of them here. Before I do though I ought to point out that what these experiences mean to those who had them and the exact detail of the experiences themselves would have been very difficult to capture accurately in writing. Something is often lost (or added) in the articulation of the experience and in paraphrasing I am again blunting the description. Additionally, the English speaking web from which I sourced these recounts has some fairly pronounced cultural biases. Lastly, those who choose to share their experience online may be more inclined towards particular beliefs or experiences.

In 2006 a middle-age Christian woman was involved in a head-on collision during her commute to work. She suffered serious injuries and had to be cut from her car by emergency services. She was airlifted to hospital where she spent the first couple of weeks in and out of consciousness and heavily medicated. During this time she saw her mother, with angels standing behind her.

“The most amazing thing was, I died. I bled out during the initial surgery (and I’ve had thirty-six). I was given over 100 units of blood and had two trauma surgeons working on me. When my heart would stop, they would revive me.”

Shortly after arriving in hospital, her church pastor and other members of her church came. When her husband arrived, he prayed with the pastor and…

“…something hit him. Out loud, he proclaimed that I was not going to die in a hospital. God was going to perform a miracle. And He did.”

At some point during this time her heart stopped again and she saw Jesus, who told her to go back (to her living body). She survived the accident and shared her experience 8 years later.

In 2009 a person who had lost their mother to cancer 5 years earlier and had been suffering from depression, admitted themselves to hospital. They felt as though they had lost everything except their faith in God and they cried and prayed and pleaded with God for relief. The person sat on a bed and played a song on the guitar they had played for their mother when she was ill. They began to feel an energy and hear “heavenly music”.

“I got to the part of the song where it says “and a man shall leave his mother” and the Heavenly music and very strong energy left my body at an incredible rate. I knew right then and there that I had released my mother into Heaven.”

In this recount of the experience the person explains that it happened at the same date and time that their mother had passed away 5 years earlier and that their watch stopped on that time (09:18).

This last experience happened to a recently and unhappily married 22 year old woman. She and her husband were fighting and their argument became physical when her husband choked her until she lost consciousness. She described an almost crippling fear and heartbreak but decided to forgive him. During a subsequent argument her husband again choked her unconscious…

“…As I was gaining conscience I could feel the most indescribable feeling of warmth and safety not only was that feeling running threw me but around me. It seemed I was in a vary big room that was well lit not to bright, not to dark… I couldn’t see the walls or nothing but it was kind of hard to take my eyes of the four figures that were with me, couldn’t see many details just remember the feeling of love and safety, oh and what ever was with me was really really tall.”

When she regained consciousness she described what she had experienced. She wasn’t sure what to make of the experience but wrote that she has some theories.

If you’re curious I’d encourage you to search online and read a few more. Something that strikes me about the three I’ve described here is how emotional they are. Struggling to survive an horrific car crash, trying to cope with depression and loss and finding feelings of love and safety in an extremely abusive relationship. Powerful emotional experiences can have a profound and lasting impact on our lives. They can also serve to reaffirm our deeply held convictions. I’m sensitive to the fact that religious experiences mean a lot to those who experience them and I don’t believe that questioning a religious experience need in any way devalue the experience. My task here is to consider what questions could be asked about a religious experience to assess its suitability for underpinning a person’s religious faith:

  • Do similar religious experiences indicate similar conclusions? For example, if the woman from the first story had been a Hindu, would she have still concluded a miracle had been performed by the Christian god? Or if she had been an atheist, would she have said she was saved solely by the hard work of the emergency services?
  • Does the conclusion that is reached follow logically from the experience? For example, in the second story is there anything about the experience of playing a song, hearing music and feeling a powerful sensation on the 5th anniversary of their mother’s passing that suggests she was released to heaven through that experience (or that heaven exists)?
  • Are there natural explanations for an experience? In the case of the third story for example, a combination of emotional and physical trauma, with a lack of oxygen and consciousness could explain the cause of the experience.

Ultimately, the cause of a person’s religious experience can be explained by natural phenomena but the “meaning” or “reason” thought to be inherent therein is generally open to interpretation. People strive to make sense or their experiences, particularly those that are personally uncommon and powerfully emotional. In my view, religious experiences are too easily interpreted to fit with any set of beliefs for them to be considered a solid basis for faith. Those who believe in spirits will take their religious experiences to be evidence for spirits and the same is true of those who believe in gods, angels or other supernatural entities. The difficulty with religious experiences is that they are so subjective. However, where religious faith has a direct impact on the natural world, as it does with faith healing for example, the claim can be assessed. So perhaps the place to look for strong evidence for religious faith is not in the experiences but in the miracles.

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Evidence-based Faith part 1

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What is faith, in the religious sense of the word? Although what faith means may be varied and nuanced between different religions, denominations and individual believers, faith can be broadly defined as: trusting and having confidence in religious authority, which might include religious leaders, holy books and supernatural entities. Faith is seen by some to be an important component of religion. It’s often considered virtuous to place your trust in religious authorities. Faith is also frequently talked about as though it’s the opposite of evidence. “Blind faith” as a way of describing beliefs held without evidence is in my view nothing more than rhetoric. The idea that someone puts their trust in and has confidence in religious authority without evidence strikes me as false. The faithful must have some ideas about their god for example and perhaps its character, values or its will. These ideas are unlikely to have arisen independently in people and so it seems to me that the faithful must base their faith in evidence. This evidence is constitutive of their beliefs. Perhaps they were told about their religion by parents. Maybe they were read passages from a holy book by a religious leader. Some may not consider this evidence to be strong or convincing, but it’s evidence nonetheless. I don’t currently have any religious faith but this notion of evidence-based faith has got me thinking. What sorts of questions could I ask to find out if I could or should have the kind of faith defined above?

Many religions are based on holy books from which the faithful draw their religious knowledge. These books are generally sacred texts, which are held by some to be accurate and true. But is a holy book a reliable source of information? After all, language doesn’t withstand the passage of time very well. It has a tendency to change and meanings shift quite rapidly. This was even more the case before languages became standardised for printing. Meaning is easily (unavoidably?) lost or corrupted in the translation process and holy texts have a tendency to be compiled and recompiled from multiple sources whose authorship can be geographically diverse and separated by hundreds of years. Writing is a product of its time, carrying the assumptions inherent in the world view of its author. If the author lived in a culture that considered women to be property then the writing may well contain that view. If the author didn’t know for example what stars are or the motion of the earth around the sun, that ignorance may well be exposed in the writing.

Our perception of the authority of the written word has changed radically over time as well. Historically the word has had an almost magical quality. In fact in some cases the very act of making marks representing ideas was a method of spell casting. Before the invention of the printing press (enabling mass production) the sheer rarity of books endowed them with authority. They were expensive to make and were owned by the very wealthy. Even if books were available, levels of literacy in the past were very low. Our view of books is much more pragmatic now. We are less likely to believe the content of a book simply because it is in a book. The availability of books and levels of literacy are far higher now, although not evenly distributed. People now have greater opportunity to engage critically with books and fact-check using the internet.

If assessing a holy book to decide if I could have trust and confidence in it I might ask:

  • What is the history of this book and how was its content assembled?
  • Is the author identifiable and how credible are/were they?
  • What is it offering me and what does it want from me?
  • Are its claims consistent with our constantly improving understanding of how things work?
  • Are its claims verified or supported by independent records?
  • Is it logical and consistent?
  • And how does it compare with other holy books?

I’m not convinced that a book is a good way to ensure that an essential religious message travels unaltered over hundreds or thousands of years to reach the maximum number of people. Perhaps holy books are not so much the perfect transmission of the values, will and intent of supernatural, creator entities. Perhaps they are more to do with normal people expressing and recording their (and others’) religious experiences.

Is Atheism a Religion?

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The question of whether atheism is another kind of religion seems to pop up with surprising regularity. I’d like to spend a few moments sharing my understanding of what atheism is (and isn’t) along with some ideas about where points of confusion may arise.

I find it useful to think about atheism in relation to other *theisms. There are a lot and I won’t include them all but … there’s theism, which is the belief in one or more gods who are usually creators that get involved in human affairs. There’s monotheism, which is a belief in one god. Islam, Judaism and Christianity are examples of monotheistic religions, although some might debate Christianity on the grounds of the Trinity. Polytheism is the belief in more than one god, as in Hinduism or the ancient Greek pantheon (Zeus, Poseidon, etc.). Anti theism is an opposition to a belief in any gods. Pantheism is the belief that “god” is essentially another word for describing nature or the universe. Atheism describes an absence of belief in any gods.

None of the *theisms are in themselves religions but instead describe a position on a belief in god or gods. However, religions may have a stance on the existence of gods. For example, all Muslims are monotheistic (as far as I’m aware) but not all monotheists are Muslims. So it follows that atheism, as an absence of a belief in gods, is not a religion, but a religion could be atheistic. All we can say about monotheists for sure is that they believe in one god, although not necessarily the same one. Similarly, all we may say about atheists for sure is that they have no beliefs in any gods. Why one person is an atheist might be completely different from why another is. Atheists, like monotheists, polytheists etc. don’t necessarily believe the same things or base their beliefs on sound reasoning.

So why is atheism sometimes spoken about as though it’s a religion? I think confusion about definitions of atheism can explain this to an extent but I also think that many atheists draw on science, reason and logic when discussing religion, which some people may see as a system of belief that is analogous to religion. It could be that the repeated pairing of the word “atheist” with “science” facilitates this misconception. Science is of course no more a religion than atheism but like religion, science is in the business of saying things about existence. A core difference between science and religion is the means by which we get there. Religions, particularly those based on holy books, make claims about existence from a position of assumed authority. Things are true because an authority says so. Believers may be promised rewards and non-believers might be threatened with punishment. It is a way of looking at the world based on subservience and faith. Scientists make claims about existence from a position of questioning. They observe, hypothesise, test, and theorise as part of an ongoing “chipping away” at the truth. There is no reward or punishment for believing but there is the utility of discoveries. It is a way of looking at the world based on scepticism and evidence. Another important distinction is that when scientists make new discoveries and new evidence arises, scientific claims are amended and improved, whereas many religions aren’t (easily) able to change in response to new discoveries. Good examples are geology, the fossil record and evolution, which for many casts doubt on creationist explanations of human origins (sometimes called intelligent design).

In my first post I talked a little about how I stopped believing in god. My reasons for not believing were not terribly scientific but were sort of empirical. I had prayed many times in my life but had never observed a response. Nor had I seen or heard anything that could be called evidence for the existence of a god. This was enough to spark a wider interest in religion and to cause me to critically engage with some of the claims made by religions. I share the view that there is no reason to believe something without compelling evidence. This is why I identify as an atheist. However, I don’t think you need to be an atheist to question religious claims to knowledge. In fact many religious people, to their credit, are critical for example of the sexism and homophobia they observe in holy books and daily life.

Goodness and Religion

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A few weeks ago a friend was talking to me about leaving her religion. She said she’d spoken with her family and they’d asked her how she thought she could still be a good person without her faith. They’d said that morality came from her religion and that she couldn’t pick and choose the bits she liked. I’m not convinced at any religion can really be considered the de facto source of morality  but I think there are many examples of religious teachings that try to define what is right and wrong. Some of these teachings tap into moral properties that are common to all people. Other teachings may have more to do with the values held by specific groups.

There are a range of behavioural predispositions we could call good or bad that are part of our biology rather than learnt. These have to do with social behaviours and are instrumental in persisting the human species. Where people differ from other animals is that we also have culture. Good and bad behaviours depend to some extent on the context and who is judging the behaviour. Even if a person wanted to do only good there will be someone, somewhere who considers their behaviour bad. We all know for example that breaking into a person’s house is bad. We also all know that breaking into your elderly neighbour’s house to help them because they have fallen is good. So if a person can’t literally be all good or bad, why do we talk about “good” and “bad” people? I think it is likely we have these categories as a way of summarising complex observations, thoughts and feelings about people into a simple shorthand to guide our behaviour and to help us communicate our views to others.

We tend to label people as good or bad depending on what we think of their actions, behaviour and intentions. I might call someone a good person because I know that they volunteer at a homeless shelter. Here I’d be focusing on a specific behaviour over time and assuming that they intend to make others’ lives better. If I see on the news that someone has committed a murder I might describe the perpetrator of that crime as a bad person because of the intellectual and emotional weight of that one action. Someone might view themselves as a bad person because they have been repeatedly told it or taught that there’s something wrong with them. Conversely, a person might believe wholeheartedly in the righteousness of their evil actions. Their intent is good but based on faulty reasoning, misunderstanding or illness. The question of who gets to say what is good and bad is an important one.

So where does religion fit into all of this? Broadly speaking religion can contribute to our values and offer some guidance about how to order our lives. Of course there are many religions, each making mutually exclusive claims about existence. They have some members who behave well and others who misbehave. There do appear to be areas of moral commonality between religions, such as the suggestion that we treat others as we would like to be treated. Since this isn’t the property of any one religion, it supports the idea that our morality is much more than a set of specific religious teachings. Our values change over time and between places, which can cause problems for religions that are not sufficiently dynamic. The Anglican Church for example has encountered considerable difficulty in modernising its stance on sexuality. It’s an interesting issue since it seems to have a lot to do with the role of culture and politics in the interpretation of scripture. This is a problem not just because of the effect it has on how people treat each other, but also for the institutions since people will increasingly ask “what relevance does a religion have if it’s at odds with the values of the society it exists in?”

My view is that religion can influence morals but the final word on morality doesn’t belong to religion. Our values change over time and hopefully for the better. Goodness finds expression in the actions of the religious and non-religious alike. It might be true that my friend was raised in a religious environment and learnt something about goodness from that experience. I don’t think that means you have to take the bad with the good. She had the courage to question some of teachings she felt uncomfortable with and I’d say that’s the hallmark of a good person.