Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Appropriate Use of Faith

A question came up in the comment thread of last week's "Think about it" Thursday about whether or not the use of faith is limited to the religious and whether or not faith is inherently a bad thing.

My answer is that faith, when used appropriately, can be a valuable tool, and everyone uses it, regardless of religious belief. However, I have to draw a distinction here: I think that absolute and unshakeable faith and/or faith without evidence is limited almost entirely to the religious and that it is inherently a bad thing. Even worse are those who go even further than just faith without evidence and champion absolute faith in spite of evidence to the contrary.

I am not opposed to faith in and of itself. But I am opposed to the inappropriate use of faith. That is to say, I am opposed to faith without fact checking and logic to back up its claims; I am opposed to stubborn faith that cannot be reshaped even when faced with mountains of evidence to the contrary; I am opposed to the idea that faith and feelings can (and should) be considered a better guide to truth than logic and evidence; I am opposed to faith that is not tempered by doubt.

Scientists frequently use faith as an intermediate step to “fill in the gaps” so they can have a working model to explore different possibilities until they have enough data to verify the real answer. But if you’re using faith in this way, to “fill in the gaps” of knowledge, then it’s essential that you recognize your belief for what it really is—just a guess—instead of trying to place it on equal footing with knowledge that has been verified by physical evidence and observation. Scientists don’t treat guesses as fact; you don't meet scientists with blind faith in their guesses who say they know beyond a shadow of a doubt, with every fiber of their being that their untested hypothesis is true; and even concepts that are considered true beyond a reasonable doubt are always and instantly open to change as necessary. Those are the important distinctions between the way scientists use belief and the way religious adherents use belief.

The appropriate use of faith requires that you use it with the understanding that your beliefs are only a guess (until proven otherwise) and that they must be open to change as necessary as new information is obtained. It’s dishonest and often dangerous to treat your beliefs as certain—and base crucial life decisions on their supposed certainty—if you don’t have conclusive evidence to back them up.


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Religion, skepticism, and carving out a spiritual life post-Mormonism