Does Faith Explain Anything?

The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.
— George Bernard Shaw

Adherents to religion, or generally most of those who claim to “have faith,” will often justify their faith by saying that there are certain things in the world that “science alone can’t explain.” In other words, they are comforted by the notion that “faith” has some sort of explanatory power where science fails. Let’s examine this notion and determine whether or not faith really explains anything at all.

To begin, science doesn’t fail. Science is nothing but a set of guidelines for testing the validity of theories that attempt to explain our world. As new evidence is discovered, an existing theory may be re-tested in light of the new evidence. The evidence will then either help support the theory, or help discredit the theory, in which case a new theory may be formulated to accommodate the new evidence (as well as all prior existing evidence). To this end, scientific theories may fail, and they sometimes do. No scientist will ever claim that any theory is “perfect” and capable of explaining everything.

Some scientific theories, however, are so well-established and well-supported, that they are simply accepted by scientists as “fact,” or as close to “fact” as can be achieved. An example of such a theory might be Newton’s laws of motion (for large objects), or the theory of evolution. From the perspective of a non-scientist, it may even appear as if scientists have a certain “faith” about the validity of their theories, but this is only because the theories are so rigorously tested and thoroughly proved.

When someone says, “Science can’t explain this,” whether “this” refers to human consciousness, the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and so on, the correct statement is actually, “Science can’t explain this yet.” Throughout history, there has been a very clear trend where scientific discoveries explain phenomena that were formerly attributed to gods and the supernatural. This includes earthquakes, eclipses, thunderstorms, drought, diseases, and a whole host of other natural occurrences that are now very well-known and understood. It’s only a matter of time until science fills in the remaining gaps of knowledge that exist today.

Faith appears to offer nothing but non-explanations. For example, if I were to ask you how a microwave oven works, and you were to say, “It’s magic,” you will have given me a non-explanation. If I grew up believing in magic, then I would probably accept your answer with enthusiasm, but in reality, you’ll have given me no new information on how the microwave actually works.

The same with faith and god-belief: suppose we ask how life originated on this planet, and we get the response, “God created it.” While this response may be emotionally powerful for lifelong believers or the newly-converted, in reality this answer is devoid of any real meaning, and does not give any new information on how life actually came to be. To a scientist, “God did it” is as vacuous as “It’s magic.”

No one denies that there are many mysteries in our world that are still unsolved. Atheists have an equally deep appreciation for mysteries as theists. However, to an atheist, a mystery remains a mystery until it is solved properly using the scientific method. To a theist, any mystery is automatically “solved” with “God did it.” There’s a very apparent danger in this kind of reasoning, because a person of deep faith may never get past his “goddidit” mindset, and never discover or accept the real explanation for an unsolved mystery. This is seen throughout history, from the Church’s rejection of the heliocentric nature of the solar system, to today’s creationists’ relentless unwillingness to accept Evolution or the Big Bang. This is all due to their faith in the infallibility of 2000 year-old folk tales.

To an outside observer, faith does not seem to explain much at all. So why do so many people “have” it? Moreover, why do they consider it “good” to have it? Is it because of indoctrination at an early enough age, or because of a profound life-changing event that leaves the mind in a vulnerable state? Or is it simply an excuse to feel “spiritually superior” to nonbelievers? Whatever the answer, I’m sure that it lies not with faith, but with neuroscience. 😉

Conservapedia

or What America is in Danger of Becoming

Apparently several disgruntled fundamentalist christians have set up their own “alternative” to Wikipedia that they’re calling Conservapedia (subtitled “A conservative encyclopedia you can trust“). Their biggest gripes with Wikipedia appear to be their perception of a “liberal bias” in Wikipedia, as well as Wikipedia’s use of C.E. (Common Era) in dates instead of A.D. (Anno Domini). In short, the authors of Conservapedia fear that Wikipedia is becoming “increasingly anti-Christian and anti-American.”

No doubt, Conservapedia was founded by a couple of angry guys whose edits on Wikipedia got deleted for being too preachy and uncomfortably fundamentalist. The guys may have even been cranky enough to get banned from Wikipedia altogether, which is what probably gave them the bright idea to start their own encyclopedia, so that subsequent generations of fundies can be as ignorant and hypocritical as they are.

After a few minutes of browsing Conservapedia, it becomes clear that 90% of its articles are one-liners (these are articles where the authors don’t care to make a political statement). All of Conservapedia’s articles on Biology, Chemistry, and Physics are one sentence long, and appear to come from a series of textbooks by Jay L. Wile, a conservative christian author whose books urge their readers to study science, but only while wearing the dunce-cap of biblical inerrancy and basking in the glory of the lord-our-god.

In the articles where it does attempt to make a statement (that is, articles that are longer than one sentence), Conservapedia offers us nothing more than the usual regurgitations of creationist arguments that have long been discredited and put to rest. These include old-time favorites like “no transitional fossils,” “irreducible complexity,” and other arguments favored by creationist all-stars like Kent Hovind and Ken Ham.

What really disturbs me is the mind-boggling hypocrisy of Conservapedia. The authors complain that Wikipedia has a “liberal bias,” and that its editors regularly edit articles to have a decidedly “anti-christian” tone. This is certainly not true, but we’ll come back to that. The point is, even if Wikipedia displays some kind of bias, it’s blatantly obvious that the bias seen in Conservapedia is vastly greater! We can guess with some certainty what would happen when someone adds content to Conservapedia that doesn’t conform exactly to their infallible beliefs.

Conservapedia actually has a page that lists all of the purported “examples of bias in Wikipedia.” My first thought was, “What credible encyclopedia goes out of its way to show how it’s better than other encyclopedias?” My second thought was even better: “An article entitled ‘Examples of bias in Conservapedia’ would pretty much contain the entire website!”

Wikipedia is not anti-christian. It is, by definition, not biased at all. If a certain article appears to have an “anti-christian” tone, it is precisely because the editors removed a pro-christian bias from the article.

I agree that Truth is not a democracy. However, there is such a thing as scientific consensus. Many of the people who edit Wikipedia articles are experts in their respective fields, like biology, chemistry, physics, and history. These people are qualified to represent the current scientific consensus on various matters, including evolution, origins of the universe, abortion, gay marriage, Christianity’s influence in the Renaissance, etc. (These are all subjects that the Conservapedia authors have a hard-on for disputing).

Religious rants from fundamentalists belong in personal web pages and blogs (of which there’s no shortage, I assure you), or better yet, stored away safely in the minds of religious fanatics. They certainly don’t belong on websites that claim to be a source of actual information for the general public.

Looking at Conservapedia, I can see many disturbing parallels between it and the current state of affairs in the United States. It is exactly this kind of thinking, this kind of hypocrisy and ignorance, that will eventually revert this free and enlightened nation to a 15th-century theocracy where atheists and any other non-christians will be burned at the stake once more. Of course I’m exaggerating, and I’m by no means fearful for my life at this point, but I do get a chill down my spine when I see yet another website showing that such beliefs still exist in the 21st century.

… unless the whole thing is a hoax, in which case, well-played!