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. 😉