Is it Ethical to Talk Someone Out of their Faith?
At our May meeting, University of Manitoba philosophy Professor Arthur Schafer was asked whether it is ethical to try to talk people out of their religion if it gives them comfort. He answered the question decisively by emphatically stating that not only is it ethical to talk people out of superstitious beliefs; it is actually unethical to be religious.
In the excellent presentation that followed, Professor Schafer explained his answer in much more detail, but the gist of it is this: A populace that doesn’t think critically is a big risk to society. When people allow themselves to believe whatever makes them feel comfortable without examining and testing the evidence, they will be led to make decisions that are wildly irrational. False beliefs lead to actions based on those false beliefs, which in turn causes harm to ourselves and/or others. Poor decision making can occur in relation to all sorts of issues besides religion – medical treatment, politics and government, finances, lifestyle choices, and more. People who are gullible seldom limit their gullibility to one area or belief. However, in societies that experience prejudice and persecution, these attitudes are almost always based on false beliefs – usually based in religion.
Regarding the reasons that people turn to religion, Professor Schafer noted that it is most likely because they fear chaos and disorder, and seek security and comfort. However, there is much more disharmony in the universe than harmony, and certainly no evidence for an all-loving deity. Nevertheless, the fact that there is no intrinsic meaning in the universe doesn’t mean that we have no meaning in our lives; it’s up to us to create our own meaning. We have to learn to live with some uncertainty, and learn to make the best decisions we can based on the available evidence. We CAN live without illusions and old superstitions, even ones that give us comfort.
If you missed that meeting, the entire speech can be viewed here.
Response from a Christian:
Professor Schafer’s presentation prompted the following response from Michael Zwaagstra, a high school teacher and city councillor in Steinbach, Manitoba. It appeared in his weekly column “Think Again” in the local newspaper, The Carillon.
Earlier this year, someone sent me the YouTube link to a lecture given by Dr Arthur Schafer, an ethicist at the University of Manitoba. This lecture was delivered to the Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba (HAAM) at their May meeting, and was entitled “Is it unethical to talk someone out of their faith?”
Schafer began by saying that not only was it ethical to talk someone out of their faith, it was unethical to be religious at all. This was obviously a bold claim and I was curious to hear what evidence he had to back it up.
The examples he put forward were interesting. First, he described the Trudeau government’s decision to enact the War Measures Act in 1970 even though the evidence later revealed that this was an unnecessary intrusion of civil liberties. He then outlined the cases of two Aboriginal girls whose parents removed them from chemotherapy to pursue alternative treatments. One of those girls later died.
Schafer claimed that even though these two scenarios were very different from each other, they had one thing in common – belief in the absence of evidence. In other words, it is morally wrong to believe in something when the evidence does not support it. Since Schafer believes that religious faith lacks evidence, it is unethical to be religious.
It’s certainly a neat and tidy proposition when you put it that way. However, it suffers from two fatal flaws – an incorrect definition of faith, and unsubstantiated allegations about what the evidence actually shows. Let’s take a look at both in turn.
The Christian definition of faith can be found in Hebrews 11:1, which states “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. So while it is true that faith requires belief in something we have not yet seen, it is not correct to say we are expected to believe in things with no evidence. In fact, each of the heroes of faith listed in Hebrews had solid reasons to trust God.
For example, Moses was commended for leading the Israelites out of Egypt by faith. However, we also see quite clearly in Exodus 3 that God gave Moses good reasons to believe. From the burning bush to the staff that turned into a serpent, God provided Moses with plenty of evidence before sending him out to free the Israelites. So even though Moses needed faith to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, it was not a blind or irrational faith. It was built on a solid foundation.
The second major flaw with Schafer’s argument is that he incorrectly summarizes the evidence. To categorically state that there is no evidence for religious faith is not only an exaggeration, it is demonstrably false. From solid philosophical arguments for the existence of God to concrete archaeological evidence supporting the accuracy of the Bible, to a strong historical case for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, there are many reasons to accept Christianity.
The evidence for Christianity may not convince skeptics like Schafer. Even one of Jesus’ own disciples, Thomas, refused to believe that Jesus rose from the dead until he saw him in person (John 20:24-29). However, by doing so Thomas rejected a significant amount of eyewitness testimony from the other disciples that was corroborated by an empty tomb. In other words, he chose not to accept the evidence that was available to him.
It takes faith to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. But that does not mean there is no evidence that it happened.
Thus, Schafer is wrong to conclude that faith is unethical. To the contrary, it makes sense to have it.
Rebuttal from HAAM:
HAAM’s Vice President and Outreach coordinator, Pat Morrow, provided this rebuttal in a letter to the editor which was also printed in The Carillon:
Depending on who you talk to, there are many different definitions of faith. In Mr. Zwaagstra’s column “Think Again”, he offers us a definition of faith from Hebrews 11:1, and he agrees that faith is belief without seeing but not belief without evidence. This is simply a distinction without a difference.
Mr. Zwaagstra offers the story of Exodus from the Bible as evidence. Dr. William Dever (ret) and Dr. Israel Finkelstein (University of Tel Aviv) are just two of many, many Biblical and Middle East archaeologists who, after exhaustive research, consider the Exodus never to have happened and the story to be an entirely fictional narrative. Archaeologists have been coming to the desert since the 19th Century and have simply found no evidence of the biblical Exodus. It seems that Mr Zwaagstra has demonstrated that Dr Schafer’s definition of faith coincides with the Bible’s definition of faith, since he believes the story of the Exodus without evidence.
Zwaagstra mentions the “solid philosophical arguments for the existence of God” and “the concrete archaeological evidence that supports the accuracy of the Bible”. He must be privy to arguments that I am not aware of, as without fail, all the major arguments for the existence of God since the time before Aquinas have fallen apart under the weight of their own built-in logical fallacies. As far as concrete evidence and accuracy is concerned, there is none that would prove the bible to be true to any great degree. I wonder if Mr. Zwaagstra gives as much weight to the archaeological and historical evidence that demonstrates many of the stories of the Bible are completely inaccurate and couldn’t have happened.
In the end, not only is faith belief without evidence, it is also belief in spite of evidence. Faith is not a path to truth – in fact it very often gets in the way of truth. Faith is what we rely on when we have no good evidence. And that is why it is, as Dr Schafer explained, not ethical.
Second Response from Mr Zwaagstra:
After Pat’s letter appeared, Zwaagstra responded again in his next weekly column:
Looks like my previous column got the attention of the Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba (HAAM). In a letter to the editor last week, HAAM’s vice-president, Patrick Morrow, challenged my definition of faith and said there is no difference between belief without seeing and belief without evidence. In his words, “This is simply a distinction without a difference.”
However, there is a very big difference indeed. Suppose for a moment that the resurrection of Jesus initially appears to all of the disciples except for one – Thomas. Since Thomas had not yet seen Jesus, he needed faith in order to believe in the resurrection. But does this mean there was no evidence available?
No, it doesn’t. Thomas had eyewitness testimony from his fellow disciples as well as independent confirmation from several women who also followed Jesus. He had an empty tomb he could visit and specific predictions from Jesus himself that he would rise from the dead. Thus, while Thomas needed faith in order to believe, it most certainly was not a blind faith. There was plenty of evidence for him to consider.
To take a more contemporary example, anyone who has attended a wedding has seen faith in action. The bride and groom pledge to be faithful to each other until death, and, by all accounts, believe that the other person will keep this promise. This is a leap of faith since neither the bride nor the groom has actually seen how the other person will live for the rest of their lives.
But that doesn’t mean it is blind faith. Assuming the bride and groom dated before their wedding, they spent time getting to know each other before deciding to get married. In other words, they gathered a lot of evidence and it helped them determine whether or not to put their faith in that person. In contrast, blind faith would be two random people getting married without knowing a single thing about each other – generally not a good strategy.
Now I recognize that Morrow and other members of HAAM believe there is no evidence for the reliability of the Bible. Obviously I disagree with them. As a case in point, Morrow says there is no evidence for the biblical account of the Exodus and he cites two archaeologists who hold the same view. He then concludes that I am exercising blind faith by believing in the story of the Exodus.
What Morrow doesn’t mention is that scholars are split on this issue. Some advocate for an early Exodus date (c. 1446 BC), some argue for a later date (c. 1250 BC), while others believe the Exodus never happened at all. Morrow selectively references two archaeologists who happen to agree with his position and leaves the false impression that the scholarly debate is over. It isn’t.
Incidentally, Morrow provides a good example of faith in his letter. He trusts the word of two archaeologists who say there is no evidence to support the story of the Exodus. Now I suspect that Morrow has not personally reviewed every piece of evidence that these archaeologists examined. Instead, he has faith in what these archaeologists have written, despite not seeing all the evidence himself.
The reality is that all people, even members of HAAM, exercise faith at times. We cannot make many decisions in life without it. Instead of condemning all faith as unethical, HAAM members would do better to recognize the difference between reasonable faith and blind faith.
Not all faith is the same. On this point at least, we should be able to agree.
Second Rebuttal from Pat:
I could agree with Mr Zwaagstra that not all faith is the same. In fact, in talking to the religious, I’ve found that the definitions of faith are about as varied as religious believers. Faith as described by Mr Zwaagstra in Hebrews 11:1 is “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (KJV).
If seeing is a form of evidence, than that makes the biblical definition of faith, belief without evidence. In the world outside of the more, shall we say, devout believers of any religion, faith with evidence is not faith – it’s evidence.
Of course not all evidence is the same. On the high-value end we have empirical or scientific evidence; evidence that can be demonstrated and tested. On the other end of the scale we have evidence that is hearsay or stories of a personal nature. Often this evidence is so weak that we give it a different label – anecdote. Anecdotes may or may not have a seed of truth to them; however teasing out this truth is often impossible and renders the anecdote essentially useless as a source of evidence for evaluating truth claims.
Mr Zwaagstra offers us yet another biblical anecdote to demonstrate that faith is belief with evidence, and in doing so he displays the exact opposite. Outside the Bible there are no contemporaneous extra-biblical written accounts that could offer any evidence that this Jesus figure ever existed, let alone that he was resurrected. Even if the Bible could be considered an account of the resurrection, the stories were written later, and we have no originals, just copies of copies, and they contain many points of contradiction. Zwaagstra believes those stories without good evidence; that is to say, he believes on faith.
The doubting Thomas story is an interesting choice. Maybe Thomas understood that the empty tomb was not evidence of the resurrection, but evidence only of an empty tomb. He wasn’t swayed by the personal testimonies of the other disciples. He waited for the evidence, then tested it before believing. A true skeptic?
Zwaagstra’s second or modern example doesn’t get much better. The couple getting married obviously would have a history together, over time developing a bond of trustworthy of a life-long union. Maybe this couple has witnessed other successful lifelong unions. This would not make their marriage a leap of faith, but rather a reasonable expectation based on evidence. Of course, for the couple that have never met, marrying would be a true leap of faith. In this, Zwaagstra and I are in agreement.
It’s unfortunate that in the last half of his letter, Mr Zwaagstra has to resort using equivocation and generally misrepresenting my argument. I “say” there is no evidence for the Exodus and confine my argument to the scientific pursuit of archaeology, its scholarship and what it has to say about the Exodus. It is the general archaeological consensus that there is simply no empirical evidence that the Exodus ever occurred. I can furnish him with plenty more names of archeologists if he likes. I suggest he read “The Bible Unearthed” by noted archaeologists Finkelstein & Silberman. Or check out Dr Baruch Halpern – Talmudic scholar, archaeologist, and Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia. His lecture on the Exodus can be found here:
There are also many other problems with the story itself, such as how it doesn’t fit into Egyptian history (or reality for that matter).
I can assure Mr Zwaagstra that anyone basing their beliefs about the Exodus on just two renowned biblical archaeologists would be rather silly and is a gross misrepresentation of my argument. He claims that scholars are split on the date of the Exodus, or even if it happened, implying that there is a division within the archaeological community. This is simply incorrect; the multiple dates offered for the Exodus are unscientific and largely (if not totally) theological, with just a smattering of historical markers to make them interesting. Theological evidence is of little value due to its unfalsifiable nature. To test this, one just has to ask a Christian the value of theological evidence offered by Hindus, Muslims, or Sikhs.
Finally, Zwaagstra insists that we all have faith and that we “cannot make many decisions in life without it”. I would disagree. As Humanists and rationalists, we base our decisions and our beliefs on the best evidence we can find, not on faith. Faith is something most Humanists seek to rid themselves of. Apologists can call faith what they like – reasonable, justified, strong, or blind – but one doesn’t have to look far to see results of faith based thinking; it can cause the faithful to fly aircraft into buildings or believe ancient myths as truth. And that is why faith – belief without evidence – remains unethical.