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UU Infidels Newsletter
Spring 2004
Science Relies on Confidence, Strength of Evidence, not Faith
by John Bice

(This article is a reprint from the 27 January issue of The State News, MSU's Independent Voice)

Religion and the concept of faith are recurring themes in my columns; as a result, I am frequently inundated with e-mails loaded with one misconception after another. The most common misconception of all, and simultaneously, one that is among the most damaging to an understanding of the difference between religion and science, revolves around the definition of faith.

When religionists have their faith questioned, they almost invariably respond with the defense, "even science requires faith." Of course, that assertion is nonsense, and I'll explain why.

Everyday language works fine for normal communication; however, without a strict definition of terminology, language can lack the precision required for meaningful discussion.

Especially problematic is the fact that commonly used words often have multiple meanings. It is, therefore, important for terminology to be defined as precisely as possible when entering into a debate.

For example, in most circumstances, the word faith is understood to mean, "belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing." Under that broad definition, it is true that we all embrace beliefs based on faith, even scientists.

I have faith that my doctor is qualified to practice medicine; scientists have faith that gravity will behave tomorrow as it does today. It's under this definition of faith that it is possible to have the impression that religion and science aren't really so different. The problem is in how we define "faith."

To avoid confusion, I'll use the word "confidence" as a substitute for the word "faith" as defined above. The word "confidence," however, will have the further requirement that beliefs be based on strength of evidence.

Scientists and rationalists form beliefs in this way. For example, scientists have a level of confidence in the predictability of gravity based on an inductive interpretation of past observations.

Similarly, I have confidence in my doctor, based on the knowledge all physicians must be board certified to practice medicine.

If, however, my doctor had his license suspended due to malpractice, my confidence in him would be eroded. Our confidence in people, ideas and things varies based on evidence and is adjusted accordingly, like a sliding scale of certainty.

Scientific beliefs can have high or low levels of confidence associated with them. Quantum mechanics, germ theory of disease, and yes, even the fundamentals of evolutionary theory are accepted with a very high degree of confidence based on their wonderful performance as theories.

Of equal importance, scientific understanding is tentative by nature; all theories are subject to reinforcement, revision or rejection in light of newly acquired evidence.

Religious faith, on the other hand, is a separate beast entirely. The American Heritage Dictionary defines such faith as "belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence."

This type of faith makes it possible to form strong beliefs without any supporting evidence at all. In fact, the weaker or more nonexistent the evidence, the more religious faith is required for firm belief. Conversely, when good evidence exists for a belief, the need for religious faith vanishes.

My favorite example of religious faith-based belief is the Catholic "Doctrine of Transubstantiation." This doctrine asserts that communion wine and bread literally, not symbolically, change. The "inner reality" of the bread and wine changes into the body and blood of Christ, but the "accidents," or "external qualities" experienced through the senses (taste,
appearance, etc.), are unchanged.

Especially amusing is the difference of opinion between Catholics and some Protestant religions regarding the Eucharist. For example, Lutherans believe the Eucharist is best understood in the concept of "consubstantiation" rather than "transubstantiation."

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "consubstantiation" is a "heretical doctrine" which asserts the substance of Christ's body and blood exists together with the substance of bread and wine. As silly and irrational as the quarrel sounds, and is, people have been burned at the stake for the heresy of doubting the truth of transubstantiation.

Both Catholics and Lutherans agree the Eucharist doesn't appear to change at all. However, since their faiths compel them to believe some change occurs, they are forced to attempt an explanation. Of course, being "faith-based," their explanations are not predicated on any actual evidence, yet they debate the issue as though it were actually something tangible.

It's a classic example of the irrationality at the heart of religious beliefs. Even if an infinite number of tests demonstrated no change in the Eucharist, the truly faithful would continue to believe with unabated certainty. If, however, a reliable and repeatable physical test demonstrated wine changing to blood, faith would no longer be required.

That's the key point; religious faith is only required when there is an absence of good evidence or logical proof. This absurd quality of faith compelled Mark Twain to wryly observe, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so."

Regardless of how adorable or comically wacky religious beliefs can appear, we mustn't forget there can be dark and disturbing consequences to beliefs predicated on faith alone.

Such beliefs are characteristically held with an unnerving and unconditional certainty. Individuals capable of believing something without evidence, yet with absolute certainty, are also capable of unimaginable cruelty, hostility and violence based on those beliefs.

Catholics torturing and murdering heretics and suspected witches during the Inquisition is one horrific example. The seemingly eternal bloodbath between Israelis and Palestinians is similarly motivated by faith in their divine right to the disputed territories; thus, no compromise seems possible. The Muslim suicide pilots who killed thousands of our citizens were motivated by a certainty only faith can provide.

Religious faith makes those horrific acts possible. The list goes on, the religiously motivated killing continues. When will the madness end?

John Bice is a freelance author and has been employed at Michigan State University since 1989. He writes from the perspective of a secularist, atheist, skeptic, and social progressive. Politics and religion are recurring topics. His articles can be found online at: www.msu.edu/~bice/