Believers and skeptics deconstructed

Posted on 03/15/12 36 Comments

In my minimal definition of faith (assent to a proposition that is conceviably false) I pointed to some supporting texts including the calling of Abram in Hebrews 11.

Beetle replied that this is the “exact kind of belief-risk that separates the believer from the skeptic….”

Beetle seems to be proposing that it is meaningful to divide people into two groups, “believers” and “skeptics”. Apparently Beetle believes such a thing is true.

I, on the other hand, am skeptical.

Arguably my skepticism provides a case of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps: the more skeptical I am, the more skeptical I am warranted in being because the very existence of that skepticism serves as a defeater for Beetle’s belief.

If you didn’t follow that, let me circle back and go over the same territory again. We’re all believers about some things and skeptics about others. Any simple categorization of people into two categories — believer and skeptic — is thus hopelessly, grossly over-simplified to the point of egregious distortion. It is so bad that George W. Bush’s infamous “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” is a model of diplomatic nuance by comparison.

  • davidstarlingm

    Obviously, beetle is implying more than a mere distinction between believers and skeptics; he really means “believers of religion” and “skeptics of religion” according to his own particular definition of religion. So….yeah.

    I would, incidentally, like him to define the characteristics of the particular kind of belief-risk he feels provides this distinction, though.

    • randal

      Dichotomies like “believer/skeptic” function as categories of marginalization: whoever is on the wrong side of the arbitrary delineation is marginalized. That’s what makes them so damaging, and indeed dangerous. In the free society it is crucial that we strive not to silence others with these categories of marginalization.

      Of course Beetle has some particular meaning in mind. And I guarantee that Beetle cannot consistently articulate and defend what that meaning is.

      I dealt with this a couple weeks ago when I pointed out that I’m a skeptic of naturalism and John Loftus is a believer in naturalism.

  • Walter

    What if we change the terminology to something like “religionists” and “non-religionist” instead of believer or skeptic? A religionist being defined as a person addicted to religion or expressing excess zeal for religious beliefs.

    • randal

      Does the life long member of a political party qualify? What about the company man?

      • Walter

        Perhaps they do qualify in principle.

        To me a religionist might be classified as a person that is willing to act upon uncertain metaphysical assumptions as if they are true, where a non-religionist would not. A religionist might fly a plane into a building because they are overly convinced that their assumptions about reality are concrete facts.

        • davidstarlingm

          How about kamikaze pilots?

          • Walter

            Kamikaze pilots did believe their emperor was a god.

            • davidstarlingm

              True, but I don’t think they believed in an afterlife.

              Then again, the actions of the kamikaze pilots can be explained by social pressures, etc. But does that make them necessarily less religious?

              • Walter

                I am not sure that belief in an afterlife is a requirement for one to be considered religious or a religionist.

                • davidstarlingm


                  • Ryan

                    That’s not really something you can respond to with “Exactly.”

                    I think you missed a step.

                    1) Collect Underpants
                    2) ??????
                    3) Profit

    • davidstarlingm

      Who defines excess zeal? Are tree-huggers (literal ones, not figurative ones) religionists? Chaining oneself to a tree to save Mother Earth would certainly qualify as excess zeal for religious beliefs.

      • randal

        I’ve met some very zealous Justin Bieber fans.

  • Brad Haggard

    This isn’t really the topic of this thread, but I thought you’d have a little fun with this comment:

    • randal

      What hokum.

      John writes: “If you had my experiences and read only the works I have, you would agree with me and think like me. That is probably the major reason why I am a skeptic, because of this propensity of ours to believe and defend a host of ideas just because we were exposed to them, which is as obvious of an empirical fact as we can get.”

      Note how John doesn’t recognize he just sawed off the branch he’s sitting on. If he is right that we lack rational reasons for our beliefs because they are *causally determined* by life circumstances, then his whole argument for skepticism here is not rational but rather is causally determined by life circumstances.

      Poor John. Somebody get this man a mirror.

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  • John

    Is their a difference between “assent to a proposition that is conceivably false” and, alternatively, “assent to a proposition that is conceivably true”?

    Also, is there a difference between “conceivably” and “possibly”? One might imagine the Trinity is the right theological doctrine, one might think it is possible for there to be a 3-in-1 entity, but can one really “conceive” it, as in understand it. I understand words have some latitude, but might your definition be re-worked as “assent to a proposition that is possibly true”?

    I think the burden of proof would be clearer if expressed in the latter fashion.

    • randal

      “Is their a difference between “assent to a proposition that is conceivably false” and, alternatively, “assent to a proposition that is conceivably true”?”

      Not logically perhaps, but there clearly is a difference semantically. One wouldn’t assent to something which is merely conceivably true but one could readily assent to something despite the fact that it is conceivably false.

      “Also, is there a difference between “conceivably” and “possibly”?”


      However, let me tweak your Trinity example. I may not be able to conceive how “There is one God” and “God is three persons” are simultaneously true. But perhaps I can conceive of a very plausible state of affairs in which both are true and yet I am cognitively unable to grasp their truth.

    • davidstarlingm

      “Assent to a proposition that is possibly true” is meaningless; pretty much every belief would then become a faith position. It is possibly (and actually) true that I am male; does it therefore take faith to believe it? I should hope not.

      If you don’t like “conceivably false”, perhaps you’d prefer the following minimal definition of faith: assent to a proposition that has not been proven true beyond reasonable doubt. Of course that raises questions about what is and isn’t reasonable doubt.

      Alternately: faith is assent to a proposition of which the individual is not fully convinced.

      • randal

        “faith is assent to a proposition of which the individual is not fully convinced.”

        I don’t think so. If a person says “I have no doubt that my redeemer lives” another person will say “Wow, you have a lot of faith” not “Wow, you have no faith.”

        • davidstarlingm

          Is, then, faith the antithesis of doubt?

          • Walter

            In my opinion there can be no faith without the presence of some doubt.

            • randal

              Are you suggesting that psychological certitude is incompatible with faith? That is most certainly false. Many Christians have psychological certitude which is faith.

              • Walter

                Absolute faith without any doubt? I don’t believe it.

                • randal

                  I know my dad better than you Walter.

              • Walter

                If we are using faith in the sense of trust, does that not still imply some small measure of doubt? If I say that I trust you to keep your word, and I have great certitude that you will, does that not imply that there is a miniscule chance that you won’t and that miniscule chance can create a twinge of doubt.

                • davidstarlingm

                  I don’t think so. The reason you say “trust” is not because you necessarily have any uncertainty, but because you are speaking of an unrealized future event.

                • randal

                  If I trust you fully then I have no doubt about you. Sure, I can recognize logically speaking that there are possible worlds where you are not trustworthy, but I in fact have no psychological doubt whatsoever that you will turn out to be not trustworthy.

                  I have met many people that have no doubt about their religious commitments. But that doesn’t mean no faith, it means a strong faith. (Strong is not necessarily healthy; I make no judgments either way on that score.)

                  • Walter

                    Maybe it is a personal preference thing, but if I have absolute confidence in something I will say that I “know.” When I use the word “trust” it implies that I have at least a slight measure of doubt. If my truck is fairly reliable, I might claim that I trust it to get me to work; if I had absolute confidence that it could not possibly break down then I would say that I know my truck will transport me without problems.

                    • randal

                      You are assuming that faith is exclusive of knowledge. But as I pointed out earlier (not in this blog thread), many Christians believe that having faith in p is consistent with knowing p.

        • davidstarlingm

          How about “faith is confidence in things that cannot be readily observed”?

          So the proposition “My wife loves me” requires faith when I am away from her, but not when I am with her. Quantum mechanics requires faith pretty much all the time. Christianity requires faith on earth, but not in heaven.

          • randal

            You have faith in your sense perception when you’re looking at your wife. You also have faith that you’re awake and not asleep.

            In short one can have faith in x even as one readily observes x.

            • davidstarlingm

              My definition of faith, based on Hebrews 11 and other passages, is more specific than that.

              Things that are directly and readily observed do not require faith in a Biblical sense. By analogy, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we await for it with patience.” Hope and faith, of course, are closely connected.

          • piero


            “Quantum mechanics requires faith pretty much all the time”

            What the hell are you talking about? Are you a particle physicist? If not, then I’d recommend you to shut up. Do you think the integrated circuits that form the CPU of the computer you are using to post on this thread are run by FAITH? Are you out of your mind?

            • davidstarlingm

              Actually, I am a physicist….awkward, I know.

              I’ve never seen quantum tunneling, or the photoelectric effect, or a variety of other quantum phenomena. I can observe the effects of those processes, yes, but those processes are not directly observable. Indeed, their effects are only observable under a select few conditions that aren’t easily replicable.

              Yet, having observed the effects of quantum processes and having derived the fundamental equations governing those processes, I have faith that the integrated circuits in my MacBook work because of quantum mechanics governed by fundamental QM equations.

              Barium Zinc Gadolinium, sir.

  • Beetle

    Two posts addressing me by name on the home page, I am abashed!

    Just because there is no clear line between what or how much belief-risk atheists and theists are comfortable with, one can imagine creating a scatter plot of that sort of data. Do you doubt that clear patterns and correlations would emerge? That is what is dishonest about asserting that both groups have faith.