The other day I came across this tweet from Justin Schieber in my twitter feed:
First off, let me say that this is a good tweet: pithy and provocative, so much so that it’s apparently worth two blog posts.
That’s right, two!
So let’s get started.
And let’s make that start on a positive note by observing that it is indeed likely true that some folks (perhaps “many”), invoke the term ‘faith’ as a justification for their “refusal to update epistemically”. In other words, some people may justify an irrational recalcitrance to address disconfirming evidence to their beliefs by labelling that irrational recalcitrance “faith”.
But I have problems with the tweet as well. Consider another possible tweet:
“For many poor people, ‘welfare’ is an excuse not to work.”
Um, yeah, that may be true. Some poor people (perhaps “many”) may treat welfare as an excuse not to work. But if that’s all we say about the matter, then I’m guessing we most definitely have not said enough.
The same applies in the present case. So let’s reflect a bit further on the issues raised by Justin’s tweet.
* * *
First, the target of Justin’s tweet appears to be religious faith (hence, hashtag “RealAtheology”). But there is really no reason to restrict the point in this way. After all, the most secular atheist in the world may likewise “refuse to update epistemically” by failing to address disconfirming evidence to his/her beliefs. Alas, it is always easier to identify problems in an out-group (and for Justin as an secular atheist, those who are religiously committed are the outgroup), than it is to identify the same problems in one’s in-group.
Now you might be inclined to reply, “But the secular atheist wouldn’t refer to their “refusal to update epistemically” as faith. Maybe not, but maybe so. Consider Sandy the secular atheist who has just sent a sizable sum of money overseas to her “boyfriend” that she has never met before. Sandy’s friends have an intervention and provide the evidence that she’s the victim of a scam. “‘Steve’ isn’t real!” they insist. “A con artist is preying on you!” “No!” Sandy snaps back. “I have faith in Steve! I trust him. He loves me!” And so, despite all the evidence, Sandy refuses to update epistemically. All this despite the fact that she’s a secular atheist!
Let’s also note that the issue here is not actually “faith”. Rather, it’s bad faith, that is, faith that is errantly placed. After all, we can all imagine scenarios where a person has faith even when the chips are down and their faith is shown to have been well placed. You always trust the weather forecasts on channel six. They’ve forecast a sunny afternoon tomorrow, and so you plan your yard sale accordingly. You wake up in the morning to dark heavy clouds, and your spouse asks you if you should abort. “No,” you say, “I have faith in channel six.” A half hour later the clouds break up and the sun breaks through. Your faith was well placed. The problems arise when channel six has a terrible track record and it’s pouring rain at 11 am and you still insist it will clear by noon. That’s bad faith.
So rather than target faith (or “religious” faith”) Justin would do far better to target bad faith, like that exhibited by Sandy as she maintains her delusion that Steve, the man she’s never met before who is presently draining her bank account, really loves her.
Finally, keep in mind that whether Sandy justifies her continued commitment to Steve despite the evidence by calling it faith is really beside the point. The problem is the behavior, not what you call it. Thus, whether Sandy said she has faith in Steve, or whether she said she trusts Steve, or whether she said she believes in Steve is not the issue. The point is her persistence in believing something that is not supported by the evidence available to her. And you don’t need to be religious or invoke the term “faith” to exercise bad faith.