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Matters of Faith

December 1, 2009

One thing that drives me nuts is when people use “it’s a matter of faith” as a rhetorical protection for their beliefs. The idea, apparently, is that because something is a matter of faith, it’s ontologically distinct from matters of fact (however factuality is construed), and isn’t subject to verification or criticism. We can measure how deep the Grand Canyon is, but we can’t measure the gods.

This is often wrong.

Here’s a list of just a couple of “faith” claims that we’re capable of fact-checking:

  • the earth is flat
  • the sun rotates around the earth
  • the earth is only 6,000 years old
  • the archaeological record proves the Bible is historically accurate
  • there are no contradictions in the Bible

So, when you say “it’s a matter of faith,” are you willing to bite the bullet and swallow the consequences? If so, you’ll be committing yourself to the position that there are no grounds for criticizing the claim that the sun revolves around the earth. I doubt most people are willing to bite this bullet. Many matters of faith simply are capable of being verified.

Throwing the “it’s a matter of faith” blanket of protectionism over all things associated with religion is a powerful rhetorical tool, but one we should challenge whenever possible.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. sophia permalink
    December 1, 2009 7:35 pm

    Usually you say this at 3am when you’ve been going round in circles in an argument where you and your opponent have completely different conceptions of the universe and little to no common ground through which to actually communicate a challange to one another.

  2. December 1, 2009 9:49 pm

    “Throwing the “it’s a matter of faith” blanket of protectionism over all things associated with religion is a powerful rhetorical tool, but one we should challenge whenever possible.”

    Well, sure, that’s easy to affirm… but doesn’t the whole point turn on which situations are possibly challenged and which are not?

    Does any “matter of faith” appeal obligate the claimant to every conceivably attempted “matter of faith” appeal? Why should it? Presumably you can demonstrate to a faith adherent of geocentrism that there are empirical resources for verifying solar and/or planetary orbits. Presumably if a faith claim were made concerning a matter that you could not demonstrate empirical bases for verification (or at least empirical bases for probable doubt or belief), you would grant for the time being that such a claim seems by present lights to be a “matter of faith,” in the sense that it’s not empirically verifiable nor logically obvious.

    I guess I don’t disagree with the gist what you’re saying, that is, but the post seems so loaded that I’m suspicious a straw-man is lurking somewhere.

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 1, 2009 11:09 pm

    Sophia: no, that’s not when I hear it trotted out. I hear it trotted out BEFORE conversations begin—i.e., in order to stop critical inquiry before it begins.

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 1, 2009 11:14 pm

    Evan, if your point is that even if you agree with what I’m saying, some things might nevertheless legitimately remain a “matter of faith,” then I won’t disagree.

    The problem, however, is that in the communities I live in (and I suspect that my communities are not abnormal in this way) it is generally assumed that everyone’s a theist of some sort (there might be some atheists lurking, but let’s hope not). It’s taken for granted that everyone has “faith” (even atheists, right, cause atheism takes more faith than belief in the gods—or so I’ve been told). This often comes with some relativist platitudes.

    These general assumptions result in a huge set of privileges and protections for theists in general, and this “it’s a matter of faith” stuff is one of the things that sustains those privileges. Therefore it needs to be dismantled.

    In sum, this is about a war on privilege more than it is a philosophical point.

  5. December 1, 2009 11:50 pm

    I see. But are the huge set of privileges the ones you bullet point here? Is geocentrism big where you live? I guess I just don’t see how- if this is some “huge set of privileges and protections” that you’re fighting a “war” against- why you need to resort to such mundane comparisons. The things you list are presumably empirically verifiable in a somewhat obvious way. The things you are warring against are presumably up for debate in your community as to whether they are similarly verifiable. I don’t see how you are making any strategic moves in your “war on privilege” by trotting out these uncontroversial statements. Better to make an argument as to why theism or atheism are amenable to the sort of verification and criticism that you mention.

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 1, 2009 11:57 pm

    I was told today that I should teach the Bible neutrally, i.e., I should never say anything that might challenge what the Bible says.

    This was set out to protect the Bible from criticism before we ever started talking about any specifics.

    The “it’s a matter of faith” thing is used to head me off at the pass BEFORE we get into any specific matter.

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