Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Faith-Based Foundations for Causing Harm

As a point of clarification, when I said that the "Achilles' heel" of faith-based morality is the exclusion of faith-based testimony in a court of law, a member of the studio audience responded:

I always thought the Achilles' heel of faith-based morality was that it was based on something non-existent.

I want to distinguish, in these posts, between a fault and a vulnerability. Achilles had many faults. That the coating of invulnerability that protected him did not cover the back of his foot was not one of them. The Achilles' Heel represented the spot at which Achilles was vulnerable to attack.

In these posts, I am not seeking to demonstrate where faith-based morality is mistaken. I have done a fair amount of that in previous posts. I want to show where it is vulnerable – where and how a person can effectively press this argument that faith is not a good enough when it comes to defending policies that cause harm to others.

That is done by demonstrating the role of faith-based testimony in criminal court – against allowing prosecutors to call witnesses who declare that, as a matter of faith without evidence, they believe that the accused is guilty and the jury should deliver such a verdict.

In the discussions that have followed these postings, an anonymous member of the studio audience posted a link to a site that contained four different community brochures opposing homosexual marriage – a Jewish, a Protestant (called "Christian" at the site in question), a Catholic, and a Secular tract.

The point that I am arguing for is to argue that the first three are inadmissible.

Imagine a prosecutor, attempting to gain a conviction of the accused, calling four witnesses to the stand. The first witness is Jewish, who claims that as a matter of unsupported faith he believes the accused to be guilty. The second is Protestant. And the third is Catholic.

Furthermore, imagine a court system where this testimony is meant to persuade those members of the jury who subscribe to that religion. That is to say, when the Prosecutor calls the Protestant witness, swears him in, and has the witness declare, "I believe with a certainty that can only come from God and that needs no evidence that the accused is guilty," this is meant to actually persuade the six members of the jury who are Protestant. That is why the prosecutor put that witness on the stand – to persuade the Protestant jurors to vote that the accused is guilty.

Similarly, not only does the Prosecutor next summon a Catholic to the stand to declare, "I declare as a matter of unreasoned faith that the accused is guilty," the Catholic members are supposed to accept that as proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt – proof strong enough to vote for conviction. And the Jewish jurist is expected to vote for conviction on the testimony of the Jewish witness who says, "I believe as a matter of ungrounded faith that the accused is guilty."

Furthermore, these witnesses are being called in a social context where it is considered insulting for the defense attorney to question these three witnesses on a matter of faith. The instant the defense attorney stands to challenge the groundless faith-based testimony of the witness he is called bigoted, intolerant, and militant.

Apparently, justice does not allow the best defense of those who would be harmed. Instead, it requires the unquestioned acceptance of those who insist on doing the harm, as long as the advocates of harm claim that the harm they do is based on evidence-free, faith-based beliefs.

The only arguments that are relevant – and that should be considered – in justifying a policy that deprives others of life, health, and liberty are the secular arguments.

Even here, it is not sufficient that secular arguments exist. It is not even sufficient that there are people who believe those secular arguments. Secular objects must meet more rigid standards than this to count as evidence. These standards are what make secular evidence the only evidence fit to be presented in a court of law.

Furthermore, there is no piece of secular evidence that the prosecutor can provide that the defense attorney is not at liberty to challenge. There is no legitimate claim that the defense attorney must bite her tongue and accept evidence without question on the grounds that the witness would be insulted by the implication his claims are mistaken. The instant that the witness presents secular evidence, the defense attorney is free to challenge that evidence.

The very idea that an individual may be justly harmed by reasons that others offer only on the basis of evidence-free faith, and that the advocate of harm can claim an immunity from criticism on the grounds that criticizing their faith is insulting is, itself, a paradigm of injustice.


Tom Gilson said...


I've been visiting your blog for a while, trying to get a handle on your secular ethic, getting a feel for how it compares to other versions of secular ethics. I've thought all along that you were knowledgeable and thoughtful, even if I didn't agree with your conclusions. Now I'm worried about your knowledge of faith, to say the least, in view of your position on what faith is. (I refer specifically to Christian faith here, the one sort that I can represent adequately.)

First, you have a seriously wrong conception of what faith is, as something that (you think) pays no attention to evidence. I cannot fathom just how persistent this misconception is, and why it remains so persistent; but a misconception it most assuredly is. Atheists and skeptics keep on defining what faith is according to their own understanding of it, and never listen to how it's defined by people who actually know, from experience, what faith is. What is it that makes non-believers think it's acceptable to be so unknowledgeable about religious belief--and yet speak as if from knowledge?

Try here for a much more accurate view, at least as it pertains to Christian faith. My own Christian faith is quite consistent with evidence, and has been based on evidence from the start.

It is also not unreasoned. Maybe you don't agree with its conclusions, but that does not mean it is unreasoned. Good grief. Have you ever cracked open a good book of apologetics or polemics in your whole life? Do you read opposing views, particularly the best of the opposing views? Have you spent any time in a good theological library? Have you read Plantinga, Swinburne, Sproul, Lennox, McGrath, van Inwagen, Craig, Moreland, Geisler, or Copan? How about Augustine, Aquinas, or Edwards? Or do you rely on your own camp to provide you with your information on religion? Or do you get it from TV preachers (not the best representatives of Christian thinking, I certainly acknowledge), or from popularized, light versions of Christian reading? Challenge yourself! Try the real thing!

Please recognize that in saying that, and also in the paragraph following this one, what I write is based on what I see on this particular blog post. I am relatively new to your blog, and I've been paying particular attention to your ethical position, and therefore I have not seen you address Christian faith before now. If I've missed something important that you've written before, I apologize; but what I write here certainly applies to the way you've presented yourself here.

On my own blog I write about skepticism and atheism all the time. I debate atheists and skeptics all the time. If I were so dismissively ignorant of what they themselves believe and practice as you are of what Christians believe and practice, I'd be embarrassed to post anything. For your own intellectual integrity, I call on you to investigate, explore, and represent Christian faith for what it is and not for how it's been commonly stereotyped. If you still want to reject it, fine. What you're rejecting now, though, is a stereotyped caricature. I'd reject it too if I thought Christianity was so mindless--but it just isn't.

Finally, you wrote,

Furthermore, these witnesses are being called in a social context where it is considered insulting for the defense attorney to question these three witnesses on a matter of faith.

Come on over to my blog and question me on matters of faith all you want! It's no insult! What on earth makes you think we want to be treated with kid gloves? Christianity has faced opposition for two millennia now. It has increased a hundred-fold in China in the last 60 years, in the face of opposition. We're really okay with it, actually.

Eneasz said...

Hi Tom! Nice to see a thoughtful theist posting. :) Doesn't happen often.

I don't wish to speak for Alonzo, but I've read oppossing viewpoints myself (including having been brought up in one for 16 years. Most theists seem to forget that 90% of American atheists started out as believers), mostly those recommended by believers I know. I have heard and read some truely exceptional rationalizations of why a god must exist even though there is no hard evidence for his existance. But in the end, all the arguments always run into one problem which is literally irresolvable if god does not exist.

The Undeniable Fact that god does not show up in real life.

If god showed up in real life, what need would there be for apologetics or theology? How many volumes of text are there arguing that the Sun *really does* exist? None that I'm aware of, because the Sun shows up in real life.

Of the evidences that are given, all fall into the catagories of imagination/intuition, superstition, and hearsay. The lack of solid verifiable evidence is a minor inconvenience to be apologized away. Which in the end boils down to "I believe [in god/that the accused is guilty] because I feel it with certainty."

Tom Gilson said...

Hi, Eneasz,

Thanks for your response. You've shifted the terms a bit, as I think you might realize.

We started with Alonzo saying faith has no evidence and no reasoning behind it, and now you're saying "God* doesn't show up in real life." What that amounts to is that the evidence for God is not of the sort that you are looking for. It's not the same as no evidence at all, and it most emphatically is not a sign that faith and reason or disassociated from each other.

I could talk about the different kinds of evidence that are valid for belief in God, but I want to hold on that, long enough to stick with the point that Alonzo's charges of faith being evidence-free and reason-free are not valid, as applied to Christian faith in particular.

*"God" is a proper noun, by the way, unless it's used in a construction like "I don't think there is a god." Proper nouns are capitalized in English--even names of people you don't like, and even fictional names, if that's how you want to view it (though I don't, obviously). This business of using a lower case "g" for the proper noun "God" has always seemed to me rather like a petty thumbing of one's nose, both at God and at good grammar.

Eneasz said...

I take 'em in reverse order. :)

re: capitalization. I was raised a Jehovah's Witness, and was always taught that god/God had a name (which was Jehovah, or Yahweh, depending on your translation), and "god" was a title (like "lord" or "king"). As such I'd capitalize the name but not the title, unless used directly before/after the name. IE: "he's King David", but not "he's the king." I think that's gramatically correct? Anyway I realize that some people consider God to be a proper noun, it was just never ingrained into me, so I don't have the habit to capitalize it. Whether I do or not depends primarily on how much attention I'm paying to my typing. :)

I could talk about the different kinds of evidence that are valid for belief in God, but I want to hold on that, long enough to stick with the point that Alonzo's charges of faith being evidence-free and reason-free are not valid

Actually I think that for the purposes of this post, it is correct to say that faith is evidence-free. No one says there's isn't something that has convinced certain people that a supernatural power exists. For lay purposes, we often provisionally grant it the title of "evidence" and then examine this evidence. So for common usage, it's possible to say there is some "evidence" for the supernatural, in a sense.

However this post is specifically about justification for causing harm. The process of justifying causing harm to someone is to use the system of justice. To take them to court and demonstrate why they deserve for harm to be imposed on them. The rules for evidence in a court are strict. The evidence must be examined and shown to be un-tampered-with, truthfull, and to actually exist. This is why faith is not permitted as evidence in a courtroom. It fails these tests.

So, while there are certainly many very intelligent christians who have carefully considered the arguments for and against God and decided to believe in him, and these reasons can be discussed civily, there is no evidence acceptable in a court of law that they are correct. In that respect, faith is evidence-free and should not be used as a justification for causing harm to others.

Doug said...

Tom's point appears to be that while Alonzo says, "Secular objects must meet more rigid standards than this to count as evidence," his "secular objectification" of faith is particularly dubious with regards to any "rigid standards".

Paul said...

Hi Tom!

While I respect your right to use the word "faith" as it works for you, within bounds, which I think you have done, I also think that it is also quite justifiable for others to use the word differently, before their nuances with the word clash with others', like yours.

To wit:

From http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/faith:

2. belief that is not based on proof

From Webster's New World Dictionary (1960)

1. unquestioning belief

From http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/faith

2b. firm belief in something for which there is no proof

So I don't get your inability to fathom where on earth this idea of faith as absent evidence comes from. It comes from where it should.

Renee Ogden said...

First, the context of the American justices systems works as long as we keep to the theoretical justice system and not the practicing one.I use to be on debate team, and if you have any experience in the system you understand that 'evidence' is subjective in nature.Plus, we have to all understand that there is absolute truth, something that can be found to be fact by definition and conflicting positions.
In relation to there not being court worthy evidence for God in real life, what do say to the medical and newspaper reports, the historical accounts and literature, testimonies and books, scientific and natural proves of God in real life? Do you just discount them for religious propaganda or simply ignore them? Do you just quickly conclude that this evidence is all from people who are crazy and disillusioned? If so you are merely ignoring contrary proofs and participating in an obvious fallacy.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Renee Ogden

The evidence you speak of would not be admissable in court. It would be dismissed as speculation or as hear-say.

And, for the record, I do not count them as either crazy or delusional. I count them as simply mistaken. In the same way that each of them must count each other (e.g., Muslims vs. Christians vs. Buddhists vs Hindu vs Zoroastrians vs Scientologists) must count each other as simply mistaken.

But it would be interesting for you to tell me, Renee Ogden, do you consider those who adhere to a religion other than yours to all be crazy and delusional?

Tom Gilson said...


"Belief for which there is no proof" is not the same as belief without evidence or belief without reason. We believe Amelia Earhart went down at sea in her plane, rather than, say, flying to Australia, getting plastic surgery, and settling down in a new life as a bank teller. No proof for that (or at least not until recently, understand some signs of her were found somewhere). But it's not a belief that's lacking in evidence or reason. So Webster's definition as you've quoted it here is obviously lacking.

That's not to say that our belief in how Amelia Earhart disappeared is "faith," it's simply to say that Webster is not a perfect source of information.

Much of philosophy is definition--careful definition. The dictionary will not do. If one is going to speak of faith, one ought to take the time to discover what it really means.

Now, I have to say I agree with Alonzo in response to Renee. If there are proofs in the sources she mentioned, she was (at least) not specific enough about them. That's not where my source of confidence in Christ is found. It's in history, philosophy, and personal experience with God.

Some of that history is very current, by the way. I'm reading a book on the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, and how the Tutsis and Hutus are achieving reconciliation and forgiveness through Jesus Christ. It is a moving book, a breathtaking book, a book that will make one weep and be astonished at the same time. That kind of regeneration of a land, my friends, doesn't just happen. It is the kind of specific demonstration of God at work that Renee might have been speaking of, though as I said, not specifically enough.

Paul Rinzler said...

Tom, you can't wave aside other people using a word correctly according to a dictionary on the grounds that you're using a more technical definition. My point is not an argument for which usage is correct, which is how your last post is oriented. I thought I had made that clear in my introductory paragraph. This is not about what is the right definition of "faith." Let's even assume that there is a *single* definition of "faith," and I'll even assume that yours is the correct one.

My point remains. When people use the word "faith" in accordance with the dictionary, even if it conflicts with the correct technical definition, I still don't get how you can profess to be not fathom how a misconception can persist ("I can't believe that you people are using the word "faith" in accordance with the dictionary definition. How utterly incomprehensible!").

Renee Ogden said...

Many if not all of the evidence presented for the existence of God would be permissible in a court of law. Medical, psychological,and scientific evidence are all commonly accepted as verifiable evidence in the justice system.
The original issue was if 'faith-based' evidence is permissible in court and the implied question that if it is not than God cannot be shown as real.
While unconditional belief is a major part of a Christian's life, it is not all of it. When I explain Christ and the existence of God to those who are not Christians I never start with "I belief this unconditionally so you should too".
Unconditional belief is not part of natural human logic you cannot use it except as an incredible and surprising testimony to say, "is it not amazing that I can believe like this even though it defies logic?" On those grounds faith-based testimony cannot be used in a court of law, however faith-based and faith focused are not the same thing.
A true fact is something that cannot be denied by either side of a disagreement. Therefore evidence found in psychology, philosophy, history, and science with an emphasis on how they support Christian faith is viable evidence.
As far as what that evidence contains then, I can start listing it if necessarily, but with almost limitless information available there is subsequently a large amount of evidence available for God in real life.

Renee Ogden said...

It seems that we are merely debating over shallow issues so I must ask what question you are asking. Who are you putting on trial in this theoretical series of accusations?
Is it that we(theists) are saying that the guilty are those who do not believe what we believe?

If that is so then I must counter that such parties are 'guilty' by their own admission, as are the 'accusers'. For we all do wrong, no one I have ever spoken to as tried to say they were perfect and had never compromised their moral compass.

The difference here is not that one party is on trial and one is at the witness stand. The difference is that one has been pardoned because they admitted their crimes to the judge, asked for forgiveness and agreed to the judges conditions.

Here we depart form the justice system because no American judge would allow someone pardon on promised future behavior coupled with the above actions. No judge would let this happen. From my position, no god would either,but the price must still be payed for our guilt.

As a follower of Christ I know that price was payed by God Himself. The only guiltless person to ever be put on trial was punished unto death for every person's guilt. With that in place does it not make much more logical sense how a person can be pardoned?

There is no substitution law in the justice system. However, there remains the issue of the judge. Who can judge humanity? our American judges are viable based on their near blemish free record, their extensive knowledge and the authority vested in them by the state. Well, if what was being deiced was someone's eternal fate than the judge must be eternal, have never done even minor wrong, must know everything everything ever and have an unquestionable authority, in essence a god.

I nor any other Christian has the right to judge you. Merely we have the responsibility to inform you that along with everyone else you have a trial date that has been set. That a perfect judge will someday decide where you will spend eternity. Will you go where we all deserve? Or do you have a foreknowledge of the verdict, having already received your pardon? We as followers of Christ cannot leave this world without asking those questions.

I ask you, Alonzo Fyfe,if you have ever doubted your position, for we as humans all doubt ourselves wondering if our views are not perfect. If you have considered that you might be wrong, I would like to challenge you with this.
If I am wrong and you are right I will die and my body will decompose, all that will be left is the memory of me. But if you are wrong and I am right you will die and your soul will depart from your body. You will go to stand trial before a perfect Judge who is perfectly just and must judge justly. When He ask you what you have to say for yourself, why you rejected the sacrifice of His Son, why you turned away form the Truth all around you. What will you say?

Will you answer that it was not logical to believe, it did not make sense, will you blame others? Form that position of perfect justice how do you think God is going to judge? He will say, "Depart from me I do not know you". In those moments there will not be time for a decision or a carefully weighted argument because you will know the truth and have passed your opportunity to decide.

If I am wrong I have nothing to lose, but if you are wrong you have everything to lose. This is justice, this is logic.

Eneasz said...

Renee - first, google "Pascal's Wager". I don't want to re-iterate everything that is wrong with it YET AGAIN.

Second - This is neither justice nor logic. If a god exists who gave me intelligence and curiosity, and then went through all the effort to make it look like s/he does not exist and everything said about him/her is but the stories that men tell, it would be both illogical and morally reprehensible for him/her/it to punish me for falling for its ruse.

Thirdly, re: Jesus, to punish an innocent person unto death - one who you know is innocent - for the "crimes" of someone else is not justice. And I put "crimes" in quotes, because I don't consider "being born" to be a crime.

Fourthly, the evidence you speak of is too weak to stand up in a court of law, despite your assertions to the contrary.

Since god does not appear in real life, all we have to go on are the claims men make about God. And all of those are exceedingly poor.