The Socratic Method Applied to Faith
What does it mean to seek the truth with an open mind?
In this document, I hope to engage you in a calm and rational discussion
of what faith is and what kind of beliefs it fosters.
Absolutely nothing in this text should be taken threateningly or dogmatically.
It’s an invitation for us to bring an open mind to some of the most intimate
and influential ideas in the world.
Many may feel uncomfortable discussing the validity of faith,
but if we all agree that we value truth
and that we are interested in
finding it and dispelling misunderstandings,
then discussion is our primary tool.
The idealogical gridlock endemic in even the best governments is an example of how
potential progress is halted because possibilities won’t be discussed openly
with fair consideration given to each view. That doesn’t mean we should
have equal confidence in every voice once they have spoken their case.
But it does mean that we shouldn’t be afraid of exploring and scrutinizing
any of the variety of claims that people make.
Let’s do our best to put caustic emotions aside and to approach discussions
with an open mind.
The Enlightenment, which begat the proliferation of the scientific method, has taught us that being
honest and open with our neighbors and supporting our claims with evidence is the route to progress.
The correct ideas should be demonstrable and will withstand scrutiny.
Shouldn’t we be able to explore thoroughly the implications of our
ideas, especially those that are most dear to us?
First, what do we mean by faith? Before getting bogged-down in a long,
semantic but worthy discussion of the differences between
belief / faith / trust / confidence / knowledge,
let us briefly acknowledge that a belief is roughly just something
you would affirm, for whatever reasons.
“Belief” is an umbrella term for the words above.
Different beliefs come with different kinds of support
and merit different degrees of confidence.
There are well-justified beliefs, poorly justified,
strongly held, weakly held, beliefs that are important,
and beliefs that are inconsequential.
Beliefs that are called “faith” are typically of
great importance but only have very weak or absent evidence.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen.
– Hebrews 11:1 (RSV)
I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.
– Matt Dillahunty
Truth springs from arguments amongst friends.
– David Hume (misattributed, but still beautiful)
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
– Carl Sagan
A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.
– David Hume
What follows is meant to be a set of questions in the
The reader is invited to ponder them and seek their own answers.
- What is faith? Would you accept the definition that faith is
“complete or significant trust or confidence in something despite a lack of evidence”?
See Hebrews 11:1 above.
- Is faith a reliable way to discover truth? Can you give any examples?
- Why don’t scientific journals or court rooms accept testimony based on faith?
- Is evidence important to making judgments and forming beliefs?
Note that a lot of opinions out there, exist not because of good evidence,
but because of culture, or fashion, or accidents of history, or wishful thinking,
or other forms of viral ignorance.
- When the going gets tough, is it ever better to rely on faith than to
be realists about our situations and make decisions based on the facts?
- OK, you accept the testimony of some authorities on faith.
Why should we trust those authorities?
- Are the checks and balances on clerics that promote religion
equivalent to those on the authorities of academic, civil, engineering,
legal, or medical disciplines?
- Do we generally trust authorities without evidence?
- What does it mean to be objective?
- What does it mean to be open to criticism?
Are other claims to knowledge in science and history open to criticism?
- Can you think of any examples of beliefs that propagated because of
culture and not because they were supported by evidence?
- What does it mean to be indoctrinated?
- Do you have any of your beliefs because of being indoctrinated?
- Is faith a good idea?
- OK, you rely not just on faith. You also cite the evidence in scripture.
Is scripture reliable?
- Why are there so many inconsistent scriptures?
- Do you think followers of other religions feel the same way about their scriptures?
- How are your scriptures and interpretations preferable to others?
- What was the human condition like when those scriptures were written?
Is there any reason to think that people in the Bronze or Iron Ages had
privileged access to revelations?
- What did people in those times understand about nature?
- Is it natural for people to form narratives to account for things they cannot explain?
Can you think of examples?
- How are the narratives in scripture different from events with other forms of historical evidence?
- Is there clear historical evidence for the claims in scripture,
not just reference to historical incidentals, but the central claims of your religion?
- We have very good historical evidence including artifacts, legal documents, and journals
documenting many ancient people and events including pharaohs, kings, and
many people of lesser distinction. Is the evidence for the prophets and
their claims as strong?
- Is there any good reason to believe that Joseph Smith had a divine revelation
when he supposedly translated the golden tablets that became the Book of Mormon
in 1830? How are other supposed events of revelation any different?
- Is there anything about the development of the world’s religions
and their scriptures that would be mysterious
under the hypothesis that the metaphysical claims of religions
are largely mistaken and false?
- You are concerned that people won’t have a moral compass without religion.
Despite the world’s many disagreements, why are there so many moral tenets
that we have in common across religious and cultural lines?
- Is it natural for people to want safety, shelter, love, and to avoid pain?
- Is it evident in nature that cooperation and empathy are good strategies
to dealing with others? Is it rational to consider yourself one of many and to work to
mitigate risk and suffering? Is that not why we build communities, forts, and insurance?
- Why does your scripture endorse slavery, genocide, the subjugation of women,
homophobia, and the killing of your own children?
- Could you yourself not write a more moral guide than the scriptures right now,
starting with condemning the above?
How about encouraging open-mindedness, critical thinking, and a respect for evidence?
- What is the soul? How do you distinguish it from your consciousness?
- While there are a lot of things not understood about the function of the brain,
there is no mystery that it is the seat of our experience.
Our conscious experience is clearly constrained by our physiology,
as can be demonstrated by damaging parts of the brain, taking drugs,
or just having low blood sugar. Your body grew from a single cell into the
complex network of interconnected biological machines that makes a human.
Is there any reason to think that any part of being a human involves anything
- Can this hypothetical immaterial soul be demonstrated?
- When a person wonders “what will it be like after I die?”,
is there any reason to think it will be any different than what it was like
before you were alive?
- Is it not the case that our experience is directly contingent on our material
- If there was a reproducibly demonstrable phenomenon that was not considered part of
the natural world, wouldn’t we just incorporate it into our view of nature?
- If something participates in the cause and effect of the natural world,
couldn’t it be further studied and seen as part of the natural world?
What would it even mean for something to be beyond nature or supernatural?
- There are many things we do not know. Life and heredity seemed absolutely
mysterious for thousands of years before DNA was discovered.
Claims in cosmology were nothing but philosophical speculation before the
astronomical data of recent years yielded the vast scope and history of our universe.
And still, there’s much we do not understand.
Should we put faith in speculations before we have evidence?
If so, how would you decide which speculations to believe? Why not others?
- Is it worthwhile to be careful to demarcate
the things we know from the things we do not?
- Is there anything that could go wrong if we act confidently as if we have
knowledge or otherwise justified belief when we really do not?
- Can you think of any examples of people being sure of something that was
false and causing conflict and suffering because of it?
Are people doing that now?
- Is it possible that the universe is bigger, older, and weirder than we even imagine?
- Is there any reason to think that it is plausible that the religions
that developed and evolved on earth have reliable answers to cosmological
- What about moral questions?
- Is it ok to say “I don’t know”?
- Do we need to know everything to live our lives?
We wish to pursue the truth no matter where it leads. But to find the truth,
we need imagination and skepticism both. We will not be afraid to speculate,
but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact.
– Carl Sagan
First draft: Dec 28, 2014