Phases of belief

I don’t post much on the whole religion thing, but I thought (rather unwisely, perhaps – but I don’t see why Sheril should have all the fun) that the latest meany atheist appeaser agnostic blow-out (see here, here, here, here and, of course, here) was an opportunity to wheel out this analysis (slightly modified for relevance) from ye olde blog, which was inspired by the one before the one before the last one…
I’ve been puzzling over why what is a legitimate dispute between members of the pro-science camp, over emphasis and tone in the struggle against the forces of ignorance, always seems to break down into what could charitably be referred to as ‘arguing past each other’.
A common framing of different theological positions is to represent the continuum from theism through agnosticism to atheism as a change in the relative importance of empiricism and faith in a particular person’s worldview. An atheist places a high value on tangible evidence; a theist is more concerned with the greater truths that they feel exist outside of the world that we can subject to experimental verification (please note that this discussion is not addressing the existence (or not) of such truths…)

tern1.png


I can see some fairly obvious flaws with this representation. Committed empiricists see all the theists, fundamentalist and moderate, lumped together at the far end of the spectrum, which can make them suspicious of someone like Ken Miller or Francis Collins, who are both clearly men of deep religious conviction even though they just as clearly value science. Furthermore, at the empirical end of the spectrum you find people who have little time for faith themselves but will tolerate it in others (provided that religious views are not being foisted too egreriously on the unwilling) jostling for space for people who argue that all faith is silly and even dangerous. The fact that a single axis does not usefully capture the range of viewpoints and how they relate to each other seems to make it all too easy to misunderstand other peoples’ positions.
Because of this, I think at least one more factor needs to be considered, which for want of a better word I’m referring to as ‘zeal’ (I also considered ‘passion’, which might be a less inflammatory choice). This is a measure of commitment to a particular worldview: how much do you care about it being true? Does it bother you that others don’t share it? Adding a third factor to consider allows us to try mapping the different theological outlooks onto a ternary diagram, with Empiricism, Faith and Zeal as the vertices. The advantage of this representation is that it (hopefully) emphasises that I’m not talking about absolute quantities here, but a relative measure of which attributes most control someone’s positioning in the theological menagerie: someone who plots near the faith vertex is not necessarily antiscientific per se, it is just that faith is far more important to them than empiricism.

tern2.png

In this representation, the Faith/Empiricism side of the triangle is dominated by agnosticism, because they generally don’t particularly care one way or the other about such matters (or at least aren’t to bothered by others disagreeing with them). The slope of the boundary between the theist and agnostic sectors reflects the fact that people who are more passionate about their religion can maintain their faith even when they have an appreciable regard for science and empirical reason, whereas less passionate theists are more likely to drift into agnosticism. Likewise, if you tend toward empiricism, the more you care about the existence or non-existence of God(s), the more likely you are to drift over into the realm of the actively disbelieving atheist. I’ve reserved the high end of the zeal realm for cranks and conspiracy theorists, scary people whose passion is tempered by neither faith nor empiricism.
In the next figure, I’ve tried to plot the approximate positions of significant religious denominations and some of the major players in these periodic spats (as far as I can work it out from their contributions to this debate – apologies to anyone who feels misrepresented).

tern3.png

Does this help us at all? In my mind, it provides a new perspective on some recurring problems. For example, the suspicion ‘moderate’ agnostics seem to have of some of their atheist brethren can be understood as stemming from their dislike of too much zeal for any particular worldview; they feel it is divisive and polarizing. Both fundamentalist theists and the more vocal atheists lie in the same direction in this regard, even though the focus of their zeal is entirely different. This confusion between faith and passion may also be partly behind the theists’ “atheism is a religious belief too” argument.
Likewise, the snide remarks which sometimes get directed towards ‘timid’ agnostics by atheists also reflects a misunderstanding – if you don’t personally find the existence (or not) of God particularly important, you are probably happy to stick to the more technically correct position with regard to non-corporeal entities that exist outside of space and time: “there almost certainly is no God, but we can never be 100% certain”, to adapt Dawkins slightly. The mainstream Anglican Church – which places great value on a thoughtful, less boisterous faith, and is looked on with some contempt by the evangelical wing for just that reason – is more than happy to stick God into that gap, which science may make smaller but can never completely close (listen to the Archbishop of Canterbury talking to John Humphrys, for example). This is as close as you get to the ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ idea in the real world: there is still some overlap, but in practical terms it is very small, and allows people (if they wish) to reconcile their faith with the empirical world. This includes people like Ken Miller (who is of course a Catholic, but the idea is the same). In contrast, for fundamentalists the magisteria overlap almost completely; and, because they regard revelation and scripture much more highly than science, in their minds science loses and is denied.
Another interesting feature of this representation is that it suggests that the more zealous theists, if something causes them to doubt their faith, may be more likely to move directly into the atheist camp without any intermediate stops in agnosticism. I think this is interesting in light of the widespread anger amongst the “deconverted” which surprised Dawkins so much on his tour of the US whilst promoting The God Delusion. Perhaps the more zealous Christians are more likely to feel betrayed or lied to if they lose their faith than the former Anglicans who Dawkins would more commonly encounter in the UK, which makes them a bit more passionate in their atheism. And, somewhat heretically, it might suggest that atheists can have an effective role in the conversation – in supporting and encouraging these refugees.
The other sector I’ve tentatively identified in the middle of the triangle is the realm of the ‘Einsteinian religion’ which Dawkins discusses in The God Delusion – where effectively, ‘God’ is the universe revealed by science, capable of inspiring wonder and awe but not so keen on the smiting or prying into peoples’ personal lives. I’m wondering if this is the true middle ground we should be aiming for – the triple point of the theological system. All we need to do is get the moderates to see that a little bit of passion is not always a bad thing, and perhaps get the hardcore atheists to concede that people are always going to believe silly things, but some silly things are more harmful than others, and then we can all be one big happy creationist-bashing family again. Until next time, anyway…

Categories: antiscience, public science

Comments (24)

  1. Dave says:

    How about ‘Rigor’ as a fourth dimension to locate the players along a credulous/skeptical axis? Or alternately: Why stop at just three dimensions?

  2. Divalent says:

    This representation doesn’t work for me.
    The problem with ternary diagrams is that they work best when the sum of the three attributes is a constant. Zeal is clearly orthogonal to the Faith-Empiricism axis, and should be its own axis (Zealous – not Zealous). Nothing about your zeal affects the strength of your faith-empiricism attributes.
    A standard cartisian graph would work better.

  3. Ben D says:

    It’s been a while since I did geology, so bear with me – but does this mean if we melt Anglicans they’ll crystallize out at the Einsteinian eutectic?

  4. I think that there is another dimension of religion that isn’t necessarily the same as zeal, which is the distinction between religion as a source of facts about the world and religion as a way of living. Most religions have both aspects, but they are conceptually separate. One could believe that there is a God without actually bothering to try to please Him. On the other side, one could reject all the supernatural claims of religion, but still feel that all the trappings of religion, the rituals, the holidays, the calls to be charitable and compassionate, the fellowship of gathering together to sing hymns and talk about how to be good, are worthwhile.
    It’s hard to know how many religious people fit the latter description, because people are often not open about their disbelief, but I know that it pretty much describes my mother’s religious attitude. By her actions, you would think that she is a committed Christian, because she attends church regularly and enthusiastically participates in church activities. But if you ask her privately about the existence of a God who created humans (rather than the other way around), or the divinity of Jesus, or the existence of Heaven and Hell, she’ll admit that she doesn’t really believe any of those things and she doesn’t really think they are important in her life. But church is.
    Atheists tend to think that the main function of religion is to tell people what to believe about metaphysical questions such as how the world came to be and what happens after death. But for me religious people, it’s not that at all. It’s a way to live.

  5. bob koepp says:

    There are problems here with how agnosticism is being conceived. First, on a continuum terminating in Faith on one side, and Empiricism on the other, agnostics probably belong on the extreme Empiricism end of the scale. Agnosticism is not a “compromise” position between theism and atheism. Agnostics are not luke-warm theists, nor are they luke-warm atheists. Instead, they tend to stand on epistemic principle.
    Adding Zeal to the mix to get a ternary representation doesn’t help as long as the basic misunderstanding of agnosticism persists.

  6. Rose Colored Glasses says:

    A couple of problems here.
    1. The religious have hijacked ‘faith’ as their own word, making those who oppose them faithless. Actually, I have faith in evidence. I have faith in arithmetic, algebra, and calculus. And physics, chemistry, electricity, and so on. I have no faith in palmistry, reflexology, dowsing, spellcasting, astrology, or geomancy. We should reclaim ‘faith’, ‘belief’, and ‘trust’, remaking them our own.
    So the Faith-vs-Empiricism leg is really Faith-in-absence-of-evidence versus Faith-in-presence of evidence. (This makes science the positive and religion the negative.)
    2. The three ‘dimensions’ do not sum to a constant. Zeal is independent of faith, so an X-Y plane is appropriate, not a triangle.

  7. Dave says:

    These diagrams sort of work for representing three variables: you can make the constituents sum to 1 by renormalizing them. Rather than plotting points by saying PZ Myers is 2% faith, 49% empiricism, 49% zeal on some set of absolute scales, you start with him as 50% on the empirical-zealot scale and assess his faith along the 50% iso-E-Z line. From there you can determine the 2%/49%/49% coordinates, and scale them back out to whatever they mean in absolute space. It ain’t good statistics, but it is like assuming the system is describable by three principal components and assessing the tradeoffs directly. It is probably a better methodology than many of the “How much of an ‘X’ are you?” quizzes we see.

  8. Chris says:

    Even if the ternary plot doesn’t perfectly explain everything, it is a step in the right direction. To me, it’s about the process of discussing…and moving any issue away from a two-sided absolutism is the way to go.

  9. Andrew Wade says:

    For example, the suspicion ‘moderate’ agnostics seem to have of some of their atheist brethren can be understood as stemming from their dislike of too much zeal for any particular worldview; they feel it is divisive and polarizing.

    My suspicion of too much zeal is that it’s fairly often accompanied by a simplistic and xenophobic worldview. This doesn’t stop me from being fairly zealous myself when it comes to things like teaching kids stupidity, but I do try to be careful to distinguish generalizations about, say, fundamentalists from fundamentalists as individuals. As for lumping fundamentalist theists and vocal atheists together, I don’t think they have all that much in common. I have run across net.atheists that could be fairly described as “fundamentalist”, but not often.

  10. Kim says:

    It’s been a while since I did geology, so bear with me – but does this mean if we melt Anglicans they’ll crystallize out at the Einsteinian eutectic?

    Bwah! That’s great. And the diagram definitely lends itself more to interpretation as an igneous phase diagram than as a metamorphic one.
    It makes me want to develop a belief system based on the rock cycle – if I am very, very good in life, maybe I’ll get subducted into the mantle and end up as a diamond in the next life. (And if I’m bad, I’ll end up as natural gas or something.)

  11. Torbjˆrn Larsson, OM says:

    I think that it is helpful to consider other factors than the metaphysical in an analysis of peoples behavior. But as Divalent and RCG I’m immediately struck by the problem of ternary diagrams reliance of additivity of factors and the obvious independence of “zeal”.
    I think it is also reflected in the difference between the classic (non-philosophical) definitions of atheism in the first diagram and the ad hoc definitions in the second. It is correct that the defensible position of atheism is Dawkins’ as I understand it, “the probability of gods is effectively zero”, which makes many agnostics utterly “zealfull” when they claim that “we can’t know whether gods exist or not”. This rejects both the common concepts of empirically consequential gods and the characteristic of theories to pose consequences outside direct observations, and adopts a faithful position.
    RCG:
    I think I understand what you want to do, and those definitions of different faiths are perfectly fine. Another position which I adopt is to use “trust” in the case of empirical methods. You could say that I have faith in a current research program, but I could say that it goes back to that trust.
    I have seen that as making my position more precise. But at the same time I don’t want to abandon a perfectly fine term to the religious. I guess I have to put more faith into what I do. :-P

  12. Blake Stacey says:

    Torbjˆrn Larsson, OM:

    It is correct that the defensible position of atheism is Dawkins’ as I understand it, “the probability of gods is effectively zero”, which makes many agnostics utterly “zealfull” when they claim that “we can’t know whether gods exist or not”. This rejects both the common concepts of empirically consequential gods and the characteristic of theories to pose consequences outside direct observations, and adopts a faithful position.

    Yeah. We can rule out specific classes of interventionist gods in the same way that we rule out, say, an élan vital driving embryonic development or a luminiferous aether carrying the waves of light. It’s the god of the Philosophy Department, the infinitely skittish, perfectly transparent unicorn, about which we might be “agnostic”.
    (cross-posted at PZ’s place)
    I don’t think “‘Einsteinian’ religion” is in the right place; this diagram appears to fall prey to the common mistake of reading statements of wonder as statements of faith. Furthermore, after The Varieties of Scientific Experience, I’d have to put Sagan significantly closer to PZ and Dawkins. When things couldn’t be reconciled, dammit, he said so. Even in The Demon-Haunted World, which everybody cites to prove that Uncle Carl was a “reconcilationist” or an “appeaser” (or whatever damn stupid words we’re using today), he goes on to list a whole farrago of ways in which major religions make empirically testable claims, stepping way over the NOMA line.
    In addition, I suspect that a better diagram would have different points for Ken Miller and Francis Collins, since the latter seems much more willing to ignore and/or misrepresent actual science to justify his faith.

  13. Wicked Lad says:

    I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t even get the basic idea. The diagram is two dimensions, not three, right? I get the idea of a continuum between faith and empricism, but is there a continuum between zeal and empiricism? Between zeal and faith?
    It would make a little more sense to me if it were a plot with two axes:
       • One axis a continuum between faith and empiricism
       • One axis a continuum between zeal and, um apathy?

  14. BrianR says:

    hmmm….for some reason my comment above:
    “Even if the ternary plot doesn’t perfectly explain everything, it is a step in the right direction. To me, it’s about the process of discussing…and moving any issue away from a two-sided absolutism is the way to go.”
    has the name Chris by it? No big deal…just weird how that happens.
    BrianR

  15. Caledonian says:

    How exactly is ‘Einsteinian religion’ supposed to have equal amounts of empiricism, zeal, and faith?

  16. Slart says:

    A common framing of different theological positions is to represent the continuum from theism through agnosticism to atheism as a change in the relative importance of empiricism and faith in a particular person’s worldview…

    Wait, that makes no sense. Are there people that actually see these three views as a continuum? If you really did try to jam theism, athiesm, and agnosticism onto a line between faith and empiricism, you’d get theism and athiesm mixed together at the faith end, and agnosticism in an infinitely small point down at the empiricism end. Theism and athiesm require some degree of faith, while agnosticism is, by definition, the complete absence of faith.
    Athiesm, as I read it, is the position that there is nothing outside of the observable universe that can influence the visible universe. Agnosticism, on the other hand, is the position that we do not know whether any such supernatural phenomenon exists.
    Therefore, in my view, athiesm draws a definite conclusion which has no positive, supporting evidence. Sure it’s supported by a lot of lack of evidence, but it still takes some faith to claim that it is actually the truth. Agnosticism, on the other hand, makes no claims about truth, and therefore requires no faith. In fact, forcing yourself to not take anything on faith seems to lead directly to the agnostic position. The agnostic may *assume* that there are no supernatural influences on our universe, but he or she would never claim that this was the “truth.”
    For practical purposes agnosticism and athiesm don’t differ much (believing that there are no supernatural phenomena doesn’t differ from taking the universe at face value, since there is zero evidence for the supernatural), but if you’re going to draw a map then I’m pretty sure that this one is wrong.

  17. charles says:

    Gilbert Ryle is groaning in his grave as he always does whenever the category mistake is made considering agnostism to be intermediate between theism and atheism. And Wittgenstein is spinning in his sepulcher because people who should know better are so careless with the meanings of words.
    Gnostic and agnostic refer to having or not having knowledge that God exists and, hence, belong to the realm of epistemology, the study of the aquisition and validity of knowledge. Theism and atheism refer to having or not having a belief that God is real and acutally exists and, hence, belong to the realm of ontology, the study of what is real and existant.
    Since no one has knowledge of the existence or non-existence God, as there is absolutely no evidence for either position, everyone is agnostic.
    In spite of the lack of evidence, one may, nevertheless, have the belief that God exists or, because of the lack of evidence, one may not have that belief. Technically, then, all are agnostic while some are theistic agnostics and others atheistic agnostics.
    One has a belief in something or one doesn’t. One can’t possibly have a partial belief, or a weak belief. Can one believe in gravity a little bit? A lot? Somewhat? Hardly at all? Almost completely? No. One believes or one doesn’t. That’s all.
    And, regarding God’s existence, nobody knows. Either way. The atheist asserting the nonexistence of God is on no firmer ground than the theist who asserts that He does exist.
    Again, it is as much a category mistake to think of agnosticsm as intermediate between theism and atheism as it is to ask, “Do you walk to work or carry your lunch?”

  18. MarkH says:

    Oops, said it at the wrong blog.
    Fundamentalists should have some overlap in the crank quadrant.

  19. J. J. Ramsey says:

    Divalent: “Zeal is clearly orthogonal to the Faith-Empiricism axis”
    This isn’t quite true. In practice, the more zealous one is, the more one has a tendency to take a one-sided or even distorted view of one’s beliefs.

  20. Mike says:

    “someone like Ken Miller or Francis Collins, who are both clearly men of deep religious conviction even though they just as clearly value science. ”
    Do Collin’s views re: ethics demonstrate that he values science? Why would you claim such an odd thing based on his writings?

  21. Brian Macker says:

    Divalent,
    Yeah, exactly my first thought. There at least needs to be a right angle in the corner labeled faith, because clearly cranks have maxed out on both faith and zeal.

  22. Chris Rowan says:

    Thanks for all the comments – although I do notice that a lot of them focus on the details of the representation I chose (and I agree that it has its limitations), rather than the underlying concept that I was trying to use it to convey – that how vocal someone is about their worldview is not necessarily related to its ‘rationality’, and a lot of the flak that flies around in this debate doesn’t seem to acknowledge this.

  23. Matt C. says:

    Nice job, Chris. I think you’ve articulated the issue quite well. There are semantic arguments to be had about “zeal” vs. whatever fits better in its place, but you’ve nailed the gist of the issue.

  24. Brian Macker says:

    Chris,
    Is being vocal being zealous? I don’t think so. Not only is zelotry not related but probably inversely related to rationality. That’s common knowledge isn’t it? There are very few zealots flying planes into buildings on rational grounds.