The perils of faith.

Principles of scientific pantheism* by Paul Harrison.

If a transcendent creator exists, he does not want us to believe in him.

The Temptation of St Anthony, Hieronymus Bosch (detail).
Definitions of faith.
Faith in unfalsifiable hypotheses.
Faith in untimed predictions.
Faith in the impossible.
Faith in self-contradictions.
Faith requirements of the major religions.
Evidence for everyday life, evidence for faith.
The risks of faith.
Pascal's wager reconsidered.

Definitions of faith.

"Faith consists in believing what reason does not believe," wrote the eighteenth century French philosopher Voltaire [Philosophical Dictionary, Inondation]. Surprisingly, the Catholic Church endorses that view. It has stated that faith is not based on credibility, nor on the accumulation of probabilities [First Vatican Council session v and Lamentabile Dictu Proposition 25.]

Faith goes further still. Voltaire again: "Faith consists in believing, not what appears to be true, but what appears to our understanding to be false" [Philosophical Dictionary,, Foi].

The very impossibility of the articles of Christian faith made them attractive to the second century Christian father Tertullian:

The Son of God died; this is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And after being buried, he rose again: this is certain, because it is impossible.
[On the Flesh of Christ, v.]

Faith in unfalsifiable hypotheses.

Everyday and scientific reason is based on evidence, probability, and logic. Faith, the opposite of reason, is willingness to believe the untestable, the impossible, and the illogical.

Faith falls into three main types:

  • Unnecessary and unfalsifiable hypotheses.
  • Impossibilities.
  • Logical contradictions.

The unnecessary and unfalsifiable hypothesis is the simplest category.

Scientific theories about reality are framed in such a way that they can be tested against reality. No matter how many tests are performed, they can never be conclusively proved. So testability means in practice that they must be falsifiable.

The hypothesis of an invisible God is not meaningless: it has many implications for the way people think and the way they live their lives. But there is no conceivable evidence that could ever confirm it or falsify it.

God is also an unnecessary hypothesis. It explains nothing. Instead of one entity - a universe that exists for no reason - we have two (God plus the universe) one of which exists for no reason and the other for no reason that we can understand (see The self-existent cosmos).

This category also covers all beliefs about the afterlife, including heaven, hell, resurrection and reincarnation. These too are unnecessary hypotheses. They explain nothing about the real world. We have no evidence, and probably never will have, that our minds survive the death of our bodies, and no reason to believe it except for wishful thinking.

Faith in untimed predictions.

A third category of unfalsifiable beliefs are untimed predictions of improbable events, such as the Second Coming of Christ, the Resurrection of Bodies, and the Last Judgement.

These predictions often begin life as testable claims, with a clear time frame. Jesus himself expected the Kingdom of Heaven to arrive imminently [Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology, vol 1, SCM Press, London 1971] and predicted that the Son of Man would arrive before his disciples had finished going through the cities of Israel [Matthew 10.23]. St Paul expected the end to come within the lifetime of many living Christians, and they should live free of commitments, so they would be ready. [1 Corinthians 7.29-31]

These predictions were falsifiable - and they were falsified.

Early Christians continued to believe that the Second Coming was imminent. But as the decades rolled by, with endless wars but no End of Time, they faced continual taunts and doubts. To put an end to these, the event was deferred to an unspecified time in the future, which might be near, or far.

And there it remains today, two thousand years later. The claim is now framed in a way that cannot be falsified - however many millennia pass.

Faith in the impossible.

Faith is needed to believe in events that are normally impossible - and therefore inherently unbelievable.

These events are of three main types.

  • The first is the miracle: an "event" that occurs in a normal context, but which is normally impossible by the laws of nature. Examples are the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus, Mohammed's night ride to Jerusalem and so on.

    Some people believe that miracles still occur in the present. But the miracles that are critical foundations for religion happened in the remote past.

    Historians have well-tried means of validating whether past events occurred - reliability of sources, confirmation by other sources, textual criticism, archeological evidence, carbon dating and so on. The more improbable the claim, the higher the standard of evidence required to prove it. The proofs for the virgin birth, for the resurrection, and for Mohammed's night ride to Jerusalem, are not of the type that most historians would accept on any other type of matter.

    But faith does not require proof, and those who demand proof are derided by the faithful as doubting Thomases. Indeed, if historians were to prove the claims of faith beyond all doubt, they would cease to be matters of faith.

  • A related type of normally impossible "event" is the revelation. A god, or a divine messenger, speaks to a chosen prophet to deliver the central message of the religion.

    Such revelations usually occur without witnesses, in inaccessible places. They depend on the word of a single person and the authority or force they can muster to validate it. Zarathustra's received his message by a lonely mountain stream, from the archangel Vohuman. Moses's commandments were delivered on the top of a mountain where others were forbidden to go. Mohammed was first addressed in a remote cave by the archangel Gabriel. Unusually, Mohammed also saw Gabriel while in the company of other people like his wife Khadija, but no-one else saw the angel. However, this was not taken as evidence that Mohammed was hallucinating, but that he was being granted a unique privilege.

  • The third type of impossibility is the predicted irruption of a supernatural realm into this world. We have already covered this under untimed predictions.

Faith in self-contradictions.

The articles of faith we have been discussing so far are not matters of everyday experience, but at least they are not totally unthinkable.

The final type of article of faith is unthinkable in human terms, because it implies a self-contradiction.

The most serious category of these is the logical contradiction within a single proposition - such as the claim that Christ is both fully divine and fully human at one and the same time. Greeks and Romans accepted to some extent that humans could be semi-divine - Hercules, Alexander, and the Roman emperors are examples. But in the traditional Jewish and Old Testament scheme, which Christians still accept as part of their scripture, the divine was totally separate from the human, and the two categories could never be combined in one person.

The doctrine of the Trinity is an even more glaring logical contradiction. God is one and three at the same time. His threeness in no way detracts from his oneness - and vice-versa.

In the second category, the system contradiction, two different beliefs which are part of the same religious creed conflict with each other.

Most Buddhists, for example, believe there is no Self: human beings are just aggregates of fleeting matter and sensations. However, Buddhists also believe in reincarnation.

But if there is no self, then there is nothing to be reincarnated, and nothing that can teach or be taught about enlightenment. As the most brutally frank of all Buddhists, Nagarjuna, admitted:

No truth has ever been taught by any Buddha for anyone, anywhere.

Self-contradictions have caused dissension and sectarianism in religions that harbour them. Christianity's two focal contradictions underlie many of the bitter controversies in the history of the Church, while Buddhism's central contradiction led to the emergence of Mahayana schools of sudden enlightenment and the identity of nirvana and phenomena.

Faith requirements of major religions

All the major religions require acts of faith for major elements of their beliefs.


Unfalsifiable claim:
Systemic contradiction:
No-self + reincarnation.
JUDAISM (MOSAIC) Impossibility:
God sent plagues to Egypt.
God spoke to Moses alone.
God sent manna, water, quails.
God sent tablets of stone.
God punished Moses' critics.
Untimed prediction:
Day of judgement.
Virgin birth.
Jesus' resurrection.

Unfalsifiable claim:
Soul goes to heaven or hell.

Untimed prediction:
Second coming.

Logical contradiction:
Christ's divine/human fusion.
God's unity and trinity.
Archangel spoke to Mohammed alone.
Mohammed's night journey to Jerusalem.
Jesus' virgin birth.

Unfalsifiable claim:
Last judgement.
Soul goes to heaven or hell.

Evidence for everyday life, evidence for faith.

In everyday life, when people make statements that lie within the range of normal probability, we usually accept what they say without question.

But in many cases we prudently demand evidence.

  • Assertions about events that fall outside common experience or probability.
  • Assertions about events that lie outside the normal range of our senses.
  • Disputes (eg legal cases) where there are conflicting claims.
  • Promises about the outcome of financial commitments.

With improbable claims, we are usually sceptical. We presume they are false, until they are proved true beyond all reasonable doubt. And we demand a reasonable standard of evidence: repeatable experiments; approval of scientific peers; multiple witnesses; authentication of historical documents; proof of past performance and so on. The more improbable the claim, the higher the personal commitment we are expected to make on the basis of it, the higher is the standard of evidence that prudent people demand before believing it.

Religious leaders demand the highest level of personal commitment, and their claims are often extremely improbable. The great majority of their contemporaries disbelieve them: no man is a prophet in his own country. Moses encountered fierce opposition from his sister, Miriam, and his cousin Korah [Numbers, 12 and 16]. Jesus was mocked by the people of his home village, Nazareth: he was mad, or possessed by a demon [John, 10.20, Mark 3.30]. Mohammed was criticized by the Meccans: he too was insane, or taught what he knew by others, or he was an oral poet. Zoroaster was rejected everywhere he went, until he converted King Vishtaspa after curing his favourite horse.

As religions gain ground, more and more people accept incredible claims, against all their normal everyday practice. They have motives for doing so: they hope for a better life after death, they hunger for guidance in an uncertain world and so on. But they are willing to accept types of "evidence" they would never accept in everyday life, or from their own contemporaries: the claims of dogmatic authority, of scripture, of private internal experience, of their own hopes and desires.

The risks of faith

Pascal, in his famous wager about the existence of God, claimed that we should gamble without hesitation that God exists, because:

If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. [Pensees, 233]

However, if he had applied his wager to the articles of faith, he would have been wrong to say that we stand to lose nothing.

Faith flies in the face of scientific method. Faith abandons everyday rules of thought and prudent risk. Faith ignores normal requirements for evidence.

If we follow faith, we stand to lose a great deal. We abandon our reason, our logic, our nature as an enquiring and scientific species.

What are the consequences of this abandonment?

First, we weaken reason by giving priority to emotion, hope or blind acceptance of authority. If we are ready to believe the unbelievable or the illogical in an important area of our lives, then we will be more ready to do so in other areas such as politics or the environment. If we teach our children to believe the unbelievable and the illogical, then we are actively training them in irrationality and blind acceptance of dogma, and they will apply that training to every sphere of life.

Second, believers never totally abandon their normal habits of rational thought. Part of them goes on doubting the contents of faith. Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Church's greatest theologian, wrote:

The intellect's attitude towards the object [of faith] is not one of tranquility, on the contrary it thinks and inquires about those things it believes, all the while that it assents to them unhesitatingly; for as far as it itself is concerned the intellect is not satisfied. [De Veritate, xiv, 1].

This persistent doubt, which surfaces so frequently in Christian writings, sets up in the mind what psychologists have called a cognitive dissonance: a conflict between two parts of the believer's system of concepts. Believers have many strategies for resolving this dissonance. They include banding together in churches and sects to reinforce their beliefs, and converting others. If you can convert another, then you confirm your own beliefs.

More dangerously, they include combatting and even physically attacking those who do not agree with the beliefs and cannot be converted by reason. Faith is always insecure, and intolerance is an expression of that insecurity.

Pascal's wager reconsidered.

Human reason, logic and empiricism are the secrets of our success as a species. Together with our senses, they are the sole means by which we can investigate and connect with the Divine Cosmos. If we abandon them, we abandon the only Reality we can be certain of.

We are punished for this crime - not after our death, but during our life. We suffer through separation from the real world. We suffer through internal uncertainty and doubt.

Even if there is a creator god, Pascal's wager should be reconsidered.

If he exists, then he endowed us with reason, logic and empiricism as our supreme qualities.

No just God would have made us this way if he required us to throw overboard all these qualities in the most crucial area of our lives. No just God would punish us for following the reason he installed in us. He might even punish us for abandoning reason.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote: "Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear." [Letter to Peter Carr, 1787]

If God is just, we could reverse Pascal's wager:

If we gain, we gain nothing that a just God would deny to those who follow reason. If we lose, we lose our reason, the highest quality a creator god might have given us.

If a transcendent Creator seriously wanted us to believe in him, he would not rely on us believing the word of ancient prophets from superstitious times. He would provide indisputable evidence to every generation - evidence that we could accept without faith, without abandoning our reason. He would write his name in the clouds of every sky. Each day his face would rise with the sun, to leave us in no doubt of his existence.

If God exists, we must assume he does not want us to believe in him.

Background image: The temptation of St Anthony, Hieronymus Bosch, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga.


is the belief that the universe and nature are divine.
It fuses religion and science, and concern for humans with concern for nature.
It provides the most realistic concept of life after death,
and the most solid basis for environmental ethics.
It is a religion that requires no faith other than common sense,
no revelation other than open eyes and a mind open to evidence,
no guru other than your own self.
For an outline, see Basic principles of scientific pantheism. Top.

If you would like to spread the message of scientific pantheism please include a link to Pantheist pages in your pages, or mirror the page at your site by saving this and other pages.

Pantheist pages: index.
History of pantheism.
Basic principles of scientific pantheism.
The divine cosmos.

Suggestions, comments, criticisms to: Paul Harrison, e-mail: pan(at)(this domain)

© Paul Harrison 1996.