"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

It's "faith" Tom, but not as we know it.

BBC Radio 4 had Dr Tom Butler the present Bishop of Southwark on its thought for the day spot this morning.
Now I rather like Tom Butler, he’s a scientist as well as a theologian and he leans towards a rational, liberal form of Christianity that includes allowing women Bishops and support for gender equality. In a short piece, with mainly humanist content he did though make one comment with which I strongly disagree.
Bemoaning what he sees as the unnecessary conflict between science and religion he pointed out that physicists now believe that the universe is
Full of matter which we can’t see and driven by a force we don’t understand
So far so true in that he is referring to dark matter and dark energy, both of which have been inferred (though never seen) from observation of the expansion of the universe.
However Dr Butler then added
If that’s not faith, I don’t know what is.
This is a disingenuous comment and as a trained scientist I am sure Dr Butler knows it.
It is wrong for two reasons:
Firstly, dark matter and energy are theories that explain real observations of the universe and like all true scientific theories they are open to falsification by further observation and experiment. Scientists “believe” in them only to the extent that, to date, observations tend to confirm their existence. But it’s early days and finer grained observations of the universe may well modify those theories.
Secondly, Dr Butler is committing the logical fallacy of equivocation in which he is substituting the common usage of faith (I have faith in my ability) with religious faith (I have faith in Jesus) which are quite different things. In common parlance we have “faith” in things we know to be real and reliable, but we soon lose that faith should they prove to be false or unreliable. Religious faith requires unquestioning belief in something or someone without evidence and sometimes despite strong evidence to the contrary.
As I said, as a trained scientist and theologian Dr Butler would be more than aware of these distinctions but as a minister he obviously could not resist indulging in this typical tactic of Christian apologetics. What a pity.

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