The Fine Line Between Faith and Delusion, Part I of III

Shunning Faith

Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother. -- Kahlil Gibran

For decades, I have eschewed faith, and found reward in the pursuit of science, rationale, analysis, and philosophical logic. I built a reputation among friends and family for skepticism and insistence upon scientific integrity. I held no contempt for the quiet faithful, and even found some psychological value in scripture (as philosophy), ritual (as drama), and religious myth (as fiction). But around the time I stopped believing in Santa Claus, I also abandoned the idea that a personal God would answer my prayers.

Although I did accept that the faithful are healthier than skeptics, I preferred to pursue health and longevity by scientific means, rather than by adopting faith.

Prayer for Atheists

I have long believed the following, quoted to me by a college friend:

Prayer may not change things for you, but it for sure changes you for things. -- Samuel M. Shoemaker, Episcopal priest

This belief does not rest on the supernatural. It is a folksy statement of a psychological fact: We are likely to observe, experience, and even create what is aligned with our expectations, even if those expectations are unrealistic. We begin to see opportunities to act toward realizing our expectations. We neglect to observe or experience what is misaligned with our expectations, and that neglect often means lost opportunities. The analogous quote from a scientific perspective is this:

Chance favors the prepared mind. -- Louis Pasteur

In very short timeframes, the power of expectations manifests in selective attention, a phenomenon illustrated by this video, which went viral during the last few years:

In longer timeframes, expectations manifest in the Pygmalion effect, which was documented in 1968.

I roll my eyes and gnash my teeth at those who intentionally misrepresent science in order to lend support to their religion. However, I fully understand that science and logic are limited. After all, no good scientist claims complete knowledge, and good scientists constantly challenge each other’s (and their own) hypotheses, experimental procedures, and conclusions, with some success. And, as a computer scientist, I accept Gödel’s theorem, that no logical system can provide complete knowledge, and the existence of undecidable problems. Indeed, I lament the fact that the best scientists must admit to the incompleteness of their knowledge, and that creationists and deniers of global warming exploited this admission.

Therefore, it surprised and puzzled me, in recent weeks, to find that despite this skepticism and doubt, I possess and profess a quality best described as faith. More in the next part.


Updated at: 2015-03-10 21:23:05 UTC