PICKING OUR BATTLE
When debating theists, skeptics often get mired down in the debate over the existence of God. Arguments fly back and forth over evidence and burdens of proof and we circle around and around never able to really get anywhere on either side because we are chasing our tail around the wrong intellectual battle. The crux of our argument should not be over the existence of God, but over the usage of faith versus reason from an epistemological vantage.
In philosophy, epistemology deals with the realm of how we acquire the knowledge for which we base our most foundational beliefs. When it comes to faith there are different definitions which can apply to trust in a friend or family member, but the definition that applies to how theists gain their knowledge is a firm belief in something for which there is no proof . This belief often asserts itself in colloquialisms such as 'sometimes you just have to take things on faith'. Which is to say that their basis for belief is not in the realm of facts or evidence, but emotional and cognitive biases which follow our intuition rather than the more logical part of our brains for making decisions and accepting knowledge. It is here that the true disagreement between atheists and theists exists.
The basis for religious faith is the same within every belief that asserts itself without evidence, but since we live in a predominantly Christian culture, I will reference a scripture from the Bible to reiterate my point. In Hebrews 11:1 the author tells us that 'faith is the substance of things hoped for , the evidence of things not seen'. This verse is well known by most Christians and was used in many sermons I heard growing up in the church as a definition of how religious belief forms itself in our mind. Instead of triggering our logical, reasoning faculties, faith utilizes instinct and intuition as confirmation of the knowledge it wishes to bestow. This information does not come from us, however. Knowledge by faith is often something claimed by an outside source demanding acceptance by mere assertion rather than substantive proof which requires examination and scrutiny.
Reason demands a higher standard for its belief and requires an evidentiary basis for knowledge that is accepted and weighed against any current beliefs held by the same standard. When information presented seems to contradict what is known, the evidence is weighed and the premise revisited and reevaluated, and belief is impacted and adapted accordingly. Those who operate by faith often apply reason in part when it comes to simple tasks like crossing the street, but reject this mechanism of our evolutionary biology for formulating the beliefs that shape our culture and society. Claims made in faith are, by their very nature, made in the absence of evidence, so the knowledge gained from them has no basis in reality other than the firmly held convictions of those making the claim. Objectifying these claims in text form does not negate the origin of such claims, either. Just because one person, or a few people, a long time ago wrote down their claims made in ignorance, does not magically give them any more authority than if someone today were to spout them off with no prior reference.
The reason our world has so much conflict is because of the widespread acceptance of faith as the basis for out most deeply held beliefs. When a claim made in faith encounters another claim made in faith, there is no way to logically conclude or establish the validity of one idea over the other. The resolution then cannot be one of rational origin which is why violence seems so reasonable an option to the religious fanatic. When moral decisions are based on faith, the criteria for how we view rules for behavior stems from that same intuition, and our cognitive biases and irrational fears can impact our relationships with others and even justify their mistreatment based on differences that conflict with our moral code. The problem here is that, under faith, reality plays no part in our cognition as it relates to our morals. This leads to the cognitive dissonance through which religious individuals will often claim a value they contradict in action; i.e. how gay individuals are treated by Christians based on moral precepts garnered from scripture. This is where we need to fight our battle. We should not be bothering with debunking the existence of a construct created by faith; we should be focusing on the root of the problem at the center of all human conflict and misunderstanding.
Now, of course, there are those who would say that even in a rational and scientific world people will disagree and there will be conflict. Yes, rational people and even scientists often disagree passionately, but the key difference is the outlet available for conflict resolution through reason that is not an option for those who cling to faith. A rational person has reality to call upon to study,research, and discover. If you believe you are right in a rational and scientific way you can work to prove it. However, with faith you have no such outlet and must convince by means of intellectual and physical force. This is why the world's most widespread religions utilize threats of Hell and eternal separation from loved ones as way to manipulate and control. Faith breads fear and misunderstanding, while reason encourages calm and rational discourse for disagreement.
With the problems we are facing as a species, we must change our way of thinking if continued existence is our goal. A world with the creative and destructive power given to us by science cannot afford to have those with no rational basis for their core decision making at the helm. This is why this is not just a simple matter of belief, but a battle for our very survival.