The Socratic Method Applied to Faith


In this document, I hope to engage you in a calm and rational discussion of what faith is and what kind of beliefs it fosters. Absolutley nothing in this text should be taken dogmatically. It’s an invitation for us to bring an open mind to some of the most intimate and influential ideas in the world.

Anticipating that many believers will get overly defensive when discussing the possibilities of the validity of their faith, let’s start with some common objections you may have to even having the conversation.

See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.

Colossians 2:8 (RSV)

But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile. As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him.

Titus 3:9-10 (RSV)

Verses like the above and the sentiments they represent are door-closers, not openers. If we all agree that we value truth and are interested in finding it and dispelling misunderstandings, discussion is our primary tool. Note that the first verse above from Colossians could be appropriately chanted in North Korea, replacing “Christ” with “The Dear Leader”, as a way to stifle heretical opinion.

The idealogical gridlock endemic in even the best governments is an example of how potential progress is halted because possibilities won’t be discussed openly with fair consideration given to each view. That doesn’t mean we should have equal confidence in every voice once they have spoken their case. But it does mean that we shouldn’t be afraid of exploring and scrutinizing any of the variety of claims that people make.

Truth springs from arguments amongst friends.

David Hume

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Carl Sagan

A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.

David Hume

I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.

Matt Dillahunty

I implore you to do your best to put emotions aside and to approach discussions with an open mind. The Enlightenment, which begat the proliferation of the scientific method, has taught us that being honest and open with our neighbors and supporting our claims with evidence is the route to progress. The correct ideas should be demonstrable and will withstand scrutiny. Shouldn’t we be able to explore thoroughly the implications of our ideas, especially those that are most dear to us?

What follows is meant to be a set of questions in the Socratic tradition. The reader is invited to ponder them and seek their own answers.


Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Hebrews 11:1 (RSV)
  • What is faith? Would you accept the definition that faith is “complete trust or confidence in something despite a lack of evidence”?
  • Is faith a reliable way to discover truth? Can you give any examples?
  • Why don’t scientific journals or court rooms accept testimony based on faith?
  • Why is evidence important to making judgments and forming beliefs? Note that a lot of opinions out there, exist not because of good evidence, but because of culture, or fashion, or accidents of history, or wishful thinking, or other forms of viral ignorance.
  • When the going gets tough, is it ever better to rely on faith than to be realists about our situations and make decisions based on the facts?
  • OK, you accept the testimony of some authorities on faith. Why should we trust those authorities?
  • Are the checks and balances on clerics that promote your religion equivalent to those on the authorities of academic, civil, engineering, or medical disciplines?
  • Do we generally trust authorities without evidence?
  • What does it mean to be objective?
  • What does it mean to be open to criticism? Are other claims to knowledge in science and history open to criticism?
  • Can you think of any examples of beliefs that propagated because of culture and not because they were supported by evidence?
  • What does it mean to be indoctrinated?
  • Do you have any of your beliefs because of being indoctrinated?
  • Is faith a good idea?
  • OK, you rely not just on faith. You also cite the evidence in scripture. Is scripture reliable?
  • Why are there so many inconsistent scriptures?
  • Do you think followers of other religions feel the same way about their scriptures?
  • How is your scripture and interpretation preferable to others?
  • What was the human condition like when those scriptures were written? Is there any reason to think that people in the Bronze or Iron Ages had privileged access to revelations?
  • What did people in those times understand about nature?
  • Is it natural for people to form narratives to account for things they cannot explain? Can you think of examples?
  • How are the narratives in scripture different from events with other forms of historical evidence?
  • Is there clear historical evidence for the claims in scripture, not just reference to historical incidentals, but the central claims of your religion?
  • We have very good historical evidence including artifacts, legal documents, and journals documenting many ancient people and events including pharaohs, kings, and many people of lesser distinction. Is the evidence for the prophets and their claims as strong?
  • Is there any good reason to believe that Joseph Smith had a divine revelation when he supposedly translated the golden tablets that became the Book of Mormon in 1830? How are other supposed events of revelation any different?
  • Is there anything about the way the world is that would be mysterious under the hypothesis that the metaphysical claims of religion are false?
  • You are concerned that people won’t have a moral compass without religion. Despite the world’s many disagreements, why are there so many moral tenets that we have in common across religious and cultural lines?
  • Is it not natural for people to want safety, shelter, love, and to avoid pain?
  • Is it evident in nature that cooperation and empathy are good strategies to dealing with others? Is it rational to consider yourself one of many and to work to mitigate risk and suffering? Is that not why we build communities, forts, and insurance?
  • Why does your scripture endorse slavery, genocide, the subjugation women, homophobia, and the killing of your own children?
  • Could you yourself not write a more moral guide than the scriptures right now, starting with condemning the above? How about encouraging open-mindedness, critical thinking, and a respect for evidence?
The Soul
  • What is the soul? How do you distinguish it from your consciousness?
  • While there are a lot of things not understood about the function of the brain, there is no mystery that it is the seat of our experience. Our conscious experience is clearly constrained by our physiology, as can be demonstrated by damaging parts of the brain, taking drugs, or having low blood sugar. Your body grew from a single cell into the complex network of interconnected biological machines that makes a human. Is there any reason to think that any part of being a human involves anything immaterial?
  • Can this hypothetical immaterial soul be demonstrated?
  • When a person wonders “what will it be like after I die?”, is there any reason to think it will be any different than what it was like before you were alive?
  • Isn’t it clear that our experience is contingent on our material conditions?
  • If there was a reproducibly demonstrable phenomenon that was not considered part of the natural world, wouldn’t we just incorporate it into our view of nature?
  • If something participates in the cause and effect of the natural world, couldn’t it be further studied and seen as part of the natural world? What would it even mean for something to be beyond nature or supernatural?
Not knowing
  • There are many things we do not know. Life and heredity seemed absolutely mysterious for thousands of years before DNA was discovered. Claims in cosmology were nothing but philosophical speculation before the astronomical data of recent years yielded the vast scope and history of our universe. And still, there’s much we do not understand. Should we put faith in speculations before we have evidence? If so, how would you decide which speculations to believe? Why not others?
  • Is it worthwhile to be careful to demarcate the things we know from the things we do not?
  • Is there anything that could go wrong if we act confidently as if we have knowledge or otherwise justified belief when we really do not?
  • Can you think of any examples of people being sure of something that was false and causing conflict and suffering because of it? Are people doing that now?
  • Is it ok to say “I don’t know”?
  • Do we need to know everything to live our lives?
Text Published on 2014-12-28 / 2013-08-13 at Licensed for sharing under CC-BY-4.0.
Image: Olaf Simons, 2012

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