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H. L. Mencken defined it as: "an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable"; what word is it?

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Answer: faith

According to Mencken: "A man full of faith is simply one who has lost (or never had) the capacity for clear and realistic thought. He is not a mere ass: he is actually ill."

However: Francis Bacon wrote "A little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion." (from Of Atheism )

An interviewer in the Atlantic Monthly (from Atlantic Unbound , May 20, 2004 - The Universe Made Simple ) posed the following question to physicist Brian Green:

As you study all this [String Theory] in depth, do you find yourself moving toward religion or away from religion?

" It's hard to say. It really depends on what one's definition of religion is. Some people define religion in a rather abstract way, as the order and the harmony and the wonder of the universe. And from that point of view, yes, string theory is revealing great order, great harmony, and great beauty. So if you define religion in that way, then we are going toward it."

"But if you use a more conventional notion of religion, which involves some divine being that set all things up, I think the best we can say is that string theory has nothing to say about it one way or another."

We can't ever rule a divine being out using science, because the divine being, of course, could have set it up so that we could discover what we have but see no direct imprint of the work of that divine being."

My own feeling, therefore, is that if we are revealing God's handiwork through our research, I'm happy to be part of that journey. If, on the other hand, all we're doing is revealing laws of physics that have governed the universe from the beginning until today, then I'm happy to be part of that journey, too. So whichever framework it fits into, I think the work itself is noble and interesting and very, very worthwhile."


To learn of the marvelous complexities of our being and environment, the infinite ones of the human body, plants and animals and all creatures, our world and environment, the universe and the macro-universe, must in any thinking person beget wonder and awe, and appreciation of the shallowness of our understanding.

But to, in this lack, invent a creator in our own image, or even a creator at all (logically like a hall of opposing mirrors that never end) is to display in the most simplistic fashion, our own abysmal ignorance, and an illogically superstitious resort to "faith" in "Him!" as a substitute.

And to endow this imagined "creator" with traits of our own needs; good or bad, forgiving or wrathful, merciful or cruel, humble or vain (in so many humanly contradictory fashions) is to further display our ignorant self-interest in projecting them into "Him."

Moreover, to insist that such a narrow religious belief is requisite for morality is totally false, as the creators among us are the truly moral ones, hardly necessarily of such belief, while there are many non-believers more moral than many of the believers. "Faith" never looks at, or simply blinds itself to, the monstrous inhumanity, natural and man-made tragedies, and evil that permeates our existence, as any sort of contradiction to its beliefs, except for the occasional, chance-escape from them that seems to enhance its validity, while ignoring the vastness of experiential evidence against it.

So, let us merely recognize that we do not understand, never have, and in all probability, never will; while nonetheless recognizing, in all humility, the great beauties of our existence, yet the high likelihood that we will end up destroying ourselves, because the better ones of us simply could not prevent it, while the worst pursued it with the stolen fruits of the best.
EverPsyPgh at

This philosophical interlude was a little risky, I think, because people are *in love* with atheism these days.

But I agree with it. In fact, I'm keeping the e-mail I originally got so I can look at this page again! Thank you!
jmchen at

For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)
jpmackay at

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1

Thank you for offering your readers an opportunity to respond. Have a great day!
JeanneManiscalco at _NorthwesternMutual.Com

I'm sure there will be a breathtaking mish-mash of gobbledygook from people who agree with Mencken.

The problem is that Mencken made a sweeping generality and like all such generalities there are exceptions. In this case there significant exceptions.

It's true that anyone who has blind faith in something he's never tested is a fool. It's even worse if you have faith in something you've tested and NOT found it to be true. And there are millions who fit that description. They blindly continue having faith in something that's never proved itself true.

It's not only religion where this happens. It also happens in politics and even, (GASP) science!!!! But I won't elaborate with examples because then we'd just get off into side debates that are off the issue.

The issue is that faith in God should not be blind faith. If God truly is God, then he can prove himself to a person. And this is the whole point. "Taste and see that the Lord is good" wrote the psalmist. And the writer of Hebrews wrote, "he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him."

The God of the Bible promises substantiation of faith and I can personally testify that it is true.

Mencken chose to wallow in cynicism instead of humbling himself. I suppose he looked at the many phonies, hypocrites, and religious liars and decided that all "faith" is a lie.

It makes an arrogant man feel superior when he can look down on everyone else and see himself as the only one with any brains. Arrogance and pride may or may not have been Mencken's major malfunction but it certainly is in many of those share his sentiments about christian faith.
dougclind at

This frank treatment of religion is a pleasant surprise, when you think of its country of origin. But what has it got to do with etymology?

[Mootguy: MooT's domain is etymology, semantics, and grammer. The country of origin is Canada where - as in the United States - frank treatment of all things is quite possible.]
niels.hovmoller at _utbildning.

Let's face it: faith is the antithesis of fact.

The first story of the bible has Adam and Eve being thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Why? Because they ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge. So, what's the message? Seek knowledge and you will be punished.

Religion requires that you not question its validity; any thoughtful consideration leaves one realizing its absurdity. And, it's not divine -- it is based upon Gilgamesh.

Also, the story of the son of god - with a virgin mother - who had trials in the wilderness, died on a hill surrounded by his followers, returned to life after three days, then ascended to heaven -- gee, isn't that the story of Hercules?
bolobill at

Green is a joy to read when, as I am, one has an avid interest in physics, but... sadly... very little talent. He helps make the obscure far more clear... for which my thanks; and, to say the least, when considering strings or any other explanation of what is currently the most fundamental understandings in physics, one needs a helping hand along the way.

However, I think that I would add to his beginning thoughts that there are some things about religion... let's be up front... and say BELIEF... which are not going to fit well with the rules of science.

Still, I offer the words of a friend whose spiritual connections were so clear that he was eulogized by many often adversarial religions. He once told me... "Sometimes you don't have to understand something to know that it is true."

The statement fits well for me both with my "faith" which is not based on science and not a game of the intellect... and it fits well with what I read of strings. I believe in God... the one whom I learned about as a Catholic, but whose reality was confirmed by personal and very unscientific... perhaps one might call them miraculous events.

I cannot duplicate these for science... I just know that they were as real as any scientific things which I have ever fully understood by scientific methods.

Strings have that ring of truth about them too. Honestly... I cannot follow all the connections from the basics to the esoterical... but having first been confused, then having rejected the idea... then having read some more... I do not currently need to understand it all to know that there is something ringing true.

I cannot handle the math to get there by that method. So, I depend on good explainers. And yet... I sense that we are not really there yet. We still need to look for the turtle on whose shell the strings dance. And when we find it, we will probably need to look beneath that turtle for another one.

Faith is not scientific... but it is real and it is, in my experience, based on personal and very tangible events. Pushed to its edges it is philosophy... and, as Bacon knew long ago... one finds the beginnings of our most profound understandings of science there as well.

[Mootguy: Faith's existence is not in question, but the existence of that which faith has faith in is.]
mikepa at

I think reality is overblown. You need to have faith that the earth will be there to accept the next step you take. There are no guarantees.

Brian Green's reply, far from waffling, reflects a great positivist belief in the essential goodness of the universe - that order, harmony, and beauty are to be identified and appreciated, and that we humans have the capacity, even the imperative, to participate.

Could there be a more compelling religious statement?

It is very difficult as I grow older to accept the absence of knowlege concerning "life before and after death". I admit I am abject in my ignorance. And, really, we must all be so. The illusion of an orderly created universe certainly helps to maintain an orderly society. But we are only observing a hope, an illusion.
Labratt917 at &&

First, can we all agree that EVERYTHING in the universe is a probability: there are no fixed variables to be found.

Faith is always blind for if faith could see, it would be knowledge.

[Mootguy: Thanks Mr. Nietzsche. You rock.]
otsg33 at & at &

Historically 'faith' comes from the word 'trust', ie. "I put my faith in you". The reason we place our trust in God is because He shows himself to the individual, if asked (as Jesus tells us to). It isn't signs he wishes to give us, which only constitute evidence: rather He proves his own existence. This is the opposite of the definition of faith that has reared its false and ugly head recently : "Belief without knowledge". Totally irrational, of course, and makes believers look pretty stupid. But it is a false and modern definition. Authentic religious belief is totally reasonable/logical, though not based on reason, rather 'pure knowledge'. Of course, it is not possible for another to know that one has authentic belief, unless God were to tell us directly.

In Theology 'faith' is distinguished from 'trust' or 'beleif' by adding in the business of free will, as in this technical definition (Roman Catholic) : "Faith: assent to Divinely Revealed Truth" In other words : even God's revelation can be refused because of the gift of freewill.

Any real scientist knows that science is all about evidence of material things, and not suited to judging the existence of God (disclaimer : I am a scientist, as are many members of my family on my mothers side). Menkel's "improbable" can't come from science, and definitely not philosophy, probably more likely from two possible sources : creationists christians, who make chritianity look pretty silly, and the suffering of innocent children.

The former are highly vocal, but don't represent the majority of christians who have never been bound to the literal interpretaiton of the bible that is the source of creationists ideas. The latter are addressed by the suffering and death of the most innocent Son of God, Jesus Christ, in whom all the innocent are united and with whom they suffer for the sake of the redemption of the guilty.

They make up for what lacks in Christ's suffering, as mentioned in a letter of St Paul. Ironically atheists, who believe that God does not exist, are irrational because their belief does not have proof (unlike the Christina mechanism of 'faith'). However, when you prod them it turns out that most atheists are agnostics in disguise. Really they are of a strong opinion. An opinion doesn't have the certainty of belief. Or they are "unbelievers": they claim simply to have no belief either way, but really that is a form of agnosticism.
greg5 at

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