A Question of Faith
Is faith a virtue? Is it a thing of real calculable value, something to be aspired to? Is it an irrational vice, a crutch useful only to justify beliefs and actions not supported by evidence or based in reason? If you don’t believe faith to be a virtue; why? Is it the thing itself which is inherently flawed or is it simply the things we choose to apply faith to that need to be altered?
A couple of things have to be noted first off before we can proceed. The first is that I myself have never had any use for or liking of the term (or the practice of) faith. I personally find the idea of believing something not only without evidence, but in spite of evidence, at best quaint and at worst a dangerous and limiting form of intellectual complacency. The second is that I’m not talking about trust or confidence. I’m not interested in usages of “faith “ which are based on previous experience, a reasonable expectation of success, or some other appreciable and understandable criterion. Faith as I mean it here is a belief not predicated upon or requiring evidence to sustain it, indeed a belief sustained in spite of evidence. In short I’m talking about religious or “spiritual” faith.
The simple truth is that most of the people on the planet profess one type of faith or another. These people often get great comfort and support from their various faiths, and said faiths can often lead them to great humanitarian actions and outlooks. These are a lot of the arguments you’ll hear in favour of faith. Does any of that make faith a rational, reasonable outlook on reality? Is it hubris to assert that we, a small minority of the population, know better than the billions of believers around the globe? I don’t think so at all. The sheer amount of people who believe a thing is not a measure of it’s validity, and it is certainly not a measure of it’s rationality.
There is absolutely no rational logical reason to suppose that any person ever walked, unassisted, across a body of water. Nor is there any solid rational foundation for believing that Muhammad broke the moon to frighten his enemies. ( and this leaves aside the argument that even if there was a good solid reason to believe that, for instance, Jesus existed and actually walked across water, that wouldn’t be a good reason to believe there is actually a supernatural force governing existence.) To believe that these things actually occurred is as patently irrational as believing, in this day and age, that Zeus and his court are actually sitting in state atop a mountain in central Greece, or that the world truly does rest on the back of a giant turtle. ( A belief shared by several different cultures throughout history, just to further my point about numbers not equalling truth.)
So what? Even as I write this I hear someone ask “Who cares if it’s irrational? You know, empirical studies show people who have faith are on average happier than people with none.” Why, theoretical heckler in my head, you’re absolutely right! Those studies do exist, but is individual happiness the only benchmark we should be shooting for when we’re choosing how and why we believe things? There are, I am sure, lots of ecstatic suicide bomber candidates out there, who wake up with a smile and a bounce in their step. I’m also quite certain that the people of the Westboro Baptist Church aren’t bent over with self loathing and regret as they paint their colourful and hateful picket signs and set off to desecrate some poor innocent’s funeral rites.
The answer to “who cares if it’s irrational?” is that irrational beliefs lead to irrational actions, or at the least they open a person up to manipulation, how can they not? If your view of reality isn’t grounded in what’s observable, what’s testable and verifiable you’re asking to be deluded and controlled. What you think affects how you think, it colours your attitudes toward other people, toward societal progress, even toward things such as medical intervention, life saving procedures, and the ethics of certain incredibly promising research areas.
It is not only what we choose to have faith in that’s is the problem. It is the idea of faith itself. The idea of accepting any proposition without due evidence, and consideration is, in my opinion, folly. Critical thinking is the key to understanding, to appreciation of reality, indeed it is the key to true wisdom and it can not be achieved without inquiry, study, and a solid basis of objective fact. Faith, no matter what the faith, removes the value from inquiry and evidence and places it on wish-thinking. It is dangerous and foolhardy nonsense.
For me though the most important argument is this: faith divides, it fosters elitism and exclusivism. It throws up false barriers and distinctions between people and fosters antagonisms that have no objective meaning or value. We are all made of the same stuff, yet the various faiths would have us believe that some of us are somehow more (or less) than our fellows. That some are more (or less) loved by some eternal judge. How can this lead to anything but disaster? Faith is a barrier to understanding between peoples, it’s a stumbling block to true unity and a blind fold which obscures the truth which is that we’re all basically the same, that all we have is each other, and that the old adage is true, a house divided cannot stand.