Continuing my attempt to turn this into a religion blog and alienate most of the tiny audience I have, let’s talk about faith. I can rail against the historicity of certain events in the Bible until I’m blue in the face, but I won’t get that far without addressing the key fault of religion: faith.
What I mean by faith is belief that doesn’t rest on evidence or argument. I don’t mean beliefs counter to evidence or argument necessarily, just a sort of detachment from them. Whether liberal or fundamentalist, faith plays a role in most religions. Even if you don’t consider yourself a member of any particular religion, most religious beliefs (life after death, for example) are based on some sort of faith. Put another way, I’m talking about beliefs that people hold for reasons like “I just know,” “I have a feeling,” or “I want it to be true.”
I have to say, I don’t think I understand faith. At least, I hope I don’t, because it seems completely ridiculous. To call something a faith in every area except religion has a negative connotation. When someone refers to a particular idea as “dogma,” that’s a negative remark. This doesn’t apply to religion, however. Simply having religious faith, regardless of the particular belief, is seen as positive. For the life of me, I can’t get my head around this. The questions religion deals with are awfully important and difficult. Shouldn’t we apply the absolute best methods of truth-finding to them? Shouldn’t we shun the ones that are completely ridiculous in every other area?
Some might object that our other methods fail with regards to religion. This is partially true. Certainly ghosts or actual mediums would prove there’s a supernatural realm. Even in the absence of those, however, it could still exist. What about reason? I haven’t seen any convincing logical proofs of the existence of the supernatural. Are we really completely impotent in determining the truth of these huge questions without faith?
No. There’s a pretty good philosophical principle that applies here:Occam’s Razor. I assume most of you know what Occam’s Razor is, but if you don’t, the best way of putting it is “plurality should not be posited without necessity.” I find it to be a pretty useful tool that frequently applies to religious questions. If there’s no need for a supernatural realm, then you’ve violated that principle by positing it. If a supernatural realm is necessary, then you have an argument in favor it and don’t need faith. That seems to be to be a decent way of discerning the truth (or fairly close to it) of religious questions.
So, we aren’t completely helpless without faith when it comes to religious questions. What if we were? I don’t see how that justifies faith. You still have to have a reason why it’s a valid method of discerning the truth; it doesn’t automatically become valid because some other methods fail.
The next logical question, to me, is why so many people “have a feeling” or “just know” that their religion is correct. That’s a question that I can’t answer at the moment, but I can offer a suggestion. A book I’ve been meaning to read is Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. Here’s what he had to say in Discover in 2003:
Why then has religion survived in so many cultures?
A: Because humans are faced with problems they can’t solve. Think about death. Because we have these cognitive abilities to travel in time and to track memory, we are automatically aware of death everywhere. That is a cognitive problem. Death is something that our organism tells us to avoid. So now we seek some kind of a long-term solution. And there is none. Lucretius and Epicurus thought they could solve this through reason. They said, “Look, what does it matter? We weren’t alive for infinite generations before we were born. It doesn’t bother us. Why should we be worried about the infinite generations that will be after us when we’re gone?” Well, nobody bought that. The reason that line of reasoning didn’t work is because once you’re alive, you’ve got something that you’re going to lose.
Another problem is deception. Look at society. If you’ve got rocks and stones and pieces of glass and metal before you, and you say, “Oh, that doesn’t exist,” or “That’s not really a piece of metal,” or “That’s not really a tree,” someone will come along and say, “Look, you’re crazy; I can touch it; there’s a piece of metal there; I can show you it’s a piece of metal.” For commonsense physical events, we have ways of verifying what’s real or not.For moral judgments, we have nothing. If someone says, “Oh, he should be a beggar and he should be a king,” what is there in the world that’s going to convince me this is true? There is nothing. If there is nothing, how are people ever going to get on with one another? Especially non-kin. How are they ever going to build societies, and how are they ever going to trust one another so they won’t defect? One way that humans seem to have come up with is to invent this minimally counterintuitive world developed by these deities, who are like big brothers who watch over and make sure that there will be no defectors.
In short, it solves problems that our fairly impressive cognitive abilities create. As far as I know, the research into this is still fairly new, but it points to a resolution of the problem.
There are, however, other problems with assigning any meaning to “I just know Jesus died for my sins” or some such tripe. Not everyone actually feels that way. For example, Muslims feel quite differently. The same can be said for Jews or Hindus. This “feeling” at best shows religious belief in general is correct, not any particular belief. That matches some very liberal religious views, but it can’t be used to justify a particular religion. Does it even justify general religious views? I don’t “feel” there’s a God or that religion is correct and I never have. Shouldn’t it be universal? What exactly is the rationale for leaving quite a lot of people out? It doesn’t really make sense. Evolution seems to be the better explanation.
At this point, I’ve done my best to show why faith is not a useful method for obtaining the truth. But, is it useful in general? I don’t think so. First off, it’s supremely arrogant and elitist to promote false doctrines based on their utility. Secondly, we do have secular societies on this planet and they aren’t doing particularly badly. I don’t think I need to point out all the harm that’s been done in the name of religion. Even in the secular atrocities a sort of faith can be discerned. Does anyone think Soviet Russia’s totalitarianism was rational? Does anyone think the leaders could be convinced that Communism is an ill-advised system of government? Of course not: they were completely dedicated to its ideals and that led them to defend it in horrific ways. That’s faith.
Faith does lead to some good results. It can’t be denied that many religious people are extraordinarily compassionate. The question that has to be asked is whether we can have that compassion without faith. I think we can. Countries like Norway have high rates of disbelief and they also give large amounts of aid (per capita). It can be done. Faith simply isn’t worth the baggage that comes with it.