Today, we’re going to talk about faith.
You can’t say I don’t tackle the Big Important Topics here. In this one post, I’m going to cover the entire foundation of almost every religion in the history of ever, the pillar on which all theology is founded, and the subject over which perhaps more hours of scholarly work and profound philosophising has taken place over the centuries than any other. The one elusive, ethereal concept whose significance has plagued the most enlightened and learned thinkers for generations.
I don’t know why they bothered, really. It’s all just bollocks.
Yep. This is why you come here, for the intellectual rigour and thoughtful, sensitive analysis of all the delicate and complex issues.
Let’s get on with it then.
Let’s be clear exactly what it is that I’m dismissing so sweepingly, before we all agree that I’m right.
“Faith” is often used more or less interchangeably with words like “trust”, in more day-to-day terms. I have plenty of trust, but I don’t think I could be accused of having faith, as I use the term here. I have good reason to expect the world to continue functioning as it has, in many ways, based on previous experience. I don’t need “faith” that my toaster will scorch any bits of bread I put into it; it logically follows, from my incomplete but often useful understanding of the mechanics of the universe.
Other times, the word “faith” is just used to refer to any belief in anything religious or supernatural. Regardless of the rationality or otherwise, if it’s about God, then it’s faith. And, well, okay. That’s fine, and doesn’t preclude faith from being a perfectly rational activity. I’m not railing against every possible usage of the word, only this one concept it often represents. Just like Tony Jaa isn’t out to utterly destroy the entire population of Thailand, just the ones who stole his elephant.
The sort of faith I have no time for is the blind, unreasonable, unjustified belief sort. The abandonment of reason, of which some religious folk seem so proud. The deliberate dismissal of individual, independent, autonomous thought, the thing which more than any other gives our species a significance greater than that of coral. There is absolutely no sufficient justification for the kind of voluntary mindlessness which so many regard as a great and noble virtue.
We humans have amazing abilities. We can experience the world around us, and put those experiences in context, and construct meaningful ideas about this strange place in which we find ourselves that go beyond what any one person could ever discover on their own. We can find patterns, work out the rules, explore the causes and reasons underlying what we see. We can take the time to consider what we know, and we can ask questions. Never mind finding answers – even having a clear enough knowledge of our situation to know what we don’t know, and ask meaningful questions about it, is an unprecedented achievement of our innate curiosity. We can know what we’re doing as we go about our lives, to an extent that no other race we know of has ever achieved. That such a phenomenon could arise from the particles of the universe itself is astounding.
But some people don’t want to do any of that. To them, our efforts to improve ourselves and our involvement in the world, to aid our understanding by whatever means will allow us to inch slowly toward the truth, should be abandoned. The curiosity and questioning and unquenchable hunger to probe and discover new things, which has been responsible for basically everything our species has ever achieved, is vilified by some, and blind obedience to authority is held in its place, as some kind of morally superior alternative. Others are less extreme, but still hold that our powers of human reason, as well as being insufficient to neatly explain every aspect of existence to their satisfaction, can in fact be improved upon and surpassed by a directionless trust in what is basically guesswork.
God, I think I might be starting to talk bollocks too.
Look, I wasn’t kidding about how vastly profound and influential this subject’s been on the history of human thought, and that stuff about dedicated scholars. You could fill libraries with the serious and soul-searching contemplations engaged in on the matter of faith by people far more learned and clever than me. If I get too caught up in trying to match them for solemnity and scholarship and scope of rhetoric, then it’s obvious I’m going to get way out of my depth very quickly. Because I’m just some idiot with a blog, whose position isn’t much more sophisticated than “I don’t buy any of this crap”, and who keeps getting distracted by thinking about bagels whenever I try articulating my thoughts. See, I just had lunch between that last sentence and this one. My dedication to my art is pathetic.
Much better then, surely, to sweep aside all the bothersome details and better-informed postulatings of everyone who’s gone before, on the simple grounds that faith, as a system of belief without rational justification, is just silly.
Because really, shouldn’t that be obvious on its own? Humankind has figured out quite a few excellent tools by which to avoid being wrong, as well as identifying a number of ways in which wrongness can occur in our thinking. Faith is a matter of deliberately ignoring the very option of wrongness, and refusing to attempt to rule it out. When the option is there to use these proven methods by which we’ve discovered so much about the world, and so closely approached truth in so many aspects of the universe, faith demands you put all that aside, not ask questions, and simply hope you guessed right. Why is this ever something you’d want to do? How can you ever be better off not applying critical thinking to a closely held belief, especially when it dramatically affects your feelings, your behaviours, and the lives of others?
I’m honestly rather baffled what people have managed to write thousands of books about on this. (Some people might suggest I should try reading one. They may have a point.)
But I’ve written before about why critical thinking and a skeptical approach should be applied to all knowledge, and I still think that summarises the point quite well enough. But I suppose I know what some of the common complaints are, so I’ll briefly go over what some people often say to justify what they call their faith. (If you have anything better, feel free to comment.)
Belief without proof
A lot of people go this way, as the most innocent-sounding cop-out excuse for being irrational. All they’re doing is choosing to believe something without “absolute scientific proof”. They’re trusting in an idea that simply hasn’t been studied and examined by emotionless scientists in white lab coats and described in cold, clinical detail, and this somehow makes them virtuous. They’re not being deranged, because there is some evidence for what they believe, it’s just not been proven beyond all doubt.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t really help. Having bad evidence for something isn’t half-way to having good evidence for it, and isn’t a worthwhile step in the right direction from having no evidence at all. (Having good evidence for the object of your faith seems to rule out the need to have faith at all. If you think you can prove the truth of, say, the Bible, then why would you need to “just believe” in it when you can be perfectly rational and get there by following the evidence?)
People cite various experiences of the world as reasons for belief in some divine power, but the way they mix reason and faith always seems haphazard. If the smile on a baby is to be cited as evidence of a god’s existence, then you need to leap through all the usual scientific hoops if you want to be taken seriously. How does a grinning tiny person support your model of reality? What would falsify it? Can this data not be reconciled with the null hypothesis, namely a universe without a god?
Yes, these are all sciencey questions, and God is often held to be “outside” of science, but what is that supposed to mean? If you’re making a definite claim about reality, then science is the best tool we have to establish whether or not you’re probably right. If, when you claim that your deity is evinced by a particular autonomic response in certain carbon-based lifeforms, you’re not doing science, then what the hell are you doing? If you’re abandoning the due process of logic and reason, you literally might as well be saying “Penguins are made of cheese, therefore God exists”. Hey, if it doesn’t have to make sense, why worry?
To press the point further about proposing evidence, admitting that it doesn’t constitute proof, but claiming it as a basis for faith, consider the following two conversations:
“What evidence do you have that UFOs regularly visit the Earth and abduct people?”
“None at all. I just have faith.”
“You’re an idiot.”
“What evidence do you have that UFOs regularly visit the Earth and abduct people?”
“Well, this one time I saw a thing in the sky, that definitely wasn’t a bird because it was massive, it probably weighed about 28 tonnes, and was about 450 feet away and 20 feet across, all of which I precisely estimated in the few seconds I thought I saw it behind some tree branches, and also my sister’s friend’s cousin’s dentist saw some weird green alien-looking creature in his bedroom once, in between a dream about giant dancing corkscrews and waking up in a cold sweat at 4am. So, that might not be good enough for a bunch of scientists, with their test tubes and litmus burners and all that fancy science malarkey, but it’s some evidence, and based on that I choose to have faith.”
“Sounds good to me. You should see what’s in the book I base my spiritual belief system on.”
See, just because you’re capable of saying that this, this, and this are why you have faith, doesn’t mean you’re necessarily making any more sense than if you just picked a random notion out of the air and based a religion around it.
Faith is necessarily arbitrary
Faith, being a belief in spite of an absence of supporting evidence, is by definition arbitrary in its object. There’s a limitless supply of things you could believe in, which have no evidence to support them – and yet, without evidence, how can any groundless claim be superior to any other? Why is faith in Jesus any more valuable or virtuous than faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster? If you point out that Pastafarianism was created as a deliberate parody just a few years ago, then remember that you’re using evidence to assert that, and suddenly we’re having a reasonable discussion and not talking about faith any more. Explain to me why faith in any other god is “better” – in any interpretation of that word that you choose – without using a rational analysis of any evidence to do so. I don’t see how you can, but I’d love to hear it if you’ve got something.
In fact, if lack of evidence is somehow a bonus and adds value to your level of faith, then surely it would behoove you to deliberately choose the most ridiculous and unsupported set of ideas you can imagine, and latch fervently onto those. Say you’re a Christian, and believe every word of the Bible in spite of (or even because of) how unlikely it looks based on evidence and reason and every logical way of examining the world. Wouldn’t it then show even more faith to believe in Vishnu instead? I mean, it’s even more unlikely that Hinduism’s going to turn out to be true, right? If faith is really a virtue, why not pick something completely outlandish, which there is genuinely no good reason to give even a moment’s credibility?
This might work for Alan Moore, but nobody’s as awesome as Alan Moore, particularly people with “proper” religions which they think should command some sort of respect. Most people’s religious convictions are deeply ingrained ideas, which they then try to justify and explain at length why it’s not all illogical nonsense.
And I’m not sweeping all those efforts aside with this one article. Whether there’s a reasonable justification for religious belief, based on observations of the world and hypothetical thought experiments and such, is the basis for a thousand fascinating discussions. But they’re totally different from having faith. If you’re prepared to be rational about it, then great, let’s have that discussion instead. But if there are no sound reasons to believe what you do, then faith is in no way an acceptable fallback position to which to retreat. It’s a tacit admission of defeat, but one that’s seized upon and rallied around, as if it can be made to seem like it does anything more than demonstrate conclusively that you know you’ve lost and your position makes no sense.
Appealing to any force “beyond reason” is like trying to climb through a hole an inch wide by holding onto a mouse’s tail as it pulls you through; even if some other power really does have abilities beyond our own (either to determine truth or fit through tiny holes) and is willing to show us the way, our own limitations are a part of who we are. If you’ve decided what to have faith in by rational means, then obviously you’re still restrained by the powers of human reason. If you’ve made this decision with no such recourse to reason, and you’ve just plunged in with no rational consideration for what you’re believing at all, then you’re on no firmer ground than literally anyone else, believing literally anything else. How can you be? Any claim you make to divine super-rational authority can be repeated by anyone else, with equal credibility.
If you’re not using logic and reason, you’re being illogical and unreasonable. The opposite of skeptical is gullible. And actually, most people think they can prove what they believe, or at least argue the case for it rationally. So let’s do that.
Otherwise: I have faith that God tastes of cinnamon and lives in my stapler. And my faith’s just as good as yours.