Written about a month ago when I got involved in a debate forum, which I subsequently abandoned because it inspired me to write this.
One of the psychological phenomena most puzzling to me is the one called faith. I do not mean in the
secular sense in which the word is sometimes employed (
I have faith in your ability to do this), but the religious sense, which I define as
belief without evidence. It may be that some theist reading this takes offence at that statement, but I have never once seen the word employed in a context where evidence is available. Rather,
You must have faith! is a statement frequently used or resorted to when no evidence exists (or when purported evidence is overthrown).
Let me reiterate this, because it's important and easily leads to a debate about semantics—well, semantics (the meaning of words) do matter, so let's nail them down for the purpose of this debate! If you tell me (actual example of what I've been told)
You have faith that the building you are in will not collapse, I will assert that it is not the same thing. This is
faith based on reason and experience. There are thousands of similar buildings around that do not spontaneously collapse, and there is no reason to believe that this one differs in a crucial way from those. It has stood for a long time and shows no sign of structural damage. Architects have staked their reputations and livelihood on the safety margins, and engineers and construction workers staked their lives in working on it. In other words, there is plenty of evidence that the building won't collapse. You can call this
faith if you like; I call it
reasonable belief and use the word
faith to refer to belief not based on such tangible evidence. Like this definition or not, please keep it in mind as you read on.
So what's this religious faith about, then? It seems to be about believing what you have been told without being given any specific reason to believe that it is true. It may take the form of believing everything you are told by your pastor, rabbi, yogic guru, or imam. It may consist in considering the Bible, the Qur'an, the Veda scrolls, or the Elder Edda inerrant. Strangely, it may sometimes consist in taking one of these scriptures—the Bible, say—and believing some of the things it says based on no other evidence, whilst discarding other bits (generally ones that offend the believer's moral sensibilities). It seems to me that this is based on an a priori assumption that the scripture as a whole is true, and each statement should be held true unless proven false; whereas a rationalist world view (one to which I adhere) demands that we consider every claim suspect unless some evidence can be shown to support it.
Sometimes excuses are offered up to this; the most recent, the lamest, and the most amusing that I have heard to date it this, to paraphrase:
The Bible contains scientific accuracies. It's hard to believe that's not a joke, is it not? Pretty much every book in existence makes some mention of things that are scientifically verifiable—the Bible, the Qur'an, the Illuminatus! trilogy, and even, I expect Mein Kampf; this in no way lends credibility to their general contents. I could take any load of nonsense and insert some facts.
But most of the time it seems to come down to…well, to nothing at all, really; just blind faith without any kind of rational, evidentiary, or logical support.
And people use the word
faith as though it had positive connotations!
There is another word that describes the same phenomenon, and one which, although its meaning (within the context being discussed) appears closely related to faith, has very different connotations; that word is credulity—though in a very contextual form. I'm sure that many readers (or at least `many' relative to the total size of my readership…) will consider this an offensive statement when applied to religion. Oddly, the same is probably not true with respect to any other topic. Consider a text that is some two thousand years old, and consider a person who, although he has no corroborating evidence for its claims, believes whole-heartedly in it and will allow nothing to change his mind. If it is a text on astronomy, or anatomy, or physics (on an
earthly scale), I am sure we will all agree that he is just plain wrong-headed. If it is a text on religion—on the origins of life—on the nature of the universe on a grander scale—why, then, nothing could be more sound than believing; it is not credulity, but faith!
(Since I first wrote this little essay, this comic went up, rather neatly accentuating the above.)
What really puzzles me is that some people go on to describe this as a virtue. Some people would have us believe that it is better to go on blind faith than to use reason and critical thinking. I can see why they should like people to do so—but what benefit can this possibly have for the followers of the creed?—it is all too obvious how it benefits the leaders.