Reason, Religion and Faith
Critics of religion often succumb to the same flawed thinking as those they oppose: moral absolutism. It’s not uncommon to hear even moderate atheists and agnostics blaming religion for the many wars and atrocities that fill the pages of history. Many so-called ‘new atheists’ see religion as a wholly bad thing, with no redeeming qualities. To them, Christianity, Islam and Judaism are of particular distain. Religion’s malevolence, they say, is absolute. However, by taking an absolutist position, neoatheists are simply following in the very same footsteps as the dogmatic and fanatical zealots they regularly berate.
While there are certainly problems with religion, it’s unreasonable to ignore the benefits it has afforded humanity. Without doubt many good deeds have been done in the name of religion. Religion provides strong communal connections amongst its adherents. Religion also provides believers with security and continuity in their lives through traditional practices and rituals. Science has affirmed the benefits of religious practices; prayer and meditation help lower blood pressure and reduce harmful stress hormones. A myriad of advantages are imparted by religion and it’s fallacious to paint all religious practice as detrimental. Unfortunately, religion has an achilles’ heel: faith.
Faith is commonly defined as “belief that is not based on empirical proof.” Although people often use the word faith interchangeably with words like belief and trust, the faith that I refer to is religious faith. I am in no way saying that trust or belief (within reason) is undesirable. Trust, as Immanuel Kant reasoned, is paramount to the functioning of society. Faith in your loved ones, or faith that the sun will rise tomorrow is very much unlike religious faith. When one has faith that the sun will rise in the morning, that faith is based on predictable and testable events. Religious faith is independent of empiricism; it is unfalsifiable and is not dependent on proofs. In order to have faith in the religious sense, reason must be dismissed or, at the very least, diminished. Faith therefore by its very nature is unreasonable.
Religious faith is a learned ability. Small children naturally require proof when a claim is made. This is exampled on playgrounds everywhere with children imploring their playmates to “prove it.” Children are generally apt to forgo observable proofs in lieu of authoritative testimony – at least temporarily. Eventually children get wise to the authority figure who makes claims about the world that cannot be proven. However, Christianity and other religions verily celebrate the ability to believe a thing even when evidence for it is either lacking or contrary to the held belief. Indeed, the greater the lack of proof, the greater the faith. The bible illustrates this point: “Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” – John 20:29
If someone holds a strong belief based on faith, no amount of reasoning or evidence can dispel it. In fact, the faithful should be able to withstand any bombardment of facts and proofs. This ability to deny any evidence that runs counter to their thinking is greatly admired amongst the faithful. So what’s the problem with resistance to facts? Simply put, people do not generally agree on matters of faith. Asides matters of faith, people are apt to disagree on almost every aspect of life. Faith interferes with the resolution of arguments and disputes. In secular society, disagreements can be resolved – to a degree – through appeal to reason. Logical arguments and empirical proofs are useful tools in resolving disputes when the facts are up for debate; however, if a disagreement hinges on an article of faith it can never be resolved since faith is incontrovertible. Faith promotes entrenched thinking that ignores facts about the world and instead upholds dogma.
Religion certainly has its redeeming qualities, but when paired with religious faith, it becomes a serious impediment towards peaceful coexistence and human progress. Admittedly, faith can – and does – motivate good deeds, but faith is not the only means by which to inspire philanthropy. In fact, the most philanthropic countries are the least religious.
Humanity would be well served in ceasing to celebrate religious faith. Instead, humanity should be using its unique capacity for reason and logic in the effort to promote human flourishing. Only when reason overcomes blind faith, can humanity ever hope to achieve its full potential.