Reason, Religion & 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, so-called 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.


7 thoughts on “Reason, Religion & Faith

  1. Reason, Religion and logic. All created by a being that only uses a small percentage of its brain. Have you ever tried explaining to an ant what a road is?

  2. Thanks for visiting Panic Station and leaving a comment … read your post on religious faith & wanted to raise two points.

    Thing 1 / I hadn’t thought of faith as a learned ability but like the explanation of how our minds work when we’re kids. I once came across an article I’ve never been able to track down again which argues that some people’s brains are more capable of religious faith than others. There is nothing I can do about the fact that I do not believe. But I do envy those around me who do have that faith; people with religious faith have been shown time and again to have happier lives. To me it’s beyond obvious that there religious stories are important but ultimately fiction and I can’t ever come to see how I’d learn to believe otherwise — though I wish I could.

    Thing 2/ I just stated reading The Social Animal by Brooks which tells the story of the unconscious brain which is where reason and all sorts of cognitive logic goes straight out the window. Our unconscious brains rely on more primal meaning- making and a different sort of human logic. I don’t think we have a choice about relying solely on reason — dreams, passions, hauntings, memories — life would be both bleak and literally inhuman if we did have these things messing with scientific fact and reason.

    Faith and Fact are both part of how we operate … some of us just rely more on heavily on one rather than the other which is a shame in both cases.

    1. Great insights Natalie!

      I too have read articles that explore whether or not certain people are more ‘wired’ for faith than others and the findings were similar. Don’t quote me on this, but I think the one I read was in The Economist. It’s cutting-edge science and therefore probably worth watching to see if further experimentation and testing support the initial findings. It makes me wonder if that same ‘wiring’ also allows people to more readily believe in aliens, Bigfoot and Ogopogo?

      I don’t blame you for wanting to believe. If it’s true that believers are generally happier than non-believers, than I can understand why one might wish to enter a state of blissful belief. However, I can’t help remember John Stuart Mill’s famous words, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

      As for human irrationality, it stands to reason (irony) that if human beings evolved, rationality would be the newest of our capabilities and therefore the least fine-tuned part of our brain. The more ancient, primitive parts of the brain would still be calling many of the shots, but I’ve also seen some interesting studies that show how the prefrontal cortex has the ability to ‘quiet’ other areas of the brain through directed thought. I’m really interested The Social Animal, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it when you complete the book!

  3. Really good post. I saw your comments on another site – a woman talking about how God talks to her – and followed the link here. I suppose it’s harmless enough most of the time to think God talks to you, the same way I have pretend conversations with loved ones who’ve passed on. The difference is that I know my conversation is completely a product of my own mind – I think a lot of people really think God is speaking to them. This has really screwed up the politics in the US – if you ask God to tell you how to vote, and you feel like he told you, then the other guys must all be working for the devil.

    I was a believer for 20 years – took a long time to shake off the superstitions of my youth. I still enjoy Christmas carols and going to religious temples – they are beautiful.

    1. Thank you. I was a believer as well. I was raised by parents who taught me that the Great Flood really happened, that we are all the decedents of Adam and Eve and that Samson had superhuman strength until Delilah cut off his hair. In my early life, I experienced events that I attributed to God, but as I grew older (and I like to think wiser) I began to question the validity of my own convictions.

      I am a deeply curious person, and the answers the Bible give for so many of life’s mysteries were wholly unsatisfying — and often downright hard to believe — even as a child. I realized that I had two options: the first was to simply accept the answers of the Bible and therefore quash any desire I had for empirical, verifiable evidence. The second option was to look for answers elsewhere.

      When I began to educate myself by reading books, watching documentaries and TV programs about science, nature and sociology, I was exposed to a way of thinking that embraces rationality. I realized that religion had effectively cloistered my mind from anything that challenged its authority.

      Like you, I still have great fondness for religious ceremony and stories. One of my favourite movies is the Ten Commandments. I celebrate Christmas and admire the architecture and artistry of the great cathedrals. However, as beautiful as the edifice of religion can be, it also comes packaged with that impregnable barrier called faith.

      I cannot subscribe to an ideology that rejects any fact whatsoever if that fact tends to challenge its sacred assumptions. Whereas scientific theories and rational arguments can be disproven, faith cannot be. Faith is well inoculated against anything that threatens to supplant it the mind of the believer.

      What I find ironic is how Christians point at people of other faiths and proclaim them deceived, but they find it impossible to admit that they too might be deceived.

      1. I too find that ironic. I’m currently working on a post about just that topic, about how we can excuse away our own irrationality while jumping all over top of someone else’s.

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