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.

Advertisements

People Suck. Right?

People are everywhere, but most of them are rubbish. Well-known comedian, Jerry Seinfeld once quipped, “People are the worst.” He was right. It is not a hard argument to make.  Everyone knows that people are inconsiderate, selfish and greedy. There are people that don’t signal in traffic, people that pick their noses, and people that sneeze without covering their mouth. There are those that pollute the environment, those that ignore the poor, and those that admire the cast of Jersey Shore. Bad people are all around. Some of them have bad hair. Some of them have smelly breath. Others wear too much cologne. These are the jerks, the idiots, and the morons.

Minor offenders cause aggravation, but major offenders cause real damage. Men that beat their wives, women that dump babies into trashcans and bullies that beat-up other kids represent the steaming heap of refuse that is mankind. These are the assholes, the bitches and the shitheads.

Beyond major offenders come truly evildoers like Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. These genocidal maniacs can barely be described as human beings, and yet they are. They are human, if barely. They represent the worst of all potentialities inherent in the species Homo sapiens.

The gamut of human nastiness ranges widely from vile and villainous to depraved, despicable and diabolical. There is no shortage of words to describe the worst that mankind has to offer.

So why put up with it? For better or worst, human beings are social animals that are dependant on one another. Holing up in a cave like a misanthropic caveman is not really a viable option. It might be tempting to run off and hide in the mountains, secluded and concealed from the dreary emanations of society; however the success of the species depends on co-operation and collaboration. Interdependency is the keystone characteristic that makes societal progress possible. More than that, people need each other. Beyond the basic necessities of food and shelter, people require companionship, love and affection. The desire to connect emotionally with others is a biological imperative, critical to the ongoing success of mankind. Simply put, people need people whether they like it or not.

Human beings exhibit a host of positive attributes designed to counterbalance negative ones. Forgiveness, compassion and generosity provide effective antidotes to many of life’s trivialities. When ‘golden rule’ human attributes are inadequate, as in the case of the worst evildoers, people invoke laws, punishment and justice.

Humans are social animals, but that does not mean that they are always sociable. Mankind has a split personality and is plagued by diametrically opposed forces vying for control. Like Robert Louis Stevenson’s character Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, humanity is caught up in a contest between rationality and animalistic tendencies.

Antisocial attitudes abound. An ongoing struggle between social and antisocial instincts is raging. The battle lines have been drawn between those that aim to improve society and those that wish to tear it down. To address this issue, politicians and bureaucrats have enacted laws that are designed to protect society, often to the point of absurdity. For every rule, there are people willing to break them. A teenager talking on his or her cell phone during a movie, a woman smoking in a no-smoking area, a man speeding through a playground zone: they are all thumbing their noses at those who comply. Discourteous individuals who blatantly disregard social niceties are a constant irritant to the protagonists of order. They are a thorn in the side, a burning ember of vexation to be stomped out.

Conflicts within social systems are inevitable, but do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks? Obviously so, otherwise there would be no cities, towns, or any large-scale groupings whatsoever, beyond the family unit. Even heinous perils, such as rape or murder, are worth risking to reap the benefits afforded by living in a collective. The benefits are hard to overlook. The great achievements of humanity would not have been possible if it were not for the setting aside of disputes and the reigning in of combative urges. Indeed, even mankind’s most nefarious pursuits, like war, have produced beneficial outcomes. Technologies like sonar, radar and other communications innovations were advanced through competition between the Allies and the Axis powers in WWII. Co-operation between individuals, families, tribes, communities, collectives and super-collectives has made all things possible.

The evidence is everywhere. Headline news is filled with stories about war, political backstabbing, crime, and other misfortunes. By flipping through the pages of any newspaper one will find plenty of evidence that people are a big bag of hurt. People are not to be trusted. Bogeymen lurk behind every corner. It is a world of trade-offs between good and bad. In spite of all that, our world can be a beautiful place. Can anyone say they would throw it all away?