Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Above All…Faith

I grew up in a household that was heavily involved in church. After all I am the step-son of a Lutheran minister. It wasn't altogether a bad upbringing. For the most part, our churches were liberal and ignored the crazier parts of the Bible. For example, I actually have read the Bible multiple times in my life and yet only read The Book of Revelation for the first time six months ago (by the way…crazy!). It was simply never mentioned and scripture wasn't meant to be taken literally anyway. Education, including science, was never treated with disdain and was encouraged. Evolution is fact. Homosexuality is a non-issue. Most other religions are just versions of the same truth. Hell and sin were abstracts. The important thing was to have faith in God and Jesus Christ. Above all…faith. It wasn't a terribly dogmatic religion, if at all. Not so bad. I didn't have some tragic break from religion. I simply walked away. Why? I never had faith. I can’t remember a time when I even entertained it. Recently, while talking to my mother about how much of a pain in the ass I was every Sunday morning when I was an early teenager she just smirked and said “You were always that way.” Thanks, Mom. I think. 

So what was it that I could never really accept? It wasn’t the possibility of a universe that was created and run by a temperamental, all-powerful god. It wasn’t arcane stories from some ancient time involving burning bushes and the wholesale slaughter of the first born on a few occasions. It wasn’t the Crucifixion and Resurrection. All of the fantastical tales were entirely possible, if not improbable. What I couldn’t stomach; what I always found so unacceptable was that everyone is supposed to just accept it. It was faith. Faith is unacceptable.  Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll take my reality with some substance.

A quick aside to head off the usual apologists saying everyone must have some kind of faith to live their lives. Yes I have “faith” (though I do not use the term because of its misuse) that my child will grow up to be a good person. This faith is more of an expectation or hope; however these expectations and hopes are not without merit. For one I know my daughter exists. Also, my wife and I (who also exist) will set good examples and teach her to be good. Of course that may not work so there is a level of uncertainty, but this isn't some blind faith that is without evidence or in spite of evidence. There is nothing comparable to religious faith in this. Those that argue otherwise are employing an equivocation.

The idea of faith as a virtue is a self-sustaining reinforcement of beliefs that have no basis. Faith is belief without proof of, or in spite of, evidence. Faith is ignorance. Blind faith is dangerous. I am hard pressed to find a core religious concept that is more contradictory to reason, rationality and truth and yet so widely accepted as “good.” To believe something is true based on faith means one could believe anything. Indeed, that is usually the result.

The concept of faith is the unifying foundation of all theistic and religious belief. No one believes in their god/gods or supernaturalism without faith. After all, these beliefs are not based on knowledge. Knowledge and faith are two disparate modes of accepting a claim. No one can claim to know that a god exists and when questioned simply state that this knowledge of god is based on faith. This cannot be. Faith cannot be a foundation of knowledge. It is a foundation of belief. By definition, religious faith must be an unsupported basis of belief otherwise it would not require faith to believe it.

Of course, not every believer is some mouth-breathing fideist. Plenty of religious folk understand that their scriptures are not the literal truth, but still hold allegorical “truths.” Faith is retained even though their “reason” is telling them that it is unreasonable. This is a rationalization in response to cognitive dissonance.  In order to harmonize this dissonance (aka the rationalization) apologists make claims that religion and science are separate avenues of understanding the universe. Often it is claimed by the religious that religion is outside of science’s purview (oddly the reverse is not normally true). This is the old Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) argument which is easily dismissed since religions make claims about reality that are testable and, usually, dismissible. Science doesn’t make its own positive claims about the supernatural as it has no reason to. Often it finds simpler, logical, rational explanations for whatever is being claimed via faith. If it cannot, then the question is left open.

The result of faith-based rationalizations and active denials is to attack or at least minimize the impact of scientific thought under any number of guises. Science is considered the work of the devil, a liberal conspiracy, it is set up as a straw man (“Science thinks it can know everything!”), it can simply be considered arrogant; or my personal favorite, the paradoxical: “Science is based on faith!” or “Science is a religion!” claims. If science were a matter of faith, or so the “logic” goes; it can be dismissed without a second thought. This is funny stuff. Think about that logical progression:

Religion + faith = true!

Science + “faith” ≠ true.

Hilarity ensues.

As illogical as this is the faithful have no other choice. Scientific thought and methodologies are the antithesis of faith. It most certainly does not and cannot operate via faith otherwise it would be a useless methodology. If it cannot be destroyed (a la fundamentalist religion) it has to be minimized, compartmentalized, or absorbed (a la relativist religion) to be held in check as it continually negates religious claims and, possibly more damning, negates the need for religion as an explanatory medium. Science must be rejected, attacked, diminished, or blended with religion in order to rationalize belief or it would end up challenging the beliefs resulting in the potential loss of faith. Once one is on that slippery slope of questioning faith, there is no way to cease the slide other than a complete denial of reality. That’s when we get fun people like Kirk Cameron.

To accept faith as a means of belief, the individual is required to shut off part of their brain; at least a little and usually a lot. One can accept the Bible and evolution simultaneously (this is still Intelligent Design, by the way), but this acceptance has a caveat: it requires a leap of faith that “God did it!” which has no basis for the assertion. Within the Theory of Natural Selection there is no evidence of design and there is no need for a designer. The claim is just a desire to smooth the cognitive dissonance. To accept such unsubstantiated claims requires the proverbial “leap of faith” which for a growing minority is a leap too large, too far to traverse. Furthermore, it isn’t just a single, broad leap that one has to will themselves to do; but it requires a commitment to a continuous series of leaps. The cognitive dissonance doesn’t go away.

Often apologists make the claim that religious faith is or can be rational and that there are truths to be discovered via faith. I disagree, but let’s run a thought experiment. I will grant you, faithful faithless readers, for the purposes of this experiment that lack of belief in god(s) requires faith to accept. So…

Is faith that god does not exist more or less rational than faith that god does exist?

What is the difference in the rationality of your faith vs. my “faith?” 

Is there a different methodology to your faith vs. my “faith?”

I am not making extraordinary claims that run contrary to available evidence. I am not making extraordinary claims contrary to anything observable or empirical. I am simply saying that I have no reason to believe the claim that a god or gods exist. So why is faith of the believer rational? What basis do they have to make not only the claim, but the judgment of the rejection? Why is the faith of Christians more “rational” than that of Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, or Scientologists? To make this simple; why is faith in the existence of something unknowable somehow rational and the “faith” in its non-existence not rational? The result of all of these questions is simple: Faith is useless. 

This leaves no room for a believer to make adequate claims of knowledge of god(s) or objective truth(s).
Despite the theistic claims that a universe without god is just as much a faith claim, this is simply not true. If faith is belief in something without proof then how does the lack of belief require faith? The rejection of a positive assertion is not equal to a positive yet opposite assertion. The difference is due to the premise. One premise makes no assumptions based on the observable facts, reason and rationality. The other allows any belief to be believed. Guess which is which.

"Faith must trample under foot all reason, sense, and understanding." 
—Martin Luther (1483-1536)

So offensive

*This essay was originally a guestpost at www.martinspribble.com. Thanks again to Martin for inviting me over. Click on the link above and say hi.