There are many wonderful parts of life that billions of people experience through a religious framework, at least partially to their benefit. Spiritual experiences mean a lot to many people and many people interpret their spiritual experience within the symbols, concepts, rituals, metaphysics, and community of their religious group. Rituals enrich people’s lives by giving their lives order and rhythm, by binding them to their fellows, by teaching them ideas and values, and by training and reinforcing beneficial habits of thought and practice. And, of course, religion provides people with many intricately developed rituals, some of which both embody and hope to transmit centuries of wisdom.
Metaphysics is an important part of philosophy and for many people it is only through their religious instruction and religious categories that they ever broach some of the most profound and enduring questions and proposed answers philosophers have ever worked out. And often religions use the power of myth, another potentially wonderful thing, as a remarkably effective tool for conveying values and metaphysical ideas straight to people’s hearts—even those who would not be able to understand abstract metaphysics or value theory.
I could go on emphasizing the positive aspects of life that countless people experience through their engagement with religion and often (wrongly) think they need faith-based religion (or religion at all) in order to have. The things I have mentioned can be had without any reference to religion, and especially without reference to faith-based kinds, but the fact is that for a good many people it is the vehicle for getting these things that they have found most accessible or productive for them.
The problem with religious traditions is not that people get nothing good from them. They would not exist at all were that true. It is not that people cannot get stimulating myth, metaphysics, ritual, tradition, spiritual experience, ethical guidance etc. from religion. The problem with problematic religions is the way that it limits people’s imaginations and practices out of faith. The last thing I want is for people to have less myth, less metaphysics, less ritual, less tradition, less spiritual experience, or less ethical guidance, etc. I want people to have all these good things but better than most religions, as presently constituted, can provide as long as they inculcate in religious people the vice of faith as a central virtue.
What is faith and what is not faith? And why is it the key impediment to maximizing the goods people seek in religion?
Faith, of the distinctively problematic religious kind which I think we should be criticizing, is deliberately committing to propositions, authorities, traditions, and groups beyond what is rationally warranted.
Faith is deliberately believing a proposition more strongly than evidence warrants (either when you think that the proposition is not strongly supported by evidence or is even undermined by the best evidence). Faith is the willful treatment of one’s most cherished notions as though they were impervious to evidence. Faith is hostility to genuine, open-ended doubting. Faith is an improper way of using the will and emotions in reasoning which allows them to subvert reason rather than properly aid it. And faith involves willfully putting your subjective desires ahead of objectivity and perversely calling this the real route to truth.
Because of these things, faith is unethical, not virtuous. It is a kind of rationalization, not a form of rationality. In fact it is worse than simple rationalization, it is a deliberate commitment to rationalize. Still worse, this form of rationalization is inculcated in children in such a way as to train them from a young age to deliberately embrace and reinforce precisely the cognitive biases that one must learn to overcome in order to be an effective critical thinker. In this way, training in faith itself (regardless of the actual content inculcated) is an active miseducation, which undermines the work of genuine education.
Faith often also entails loyalty to a group or trust in an authoritative source beyond what is merited. Faith is a way that an individual signals a willingness to subordinate him or herself completely to a group by forfeiting even her ability to think for herself.
Faith in the distinctively religious sense should not be allowed to be confused with rationally justified confidence, proper trust, proper loyalty, holding probable beliefs which nonetheless have some uncertainty, educated guessing, gut feelings, epiphanies, brainstorming, hypothesizing, counter-intuitive reasoning, trusting one’s subconsciously formed intuitions, nor having beliefs that are simply based on wrong or weak arguments. We shouldn’t let people equivocate that because many of these things are useful and are also sloppily called faith in our language, that therefore faith in the relevant religious sense which I have been explicating is a good thing.
Having given a quick summation of what faith is, let me turn to address directly how faith ruins religion.
Irrational, unmerited faithfulness to tradition with disregard to changing evidence is a primary reason that religions stagnate. Since treating faith as a virtue means being willing to disregard evidence, outdated and refuted beliefs do not get jettisoned when new evidence comes along. Rather faith doubles down on them (because that’s what faith does by its very nature).
Metaphysical speculations which were once vital, current, and adventuresome become ossified into brittle dogmas and new speculations which deviate from those held by faith and elevated as such to matters of personal and group identity, are dismissed, demonized, and denounced without a fair hearing.
Even new scientific ideas with powerful demonstrations and potential are treated with suspicion and contempt when they challenge dogmatically held, evidence-resistant faith beliefs. And even the scientific ideas that are accepted are not allowed to have their full metaphysical implications realized when they threaten a belief protected by the willfulness of faith and its hostility to change and to open-minded consideration of new evidence.
Values too are frozen when treated as matters of faith. People are actively trained and encouraged to put a disproportionate trust in the immutability of their current values and to consider value judgments closed to new evidence. Essentially it is faith, above all else, that valorizes prejudice in both ideas and values. And thereby it guarantees that bad ideas and bad values are very slowly, if ever, improved upon.
It is irrational beliefs, justified only by faith, which ruin genuine spiritual experiences by giving people false, misleading, and unnecessarily dogmatically limited and outdated interpretations of their meaning and value.
Faith ruins myths by taking them literally and/or dogmatically. Since evidence is treated as irrelevant, some religious people believe in myths as literally true despite their sheer preposterousness and obvious falsehood to any competent modern critical thinker. And when faith is placed in myths, even those who acknowledge they are not literally true wind up falsely overestimating their metaphorical truth value.
Faith also undermines the great value of tradition. Tradition is an unbelievably vital and indispensable force. The accumulated wisdom of thought and practice that is bequeathed to us through culture is what separates us from our pre-civilized ancestors. Born outside of such wealth of ideas and institutions, into the wild with just our biology and our own devices to guide us, we would discover so staggeringly little of what we presently know about the world and about how to master it and to enjoy it.
But faith in tradition—the willingness to trust tradition beyond its ability to freshly justify what it recommends to us—threatens to turn tradition into a force for stagnation or, worse, outright regression. Faith-based religions close their mind to the future and insist on such disproportionate belief in received tradition for its own sake as a virtue and as the precondition of virtuous and truthful living. Rather than seeing tradition as a repository of testable hypotheses and warnings, faith in tradition (and specifically faith in religious tradition) treats tradition as what is not and never can be—a set of unquestionable and unalterable truths which should be trusted even against the emergence of new evidence that undermines the ideas and practices it recommends.
Similarly faith ruins the good community that religion might otherwise offer because it teaches each member to defer absolutely to certain authorities (be they texts or members of a hierarchy, etc.) who themselves cannot prove their credentials in any evidence-based way. Such disproportionate deference to authorities is anti-egalitarian and an impediment to rational and moral progress. It arrests or retards intellectual, moral, and political progress. Those who impose such a rule are authoritarian in mind and practice. Faith, as the opposite of skepticism, ruins people’s relationships to their religious communities by making them slaves to books and priests, incapable of radical reform and harmfully stifled in their possibilities for creative self-expression.
In these ways and more, faith ruins trust. It ruins loyalty. It ruins reason. It ruins tradition. It ruins philosophy. It ruins values. It ruins spirituality. It ruins community participation. In every case the distinctively faith-based gesture is to treat these things in ways that are excessively loyal to what has been even when it is irrational for the present and the future. In every case the distinctively faith-based gesture is to limit the horizons of discovery out of an unjustified and unrevisable allegiance to a way of thinking or acting that cannot stand up to reason and might very well be improved upon if only free, rigorous, and critical thought were chosen instead.
Much about religion could be redeemed. Much in religion could be seamlessly updated and improved in rationalistic ways, were it not for faith—the true poison currently killing religion and numerous other things of value along with it. All the actual constructive change which does occur in religion happens in spite of faith, not because of it. Most of the good benefits that religious people do get from religion is in spite of its inculcation of faith, not because of it.
For more on faith, read any or all posts in my “Disambiguating Faith” series (listed below) which strike you as interesting or whose titles indicate they might answer your own questions, concerns, or objections having read the post above. It is unnecessary to read all the posts below to understand any given one. They are written to each stand on their own but also contribute to a long sustained argument if read all together.