What’s wrong with faith per se?

It’s easy to get pissed off at religion, particularly the conservative monotheistic variety. Think of the Catholic hierarchy, or your favorite set of mullahs. Get your blood boiling over the misogyny, the homophobia, and the general attitude toward sexuality that is always stuck in ancient agrarian social realities. Roll your eyes at the boneheadedness regarding medical options, indifference toward the natural environment, and inability to extend genuine concern beyond the pale of orthodoxy.

How much of this, however, can be blamed on belief in supernatural entities per se, and not just the historical accident that our religions have had some very obnoxious supernatural characters on offer? How much is the attitude of faith responsible for, above and beyond what our religions have happened to encourage faith in?

After all, religion is remarkably flexible, and examples that do not fit the conservative monotheistic mold are not difficult to find. My guess is that we can make a very long list of liberal, humane attitudes that we would want a properly secular moral outlook to endorse, and that practically everything on that list would be in principle adoptable by a religious movement, if it is not so already. It’s very hard to sustain a general statement like “religion is misogynist.” Even if you point out that the most influential religions have very often been so, it’s next to impossible to disentangle this from historical considerations that have little to do with the bare notion of supernatural agents, or the simple attitude of faith.

So instead imagine a religion that is as close to a humane, liberal ideal as it gets. But then take these moral qualities you are positive towards, and imagine that a religious community were to strengthen their commitment to these ideals by believing that their God or gods endorsed exactly these humane attitudes. Imagine that these positive moral qualities were reinforced by the demand that believers take them by faith. What could still be wrong?

Let me throw out a few possibilities. (With any luck, commenters will supply others.)

  • Supernatural faith is inherently authoritarian. I’m not too sure about this one. There are too many historical examples of dissident faith standing up to broader social authority.
  • Faith is inflexible, inhibiting necessary change. Well, if you’re conservative, discouraging change is not necessarily a bad thing. But even if it was, there are again too many examples of flexibility in faith. Some people either invent slightly different faiths and split off from the main faith, or significantly reinterpret the demands of a faith. Religion can be very flexible and full of social innovation.
  • Belief in supernatural agency is antithetical to attaining genuine knowledge and enjoying it benefits. Possibly. I certainly don’t want leaps of faith involved in chemistry or civil engineering. But that doesn’t say much about the argument that some narrowly circumscribed intellectual domains should be kept separate from religion, but not others. A humane religion may allow us to both enjoy the benefits of knowledge and the social coherence an overall umbrella of faith may provide.
  • An attitude of worship is inherently beneath the dignity of humans. I don’t believe in strong versions of “dignity,” but I’m sympathetic towards this. Any proper worship seems to involve an element of self-abasement. I find this hard to understand; if, for example, I were to be convinced that the universe has a creator, I would still have a hard time in prostrating myself or praying to this creator. On the other hand, if other people have a more worshipful temperament, well, so be it. I’m assuming, after all, that they have a very humane faith overall. Worship, in that context, seems fairly harmless.

I could go on, but the picture should be clear. I’m inclined to think, right now, that my objections to supernatural faith per se, stripped of the actual religious beliefs we’re historically stuck with, are fairly minor league.

There is one possibility that may change this picture. That would be to show that somehow there is a stronger coupling than I’ve been assuming between the obnoxious aspects of organized religion and the very notion of supernatural faith. In that case, imagining a fully humane religious movement would be an interesting exercise, but also a very artificial one. Supernatural faith, then, might not directly bolster inhumane, illiberal attitudes, but it might still indirectly provide support.

I don’t have a good argument for such a strong coupling, however. I’m not even sure I’d know how to start.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University