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.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05693985638589020492 Mark

    Hmm. The New Atheists' answer is that such a community, while harmless in itself, indirectly shelters less savory religious communities by making religious faith an acceptable source of knowledge.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11389651479904502758 DM

    they tried to BULLDOZE the entire METAPHYSICAL DIMENSION…

    they LOST THE WAR…

    you have FORFEIT YOUR SOUL, shermer… you have become an object in the material world, as you WISHED…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUB4j0n2UDU&feature;=player_embedded

    http://farm1.static.flickr.com/7/11792994_ffaaee87fa.jpg

    we're gonna smash that TV…

    They had become ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE AND OF GOD…
    you pushed too much and *CROSSED THE LINE*

    degenerates (PZ) or children (HEMANT) – ATHEISTS!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRRg2tWGDSY

    do you have anything to say, you STUPID LITTLE F*CKER?

    how about I tell you, Mr. Shermer, EVERYTHING YOU THINK ABOUT THE WORLD is

    *WRONG*

    THE BOOBQUAKE – 911!

    http://dissidentphilosophy.lifediscussion.net/philosophy-f1/the-boobquake-911-t1310.htm

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sx7XNb3Q9Ek&feature;=related

    RUN, ATHEISTS, RUN!!!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06509614055243227248 Crinis

    Jared Diamond comes to mind. Religion is the glue that allows tribes, countries, ethnicities to justify their superiority. It's inherently conservative, c.f. kosher, halal. Once it's served it purpose, it tends to linger, and the support structure is loathe to go away c.f. Ankenaten's failed religious reform, the priests liked their job, or even the spread of Islam was not really religious in its inception. It was a land grab, and using people's faith to motivate was more than useful.

    I guess I agree that faith is harmless, mostly, but what it takes to feed, house, support, publish, and sing about the adherents is a big resource waste. It's a sign that our society is so flush with prosperity that we can afford to pay useless people to hang around to pretend that they have some deep, pathetic insights. If we stopped supporting them with tax incentives, faith would look a lot more new-agey, and be a lot more harmless, in my opinion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10030941572123335119 Shooting_Torch

    I'd like to respond to Mark:
    I Identify myself as a Jewish atheist, and belong to a community of like minded individuals. We most certainly do not shelter our less savory brethern, in fact we excoriate their abuses wherever we find them. My relationship to the texts that were produced by my religion, is not to monolithically draw upon them as a source of knowledge, but rather to see them as a manifestation of human culture of a different time and place. Anyone who sees Leviticus 20, for example, as a modern license to kill gays is a very errant literalist, and should be put away for a long time.

    Tzemah Yoreh
    Making Scripture Relevant at:
    http://www.biblecriticism.com
    http://www.religiousatheist.com

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10895187388625867322 Thomas M. Thurston Ph.D.

    The fundamental problem with religion is that it requires faith. Good reasoning requires doubt. Doubt is the lifeblood of science.
    Religion requires a cosmos where some supernatural being considers you the most important thing in the cosmos. It's okay to make strategic alliances with progressive religious people. But we have to remember that their fundamental assumptions are lunacy.

    http://lifein3steps.blogspot.com/2010/05/good-game-god.html

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17421420520561905420 YamaZaru

    Taner, thanks for another really thought provoking and subtle post. I disagree somewhat of course :)

    First, I think your suggestion that faith retards change is really a crucial problem if we're concerned with human wellbeing. Faith in the religious sense means believing in something for which there is no evidence or, even worse, believing something despite contradictory evidence. This kind of “anti-reason” is inimical to social progress.

    Every advance in human rights had to be fought for against the combined weight of tradition both culturally and in the minds of the individual. Even worse, social structures are often organized in a way that the very problem that reformers are trying to address is an integral part of how those structures function! We can take gender equality as an example- the weight of community tradition created individuals (male and female!) who were unable to conceive of why gender equality might be good or how it could work, while at the same time the economic structures (work and child-rearing) required women to be available in their specified subordinate roles. What was needed in order to push beneficial change through, besides generations of people willing to endure violence in the service of justice, was a long inter-generational dialogue coinciding with structural change.

    Given all that why would we want to exacerbate the problem by specifically teaching participants in that dialogue that its okay to ignore facts, distort counterarguments, and arrive at positions of ironclad certainty about matters for which no evidence has accumulated yet? It makes the problem of progressive social change immensely harder- centuries harder perhaps, equaling multiple generations living under or killed by social arrangements which might have been transcended earlier.

    Second, there's the problem of “epistemic contagion.” We moderns are used to articles of faith being fairly innocuous things fitting neatly into gaps and not causing much trouble, at least in the case of now well-behaved liberal religions. That's why you can say

    "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. "

    The problem here is that if people are used to denying/ignoring reason in one area of their lives there is no reliable way to then keep “some narrowly circumscribed intellectual domains…separate from religion.” Even in your liberalized scenario, the very areas in which believers are expected and encouraged to cultivate anti-reason are areas given immense social value and psychological impact – questions of morality, mortality, and sexuality. Plus, the majority of religions since antiquity seem to be those with explicit pretensions to universalism. It's only a matter of time and shifting material conditions (such as, say, economic crisis…) and faith revives in other areas as well, such as science and social policy. The rebirth of creationism in the 70s after being seemingly cleared out of the “circumscribed intellectual domains” of geology and biology is a clear example of this. Another is the way religious revival was instrumental in crushing the socialist/labor rights movement in the US. I think we can get lulled into a false security here; the West has been able to purchase several unbroken centuries of economic growth at the expense of much of the rest of the world and so we haven't seen much of the “contagion” effect outside of a few examples. Given a more volatile climate, like the one which may well be on the way judging by recent events in Europe, it could become a real problem.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    YamaZaru: I tend to agree with just about all you say. Still, what you give are mainly plausibility arguments. To establish a strong coupling, it would be nice to have something more solid as well.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Taner Edis said:

    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.
    ==============

    What about faith in reason or faith in rationality? It seems to me that Deism inclined many to think of the creator of the universe as brainy fellow who would favor human beings using their intellectual powers and abilities to the fullest extent possible, which meant something like people should be critical thinkers, and that failure to do so was failure to make use of the deity's best creation: the human brain.

    My favorite response to Pascal's Wager is that, for all we know, God hates "Yes" men, and will reward us critical thinking atheists and punish religious believers who have sacrificed their intellectual integrity for emotional comfort.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17421420520561905420 YamaZaru

    Taner- fair enough, this is an area really ripe for detailed comparative-historical work or maybe some careful statistical studies (I use these examples since I'm familiar with them as a sociologist, I'm sure there are many others that might be useful). Unfortunately for decades now sociological study of religion has been dominated by people interested in pushing thinly veiled second-order theology. Hopefully this will be changing…

    Still, I would say a community that adheres to progressive values due to faith in what their deity demands is on par with the paradises that were thought to be possible under benign "philosopher-kings"….both are built on highly capricious grounds, both have little guarantee that their citizenry have come to accept/understand these values themselves, both seem to have the weight of historical examples against them…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Taner,

    You write: “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?

    Religious knowledge evolves, and it makes as much sense to focus on what was on offer by religion in 800 BCE, as it makes to focus on what was on offer by science in 800 BCE. From where I stand there are some marvelous developments in religion, including, say, Quakerism in Christianity and Sufism in Islam.

    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.

    Right. And I think it is a valid historical consideration that religious ideas were often at the forefront of their times. So for example the Biblical “an eye for an eye” was a great improvement over the ethics of the times in which it evolved (and, sadly, it is still an improvement over the actions of many a country’s behavior today). Similarly women in the Gospels are given a much greater measure of respect than what was the norm at the time they were written. It is misleading to criticize religious writing without considering the historical context.

    "Any proper worship seems to involve an element of self-abasement."

    You are right in pointing this out, because religious authors very often conflate humility with self-abasement, which I too find very irritating. When I read the Gospels I don’t find any such self-abasing language, indeed in some place Jesus says something like “You are my friends, not my slaves.” In the Eastern traditions of Christianity, as in most mystical traditions, the end and purpose of our life is “theosis”, i.e. union with God. In other words we are supposed to be the beings destined (in universalism) or at least capable (in traditional monotheism) to become what is the greatest thing possible. Given this implicit and marvelous assessment about what it is to be a human in the religious worldview, virtually all religions also teach that the way to greatness passes through humility. And indeed I think humility is a very great virtue, helping the well-being of those who possesses it, and also helping others and the environment.

    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.

    Prayer, as I understand it but not as many people practice it, is akin to a love-striken teenager’s speaking to his beloved in his mind. Indeed to love God is akin to falling in love for another person; it is as when one meets a person of incredible beauty and capable of giving one the greatest of joys for the rest of one’s life. One *adores* that person and feels like one’s life means nothing without her – which is I think what “worship” really means. (And, again, Sufism’s poems describe very well this erotic aspect of the religious life, as do most of the writings of the mystics and saints in most religious traditions.)

    Supernatural faith, then, might not *directly* bolster inhumane, illiberal attitudes, but it might still indirectly provide support.

    Despite the many exceptions I think it is a historical fact that religion has had on average a markedly positive effect in human affairs. The only argument I think a reasonable atheist can make today is that society has evolved to a state where religion is no longer useful and may do more harm than good. Recent history makes me very much doubt this view. What’s more I don’t see how humanity can even survive without abandoning the vacuous and self-destructive consumism that characterizes our current zeitgeist, and I don’t see what force can possible stop our descend to “death by riches”, but religion’s teaching of humility.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15826310899241941767 IamJoseph

    If the term faith is replaced with belief, then this applies:

    Belief has nothing to do with any religion; it is a generic trait inherent with all life. This also makes it the easiest emotion to exploit, which has clearly happened: all religions contradict themselves, which leaves only two possibilities:

    All are wrong, or one only may be right. This places religionists in a sad position and humanity in a chaos. This is seen most froundly with christianity and Islam, whereby both are claiming what is self negating of the other, of the same space-time of history.

    Beware of religions that have only belief and faith as their only claim to fame!


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