Does Faith Make You An Idiot?

Does Faith Make You An Idiot? July 27, 2009

In reply to my recent posts on atheism and fundamentalism, a friend writes to me privately:

Alright, first of all, I won’t pretend to have read everything with the thread or understand it all, but I do think I grasp the basic argument:

Is it moral for atheists to try to get others to conform to their views, or is this acting in the same way that atheists criticize fundamentalists?

I think the evolution point is valid. To sit around and pretend that a made-up view of evolution or pure denial is OK is criminal. Especially if I recall correctly that Lamarck’s theories were supported by the Vatican. The argument the church had with Darwin wasn’t that evolution was wrong, but that his theory to EXPLAIN evolution was wrong. If someone is to oppose evolution or natural selection, they need to give me some form of acceptable science, and I don’t think anyone has.

The same with racism. To deny it personally isn’t enough. One must oppose it actively.

So, you might think, I’d be backing the view that someone should push their views of God on others–at least if they have some evidence backing it up, right? Well, no. You can reasonably prove that evolution exists, and that natural selection exists (Gould is my hero). You cannot prove or disprove God. At least, I don’t think so, and this is coming from someone who wrote a short paper “proving” God’s existence in college. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us, however confident, to keep in mind that it is unethical to force our views on others and have no patience for those who disagree.

Now, that doesn’t mean it is unethical to TEACH those views. In fact, it is ethical to do so, especially if one has a degree of confidence based upon a semblance of logic. If one is convinced that God does or does not exist following careful consideration and an honest approach, they should be sharing their views with others, especially those who have not taken the time to do so for themselves. The debate should be done not through violence or yelling and screaming, but exchange of ideas. And in a situation where proof isn’t coming (and someone’s probably at least close to right), intelligent debate should never be shut down.

I sympathize mightily with most atheists and deists I know. They tend to be the smarter people I know, and they feel frustrated to see people following shadows, Big Church and ancient scrolls. I consider myself a believer in God, and that stuff bothers me, too. Just because a cleric says so doesn’t mean you must follow. Even if you think the world of the guy. And there’s stuff in the name of religion that’s just plain nuts. But to lash out as though someone is an idiot for having a degree of faith that doesn’t include crazy stuff isn’t right, either.

I agree with most of what you say in your first paragraphs and don’t disagree with any point enough to bother quibbling in this post.  So I’m going to seize on the last sentence and discuss the many ideas it stirred in me.

Why is it that atheists make it seem like we mean to say that “you’re an idiot for having a degree of faith.”  Maybe some overgeneralizing or arrogant atheists do simplistically think that, but it’s certainly not what I mean.  I had more than a degree of faith for a long, long time and I don’t think that overall that made me an idiot.  Being wrong and being an idiot are very different things.  But I think your comment helps us get much closer to the real heart of the problem.

Usually when we disagree with other people it is about a particular position and our arguments involve just assessing each other’s evidence and use of logic.  When we have a debate about health care reform, it’s going to reference all sorts of evidence about other systems and that of our own, appeals to shared moral and fiscal priorities we have, references to pertinent facts about human psychology that might affect matters, large doses of economic theory, etc., etc.   And we can call each other wrong without calling each other to be idiots (unless we work in talk radio or another propaganda outlet where that’s unfortunately the whole game from the start).  But the reasonable among us recognize that reasonable people can disagree given the complexities of the facts and the unpredictable interactions of all the various features of a giant economic ecosphere.

Now, the difference with debates about “faith” is threefold.  The first problem is that when debating its validity, we are not just debating within terms and standards upon which we agree.  We are arguing about first-order matters themselves.  We are arguing about the very means for justifying beliefs and ethical authorities themselves and so we cannot assume as much shared ground as in other debates and will risk not even granting each other’s kinds of evidence and inference, let alone their contents.

The second problem is that we are cutting to the issue of our personal orientations towards belief and ethics itself.  For each of us, our views on whether we are entitled to faith or not and how this connects to our ethics is a very personal issue because of its intimate and intricate connections to our self-understanding, our sense of place in the world, our family, our traditions, etc.  And religion is a practice which excels at binding one’s heart and mind to a tradition and to a particular sense of place in the world.

Finally, the third and most salient problem for this discussion is that the atheist’s charge against faith is that it is a form of irrationalism itself.  It’s not just a differing empirical guess about the future (like, say, you think that health care reform will lower prices but I think it will raise them) or an assessment of what evidence counts higher (another country’s higher rate of satisfaction with their health care vs. that same country’s deeper financial problems) or a competition of shared priorities (we all believe in wealth and health, but you believe national wealth is more important than universal health and I think the opposite, etc.)  In this case, we’re not measuring common evidences and working entirely within shared value schemes.  The problem is we are arguing does a faith based claim ever count as an evidence?

So a given religious person tries to justify her beliefs by saying I believe on faith, rather than on evidence or in such a way as to supplement evidence in a decisive way.  When the atheist offers counter-evidence or other forms of argumentation on grounds shared by both of them (common moral intuitions, science truths, historical facts, shared experiences, etc.) and the religious person dodges these criticisms with faith appeals, the atheist then charges the religious person with doing something intellectually illicit and, therefore, irrational.  And when you call someone’s way of thinking itself irrational (and when this way of thinking stems from something as personal and identity-grounding as their religious faith) you risk them taking it as a claim that they are in their entirety irrational—i.e., an idiot.

But I would never say that just believing on faith makes you an idiot even though I do think that it is a wholly irrational and intellectually unjustified thing to do.  But you’re not an idiot because naturally our minds tend towards various forms of irrational inferences and attempts at justification and so the religious are not uniquely diseased or do not necessarily in other respects excel in reasoning.  What bothers me especially about religion though is that wherever and to whatever extent that it valorizes believing on faith, it actively encourages us in our most irrational tendencies in belief formation and defense.

But that does not mean that in a whole host of other areas of a given religious person’s life they cannot be exceedingly rational and, quite the opposite of an idiot, downright smarter and more virtuous than I.  Arguments about the truth of religious claims, the ethical value of religious ethics, and the very intellectual right to belief in lieu of sufficient evidence (faith) are not debates about whether religious people are idiots.  They are debates about whether religious traditions’ claims are correct, whether their ethical codes are automatically authoritative, whether their myths cannot be improved upon, whether their claims are internally consistent, whether their incompatibilities with science and experience refute them, whether their institutions are beneficial or harmful, and, most of all, whether faith is a valid way to form and defend a belief.  These debates are not about whether all believers are idiots.  I know that when one is accused of employing irrationalistic means of belief-formation and when one is called on the internal contradictions of one’s faith beliefs, it is hard not to take it personally, but the target is the belief and the belief-forming mechanisms—not the person him or herself.

When I teach philosophy I keep in mind something I realized from observing my peers when I was a student in philosophy classes.  Many people mistake their opinion for themselves and that’s why it hurts and feels personal to have their ideas attacked.  It’s very hard to be wrong for several reasons:  (1) it’s an admission of failure, so we have a competitive incentive not to admit we got something wrong,  (2) if we are constantly changing our minds we feel less self-confident that any of our beliefs will hold up in the future or that we will be able to think things through correctly going forward, (3) we have numerous other beliefs which make sense to us and since they entail or are supported by this vulnerable idea which might be wrong, we have a strong incentive to protect this threatened idea, and (4) we have ideas which are interwoven into our identity, our culture, our family, our tradition, our political allegiance, etc., and abandoning them threatens burdensome reevaluations of everything.

So, these are all reasons that people will feel threatened and like they’re called an idiot if you challenge them on their religious beliefs and as a philosophy instructor I go to a lot of lengths to counteract those resistances and let people feel free to be wrong without feeling like an idiot.  And it frees them up to have no inhibitions in their debating.

Fortunately for me, I’ve lived and worked the last 13 years in philosophical environments with philosopher friends and students forced to do philosophy for the duration of their time with me.  And since I have been predominantly in Christian places too, I have had ample opportunities to have fruitful, vigorous, and almost always respectful debates across the lines of belief, which have not devolved into accusations of idiocy.  Just because an atheist is calling religious belief a form of irrationality itself does not mean that face to face and in actual dialogue that same atheist treats people as though they are a walking ball of irrationality and not a thinker with a mind which just needs to replace its standards of intellectual justification to see things clearly.

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