Most Sunday mornings, after drinking a few cups of coffee and watching some lectures on YouTube, I enjoy taking my dog on a leisurely walk around our quiet neighborhood. In my small home town just outside Philadelphia, PA, there are a total of 22 churches, outside of which the sounds of singing and organs can easily be heard on mornings like these. During these walks I pass no fewer than 8 of these churches, and on occasion I exchange smiles and nods with people mulling outside the building while they steal a cigarette or scold a loud child. I remember my days spent in those buildings, and I don’t begrudge them their weekly escape. I’m happy they have communities and responsibilities as I remember the fear I felt when I contemplated my mortality, and I remember the comfort I felt when I was surrounded by people who, like me, had found the answer.
That answer, like most else in that world, was based ultimately on faith. Faith, defined as the strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof, is especially dangerous in a religious environment. Any evidence that seemed to contradict my faith was immediately dismissed. In fact, the speed and vigor with which I dismissed it was a metric by which the quality of my belief could be measured. The ability to rationalize irrationality permeated my worldview, and at the core of my self deception was a community’s unwavering encouragement of the faith.
What is the result of using faith as the basis for reason? What happens when a belief is impermeable? What affect does this have on how people see and interact with the world around them? In the short time since my deconversion (and especially in the current presidential race) I’ve begun to notice the side effects of accepting faith as a reasonable measure for reality.
Faith’s primary function is like a snowball at the top of a snow covered mountain. It’s a seemingly innocuous first-mover onto which pound upon pound of bad ideas and assumptions can cling. This certainly applies to the devoutly religious, but it can have an equally strong hold on those who choose to label themselves “spiritual” while avoiding religious affiliation. Ideas like karma, fate, or a mindless cosmic force seem harmless enough on their surface–They could be clever attempts at labeling situational patterns or a form of linguistic personification to better relate to what we would otherwise have little or no control over.
But instead we find large communities of people dedicating their lives to a belief in abstract, undefinable spiritual realms and superstitions. Like religion, the age of these ideas seems to demand undeserved respect as their proponents teach that if one would only open their mind (and have a little faith), lives could be immeasurably improved.
For example, consider the claims of Crystal Healers who teach that precious (or semi-precious) stones have energies that can heal emotional, psychological, or even physical conditions, and that these powers can be easily attained for a nominal fee plus shipping and handling.
Or consider Energy Therapy, something bafflingly described as “the gentle art of clearing cellular memory through the human energy field promoting health, balance and relaxation… [using] focused healing energy to clear blocks that accumulate in the body hindering the natural flow of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual energy.” This absurd, easily-dismissed premise, matched with the desperate faith of people in need, can result in tragedy. (A religious equivalent can be found in the teachings of Church of Christ, Scientist).
The goals of these practices are noble. They want more happiness and less pain for their adherents. But at what cost? Time and money (both of which are absolutely demanded) aside, choosing to accept wild claims about the universe based on intuition and emotion is nothing short of religious faith, and with that faith comes presuppositions upon which the rest of a person’s world view is built. It encourages people to allow themselves to make big decisions on bad evidence, and it can have effects that ripple across society.
For example, and in keeping with anti-science perspectives, let’s turn our attention back to Christianity.
Ken Ham has built a small empire on little else but faith and a strong capitalistic drive. His creationist museum and organization (Answers in Genesis) is attempting the daunting task of figuring out just how many different ways and about how many different topics one can say “it’s true because I believe it to be”. Their countless articles, books, speaking engagements, museum attractions, model legislation, and political leanings arise from a tedious tower of assumptions that balances on a single originating kernel of faith. It follows as something like this: The vast majority of natural science’s conclusions are wrong because the Earth is only six thousand years old. They get the age of the Earth by adding up the genealogies in the Bible. They trust the Bible because it doesn’t have any mistakes in it. The Bible is perfect because there is a personal, creator God who chose writing a book as his preferred method of communication with his creation. We know about this God because the Bible tells us he’s there. These final two assertions role around in a permanent cycle of ‘the chicken and the egg’, and its that logical loop that holds the basis of their entire world view.
That core, religious faith was perfectly demonstrated in Ham’s now-infamous debate with Bill Nye (the Science Guy). When asked what could ever convince him that evolution was wrong, Nye quickly responded, “We would just need that one piece of evidence.” This was in sharp contrast to Ken Ham’s response. When asked what could convince him that he was wrong (and evolution was true), he, after a long pause, stated “Well, the answer to that question is: I’m a Christian.” He would then go on to speak for two minutes, explaining that if we want to know the truth about the Bible, we first need to accept that it’s true. “The Bible says: If you come to God believing that he is, he’ll reveal himself to you, and you will know. As Christians we can say we know.” Put plainly, he’s saying that if you have faith that God is real, you’ll be able to justify the rest of the intellectually tenuous positions needed to completely ignore modern scientific evidence.
Science isn’t the only thing that faith damages. This year’s presidential election cycle has revealed entirely new ways that faith deteriorates reason. Take, for example, the Church of Latter Day Saints.
It’s commonly known that the Mormon’s religious documents (the Bible and the Book of Mormon) both teach a strict, archaic perspective on social issues ranging from race to women’s rights to ideas of modesty and human sexuality, but their faith extends to an area not many are aware of: The common belief that America’s founding documents are literally inspired by God. Brigham Young, the second president and prophet of their church, said in 1854 “The signers of the Declaration of Independence and the framers of the Constitution were inspired from on high to do that work.” In 1999, their 15th president and prophet reiterated: “Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were brought forth under the inspiration of God to establish and maintain the freedom of the people of this nation. I said it, and I believe it to be true. There is a miracle in its establishment that cannot be explained in any other way.”
These statements are all the more important because of who said them: Prophets of the church. These are men who are supposedly speaking the very words of God to the people. They are the conduit through which God reveals himself to the world. So, this means that a Mormon’s faith in the existence of their God eventually snowballs into assuming divine inspiration for political documents, making the alteration or questioning thereof an affront to God himself. Now, in America, leaders with this kind of unwavering, impregnable, and utterly baseless presupposition are influencing people voting in elections with very real consequences.
Glenn Beck, an extreme right-wing conservative and Mormon personality, recently shared his evidence for why the constitution is God-inspired, stating “For 5,000 years, we had a fireplace, we had a fire pit. The Constitution comes, all of a sudden we have microwave ovens! Nobody thought of that?” He is currently campaigning around the country for Ted Cruz, claiming that if he isn’t elected, it will mean the literal destruction of the country.
Through all of these examples, a pattern begins to emerge. It makes sense that people would choose to interpret their surroundings in the way that is most comfortable to them. I can’t lie and say I know for certain that don’t hold any baseless beliefs somewhere in the core of who I am. But we can all accept that what we allow ourselves to believe matters. This understanding should come with a commitment to actively seeking evidence, and a willingness to admit when we are wrong.
Wherever it’s placed, faith matters. It acts as a barometer for how susceptible one can be to outrageous suggestion. Religious faith changes the world around a person without moving an atom. It poisons the potential for an intelligent, productive future by encouraging the support of baseless assertions without question. In a world filled with people trying to find the best route to prosperity, faith is too enamored by the sound of its own hands clapping to offer any kind of valuable input.