Religious faith—a formidable force—has figured prominently in human experience for untold millennia. We have faith with regard to much in life, but in this post I’m concerned with religious faith. I’m excluding faith in one’s airline pilot, in aspirin for a headache, in your home team, and that a critical mass of PU239 will produce nuclear fission. Religious faith is the feeling of certainty about a postulated aspect of the supernatural, including that there is a supernatural to begin with. The supernatural is that real or imagined realm beyond or outside of that which can be observed by our senses or by sense-extending mechanisms like radio telescopes and the falsifiable theory testing of science.
Before what came to be called the scientific method, much of what people thought of as true about the earth, psychology, astronomy, drugs, and virtually everything was based on faith similar to religious faith. Well, not everybody. In their desire to figure out the scary, mysterious nature of nature, a few of my heroes five centuries BCE tossed aside the elaborate accounts of spirits, devils, and cavorting gods. Democritus, Anaximander, and others got the ball rolling, then together with later thinkers like Lucretius established what became the basis of a philosophic and scientific tradition that didn’t blossom until millennia later.
But those developments did not touch the Hebrews nor many others caught up in faiths that were protected by rules against questioning and testing much as they are today, notably among fundamentalist Christians and Muslims. It would not have been startling that the apostle Paul bizarrely defined faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”—evidence, by the way, when illuminated by newfound rigor in determining truth was not evidence at all, but a mirage. Considering emotional appeal, hope, and invisibility to be proof of anything is to validate “fake news,” to use a recent term.
The advent of science as a meticulous search for truth laid bare many errors, among them our thinking that great hope indicates truth and the absurdity that lack of evidence can be construed to be evidence. (For example, that we don’t know all the universe’s secrets is an admission of ignorance, not an argument for God.) Part of the awesome power of religious faith is demonstrated by the billions who still make a virtue of that faith in a process that Sam Harris (in The End of Faith) called “the suspension of reason in order to believe that for which there is no evidence.”
But is there no virtue in religious faith? Is it not a compliment to call someone a “person of faith”? Can’t religion cause greater benevolence? Doesn’t religion bestow comfort on the troubled? Does it not help us make sense of a confusing world? Has it not inspired great music, architecture, and painting? Is it not true that religion motivates tenacity and endurance? Can’t religion help build community? Does it not teach and promote peace? The answer to all those questions is YES!….some of the time. But even if those good effects were true all the time, that is, if there were no downsides to religious faith, in no way do good effects prove truth.
We know that in the present day as well as historically, religion is as likely to cause ill effects for humanity as it is to yield benefits. Religious faith can and often does cause the exact opposite effects as those I’ve enumerated. The truths of the foregoing list are limited truths, Unbelievers and even believers who don’t believe quite strongly enough or subscribe to precisely the right thing are damaged by exclusion, shaming, and other religious mistreatments that can go as far as execution. The comforts of religion must be compared with the discomforts it causes and, if Islam and Christianity are to be believed, divine punishment is discomfort at the extreme.
Improvements in humane practices are resisted and retarded by the faithful, for changes must pass a religious test, often with great pain. Consider slavery, treatment of gays, suppression of women, and unsanctioned sex. As to the latter, human closeness and pleasure have been regularly subject to shaming and even persecution by religion. Morality itself, so crucial in a world where we are a greater threat to each other than is disease, continues to be foolishly built on bronze-age thinking rather than humanist principles. And I’ve not mentioned wars and civic unrest. The list goes on with an appalling inventory of ill-treatments, disinformation, and horrors caused by religion. But these downsides are not a legitimate argument against faith qua faith, for in no way do bad effects prove error.
My point is better made by Fred Edwords in What is Humanism: “Much of human progress has been in defiance of religion . . . The defiance of religious and secular authority has led to democracy, human rights, and the protection of the environment.” The resistance religious dogma has done to improvement in the human condition has been at least as great as the direct damage it has inflicted. That damage can be found historically and even recently in actions of Islamic and Christian fundamentalists. My point is not that all the impediments to humaneness, freedom of inquiry, and fulfillment are due to religious faith, just that faith has a striking propensity to feign goodness while doing evil. To a great extent, religious faith continues, despite the damage it does and despite humans’ unparalleled intellectual capacity, an influence that requires enormous power.
Apologists for religion point out that bad effects of religion are due to bad religions, not to religion itself. Bad effects are ascribed to religion less often than to certain religions—Christians toward Muslims and the reverse, Protestants toward Catholics, Pentecostals toward Mormons, and as I’ve often pointed out, Churches of Christ toward everyone else. Bad effects are rarely blamed on one’s own religion, but on religions deemed untrue and perhaps even evil. They are faith gone awry; faithful people are misled. But truth cannot be determined by comparing good and bad effects, as I’ve just argued. So how are faith-seekers to discern the difference between a religion that is true and religions that are false in order not to misplace their faith?
The ability to do that assumes not only that there is a true religious faith, but that we are capable of distinguishing it from untrue ones. For most religionists, the differentiating factor is that one religion is more comfortable than another, feeling more natural, like common sense. However, the feelings of comfort and “fit” are strongly associated with childhood acquaintance, so much that the probability is extremely high that an American child will become or advocate Christianity and a Middle Eastern child will become Muslim or advocate Islam. But even if not an accident of birth, that a religion feels right is less meaningful than it appears. A lie can give as much comfort as truth, just as truth can cause as much consternation as a lie. Faith is the ultimate placebo.
The power of faith is so deeply instilled that it vies with and frequently overcomes reason even in persons who scrupulously exercise their intellect in other walks of life. How else, decades after what was called by Thomas Paine and others the Age of Reason, can we explain that even now about five billion persons are affiliated with one or another religion. Of the 7.5 billion humans alive in 2017, 85% hold to religion-based positions. It would be a strain to demonstrate that the world is a better place due to this sea of religion, just as it is impossible to find a religion not festooned with creeds and reasoning that in non-religious contexts would be seen as inexplicable if not downright wacky (e.g., a body transformed into crackers, talking snakes, the sun standing still, 72 virgins). Perplexingly, the wackiness is cherished by devout sects as if to declare their uniqueness.
The various faiths have little in common except for their reliance on faith that’s no more than tradition-blessed guesses, resistance to generally accepted logic, lack of evidence, and a mixture of haughtiness and compassion toward those not similarly inspired. It is obvious that because religions contradict each other, they cannot all be right, though they can all be wrong. A number of sources report that Christianity is splintering at the rate of two new denominations per day, suggesting that religious people don’t reject their supernaturalism so much as they move from one supernatural explanation of life to another. That suggests that the hold of religious faith is so great that religious persons worship belief itself. Unlike Dan Barker in his Losing Faith in Faith, they simply shift from one set of rituals or dogma to another, normally having to do less with theology than with unrelated circumstances (e.g., marriage, relocation, change in a reference group).
But in those cases wherein a religious person sincerely wants to pick the “right” religion, if one actually exists, on what basis does he or she do so? I turned in the writing of this post to Jennifer Hecht’s Doubt that describes where Michel de Montaigne (16th century French philosopher and author of Essays), unhappily came out on that search, “We cannot know anything—the only evidence for even God, let alone any dogma, is ancient hearsay—so we might as well stick with the Catholic Church, just as the ancients advised.” That approach to religion is called fideism—knowingly basing our choice on blind belief! (Remember, the Roman Church was pretty big then.) Throwing a dart is as good a path to religious truth as careful thought.
So what is it about us that enables religious faith and its powerful influence to be so dominant in human affairs? The answer may be summarized in one word:
Feelings. Emotional satisfaction. The comfort of the familiar. The soaring spirit of rhetorical flourishes. The camaraderie of friends, family, or authorities. Tied to these muscular aspects of our psychology, religious feelings can be overwhelming, so controlling as to defy objective truths.
Feelings enable congregations to tremble with the shared testimony of the faithful, to swell with magnificent emotionality, to elevate joy to ecstasy, to bond believers together in community-as-one, to enjoy a miraculous sense of goodness and abundance, and to experience transcendence.
Feelings that support religious faith are substitutes for facts. And they are powerful enough to exist without real factual support, overpowering our allegiance to whatever intelligent thought we have.
To be clear, I make no suggestion that feelings are bad, useless, or dangerous. My position is not a diatribe against the value and natural gift of feelings, but against the foolishness in thinking they prove either truth or untruth, no matter how impressive and emotionally satisfying. Psychological research has demonstrated our tendency to accept emotions as indicators of fact in many spheres even beyond religion. For example, millions firmly believe without evidence in witchcraft, psychokinesis, extrasensory perception, clairvoyance, precognition, and mental telepathy. They differ in no significant way from superstitions about voodoo, black cats, broken mirrors, horseshoes, the number 13, 4 leaf clovers, coins in a fountain, rabbits’ feet, wishbones, and cracks in the sidewalk.
But taking those sidewalk cracks seriously differs in no significant way from assuming religious beliefs are factual. So why do we continue to treat religion as a respectable human activity, even when it interferes with scientific and humane activities, even when its good side (e.g., charity, forgiveness) are achievable (and are being achieved) by nonreligious motivation and means?
Michael Shermer, author of The Believing Brain, argues that the reason rests in primitive wiring that enables us to find “meaningful patterns in meaningful and meaningless [italics mine, JC] patterns alike.” Why? Because “the brain is a belief agent,” he says, geared to detect patterns as a defense against dangerous animals in the bush and other threats. False positives only trouble us, while each false negative may be our last. After those primitive threats have been eliminated, however, the wiring remains with its misplaced method of testing reality, giving our cortex unnecessary baggage to overcome.
Teaching children religious faith—despite whatever comfort it bestows—is to reverse in many small ways the enlightenment of the human race, doing damage throughout life to the epistemic integrity of millions. Richard Dawkins called it “pernicious [to] teach children that faith itself is a virtue. Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument.” Religious faith, as Sam Harris wrote in The End of Faith, “is somehow a sacred human convention—distinguished . . . both by the extravagance of its claims and by the paucity of its evidence . . . an uncompromising a misuse of the power of our minds . . . foisted upon each generation anew, it renders us incapable of realizing just how much of our world has been unnecessarily ceded to a dark and barbarous past.”
Religionists are not content to enjoy their evidence-free suppositions in private, for most religions seek to influence others, sometimes by unpleasant means. Islam obviously carries out such influence with an iron fist where it is the majority religion. Christianity did as well before the Enlightenment caused it to be contained. In countries wherein religious power has been curtailed by governmental concepts that grew up in the Enlightenment, religion’s attempt to recover its hegemony makes subtler moves.
In the United States, the “Christian nation” message of discredited activist David Barton seeks to roll back America’s long-observed separation of church and state. There are fundamentalists’ claims that they be exempt from laws barring discrimination against gays or against same sex marriages. Even public servants have claimed that their religious convictions should be recognized by the state more than sincere non-religious beliefs.
Churches in the US receive special tax breaks not available to nonreligious charities. When some ethical matter arises in a community, television and radio stations often assemble religious leaders as a panel for moral guidance, as if their claimed links to God give them special authoritativeness in ethical matters. There are more examples, but my point is that religionists, except in the most unrelated circumstances, expect to have their views treated as the superior criteria.
We have struggled for scores of millennia to better understand ourselves and our universe. In that undertaking, we have intellectual shortcomings to overcome. Another is our vulnerability to the fog of faith; our evolution did not equip us well to distinguish reality from intractable beliefs. Whatever impedes our ability to tease facts out of reality’s confusion keeps discovery to a slower pace, confounds ethics with archaic moral codes, encumbers social justice, and generally squelches human pleasure and fulfillment. Religious faith comes necessarily with a number of such hurdles, slowing the maturity of our species in graduating from fabrications to facts. We are greatly opposed in that progress by that which fraudulently promises to protect us, abetted by
The awesome power of faith.
I love the way you put your thoghts together in this. One criticism, however, is that you say the “supernatural” is outside the realm of that which can be “experienced with the senses.” I am sure the ancients (and others) would heartily disagree with that!
Thank you! Let me try clearer wording: Any experienced event can be claimed to be due to something that cannot be sensed, that is, an experienced event is explained by an unexperienced cause. But the unexperienced cause remains hypothetical rather than certain unless there’s a possible way it can be shown to be wrong (falsified). If there is no way to falsify existence of some posited unexperienced cause, then you or I can advance anything we can dream up, then claim we’ve proven our imaginary intervening variable to be right (i.e., truth) since no one can prove it isn’t.
“Supernatural,” then, can be defined as the collection of posited unexperienced causes that some people hold to be true, but that can neither be proven nor disproven. (Carl Sagan said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” so being unproven doesn’t mean disproved.) In other words, thunder still might be controlled by Zeus (carefully timing it to coincide with lightning), but no degree of proclaiming that to be true makes it more than a guess among other guesses. So in my confusing sentence, what the ancients experienced was thunder, but there’s no reason to argue that they experienced Zeus!
Good post, John!