Faith is not a Virtue

Over the years, Carol and I have had numerous conversations about religion, atheism, the nature of faith and god, and other such topics.  We try not to dwell too much on these subjects (for which our marriage is better), but occasionally we have thoughtful exchanges about it.  When I do talk to Carol about these issues, I learn quickly which of my ideas are easy for a believer to grasp, and which ones are more objectionable or difficult to swallow.

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Basically, this is what she thinks of my beliefs.

When I told Carol that I don’t think of faith as a virtue, but rather an obstacle to betterment of mankind, she had a tough time wrapping her head around it.  I can understand that.  It’s not an easy concept to first grasp, and I was an atheist for years before I started looking at faith in a different light.

See, I don’t think faith is such a great thing, in fact I think it inhibits us more than helps.  She countered by saying that without faith, I had no reason to believe she actually loved me (which sounds pretty harsh, but I knew how she meant it).  But this is where I had to point out that I didn’t take it on faith that she loved me.  I trusted that she did, but that’s because she’s consistently given me evidence for it.  The glorious 6 and a half years we’ve spent together is nothing if not a mountainous pile of evidence for how she feels about me.  That’s not faith.

Faith is a belief that something is true without evidence.  One cannot believe in god without some form of faith because there’s no evidence for it.  It must be taken on faith.  Believers will immediately object to this statement claiming there’s all sorts of proof for god’s existence, but that sort of proof is either philosophical or anecdotal.  Philosophical arguments can be dismissed because they don’t hold up to logical scrutiny, and anecdotal evidence can be dismissed by the very nature of it being anecdotal.  Even if you had a personal experience of the divine love of Jesus, I can’t accept that as evidence without equally accepting similar stories told by followers of other religions.  When I say evidence, I mean hard, concrete, verifiable, testable evidence.  I mean results that can be quantified and accurately reproduced.  No religion has ever produced any such evidence, they demand you accept their beliefs on faith.

And to the believer, faith is seen as a great thing.  Church leaders constantly tell you how important that you believe with your heart, and not your mind.  Faith is not just seen as a virtue, it’s seen as probably the highest virtue.

More than anything, the church wants you to believe with all your heart that Jesus or Mohammed or Shiva is a force in your life.  Holy books claim that with faith all is possible, or that with it all of ones troubles will be calmed.  Preachers claim they can cure disease with only the power of faith no matter how many times they’re debunked or proven wrong.

The other side of the coin is equally adamant, if more frightening.  Scriptures condemn those without faith in the harshest of terms, calling them cowardly and detestable, and equating them with murderers and liars.  The faithless, they claim, are incapable of happiness.  The very act of not believing is worthy of eternal punishment.

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Suffice it to say, religions are not subtle on the subject.

I, on the other hand, think faith is one of the most damaging concepts to humanity ever imagined.  Faith is the flaw that allows others to convince us of the absurd.  Faith is the copout when a question cannot be answered satisfactorily.  Faith is a tool that scam artists, conmen, and frauds use to separate good people from their money.  Once somebody is convinced of something without evidence, that belief can be used to manipulate them.  Once a preacher has his congregation convinced that he knows god’s will, he can order them to do anything he wants.

In the best case scenario, faith leads good people’s altruism astray.  A few weeks ago when the Philippines was struck by a vicious storm the world community reached out to help those who’d lost so much.  The victims of the tragedy needed the essentials like water, food, and medical supplies as well as money to rebuild their lost homes.  The faithful, however, responded by sending bibles and rosaries to, “fill the spiritual necessities” of people who’s entire lives have been destroyed.  A bible has never fed a child who was starving.  A rosary has never rebuilt a home somebody lost, and only to the faithful would it be seen as a need.

Faith can also convince people to act against their basic self needs.  Without faith, would good, honest parents allow their children to ever die by refusing basic medical treatment?  Or even worse, would a parent ever poison their children and themselves by the hundreds?  Faith can convince a person to commit the most horrific atrocities while believing they’re doing good.

But by far the worst is the way faith opens people to being taken advantage of by the unscrupulous.  Recently, self-proclaimed psychic Sylvia Browne died.  Over her lifetime, she amassed a fortune by convincing people she was able to speak to the dead.  She took advantage of desperate parents of missing children by telling them if their kids were alive or dead and charged the parents exorbitant rates for the privilege.  People believed Browne because they wanted to believe she had an avenue to information not available to most people, and she took full advantage of the fact.  Skeptical Inquirer magazine investigated the predictions and claims she made publicly and couldn’t find a single instance of her being correct.  Yet she built a mountain of wealth on top of the tears of the families she lied to.

Speaking of wealthy, another important example is that of Peter Popoff.  Popoff was a faith-healer in the Benny Hinn style during the 80’s who made millions through donations of religious who believed he had the power to cure diseases with prayer.  His stage presence was grand, and he would shout and scream about chasing the devil and cancer out of people’s bodies, and during the 80’s he made millions doing it.  That was until James Randi came along and exposed Popoff for the fraud he was.

In a sane world, that would’ve been the last we saw of Popoff.  However, this is not a sane world, and his ministries have returned and have been reported to make over $28 million last decade by sending trinkets to the faithful, and promising rewards for a cash donation.

This is how faith is abused, and how people can be exploited because of it.  It’s heartbreaking to see good people come to harm, but it doesn’t matter how often these frauds are unmasked or debunked, they’ll constantly come back because they know that so long as they can give someone faith, there will always be another victim to scam.

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This is not a good way to live, even for Agent Mulder.

Sam Harris once described how religious faith is so damaging to the world.  He said religion,

“allows perfectly decent and sane people  to believe by the billions what only lunatics could believe on their own. If you wake up tomorrow morning thinking that saying a few Latin words over your pancakes is going to turn them into the body of Elvis Presley, you have lost your mind. But if you think more or less the same thing about a cracker and the body of Jesus, you’re just a Catholic.”

Not for me, thanks.  I prefer a healthy dose of skepticism.  For thousands of years, people have been told not to question, to believe.  Martin Luther once described how dangerous reason and curiosity is.  He called reason, “the Devil’s greatest whore,” and said:

“Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but—more frequently than not—struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.”

Curiosity was considered sinful for thousands of years, but when humans overcame that hurdle, we started developing our potential and began learning how incredibly vast and fascinating our universe is.  Every modern advancement we enjoy today came from the skeptical reasoning of scientific inquiry.

In the Bible, there’s the famous story of Doubting Thomas.  Thomas was one of Jesus’ disciples, but wasn’t with the others when they met Jesus after the resurrection.  When the other apostles came to tell him of Jesus’ return, he didn’t take them at their word, but instead demanded proof.  In Christian circles, this is seen as an imperfection – a failing on Thomas’ part.  I see it as one of the most reasonable acts in the entire Jesus story.  If someone you know died, and a few days later a trusted friend told you that she’d seen him, wouldn’t you want some proof before believing it?  But not for the faithful, no. You don’t want to be a Doubting Thomas.

The entire premise of skepticism is so simple.  It all boils down to one idea:  If you make a claim, prove it.  Bring the evidence.  Show us why you believe it, and why everyone else should too.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  If more people had demanded that Jim Jones, Sylvia Browne, or Peter Popoff show evidence for their claims, those people wouldn’t have damaged so many lives.  It is by our reason and intellect that we discover how the universe works, not by books written thousands of years ago.

Doubting Thomas was right to doubt… and so should we all.

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