A belief is a position statement on an issue. I am using the word “faith” to describe a belief that is held in a particular manner, where that belief is held without regard to evidence, either in favor of or against that belief. What most people mean when they use the word “faith” may extend beyond my usage, but it at least includes my usage. Faith is not a valid way to approach understanding the world, and in fact is dangerous. Institutions that explicitly value faith, such as religious institutions, are therefore valuing a mode of thinking that is invalid, dangerous, and should not be trusted.
A belief is really nothing more than a position statement on an issue. I believe many things, like 2+2=4, George Washington was our country’s first president, and that water, when heated to 100 °C at 1 atmosphere pressure will boil. I have very good evidence for these beliefs, and I hold those beliefs in large measure because of that evidence. If I became aware of evidence that called those beliefs into question, I would investigate that evidence and, if the evidence was revealed to be reliable, I would alter my beliefs to account for that evidence. In these examples, the way I hold those beliefs is tentative, provisional, and revisable. That doesn’t mean that the beliefs are not held strongly… I find it exceptionally unlikely that I could find evidence to call into question my belief that 2+2=4… but these beliefs are emphatically not above being called into question. The scientific principle of falsifiability applies to all of them.
What I have described above, however, is not the only way that people can hold beliefs. It is quite possible for people to hold a belief without any regard to evidence. This is a dogmatic approach to belief, where the belief is held to be correct and immutable regardless of evidence and reasoning that anyone can provide. It is certainly possible for a dogmatic belief to turn out to be correct. It is also possible for a dogmatic belief to have evidence for it. But if someone holds that belief in a way that the evidence is irrelevant to the holding of the belief, then it is dogmatic.
I am going to argue below that holding beliefs in this manner is not only unjustifiable, but also dangerous. Because of this conclusion, I very much want to have a word to describe this type of belief, where, regardless of its accuracy, it is being held dogmatically. I want this word so that I can make a concise statement that, “Word-I-Want is dangerous. We as a society need to discourage Word-I-Want in order to safeguard society.”
It seems to me that the word “faith” comes closest to describing what I am trying to describe. One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions for “faith” is, “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” While the concept I am looking at doesn’t require that there be no proof, just that the evidence isn’t relevant to the holding of the belief, this definition is still the closest for a common word that I have found to what I am trying to describe. Therefore, for the purposes of this discussion, I am going to use this word, “faith,” to mean belief without regard to evidence. This approach of clearly defining the sense in which a word is being used in a given discussion is common in philosophical discussions. By using the word “faith,” I am by no means saying that anyone using the word means the same thing that I do, which is why I am going to this extreme effort to explain what I am meaning when I use the word. I could just as easily invent a new word instead of adopting an existing one, as long as I define it. However, there is a significant advantage to using the existing word in this case: I will argue later in this piece that what most people mean when they use the word “faith” at least includes my definition, even if their definition goes beyond my own. What this will mean is that, if my argument holds water, a societal valuing of faith, by even more common definitions of faith, is itself dangerous.
Societal dangers of faith
Faith has one key characteristic: evidence is unable to change one’s mind about it. Given the way that I have defined “faith,” as the manner of holding a belief that doesn’t rely on evidence for or against the belief, this is definitional rather than the result of an argument. As I mentioned, I will later in this document get to the issue of the relationship between my definition and other definitions, so for the time being just evaluate my claims and arguments based on the definition I have provided.
There are five main points concerning this characteristic that, in my opinion, convincingly demonstrate the societal dangers of faith.
- Not all faith-based beliefs can be true, because some are mutually contradictory.
- There are faith-based beliefs that people hold that demonstrably cause harm, which provides a societal imperative to determine which of these beliefs are true and which are false.
- The nature of faith means that there is no evidence-based method to distinguish which of these faith-based beliefs are true and which are false.
- The well-documented propensity of people to adopt demonstrably-false beliefs based on delusion, hallucination, poor choice of authority figure, and irrational thinking invalidates non-evidentiary bases for faith, and yet none of these invalid sources of faith are open to being challenged. This point coupled with the previous one mean that there are no methods at all that can reliably be used to dissuade people from false or dangerous faith-based beliefs.
- Since many “faith traditions” specifically describe faith as a virtue, something to be valued in a person’s belief system, our society has developed a generalized respect for faith.
If you combine all of these points, each of which I will support in more detail below, it becomes clear that faith itself is the problem. Faith is the cutting off of self-correction, and of the correction by others. It puts a halt to progress on issues of faith, and ensure that false and dangerous beliefs survive in our society far beyond the point where they would be weeded out if faith were considered to be a vice rather than a virtue.
Let’s look at each of the five points above in more detail.
I think that the first point, that faith-based beliefs can be mutually contradictory, requires little expansion. I have yet to run into anyone that has argued the position that everything that everyone believes by faith is both true and mutually consistent. Simply looking at the beliefs of Mormons vs. Christians vs. Muslims vs. Hindu should be enough to demonstrate this. If someone really wishes to argue this point, then I am happy to expand on it. Lacking such a request, however, I’m going to move on to the points that seem to me to require further explanation or justification.
So, let’s examine the second point, that there exist faith-based beliefs that demonstrably cause harm. Here is a non-comprehensive list of faith-based beliefs that, in my opinion, are clear examples of faith-based beliefs that cause harm:
- The religious and/or political beliefs of the 9/11 terrorists. Victor Stenger famously wrote, “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.” Even though I find that particular quote quite pithy, I do think it trades accuracy for that pith. Still, I hope no reader will disagree with my statement that it was because of the beliefs of the terrorists, many of which were held by faith rather than reason and evidence, that led them to fly into buildings.
- The religious beliefs of parents (e.g., Christian Scientists) who, due to these beliefs, withhold life-saving medical treatment from their children.
- The Inquisition.
- The Crusades. (These last two examples are rather hackneyed in this kind of discussion, but I am making a different point than the one usually being made.)
These are, of course, extreme examples. I could also list plenty of examples that will be less-universally accepted, such as violence against the LGBT community and abortion doctors, the psychological damage resulting from purity culture and “reparative” therapy, and the less-direct influences such as biblical support for slavery and the higher threshold for environmental damage that seems to be found in people who believe that either (or both) we have dominion over the Earth and that what really matters is the next life, not this one. I am refraining from including those in the main argument because I am emphatically not arguing that all faith-based beliefs cause harm; I am simply arguing that some do, and the clear-cut examples in my main list are sufficient to make that point.
So I hope that based on these examples you will agree that faith-based beliefs exist that demonstrably cause societal harm. Society is in the business of protecting its members (that is probably a subject for another post), so I hope that you will also agree that it is in society’s best interest to determine which beliefs are true and/or harmless and which are false and/or harmful.
This takes us to the third point, that faith, by its nature, is not accessible to evidence-based critiques. If I believe something without regard for the evidence, I have no way to tell if the belief is in concordance with reality. I could believe, based on faith, that the Earth is flat. I could believe that headaches are caused by demons that need to be let out of the head by drilling holes. I could believe that if only I jump hard enough off of a building I can fly. I could believe that the sun is about 8.3 light-minutes away from the Earth. And if I don’t examine the evidence for these things, I have no way to distinguish the ones that match with reality (i.e., the last of the four) from those that don’t (i.e., the first three). Evidence is what tells us that astronauts need to be shielded from cosmic rays. Evidence is what tells us that vaccines work and are harmless. Evidence tells us that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere correlates with higher average temperatures. For beliefs that are held by faith, if they are wrong, the evidence doesn’t matter and the belief continues to be held. And there are consequences to that. In some cases innocent people die.
On to point four, that people are documented to adopt demonstrably-false beliefs based on delusion, hallucination, poor choice of authority figure, and irrational thinking. Delusion and hallucination is not even limited to people with mental illness. One study showed that as many as 39% of people hold a strong belief in one or more delusion-like beliefs, and another showed that nearly 4% of otherwise mentally-stable people have experienced hallucinations. This last number is almost certainly underreported since not all hallucinations are readily identified as such. Charismatic leaders have drawn followers many times in history, often resulting in religious cults and frequently emphasizing that questioning the leader or the precepts of the belief system is forbidden. Finally, demonstrably-false beliefs are quite easy to arrive at by irrational thinking. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that chemicals are bad, or that natural products are inherently safer or healthier than synthetic products. These examples ignore the facts that all molecular substances are chemicals (water, sugar, oxygen gas), many natural materials are highly toxic (arsenic, uranium, myristicin – contained in nutmeg, phytohaemagglutinin – contained in red kidney beans, oxalic acid – contained in rhubarb, and many others), and many synthetic materials are life-saving (both components of Advair, imatinib – used to treat cancer, Humalog – insulin analog, Lipitor, and many others).
Since people are prone to adopting such false beliefs, it seems to me that a strong mechanism needs to be in place to evaluate such claims. The discussion above shows why personal experience, authority, and even seemingly common-sense are all questionable as justifications for beliefs. In order to be able to evaluate claims, evidence, particularly evidence that can be verified by others, seems to be the best candidate. Faith, therefore, throws away the strongest tool in our toolbox: evidence.
Finally, let’s look at the fifth point I made, that “faith traditions” describe faith as a virtue rather than as a vice, and have created a general societal attitude that respects faith rather than one that questions it. I doubt that I will find much opposition to the first part of this point, that “faith traditions” such as religions emphasize the importance of faith and treat it as a virtue; if I am wrong, then please let me know and I will expand on that part of this point. Instead, however, I will focus on the overall societal attitudes. Certainly in the United States, where many Christians say that they feel under attack, there will be many people who will claim that there is no societal bias in favor of faith. This is demonstrably wrong, and is probably worth a separate post of its own, but I will make a short version of my argument here. Only in a society where faith is valued would the following be true:
- Churches have tax-exempt status.
- “In God we Trust” is on currency.
- The swearing of important oaths, such as in court or when taking public office, is traditionally done with a hand on a holy book, and cultural mores are such that even if that holy book isn’t required by law, the political consequences of asking to use a different book would likely be a failure to get reelected.
- Those without faith, that is atheists, are among society’s most distrusted groups, comparable to rapists.
So yes, I am indeed convinced that there is a significant societal bias in favor of faith. This is important because even seemingly-benign beliefs that are held out of faith can color interpretations of evidence or claims. An extreme example of this can be found in the introduction to The Genesis Flood (Whitcomb and Morris), which includes the statement, “The second purpose [of this book] is to examine the anthropological, geological, hydrological and other scientific implications of the Biblical record of the Flood, seeking if possible to orient the data of these sciences within this Biblical framework.” This book purports to be a scientific explanation of the natural world, but specifically states that the evidence is being viewed through a biblical lens. Anyone reading this book that has a modicum of scientific training will hopefully see just how distorted the science has become because of that lens.
So those are the main points for this part of the argument. Let me now tie those points together into a coherent argument that faith is in itself dangerous to society.
I have shown that beliefs that are held by faith can be false and can dangerous to society. I have demonstrated that faith is impervious to evidentiary arguments because it dismisses them as irrelevant. I have argued that there are not other, non-evidentiary methods that can reliably root out false and dangerous beliefs that are held by faith. And I have demonstrated that we live in a culture that values faith as a way of knowing reality. This last point is key because it establishes that splitting hairs between faith-based beliefs that are dangerous and those that are not cannot be successful. If, in a pluralistic society, we want our own faith-based beliefs to be respected, then we have to respect those of others, even though we might believe (as Christians often do) that those faith-based beliefs of others are going to lead them to hell, or at least to an absence from heaven. Surely from the “inside perspective” of Christianity (to simply pick an example), these faith-based beliefs by others are much more dangerous and harmful to society than even the Christian Scientist belief that modern medicine should be shunned. In a society that values faith, there is no mechanism at all to handle dangerous faiths… at least until someone does something legally wrong based on them, and by that point the damage is done. Even respecting benign faith-based beliefs contributes to the culture where dangerous faith-based beliefs are not laughed out of town. Faith itself is the problem, because it is faith that prevents the free competition of ideas and the error-correcting nature of open evaluation. Faith-claims:
- are often wrong and sometimes dangerous,
- are uncorrectable,
- filter/color the interpretation of other claims,
- are arrogant (as in, my leap of logic is better than yours is), and
- are often used as tools to control people.
If something is true, then it should be able to withstand the test of investigation. It is only if something is not true that its adherents should fear the test of investigation. So, then, why should faith considered to be a virtue? It shouldn’t. Faith is an invalid way of understanding the world.
Connecting definitions of faith
This entire discussion has been based on my own definition of the word “faith.” While I am certainly not alone in defining faith this way, particularly among those that themselves lack faith, many people from faith traditions will take issue with my definition. And I will agree with most of those people that what they mean by the term “faith” extends far beyond what I have used the word to mean. What I am going to argue, however, is that most of these alternate definitions not only don’t contradict my definition, but actually include it; there are simply other components to their definitions that are irrelevant to my argument.
Have you ever, in thinking about your belief system, considered a part of your beliefs to require a “leap of faith?” That is, do you reach a point where evidence and rational reasoning fails to get you to the next step, and yet you take that next step anyway? Most people that in the past have discussed their disagreements with my definition of faith with me have answered “yes” to this question. That leap, or next step, is faith by my definition. And that is what I am arguing is dangerous. I am not arguing that everything you mean by “faith” is dangerous. I am arguing that this part of what you mean by “faith” is dangerous.
Many people who disagree with my definition of “faith” view the word more in a “trust” sense, as in trust in the will of God, or something similar. My question for people in this camp is, how did you determine the existence of, reliability of, and moral trustworthiness of this thing you have trust in? Again, most people that I have talked to who use this definition of “faith” will acknowledge that their evaluations of this supreme authority figure does involve leaps of faith of the type I described earlier. Trust isn’t necessarily a problem. But faith (by my definition) in determining the trustworthiness of the object of trust is. This is what leads cult members to have faith in their leader.
There are, of course, those who draw a distinction between “evidence-based faith” and “blind faith,” and who argue that I am only talking about the latter (Wikipedia, which of course is not always the best source, happens to have a pretty good description of these two types of faith). That’s fine. I’m not going to say, “You’re wrong,” to these people, though I do have to say that I find “evidence-based faith” to be a particularly odd concept; why use that kind of term rather than “belief” or even “conclusion?” I’m not going to say these people are wrong because they have, I believe, implicitly acknowledge my main point in this document, that evidence-based testing of beliefs is primary. That blind faith is dangerous to society, and that the discussion of the merits of a belief must be on evidentiary grounds rather than on revelatory grounds. We can, and I hope we will, have that discussion. But it has been startling to me how often, in the ensuing discussions of this type that I have had in the past, the people I have been talking with have come to acknowledge leaps of faith that they hadn’t realized they had taken.
Incidentally, I have deliberately avoided introducing the term “blind faith” until now because I think it is healthy for readers (well, everyone really) to think about arguments before carefully mentally compartmentalizing parts of the argument into categories that don’t apply to them.
So my conclusion is that either you already agree with me (if you distinguish between evidence-based faith and blind faith), even if you haven’t necessarily thought the distinction through to its logical conclusions, or in most cases what I mean by “faith” is an intrinsic part of what you mean by faith.
What does all of this MEAN?
If we are going to have a discussion where we both have the possibility of learning something, we’re going to have to understand what types of evidence and arguments are meaningful to the other person. Unless someone can convince me otherwise, and I welcome any attempts to do so, I am not going to find arguments based on blind (or leaps of) faith compelling.
I also think my argument in this essay shows that we have an ethical imperative to reduce or eliminate the leaps of faith that exist in our own thinking. This is, in essence, a statement of Occam’s razor.
I think we also have an imperative to expose blind faith wherever we find it, and to make clear that we find such a mode of belief to be reprehensible. We should emphatically not outlaw or otherwise regulate it… the state should not be in the business of being thought police… but we should acknowledge the dangers of such manners of thinking and do what we can to make the climate for blind faith to be as uncomfortable as possible, in the hopes of reducing society’s reliance on it. If you think it is ok to believe something without evidence, then you are, by example, endorsing a way of thinking that is inherently uncorrectable, and that is a danger to society.
And this leads to what is probably the most straightforward explanation for why I am an atheist. I think it is only justifiable to believe that for which there is sufficient evidence. Even though I have looked extensively, I have been remarkably unconvinced by the evidence presented in favor of the existence of god(s). Therefore, I do not believe in god(s).