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Saturday, February 4, 2012

Faith is no Virtue

So I’ve criticized the idea that religion serves as a good source of morality, as well as the idea that religion serves as a good method for delivering morality to the masses.  Now I’m going to talk about the third perceived “link” between religion and morality.  And by “link,” I mean “blatantly asserted but unsupported connection.”  This last “link” is infuriatingly common.  It is also one of the most significant stumbling blocks in the path towards recognizing the similarities between Yahweh and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

The “link” I speak of is the idea that having faith is itself a virtue, regardless of whether there is any morality coming from that faith.  Many other outspoken atheists have criticized this trend, and they seem to like calling it “belief in belief.”  So I guess I’ll stick with the standard terminology here.  This post, I’ll be criticizing belief in belief; the idea that it is good to have faith.

Now there is one question I need to ask first.  And if you consider yourself religions, then this is probably the question you ought to ask yourself about every single one of your beliefs.  I’ve asked it before, but I’ll reiterate it here.  What would it take to convince you that you are wrong?  As I mentioned earlier, this question if of crucial importance when analyzing one’s religious views.  It is only by answering this question that you can keep your mind open to the possibility of alternatives.

Now as important as this question is in general, I bring it up here because I have noticed that belief in belief never seems to get pinned down anywhere.  When we talk about morality, we need to make sure we can establish some common ground for terms like “good” and “evil.”  If you come tell me that “Good is that which accords to God’s will,” then I’m going to say “That doesn’t change the fact that faith is an unreliable way to determine which actions cause suffering and which cause happiness.”  When we ask whether or not faith is morally good in its own right, it doesn’t help to get into arguments over the One True Meaning of the word “good.”  So I’m going to be clear about where I’m pinning my concepts.  Here it goes:

Having faith does not make one more likely to take actions that cause happiness, nor less likely to take actions that cause suffering.

As you can see, I have clearly grounded my claim in terms of observables.  This makes the question of open-mindedness quite easy for me to answer.  Compare a society with lots of faith to a society with little faith.  Do surveys to gauge how happy those societies’ constituents are, and how much they suffer.  Repeat with as many societies as you can, to control for non-faith-related differences.  If societies with faith keep coming out ahead, then maybe belief in belief is on to something.

So don’t just tell me “having faith is good.”  Tell me what having faith is supposed to do that makes it a desirable state.  And then, go out and see if this is actually true.  And not just here in America, take a look at other countries in other continents.  You’ll find that the Middle East is one of the most religious regions in the world, and yet their governments are oppressive and violent.  Is it really virtuous to blindly cling to beliefs that lead to terrorism?  To make gay people feel like they’ve committed a terrible evil simply by existing?  To convince the people of Africa not to use condoms to fight the AIDS epidemic? 

And I know now that many of you are probably thinking “But that’s not my faith.”  But that’s completely beside the point.  The question you have to ask yourself here is why.  Why are your beliefs good while theirs aren’t?  Presumably, this is because of the effects the beliefs have.  If you have faith in tolerating diversity and treating people kindly while others have faith in homophobia and violence, then look at the world.  You can see clearly how much more suffering the latter generate, and how much more happiness the former generate.  That is why the former beliefs are virtuous while the latter are not.  Faith need not even enter our minds for us to discover this simple fact.  And since faith is what people are claiming to support the destructive beliefs, why would you try and use the same support for your own beliefs?  Why would you put yourself in the awkward position of trying to deny their conclusions while supporting their method?

Once you can pin your concepts of virtue and morality to the world around you, you’ll find observations that can inform your moral code.  You can determine which policies hurt people and which help people by looking at which policies hurt people and which help people.  I know, it’s a novel concept that religion never seems to stumble upon, but it works remarkably well.  And once you starting looking at things this way, you’ll find that you don’t need to use faith to defend your actions.  You can say that you accept gays because it hurts them to tell them they’re sinners.  You can say that you don’t like Shiite Law because it oppresses women and encourages rape.  You can say that we damn well should promote condom use in Africa because people are dying left and right.  And none of this requires any reference to faith.

And as you do this more and more, you’ll slowly find that all those virtuous ideas you used to pin on faith are actually well supported by the evidence.  And it’s at this point that the faith reveals its problematic nature.  Yes, many of those things you believe on faith give you good results.  But if you just try to defend them with “I have faith,” then you’re using the same defense as the radicals whose beliefs don’t give good results.  And that means any successful defense of your beliefs will end up strengthening theirs.

It was never the faith that got you good results.  If the beliefs you happen to have faith in are good, then they will produce good results regardless of why you believe them.  Because the virtue isn’t faith, it’s kindness and acceptance and all that jazz.  All the faith does is get in the way of your ability to see why those beliefs are better than all the intolerant ramblings of the more radical apologetics, which in turn hinders your ability to defend your more functional moral code against the fundamentalists.  And that means your faith is functioning less like a virtue and more like a handicap.

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