Let’s examine faith for a moment

It’s a common definition amongst New Atheists that faith is merely belief without evidence. The occasional theist will accept this, often going further and purporting this to be some sort of virtue, but many Christians will reject this. They will argue that faith bears some relation to evidence, reason, logic, or even all three. But does that make sense? I don’t think so.

Let’s take the most populous religion in our culture: Christianity. If faith was more than belief without evidence, we should expect to find people with Christian beliefs that originated from somewhere other than the bible. That is, if faith is just a synonym for reason or logic or evidence, then a person ought to be able to discover all the information necessary to finding Christ.

Think about it. Calculus has been discovered at least 3 times (twice in Europe and once in Japan). The history of chemistry tells us certain elements have been found by several different people (usually with just one getting the credit). Atomic weapons have been created by multiple nations. All these things happen independently of each other. And why? Because math and science have methodologies behind them that progress on the basis of logic, reason, and evidence. Discoveries can repeat themselves in math and science. This is what we should expect of a type of inquiry that is more than belief without evidence.

When has faith produced the same result in independent people at independent times? Has anyone come to accept Christ in their hearts without the bible? Has anyone even come to know anything of Christ without the bible? Why is it that we don’t have any recorded instances of a Chinese person in, say, 80 A.D. writing about the Christian Savior? The answer is simple and obvious. It isn’t possible to discover anything offered on faith except through faith. To even know the name Jesus Christ, the original source of that name and of that man is always the bible; the original source is never found freely in the world, completely independent of the known Christian traditions. A tribesman in a remote part of the Amazon jungle will never know anything of what it means to be a Christian, no matter how hard he searches, less he find himself a victim of missionaries. Beliefs found on faith are beliefs without an evidential basis. Indeed, faith is nothing more than belief without evidence.

September 11

There were a number of factors involved in why 9/11 happened, but it cannot be denied that any single factor could potentially be eliminated with the same end result. That is, any single factor with the exception of faith. Faith – belief without evidence – allows for anything and everything and is an invalid methodology to come to anything resembling a consistent conclusion or type of conclusion on any matter.

Thought of the day

Faith is the exact opposite of knowledge.

Christianity in Russia

Russian Christians have essentially passed one whopper of a bill:

A bill that stigmatizes Russia’s gay community and bans the distribution of information about homosexuality to children was overwhelmingly approved by the lower house of parliament Tuesday.

More than two dozen protesters were attacked by anti-gay activists and then detained by police, hours before the State Duma approved the Kremlin-backed legislation in a 436-0 vote.

The bill banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” still needs to be passed by the appointed upper house and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin, but neither step is in doubt.

This is what happens when Christian ‘morality’ overtakes the thought that is necessary in secular morality – the latter being the morality that has driven the modern world to its most prosperous, most free, and least violent times.

Before the vote, gay rights activists attempted to hold a “kissing rally” outside the State Duma, located across the street from Red Square in central Moscow, but they were attacked by hundreds of Orthodox Christian activists and members of pro-Kremlin youth groups. The mostly burly young men with closely cropped hair pelted them with eggs while shouting obscenities and homophobic slurs.

From time to time I will hear it asked, ‘If you were walking down a dark street alone, would you ever find yourself afraid of an approaching group of strangers if you knew they had just come from a late night Christian meeting?’ Well, here’s the answer to that manipulative, assumption-filled, horseshit argument. I would be petrified if I was a member of whatever minority that group happened to hate based upon their necessarily subjective interpretation of the Bible.

And that’s the real problem here, isn’t it? The unavoidable fact of subjectivity that comes with a text as flimsy as the Bible encourages this sort of inanity. And, really, that’s merely the icing on the cake, for the ultimate ill of the world is the very premise of this sort of ‘thinking’, and of religion as a whole: faith. An effectively random way to believe, faith has only the power to harm, and anything good that relates to it is incidental. It’s like driving without using the steering wheel. Sure, you might end up parked perfectly in your driveway at the end of the day, but there’s no good reason to expect any sort of specific result like that. It’s far more likely that you’ll end up in a ditch or, worse yet, colliding with another driver.

The non-basis of faith

It’s worth saying this as many times as possible: Faith is nothing more than precisely belief without evidence; it is an entirely random basis for beliefs, actions, and behaviors. If you don’t believe me, just look at the results of a recent study on faith-based programs and religious belief amongst the overwhelmingly Christian prison population in America:

Serious criminals co-opt religious doctrine to permit, and even encourage, their illicit activity, a Georgia State University study shows.

Titled “With God on my side: The paradoxical relationship between religious belief and criminality among hardcore street offenders,” the research was co-authored by Georgia State criminologists Volkan Topalli, Timothy Brezina and graduate student Mindy Bernhardt. It was published in the journal Theoretical Criminology. Their findings have policy implications for correctional faith-based reforms.

“Offenders in our study overwhelmingly professed a belief in God and identified themselves with a particular religion, but they also regularly engaged in serious crimes,” said Topalli, an associate professor in Georgia State’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. “Our data suggest that religious belief may even produce or tend to produce crime or criminality among our sample of hardcore street offenders who actively reference religious doctrine to justify past and future offenses.”

The criminals who were studied were not in prison at the time of the study and the sample size was small (48 individuals), but the findings were compelling. These men had been through the system, been preached to through faith-based programs and other religious inmates, and they had come out none the better. I’m not sure I necessarily find it convincing that prisoners with these experiences would become worse than those without such experiences (again, the sample size is small), but I highly suspect that prisoners who went through philosophy- and reason-based programs (if such things actually existed) would come out far, far better people.

The authors note their results do not indicate these effects accrue from the content of religious doctrine. However, it is important to consider their policy implications.

“The growing correctional reform of faith-based programs encourages inmates’ participation in prayer, Bible studies and religious services,” Topalli said. “To the extent that some offenders misinterpret or distort religious teachings to justify and excuse crime, program facilitators may benefit from this knowledge and work to challenge or correct these errors.”

One must wonder how this could possibly be fixed. Sure, we could drill dogma and traditional doctrine into these prisoners, arbitrarily declaring that their current interpretations are wrong, but that’s hardly objective. Indeed, whereas modern day religion is, partially, just a reflection of secular morality, there is no good justification within the context of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or any other religion for such declarations. This inability to offer a basis of reason is most clearly the mark of faith; nothing in any religion stops these prisoners (or any other person of faith) from believing in absolutely anything.

Faith just isn’t a valid basis for belief.

Thought of the day

1. To believe without evidence is to believe randomly.
2. Faith is belief without evidence.
3. Faith is random.

(It’s also a scourge, but it’s harder to put that into such a simple form.)

Thought of the day

I just can’t say it enough: Faith is not only not a virtue, it is actually actively harmful to the world by way of allowing anyone who holds it to justify anything. It just isn’t a rational or workable basis for thinking.

Religion is not a motivator for good, part 2

In the first part to this post, I defined religion as an influencing factor in terms of people doing good. This is opposed to the idea of a motivating force. I compared them as such:

There is a key difference between a motivating force and an influencing factor. The former is the direct cause for something that happens (or said, thought, etc) and the latter is an indirect cause. To put it into other terms, my hunger is a motivating force for why I might buy a sandwich. An influencing factor, however, would be a commercial I saw for Subway. My procurement of food is directly motivated by my hunger, but my specific purchase is influenced by another factor – that is, my motivation exists independently of a given influence.

The reason, I’ve argued, that people do good deeds is that it’s in human nature to have empathy, sympathy, concern, and interests in the well-being of others due to our evolutionary history and status as a social animal. That isn’t to say we don’t have good reasons for those good deeds, but I am saying our tendencies as humans should not be viewed as fundamentally different on a biological level than the tendencies of any other animal.

As it happens, religion has had a long history of getting people to do good things. I would hazard that most charities are religious in their nature, and if not, then they at least make up a sizable portion of the total. We see church and mosque and synagogue groups traveling to help out developing nations and other places and people in need every day. It isn’t uncommon for someone to help out a neighbor while citing God’s will. The fact is, religion has influenced a lot of people to do good things.

Unfortunately, as it also so happens, religion has had a long history of bringing people to do bad things. We have The Inquisition, the Crusades, yet another war brewing in the Middle East, the current situation in Nigeria, Northern Ireland for quite some time, the Church’s devastating restriction of science for so many centuries, and on and on and on. The fact is, religion has influenced a lot of people to do bad things.

But here’s the kicker: There isn’t anything to stop a person from being influenced by religion to do bad things. The two primary reasons for this are 1) the subjective interpretations that are demanded by holy texts and 2) faith. Let me quickly break these down.

Subjectivity in Holy Texts

Unlike science or history or a number of other legitimate fields, theology and religious studies have no objective methods for determining what any piece of holy writ is meant to convey. Sure, there are textual critics, such as Bart D. Ehrman, who do perfectly valid work that has perfectly valid conclusions, but that’s because they have a real methodology and objective argumentation. The biggest advocates of what this or that piece of holy text means are little more than literary critics. That isn’t to say literary criticism is necessarily vapid, but there is a lot of empty air in the field. I mean, there’s a reason why two people can write two conflicting theories on a Shakespeare play and yet each have acceptable arguments. Or fifty different people with fifty conflicting theories. It all comes down to personal, subjective interpretation. Really, that’s art. And there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, but problems do arise when people begin to pretend they’re using objective means to come to their conclusions – which is exactly what we see with theologians and priests and others of the like.

Faith

I still haven’t heard a better definition of faith than “belief without evidence”. Because that’s exactly what it is. Stories in the Bible (and presumably other holy books) support this (but maybe arguments can be made against this claim and I can’t really say boo, what with the subjectivity of it all), and the words and sermons of believers are overwhelmingly in favor of believing x could be true, even when there is no good reason to suppose it actually is. So given this fact, it isn’t surprising that we see religious people influenced by their religion to do bad things every day. Because, why not? If a large premise of religion (and belief in God) is that one doesn’t need to use reason and rationality to come to bold conclusions, then what stops a person from going a step further and saying that God wants his followers to take x’s land, or oppress y’s people, or kill people of belief z? Indeed, arguments leading to these conclusions have all been made using religion – Christian and Muslim invasions, Christian-based slavery, 9/11. It may be argued that these are incorrect conclusions, but 1) there’s no objective way to determine that and 2) if the religion says faith is a virtue, then there is no need to enter something as wacky as reasons into the debate, is there?

So to conclude, it is our humanity – our very nature – that leads us to the tendency to do good things. Everything else is sauce for the meat – though, to be clear, not all sauces are equal. Some will tend to bring us to do more good than bad, to even be restricted from doing bad because of those crazy things called reasons. Others, however, are not so positive. Enter religion. This influencing factor is subject to the interpretations of countless people who have come to countless conclusions. (Just imagine if science worked that way, where two scientists working independently with the same information rarely came to the same conclusion. It would be mayhem.) Moreover, religious belief has this awful tendency to be underpinned with faith. Faith, as described earlier, is nothing more than belief without evidence. And if a person is willing to believe something for no reason other than hope or wishful thinking or fear or whathaveyou, then what sort of basis is that for doing good? More importantly, what sort of basis is that for not doing bad? The fact is, it isn’t a good basis for either – but anyone can (and has) made it a basis for any number of acts, good or bad. That’s what faith inherently allows.

Science does not require faith

It requires assumptions:

Sometimes you will hear that “science requires faith,” for example faith that our sense data are reliable or that nature really obeys laws. That’s an abuse of language; science requires assumptions, just like anything else, but those assumptions are subject to testing and updating if necessary. If we built theories on the basis of our sense data, and those theories kept making predictions that turned out to be wrong, we would examine and possibly discard that assumption. If the universe exhibited a chaotic jumble of non-lawlike behavior, rather than falling into beautiful patterns, we would abandon that assumption as well. That’s the most compelling thing about science: it always stands ready to improve by casting out an old idea when the evidence demands it.

~Sean Carroll, via The A-Unicornist.

Thought of the day

One of the great accomplishments of the New Atheists has been to tear down the idea that faith is a good thing. Pay attention to anyone involved in religious debates that has become familiar with what atheists have been saying. They do all they can to distance themselves from faith – something the Bible pushes as a good thing. (It’s almost like people cherry-pick what they want to take from their holy books, huh?) This is largely due to the New Atheist emphasis on the need for evidence.

Of course, go to any church with an average congregation that is unfamiliar with these sort of debates and it will not be difficult to find people who still highly value faith. That’s sort of religion’s thing.

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