Thursday, August 2, 2007

The impossibility of argument regarding "faith"

It is hard to distill this article I just read into anything resembling bite-sized chunks, so I will just link to it and say this: Christopher Brookmyre offers an intriguing and thought-provoking view of the dangers of faith in certain religious dogmas, and how an unquestioning faith often leads to destructive outcomes. The commenters seem to have no sense of proportion, perspective, or irony in discussing the role of "faith" in daily life. It should be axiomatic, really, that "faith" in a god who will bestow specific rewards for specific actions (e.g. suicide bombers or snake handlers, or more mundane and less harmful tasks) is inherently irrational (i.e. not based on rational observation and deduction of the natural world), and that this is a far different proposition than the sorts of "faith" most people have every day: e.g. that the sun will rise, that cars will stop when we enter the crosswalk on a green light, that quantum fluctuations will not cause my coffee to suddenly fly out of the mug and into my face. This second type of "faith" is actually based on experience--we have all seen daily sunrises (or the aftermaths, if you sleep late), we have all crossed streets and lived to tell the tale, and we have all drank coffee without incident. It is certainly possible that the earth will stop spinning or that I will step out in front of a deranged lunatic in a Hummer eager to squash an unfamiliar bald man on the street, but I trust prior experience and I look both ways before crossing the street (can't do much about the earth-spinning thing, or the quantum fluctuation thing, but I can live with that.) Faith in the basic decency of one's fellow motorists, or in the generally-accepted laws of physics, is very, very different from the faith that would motivate someone to die and/or kill, or do any of the other quite frankly nutty things that religious fanatics so often do.

Until the varying degrees of faith can be recognized and accepted by most people, an honest dialogue between theists and non-theists is probably impossible. There is no inconsistency in rejecting the first type of faith, and tossing out a great deal of religious beliefs with it, while still holding on to the second kind of faith. At most, seeing an inconsistency there demonstrates the inadequacy of language to express certain concepts. I will gladly give up my own atheistic beliefs under the right circumstances, but even mentioning that I do not believe in God/god provokes some remarkably defensive reactions from many people. If faith and/or religion helps a person get through the day, more power to them. If faith and/or religion helps a person find the one great truth that must be imposed on all others, then there is a problem. In other words, some faith is good, and some is bad, and we as a species desperately need the wisdom to understand the difference.

As a tangentially-related side note, I do not feel that the burden of proof is on me to prove that God/god doesn't exist.

One quick note about communists and Nazis--these were not atrocities principally motivated by a lack of belief in God/god. It is by no means clear that Nazism was an atheistic ideology anyway, but that is beside the point. These ideologies had many things in common with fanatical religious doctrines--followers acted out of a fervent belief that was not supported by empirical evidence, or had as its support evidence that had been distorted beyond recognition by ideologues. Furthermore, these systems involved personality cults that might be indistinguishable from religions to outside observers. Therefore, to say that atheism naturally leads to the atrocities of Hitler or Stalin is wrong. My beef is with any ideology or system that places dogma above evidence and reason.

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