Thursday, December 04, 2003

What follows is an essay I've been meaning to write for some time. Comments are appreciated. I have more planned.

On Faith

Faith is, supposedly, a virtue. Certainly it’s taboo to question the legitimacy of someone else’s faith. Even worse is to suggest that faith isn’t actually desirable, noble or virtuous at all. Yet it is, in fact, not the assertion of strength of mind it’s made out to be: by reducing matters of extreme importance to untestable and unquestionable notions of faith, religion becomes an easy home for the weak-willed and weak-minded; indeed, it is exactly those whose self-esteem has been destroyed by events that certain religious groups pry on.

As orthodox religious understandings of the world and its workings are one-by-one destroyed by science then religious philosophy has its ground taken from under it. Christians now typically talk about Adam, Eve and the much of the Old Testament as a metaphor yet just 150 years ago it was taken as fact; it is only Charles Darwin’s (and subsequent) discoveries that have forced the change of tack. This has resulted in an unashamed moving of the goalposts to which intellectual objection must be raised. As Richard Dawkins, Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University puts it:

“A good satirical parallel might be to suppose that one day in the fullness of time science discovers that the DNA double helix is false, that we got it all wrong, and DNA is not a double helix. Now, any scientist would say, "Right, pity about that, but we'll now work on finding out what it really is." My satire on theology would be: "Ah, but in some other sense the DNA double helix surely has some meaning for us. What is the DNA double helix trying to tell us in the world today? Maybe the twisting of the two strands of DNA has some significance for the uniting of human beings one with another – we must set aside the purely mundane issue of is it true, which is crude and facile – we are not talking about truth in any simple sense – we want to find the underlying symbolic truth.” There never was an underlying symbolic truth: either it's true or it isn't.”

By choosing to move the goalposts rather than admit the true implications of Darwin’s work – that small-Earth Creationism is a lie and therefore that the authority of the Old Testament (at a very minimum) must be in question – then Christianity shows itself to be a home for dreamers rather than a serious attempt to explain and interpret the world. Indeed, novelist Fay Weldon – herself a Christian – said during the recent furore over gay bishops that Christianity was “in danger of simply becoming a collection of well-meaning people speaking the language of psycho-therapy”. Weldon is right to denounce Christianity’s capitulation in the face challenges to its orthodoxy. However to retain one’s faith in such circumstances is not at all the sign of a strong-will that faith is made out to be. It is, in fact, quite the opposite: it is a cowardice retreating into a cave to hide from the waves of truth outside. The bold instead choose to ride those uncertain tides.

Here some will interject that science is itself only a religion and that scientists are simply the high priests of our day. This uninformed opinion demonstrates two things: (i) simple ignorance of what the Scientific Method is and how it acheives results; and (ii) our lack of clarity in the word beleive.

The first of these is the result of the sad fact that what is taught in our science classrooms is rarely science proper; it is instead, at best, other people’s science. The skills of hypothesising, testing and analysis – and their use in combination – are sacrificed for the replication of oft-repeated experiments in which observation, on its own, takes precedence. The most crucial learning outcome that should come from any daliance with science – an understanding of the methodology and power of the Scientific Method – is given only a bit-part role, centre-stage being taken by the bite-sized learning of facts. Consequently there is a tragic lack of understanding about how scientists do their work and little appreciation that, through its methodologies, science ensures that only truths can out, at least in the long run. Any scientific idea that does not stand up to questioning and verification is dumped; sentiment be dammed. This contrasts with the approach of religious groups who steadfastly cling to falsehoods in the face of overwhelming evidence. In some cases, they even take active steps to promote such lies in order to defend their own interests; the Vatican’s recent declaration that condoms do nothing to protect against AIDS is a prime example.

The second response to the "Science-is-religion" school of thought is to highlight the lack of clarity in the word believe. Whilst we can say that our ancestors believed their high priests were delivering sermons from above and also that we believe our scientists are telling us facts they’ve established, it would be clearer to say that our ancestors had faith in their high priests and we have trust in our scientists. The key distinctions are that all our scientist’s work is regulated by peers and, more importantly, its workings are open to investigation by anybody with the time, energy and brain power to do so. In these respects faith is the polar opposite: it is unregulated (to question religious authority is to show weak faith and, in some societies, risk an unpleasant death) and although religious powerblocs may not be entirely closed they are notoriously difficult to gain entry to.

All religious belief, being as it is by definition based on faith, is on lazy and weak intellectual ground. History shows us that as science progresses it narrows the gaps in our understanding of the world, often replacing religious conviction through pure force of argument. There is not a single instance of an idea accepted within the scientific community failing to overcome theist intellectual objections. It is reasonable to assume that this will not change and that the gaps in our knowledge will only be filled by scientific discovery. Dawkins again: “If we come back in a thousand years, we would have our minds blown away by what science has discovered in the meantime, whereas religion or spirituality or mysticism will have discovered nothing more. They never have discovered anything.”

But these criticisms are not the most damning or even the most pertinent for our time; they are saved for the nature of the movements religion – and faith – inspires.

History and anthropology – to pick just two examples – demonstrate how easily human beings define in-groups and out-groups; in short, describing the enemy: Montagues and Capulets, left and right, Blur and Oasis, England and Germany (or Australia – ha!). Indeed, sporting affliation is often observed as being of a tribal nature and sporting language is overloaded with metaphors of combat. Furthermore neo-Darwinism explains why these arbitrary lines are so easy for us to draw (By being a member of a group then an individual – or, more exactly, an individual’s genes – increases its (their) chances of survival and procreation).

The result of this groupishness is often warfare. Whether it’s the US (et al) against The Taliban or Rangers against Celtic, groups will seek to defeat their opponents for their own ends; it is our evolved nature. The percentage of the male population lost to warfare in the Western World during the 20th century – including both World Wars – is a fraction of the correpsonding figure for primitive societies (who, if anything, are likely to wish to reduce that observed figure if they can). This suggests that warfare is part of our indelible human make-up and not, as we often like to decieve ourselves, a product of 20th-century tendencies. The notion of the Noble Savage is false (and is more throughly debunked in Steven Pinker’s fantastic book The Blank Slate).

Religion isn’t just another label for us to indulge these fatalistic habits; it’s the most dangerous label we have. It’s well-observed that religion is, at a minimum, an undertone in many wars; and that all too often religion is the war. The reason religion is so potent a label for our groupish instincts – moreso than even nationality or race – is exactly where we began: faith.

Faith is unquestionable. The stronger one’s faith, the more one’s faith stands up to argument. This, in partnership with the idea that faith is virtuous or noble, offers an excuse and gives reason to those who wish to partake in maladaptive behaviour, so long as it is in the name of the religion. Muslim suicide bombers are the obvious example but there are many less extreme but equally cruel examples: some religiously-inspired anti-abortion activists have indulged in terrorism and the barbaric tradition of female circumsition is still practised in many corners of the world, to pick just two. Such examples are the direct result of faith’s unquestionability overriding our humanity. Suddenly talk of Christianity – or any religion – being an umbrella for ‘well-intentioned’ people looks grossly misplaced. To pick one example from Bertrand Russell’s satirical essay Nice People: “[nice people] endeavor to insure also that as little as possible shall be known on the subject [of sex] in a decent way; they try to get the censor to forbid books and plays which represent the matter other than as an occasion for... nastiness”.

So, returning to where we started: is faith a virtue? For some faith is sufficiently strong that they will blow up both themselves and others convinced they will receive 12 beautiful virgins in the afterlife. Others – less barbaric but equally faithful – are so indulged in their dogma that they have the arrogance to offer non-believers – those liberated and brave enough to explore the world simply as they find it – their sympathy! In different personalities faith allows for explotation: Osama Bin Laden uses the lives of disillusioned young men to fly planes into skyscrapers, cult-leaders inspire mass suicides in their followers and TV evangalists promise eternal happiness in exchange for cash. In all these examples the difference is only of extremes, in form they are they same: the certainty of faith polluting our rationality. How does faith look now?

In contrast an absense of faith frees our minds. With no dogma to hold us down we are liberated to develop our own comprehension of the world. Some may prefer the false safety-net of religious comfort. It is tempting to say that is fair enough but for it to hold any water then the religion must at least attempt to offer a credible worldview (otherwise what is there to beleive in?). Sadly with that belief comes faith, the tip of a particularly slippy dogmatic iceberg floating in a sea of tragedy.

Comments: Post a Comment