A group at Madison is putting together an anthology from any and all undergrads who want to submit. Here's my entry:
Faith is bad for you, kids. Kinda like cigarettes.
First, I suppose, I should explain what I mean by "faith." It's one of those weasel words whose vague meanings allow them to be used for pushing a lot of nonsense. In one usage, it means anything believed without absolute certainty, i.e. "you have faith that you will not pass incorporeally through your chair." In this context, the implication is that all faith-beliefs are rationally equivalent.
Bullshit. Almost none of our beliefs are absolutely certain. We all think the year is 2006, but maybe we're living in the Matrix. We all think the civil war happened, but maybe God created the world in 1921 (complete with bogus historical documents and people carrying false memories). We all think the sun will rise tomorrow, but maybe it don't.
If someone tells you you are basing your beliefs on "faith" because those beliefs are not absolutely certain, they're really saying that no belief is rationally superior to another. Clearly, however, it's more rational to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow than that it won't, and when I say faith is bad, I don't mean we shouldn't believe the sun will rise tomorrow.
Rather, I'm talking about beliefs that people believe while admitting no rational basis. Such belief is encouraged to an extent in some quarters of modern society. One is told that all religions are good, but it doesn't really matter what religion you have, no need to rationally look at which one is right. Advocates of such a position seem to miss the point that religions disagree, and to pretend that a bunch of contradicting religions can all be right is to deny the word "contradiction" it's generally assigned meaning.
Not long ago I wrote an essay to the effect that faith is only dangerous when people fail to keep straight what is believed on faith and what is believed on evidence. Some creationists, for example, will simultaneously insist that the evolution/creation controversy is a matter of faith and that the evidence supports creationism. It's a rather clever psychological strategy for staying convinced of an ideology: go around thinking your beliefs are rationally superior, but whenever you might be led to worry the evidence is against you, just remember it’s all a matter of faith. Being able to think the evidence is on your side, is a big help for swallowing the fundamentalist belief that everyone who disagrees with you deserves Hell, yet fundamentalists also need to be able to dodge the evidence when confronted with it.
In my previous essay, I contrasted this view with the view of Martin Gardner, author of The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener. In it, he explains he thinks God's existence cannot be proven, going so far as to say, "Faith is indeed quixotic. It is absurd. Let us admit it. Let us concede everything! To a rational mind the world looks like world without God. It looks like a world with no hope for another life. To think otherwise, to believe in spite of appearances, is surely a kind of madness." Nevertheless, he declared a belief in God on faith. Gardner, I noted, condemns fundamentalism generally and the belief in hell for unbelievers specifically. Hard to damn unbelievers if you admit belief is a matter of faith.
Shortly after writing that essay, though, I had a little run in with one of the evangelists that stands out on library mall on weekends. I had been making a habit of confronting them, trying to see what reason they can give for supposing their beliefs are true. What did it was when one explained to me that the Holy Spirit lets believers know that the entire Bible is true.
"Does the Holy Spirit allow everyone to know this?"
"I don't know."
"And you believe the Bible when it says that that those who do not believe are condemned?"
"And belief is contingent on whether God decides to give someone the Holy Spirit?"
I remember distinctly the look of disgust on the face of a classmate who had stopped to listen to our conversation. I also remember being unable to see any way for a faith like that of Martin Gardner to keep from straying into the sort of faith I was seeing then.
Yes, faith is bad for you. The habit of taking things on faith may seem harmless, but like many habits, it can have nasty consequences in the end. Let us, as a society, give it up.
The essay I refer to is here.