November 24, 2004

Faith v. Reason

Given that Voices of Reason is a site dedicated to, uh reason, it is appropriate to finally address head-on the “faith-based” nation (and government) that has been awakened these last few years and holds an increasing amount of political power. To begin, in our society the word “faith” is essentially used as a euphemism for religion, and more often than not, for the Christian religion specifically. Webster’s dictionary defines faith as a firm belief in something for which there is no proof, which certainly includes most religious doctrines. Let’s take a moment to think about this. Are beliefs based on faith something we should encourage, particularly regarding government policy? I sincerely hope not. Human progress is largely marked by a movement away from faith, towards a conception of the world based on facts and refutable hypotheses; e.g. reason.

So I’m going to come out and say flatly and plainly, no I don’t support a move towards a more faith-based society, and I definitely think faith and government is a bad mix since science often gets put on the back burner. For example, the Bush administration continues to ignore scientific consensus on possibly the biggest threat to humanity in the 21st century, global warming, makes highly illogical arguments against expanding stem cell research when the embryos that may help save people’s lives are already destined for destruction, makes appeals against gay marriage based on a “holy” book which also sanctions selling your children into slavery, while at the same time tries to convince us that alleviating poverty should be the role of private charity, instead of society’s fundamental moral obligation based on a sense of shared purpose and humanity.

The obvious problem with faith is that anyone can have faith in anything. Tens of millions of Americans have faith that Jesus will return one day to save them, whereas Osama Bin Laden has faith that destroying America is doing Allah’s work. These beliefs are obviously contradictory, but how are we to judge which is valid and which isn’t, solely using faith as a metric? We can’t since people who rely entirely on faith cannot be reasoned with, and herein lies the danger. I often point out that since the majority of religions have contradictory prescriptions for how to live a proper life, by definition the majority of them must be wrong, but this doesn’t seem to prevent anyone from clinging to their own version of “righteousness.”

Before you think I am advocating an entirely secular view of the world, let me assure you that I am not. People commonly mistake a critique of religion and faith as necessarily implying atheism or beliefs only grounded in a humanistic worldview. This is incorrect. Relying entirely on reason, it is apparent that the universe is animated by some force beyond human comprehension. It is impossible for us to conceive of infinity and equally impossible to conceive of a universe with boundaries. It is impossible for us to conceive of a starting point in time just as it’s impossible to conceive of non-existence. No matter how good we get at understanding the origins of the universe we will never be able to discover the ultimate source of it all. Just when we think we have all the answers there’s always the question of what came before our latest discovery. As much as there’s no proof that God created human beings in His image, it’s certainly true that whatever force unleashed the material universe set in motion a process that ultimately led to our evolution. Was this intentional? Who knows, but it’s quite miraculous and awe-inspiring regardless.

My point is that a secular worldview alone is not sufficient to fully understand human existence and our place in the universe. There are mysteries that the scientific method and the best minds in the world will never solve. A purely secular mindset is irrational, because it denies the profundity of these mysteries. These gaps in our knowledge are the entry points for religion and faith, but they need not lead to the even more irrational nonsense that is spewed on many (not all) pulpits throughout the world daily, and unfortunately, by some of our political leaders. Ideally, an acknowledgement that we don’t have satisfactory answers to some of life’s most fundamental questions (and never will) would lead us to be cautious and humble when making claims about our ultimate origins, instill in us a deep and profound awe for Creation, and help us to cultivate a sense of lasting curiosity and appetite for discovery. That we often succumb to dogma and fear instead, clinging to myopic, reactionary, and contradictory visions, attests to how childlike we still are.

More often than not, faith is not a measure of piousness, but of immaturity, not a measure of a noble society, but of an ignorant one. Extreme secularism is also narrow-minded and can lead to an excessively cold and dark view of the world. Fortunately, with a strong commitment to reason we can avoid both of these pitfalls. To be continued….

P.S. Religious people often ask me to consider the possibility that they might be right and whether it would be in my best interests to accept their teachings as a form of “insurance policy.” Putting aside the notion that God would take kindly to beliefs based on such unabashed self-interest, I confidently reply in the negative. My first response is simple; as soon as you buy into one roadmap to the afterlife you preclude others and therefore a clean slate seems like the best insurance policy of all. My second response is a little more subtle and rarely do I get an answer. I state that although reason leads me to believe that there is something greater than I in the universe, this same reason tells me that if there is a God it is insult to Her to believe that She would require me to play all sorts of bizarre mind games in order to win Her allegiance. If and when the day comes that I must meet this God I am confident we will be able sit down and reason since this is the best gift She has given us.

Jason Scorse