Posted 7 March 2016
Faith is one of those overloaded words that is used to mean several different things. Here is a typical multipart definition:
- Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
- Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.
- A system of religious belief.
- A strongly held belief or theory.
The first meaning is entirely separate from the others. I have faith in people, in general and in specific, and in myself. I have faith in the value of personal experience and critical thinking. I have faith in my dog.
This is not, however, what people generally mean when they are talking about faith.
Faith-Based: This is a Good Thing?
It is religious faith that I can’t relate to. It means believing in something despite a rational reason to do so — “based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof”, in the definition above, or “pretending to know something you don’t know” (Peter Boghossian).
“Faith-based” gets used as positive adjective for organizations, using definition 3 (a system of religious belief). What does “faith-based” really tell us about a group? Often, that they are adhering to dogma, rather than encouraging independent, critical thinking. And that, for most of the major religions, part of their belief system is to invalidate the beliefs of most everyone else.
I have no doubt that many, maybe even most, faith-based organizations do a lot of good. The good that they do is often motivated by religious beliefs, but in essence it is the result of good-hearted people gathering in community.
Dogma: Reject on Sight
Many religions do not encourage, or even allow, questioning of their beliefs. That makes their beliefs dogma, and, to me, unacceptable. People arrive at the right ideas through endless questioning and experimenting, not by holding rigidly to stories that are allegedly thousands of years old.
The idea of heresy and blasphemy has been used by religions for millennia as a way to control criticism and inhibit questioning. It is a repressive approach that better fits a totalitarian regime than anything that belongs in the free world.
The very idea that some things cannot be said or questioned is unacceptable to me. No statement or question should be banned because it conflicts with the teachings of one group.
Stuck in the Past
Religions have a stellar track record of rejecting anything new, even when what’s new has strong physical evidence (and is ultimately proven true and accepted by even the Catholic Church). Remember Galileo? He was persecuted by the Catholic Church for decades and kept under house arrest, because he had the nerve to observe some facts about the planets that didn’t line up with Catholic theology.
Today’s premiere science-vs-religion conflict is “intelligent design”, an attempt to reject not only Darwin’s remarkable insights but also the breadth and depth of knowledge that has come from 150 years of study. The evidence for evolution is simply massive, and the problems with intelligent design severe.
Why would you look to an organization, such as the Catholic Church, that holds onto outdated views for decades or centuries, as a source of the truth? There are progressive churches that are not held back in this way, but for the 1.1 billion Catholics in the world, this is the reality.
The scientific approach, in contrast, has its limitations, but at least the knowledge that comes from it evolves. Science generally converges on theories that are supported by many pieces of experimental evidence and bear the test of time.
The same cannot be said of most religions. How many of the prophecies made by over the centuries have come true?
Suppose It Was True 2,000 Years Ago
The world has changed rather dramatically in 2,000 years. Islamic radicals want to move the world back to the middle ages. In mainstream religions, the goal is not this extreme, but they still place massive importance on things (such as the Bible) written long before there was any semblance of modern civilization. A 2011 Gallup poll found that 30% of Americans interpret the Bible literally, saying it is the actual word of God.
There is a reverence often placed on information from long ago that has no real justification. Ancient beliefs about how the world works were generally wrong, being based on superstition and theories with no experimental proof. The Bible has stories that are metaphorically useful, and stories that range from absurd to horrifying.
The more flexible and thoughtful religions have taken the ancient texts as stories to draw from, and reinterpret them in a modern context.
Your Beliefs are Wrong (and maybe evil too)
There are hundreds of religions (thousands if you count all the small ones). Most of them exclude all other religions from being possibly valid: part of believing in them is believing that everyone else is, at a minimum, wrong, and at worst, evil and to be attacked. You must believe in the “one true God”, whatever that is for a particular religion, or you are damned.
One need not look far for examples of strife caused by religious divides: Catholics vs. Protestants, Sunnis vs. Shiites, Christians vs. Muslims, Christians vs. Jews, etc.
This “if you’re not with me you’re against me” attitude alone makes each religion’s unique beliefs unlikely to be true. What is the chance that one of these religions is correct, while all the others are wrong? I put it at near zero.
This diversity of beliefs arises from tribalism, a trait that evolution encouraged in early humans for its survival value. For tens of thousands of years, if you met anyone you didn’t know, they were probably an enemy. Tribes formed rituals to bond their members together, and vilified everyone else as a defensive strategy.
Tribalism no doubt served people well for millennia. While it has its place in modern society (team sports, for example), in religion tribalism has become tremendously counter-productive. Tribalism keeps people from focusing on what they have in common with others, while it emphasizes the differences.
Tribalism is at its worst today in the middle east. It is hard to believe how the Sunnis and the Shiites, for example, have devoted themselves to killing each other, even though they are both branches of the Muslim faith.
Prophets and Messiahs Galore
Every religion has its prophets and messiahs. Many of them have had valid and useful things to say. But is one of them the one true prophet, or the son of god, while all the others are imposters? It seems highly unlikely.
If we look within historical times, there has been an abundance of prophets and messiahs. Many are charismatic and have compelling stories to tell, and because of this they are able to gain followers. Yet all, in hindsight, appear to be at best, overly passionate; for the most part, they are also self-deluded, criminals, or crazy.
There is no question that many people have believed themselves to be the one true source, or in direct communication with god, or even god’s descendent. But are any of them credible? It seems doubtful to me.
People love stories, and people love heroes. So it is not at all surprising that most societies have their creation myths and their heroes/prophets/messiahs. A charismatic figure with a relevant message, in the right place, at the right time, with a collection of followers, can create a powerful presence. The formula is repeated over and over again, with the details changing from one religion to another.
A Striking Example
One of the newest religions is the Mormon Church (Latter Day Saints), founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith. This was, of course, at a time when there were plenty of newspapers and writers, so there is ample evidence of much of what went on before, during, and after the founding of the church. We don’t need to speculate about what Joseph Smith was like, or what physical evidence exists for his stories; there are many contemporary accounts of Joseph Smith’s life and the founding of the Mormon church.
I simply cannot imagine how anyone who has read the history could believe in the Mormon church — much less someone who has risen to a position of such power that they could be a candidate for President — without completely shutting down their critical thinking skills when in “religious” mode.
I can only assume this comes from growing up in an environment that projected the Mormon story, and choosing to accept, rather than question, what you are being told.
The Big Religions
Looking back from Mormonism in the 1800s into pre-history, when the prophets of most religions lived, should we expect it to be any different than for our modern prophets?
Jesus Christ was no doubt a remarkable person, and he apparently triggered a shift from brutal beliefs to more enlightened and empathetic ones. But was he the son of God? Did he rise from the dead? Is the second coming on its way?
There is no real evidence for any of this, and centuries of evidence that makes it unlikely.
More progressive Christians take the stories of Jesus metaphorically, but a disturbing number take it literally.
The same line of thinking applies to Mohammed, Buddha, all of the other “sons of God”. (Didn’t God have any daughters? It seems they were mostly Hindus.) Their teachings may be valuable, but they should be viewed thoughtfully and critically, not as unquestionable dogma.
Many very smart, passionate, charismatic, and well-spoken people have been wrong about a lot of things. There is little correlation between a person’s confidence in the truth of something, and in it actually being true.
I recognize that people may gain value out of faith in a set of beliefs that is not based in any objective truth. I expect that, beyond the common values that most religions provide, most of what people get from their religions has more to do with having something to follow and a community of people to gather with, than it does with any specific beliefs.
Many people, it seems, are drawn to having a system of beliefs to guide them, and they don’t question its truth. For me, this just doesn’t work.
How can so many people continue to believe in heaven and hell, sin and redemption, angels and devils? These seem so clearly to be to be concepts created to manipulate people’s behavior. As metaphors they have value, but I can’t believe in them more than that.
How much mental angst have religious people endured because of these stigmatizing and degrading beliefs? Does fear of sin actually improve people’s behavior? The evidence suggests not. I think it far more likely that church-induced feelings of sin has been a major source of psychological problems.
Judgement day makes a wonderful allegory and, if you can get people to believe it, is a powerful tool for controlling behavior. Nothing about it can ever be proven, yet it has an appeal that has made it an enduring concept. (This should not be confused with an indication of its truth.)
The idea of priests being celibate is another one of those great ideas from the church. It has created a level of sexual abuse of children that goes far beyond what occurs in typical non-religious communities. Living a celibate life is just a bad idea, on any number of levels, and is another centuries-outmoded idea that sticks around because religion hates change and has a distaste for pleasure.
Religion and Power
Royalty has typically claimed a divine connection under a doctrine called the divine right of kings, or, in Asia, the mandate of heaven. What a blatantly self-serving construction! What better way to get cooperation from the masses?
Religion and political power have long been closely tied. Look at the history of Europe and the role of the Pope and Rome. For many hundreds of years, Rome ruled much of Europe, and the Pope was clearly a political leader as much as a religious ones.
Is the Pope the one legitimate, God-given ruler?
What about the kings of the other countries of Europe, and those beyond Europe who claim divine rights, such the Emperor of Japan? Are we to decide between them and the Pope and choose only one? Are all non-Catholics simply damned?
Consider the forming of the Church of England, surely driven more by a desire to break free of Rome’s control than by any religious beliefs.
In the case of modern-day Islamic radicals, they are more of an army and a terrorist group than a religion. They, like most religious leaders, pick and choose the religious principles they will uphold to meet their broader goals.
The awful difference is that their broader goals are brutal, misogynistic, and have taking territory as a key goal. It almost reminds one of the Vatican during the middle ages.
Spiritual, not Religious
I need to take a moment to point out that I am talking here about religion, not spirituality.
Is there something that binds us all together, that we can’t quite sense directly? I avoid using the term God because I do not believe in a personal God, but if you want to use “God” to refer to whatever this mysterious, unknown force is, go right ahead.
To me, being spirituality is about enjoying nature, connecting with people, pursuing my passions, and trying to be as “good” a person as I can.
There’s no need for religion in any of that.
Theories, not Truth
People are people, and there are exceptional ones of many varieties as well as countless ordinary ones. That any are deities, children of God, or messengers from God, I simply do not find believable.
Religions are organized systems of belief, with each one no more likely to be true than another other — especially where they differ from all the others. They can be valuable when approached as theories, but easily become destructive when treated as the Truth.
The vast majority of the principles espoused by most religions are shared across many different religions. Those principles clearly have a lot of validity — and no religion can lay claim to them.
On the other hand, most religions have some beliefs that are not only unique to that religion, but require that believers in other religions be wrong. In my mind, it is clear that all such beliefs are likely to be wrong, since they can’t all be right.
Are we going to condemn the 2.1 billion Christians? or the 1.6 billion Muslims? The only meaningful answer is that both views are equally valid. And, of course, there are countless more.
There’s Much More To It
There are some religions that fit with my perspective: in particular, Unitarian Universalists and Religious Science.
I recognize that churches serve a valuable function in our society, that faith has value in comforting people, and that people are diverse. I’ll address those issues in upcoming essays.