Robert Richert: A Critique of Religious Faith

By | July 29, 2010

Most Americans believe that religious faith is one of the noblest of human virtues. Indeed, many people claim that religious faith is the cornerstone of their spiritual well being. Following are three definitions of faith from my Webster’s dictionary: “Belief and trust in and loyalty to God”, “Something that is believed with strong conviction,” and “Firm belief in something for which there is no proof”.

Analysis and criticism of religious faith is a difficult task because of the ambiguity of the word’s usage, the value accorded it in our society, and the passion that it arouses. However, I think this is a task in need of doing and bringing to the public’s attention.

One problem I have encountered repeatedly is that people often use different meanings of the word ‘Faith’ within the same context. For example, religious believers often begin a discussion by saying that they believe because of faith. However, when pressed, they shift more emphasis toward their strong convictions about their beliefs, as if these are one in the same. Thus, when a skeptic criticizes faith as a justification for belief, it often becomes construed as a personal attack upon the believer’s character. This shift of emphasis often places the critic rather than the believer in an uncomfortable position. Therefore, skeptics should demand clarification at the outset and illuminate the following important distinction: Believing on the basis of faith is not the same thing as having strong feelings about the belief. The former is an argument and the latter is an expression of passion. Conservative Muslims are as committed to and passionate about the truth of their beliefs as are Evangelical Christians. Obviously, one’s strength of conviction and expression of passion is not in any way a barometer as to the truth of a belief.

A common claim is that everyone, even atheists, believes in ‘something’ based upon faith. Here are some typical examples that I have heard from religious believers: When we stop at a red light at an unfamiliar intersection, we have ‘faith’ that the light will turn green. We have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that our car will start in the morning. The argument is made that if everyone believes in some things based upon faith, religious faith is justified. However, according to the Bible (Hebrews11:1), “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” Traditionally, Theologians have interpreted the latter phrase to mean that the existence of God cannot be proven by the ordinary rules of evidence and experience, and/or that evidence for his existence is of a mysterious nature. They argue that faith is a special way of knowing distinct from mere reason and everyday experience. However, the word ‘faith’ used in the mundane examples above is more accurately defined as, “confidence gained through experience in the routine of daily life.” This is not religious faith! In fact, the use of the word faith in the above examples stands in direct contradiction to traditional biblical and theological interpretations.

Along with its ambiguous usage, another problem is that there are varying degrees of faith. For example, knowing the possibility of an accident, I might nonetheless maintain a small degree of faith that I will reach my destination safely and decide to drive on the freeway. This is not the same thing as believing I will be safe based totally on faith. It is a matter of weighing probabilities. To some, faith may play a small part in every day decision making processes, to others none at all. It depends upon how one evaluates such situations. In any case, to passionately believe in God on the sole basis of religious or blind faith is not at all like having a small degree of faith in a decision based primarily on evidence or experience.

Many believers say that their faith is not grounded in a vacuum; they have trenchant personal experiences confirming the truth of their faith. No doubt that people have vivid, even life changing religious experiences. However it is reasonable to question their interpretation and whether they connect to something beyond the individual mind. People with strong religious convictions tend to construe their religious experiences through the rose colored glasses of entrenched beliefs. For example, the Virgin Mary appears frequently in Catholic miracle stories and visions, but almost never in Protestant versions. Almost all of the world’s leading religions contain stories of powerful mind altering personal experiences, and they usually reinforce the existing belief system or a current religious trend. Often, the theological message within one religious experience stands in contradiction to those within other religions. All of this strongly suggests that such occurrences, emotionally moving as they may be, are subjective in nature. In any case, if people claim that these events are evidence that their beliefs are true, they are not basing them solely upon faith.

We all have heard the expression that, “Faith moves mountains.” I usually counter this statement by saying, “Yes, but sometimes people motivated by strong faith, move those mountains on top of people of different faiths!” We have all heard stories about people motivated by faith accomplishing wonderful things such as building hospitals and serving the poor. However, faith has an ugly dark side. I can’t think of a more timely and poignant example than the September 11th terrorist attacks. The perpetrators, devout Muslims, believed that Allah would reward them in the afterlife. Most certainly, they were motivated by strong religious faith! It should seem crystal clear after 9-11 that having strong religious convictions is no guarantee for good works and ethical conduct. Yes, sometimes faith works for the good, but sometimes it works for the bad. Yet, this dark side is seldom acknowledged in our society. Many religious people are reluctant to attribute evil acts to strong religious faith. They offer presumptive and arrogant rationalizations like; the terrorists strayed from their ‘true’ faith, or they don’t believe in the ‘correct’ religion in the first place. Not only do our three major faiths have significant doctrinal differences, each contains many denominations and scriptural interpretations. Who is to say which, if any are correct, and on what basis? I sincerely doubt that any atheist could be convinced to fly a jetliner into a building because of potential God given rewards in a heavenly afterlife!

Imagine a criminal defendant saying to the jury, “I don’t have an alibi and no evidence to support my claim to innocence. Just have faith that I didn’t do the crime.” Most people would take this comment with a grain of salt! Imagine a scientist claiming that although he has no evidence for his hypothesis, it is true and must be taken purely on faith. This scientist would be labeled a crackpot. Would a wise consumer buy a used car based solely on his faith in a total stranger’s testimony that the car is in perfect condition? No! Religion is the only major aspect of our culture in which faith is not just acceptable but heralded as virtuous. Although it may be claimed that religious faith is distinguishable from the other forms of faith in the examples above, I don’t see any substantive difference, only a double standard. The elevation of religious faith to a high virtue strikes me as an example of special pleading. If faith submitted as evidence or justification for belief isn’t acceptable in our courts, in science, or when purchasing a car, it shouldn’t be acceptable as a basis for believing in religion.

How can one have evidence for, “…things unseen,” meaning things beyond or above reason, experience and scientific knowledge? By what process does one weigh the truth of one representative religious faith against another that is different? If faith is a personal, intuitive process, why should we believe that this intuition is tapping into anything that is objectively true? I have not heard any cogent responses to these questions. Inadvertently, the first phrase of the biblical definition, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for…” may provide an answer. It strongly suggests that faith is based upon wishful thinking. Thus, faith isn’t about discovering truth, it’s really a form of religious hedonism: People of faith believe what they desire to believe is true; they believe because it makes them feel good, even in the absence of supporting evidence or despite contrary evidence. Thus, elevating religious faith to a noble virtue provides the socially protective cloak that enables an emotional justification for the rationally unjustifiable. I find this deception reprehensible, not to mention immoral! As for claims about religious faith leading to truth, skeptics must demand more than strong convictions, passionately felt personal experiences and wishful thinking. Skeptics need solid evidence derived independently of personal bias.

For all of the reasons above, I think that religious faith is not a pathway to knowledge. It is a subjective experience deeply rooted by human emotional wants and needs. As a means to truth, it is not just irrational, but anti-rational. Throughout history, religious thinkers have defended faith by attacking human reason. Martin Luther said repeatedly that reason was the enemy of faith. Even in our scientific age today, many religious thinkers argue that human reason is limited and inadequate, and that faith is superior. When believers elevate religious faith to high virtue and use the word ambiguously, whether intended or not, they are attempting to insulate themselves from the burden of proof. I think that all beliefs we deem important and hold with strong convictions should be based upon solid, reliable evidence. To the contrary, Religious faith is glorified ignorance masquerading as truth.

Religious faith should not be heralded as a noble quality or as a hallmark of human virtue in any educated society.

by Robert Richert

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