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philosophy, Religion

Faith: Compounding Errors

Spurred on by my frequent interlocutor, Alison, I’ve been thinking more about precisely how faith screws people up.  Just so we’re on the same page, I’m defining a faith-based belief very specifically as a belief that is held despite evidence to the contrary and/or no evidence in support of it.  Of course, I am pointing the most fingers at religious people, but this conversation can extend to non-religious quackery as well.

To begin with, let’s observe that faith based beliefs are necessarily non-scientific, and are therefore overwhelmingly likely to be false or at the least, less true then the scientific beliefs addressing the same subject.  I’m discounting the remote possibility that someone can blindly stumble into scientific truth through faith.

Next, let’s observe that faith based belief is self-reinforcing.  That is, once we have decided that it’s ok to believe one thing on faith, it becomes permissible or even desirable to believe other things on faith.  Once we discard the scientific method and logic as the only means of acquiring knowledge, the boundaries become entirely arbitrary, since we can claim faith as the justification for the number of faith based beliefs we have.

I don’t want to overgeneralize, so let me be more specific here.  I am only speaking of intentional faith based belief.  I’m pretty sure every human alive has some beliefs that are actually unsupported by evidence.  I am only talking about people who believe that faith based belief is valid.  So, I think I am justified in saying that among people who believe in faith, it is unlikely to find many who have only one faith based belief.  On the contrary, faith seems the perfect justification for adding new beliefs whenever it is perceived as beneficial to do so.

Ok.  With these two principles, I think we can see clearly how a faith-based belief system tends to cause significant problems.  I don’t want to propose a hard and fast mathematical principle, but I think we can say that in general, adding faith based beliefs multiplies dysfunction. Let’s use the example that got me thinking along these lines.   I challenged Alison to think of a uniquely faith-based belief that causes an increase in functionality and happiness in a person, and she did a good job.  She used a belief held by most Christians:  Man is inherently sinful, and must work hard to overcome his inherent evil.

Suppose that Bob has led a non-religious life, and is either unhappy, or just puttering through life without a sense of purpose.  Now, suppose that Bob becomes convinced that this one Christian belief is true — Man is inherently sinful, and must work hard to overcome his inherent evil.  Having incorporated this belief into his worldview, Bob might decide that he must be a driving force for good.  To that end, he starts a foundation to build houses for the poor.  As a result, he finds fulfilment, feels good about helping others, and leads a self-actualized life that increases good in the world.

The belief is false — man is not inherently sinful.  Sin is a nonsense concept, and does not exist.  However, the false belief has produced true results.  Helping other people feels good, and in general, most people like philanthropists.  Bob will be well liked, and will enjoy the benefits of his good works, and will probably attribute his newfound happiness to his religious belief.

There’s a catch, though.  This interpretation misses an important question.  What is sin?  The fact is, there’s a long list of things that most Christians believe to be sinful.  Some of them fit a realistic model of morality while others quite obviously don’t.  Furthermore, some (maybe most?) Christians believe in absolute morality — that some actions are inherently sinful, regardless of context.

So, let’s add another Christian belief to the mix.  Sin is absolute.  Now, Bob believes that his sinful nature must be overcome, and anytime he does certain actions, he is sinning.  Let’s give him a very short list of sins that are relatively reasonable.  (We won’t make him cut his hand off if it does something bad.)  Let’s say that lying, drinking, and cursing are sins, and that’s it.  Now, Bob starts experiencing the multiplication effect.  Everytime he is presented with a situation where a little white lie is appropriate, he’s going to have a moral dilemma.  Does he sin, and feel guilty for sinning, or tell the truth, even though it will have bad consequences?  His guilt will be unnecessary, and will just cause problems.  Similarly, when it becomes obvious that there are certain words that Bob won’t say, other people will regard him as something of a bumpkin.  Most people realize that words aren’t magic, and there’s nothing wrong with cursing in appropriate situations.

Bob’s popularity will be somewhat limited because he doesn’t drink.  Most people drink, and alcohol is a great social lubricant.  Many good people will think of Bob as a well meaning prude, and will prefer to spend time with people who are more fun.  If Bob ever builds a house in another culture, where it is considered offensive not to drink with your host, he will either offend his host or feel guilty for sinning.  Again — unnecessary problems.

It’s certainly not unreasonable to say that Bob might still have a very happy life building houses for people.  I’m not about to claim that all people who believe in faith are unhappy.  However, this simple example illustrates how only one or two faith-based beliefs have a long reach, and cause unnecessary negative side effects.

The reality is that most Christians don’t just believe this simplistic model.  They believe in other things, too.  They believe in human souls, which causes a direct conflict with people who would choose to end pregnancies.  They believe that only monogamous heterosexual marriage is “good” sexual behavior.  They believe that people need Christian morality to be good people.  They believe non-Christians lead empty lives.  They believe dancing is wrong, and that women shouldn’t cut their hair.  They believe they should have as many children as possible.  They believe shooting abortion doctors is good.

When we look at the full spectrum of faith-based belief, we see an amazing diversity of beliefs.  We also see a wide diversity of the extent of faith based beliefs.  Some people are barely faith-based at all.  I’ve met Christians whose only apparent faith based belief is that because they believe in Jesus, they’re going to heaven.   Others literally see demons and angels everywhere, and see portents and signs in nearly every event during a day.

The mechanism for the multiplication of falsehood is simple.  Nothing exists in a vacuum, and a single false belief generally necessitates other false beliefs.  Let’s take lust as an example.  Let’s say that lust is always a sin.  If I believe this, I will certainly notice that I tend to lust after women who dress provocatively.  Do I decide that I should not look at women who dress provocatively?  Perhaps.  If I do so, I’ll have to stay in my house most of the time, and will have trouble finding work where I will never have to look at such women.   If I have any control of my environment, I might decide that it’s better to prevent women from dressing provocatively around me.  Maybe I’ll only associate with people who dress conservatively.   I will almost certainly decide that women who dress provocatively are inciting evil.  It’s logical, after all.  Pretty soon, it will be obvious to me that most of the world is a very evil place, since women almost everywhere dress provocatively.

See how it works?  Just from this one false belief, we can easily imagine a society where lots of powerful men can decide to enforce draconian control over women, making them dress in colorless, shapeless outfits that only show their eyes.  We can imagine that women would be forced to avoid many areas so that men could be free of their evil.  We can imagine that women would be horribly punished for “inciting men to lust.”

In short, the reason faith based beliefs are so dangerous, and cause so much dysfunction, is that they are much like the one bad apple that spoils the whole bunch.  Nothing exists in a vacuum, and whenever something threatens our one faith based belief, we must alter our belief about the threat.  This becomes our second belief.  Soon, something may threaten our second belief, and we form a third belief.  It might be that ten things threaten our third belief, which causes us to form another ten false beliefs.

Of course, there are very few people who let faith based belief multiply to the point of complete absurdity.  Most people cordon off their belief in faith when it crosses some arbitrary boundary of absurdity.  (Witness the large number of Christians who believe in evolution despite the problems it causes for the concept of original sin.)  The broad point, though, is that by its very nature, faith tends to multiply false beliefs up to a subjective point of incredulity. Without faith, the power of reason tends to reduce false beliefs in pursuit of truth.



3 thoughts on “Faith: Compounding Errors

  1. Hambydammit said: “…I’m discounting the remote possibility that someone can blindly stumble into scientific truth through faith.”

    Actually, I think this glosses over the most important dysfunction-leveraging maneuver that faith encourages. There are other truths that people do stumble into much of the time, but they too often attribute recognition of those truths to faith rather than realizing that faith is a hindrance.

    Most people think there are moral truths, or at least practical truths about getting along with other humans and areas of agreement about shared human values which form the core of sound moral reasoning. For example, pretty much everyone believes that compassion and honesty and such are virtues – i.e. good character traits for people to have and put into action. (Even people who regularly behave like heartless, lying bastards – like everyone left in the Republican party these days – *pretend* to believe compassion and honesty are virtues and make positive noises about them, which indicates that they recognize the same moral truths even though they don’t actually behave according to them.)

    For any moral truth whatsoever, though, you will have literally billions of people who claim that they know this moral truth through their faith. The problem is that there are many perfectly reasonable ways to recognize and justify those moral truths which have nothing whatsoever to do with faith, and that faith justifies absolutely nothing. By its very nature, faith stands in exact opposition to justification – because justification is based on evidence and reasoning, which faith rejects. Thus, it’s no surprise that when you look at the actual underpinnings of all the religions where people claim to find their values, you find all sorts of contradictory claims about morality: The same holy books will preach compassion on one page and promote war on another and demand bloody sacrifice on another and reduce half the human race to slave status on another. People who manage to be both deeply religious and reasonably moral only do so because they use their own reason and judgment to pick and choose from amongst the baseless, self-contradictory moral messages promoted by their holy books and preachers. (Of course, lots of them don’t manage to be moral at all, limiting their compassion to people exactly like them and heaping scorn and hate on everyone who differs.) Yet, the faithful never attribute their morality (or anyone else’s morality) to their reason and judgment, they always falsely attribute it to their faith – which by definition defies reason and eschews judgment.

    You talk about faith and moral beliefs by specific example later in your post, but you limit yourself to pointing out that faith beliefs rarely come one at a time: I think the problem is bigger than that, though. Faith makes people moral idiots – not just because it leads them into many bad moral decisions along with the occasional good one, but because faith blinds them to the real basis for whatever good moral decisions they manage to make in spite of their faith beliefs. If you understand the basis for your values and moral decisions, you can make consistently good moral decisions. If you don’t, you are a lot more likely to act like a moral idiot, not knowing why the right action is right or the wrong action is wrong. Consider someone who volunteers to feed the hungry and house the homeless – acts of compassion and sympathy towards your fellow humans, to be sure – while simultaneously fighting to keep gays from marrying or adopting – showing a woeful lack of compassion and sympathy, treating your fellow humans like non-human monsters for displaying exactly the same values about love and companionship and family that you do. This sort of thing is clear moral idiocy, and it doesn’t happen just because faith beliefs rarely come one at a time, but because faith directly obscures and confuses real moral reasoning.

    Posted by G Felis | September 13, 2009, 6:27 pm
  2. GFelis, I am still waiting for that paper on cognitive dissonance and “innate tolerance,” by the way. I wonder if it would have relevance to this discussion.

    You raise a very good point. Removing morality from a results based empirical system of evaluation effectively results in an arbitrary system of morality. I’ve said it before — the irony is that Christian morality leads inexorably to complete subjectivity. It may be difficult to pin down the “best” natural moral system, but it’s not difficult at all to figure out which ones are better, and which are worse. However, when faith is the judge, we are choosing between people, not systems. Which person do we believe based on our “faith”?

    Posted by hambydammit | September 13, 2009, 6:52 pm
  3. ~”See how it works? Just from this one false belief, we can easily imagine a society where lots of powerful men can decide to enforce draconian control over women, making them dress in colorless, shapeless outfits that only show their eyes. We can imagine that women would be forced to avoid many areas so that men could be free of their evil. We can imagine that women would be horribly punished for “inciting men to lust.””

    So true…so true… nuns, burqas

    Posted by Jessica Anderson | September 13, 2009, 8:56 pm

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