Brainstormin’: Faith is a False Friend

A few weeks ago, I found myself at the front of a sizeable auditorium, facing an audience full of faithful Christians. The organizers of the event—the Christian Veritas Forum—had flown in a charismatic MIT chemistry professor to offer a Christian point of view. A second panelist—a smart statistics professor and fellow member of Carnegie Mellon’s faculty—was there to share his Unitarian perspective. I was the panel’s token humanist, and as our charge was framed by the provocative title “Faith: Friend or Foe?” the task of provocation fell, it seemed, to me. After acknowledging faith’s considerable allure, I argued—forcefully, I think—that faith is in fact a false friend. Ever since, I have been fielding requests for copies of my remarks. I recount them here (in abridged form).

Faith: Friend or Foe?

I have been asked to take a stand on the question of faith. More specifically, on whether it is more properly regarded as friend or foe. I am not a person of faith, but I will not cast faith in the role of foe. For one thing, I do not consider religious people my enemies. For another, there is an antagonism inherent in a relationship between foes that I find unconstructive. So I will set aside the “foe” option. In fact, let me stipulate, in a spirit of reconciliation, that faith is a friend. By this, I mean to recognize that a certain set of mental habits affords hope, strength and comfort to millions, perhaps billions of people. I understand that these habits play an important role in people’s emotional and social lives—a role not unlike that of a friend.

But is faith a true friend to humanity? Does it repay our friendship in kind? Or is it rather a false friend: something that appears to benefit us while in fact harming us? This is a question we can explore together. Indeed, it is a question in urgent need of open and honest examination.

[I here omit several segments of my actual presentation, among them a definition of humanism, some observations about fair-minded assessment, and an analysis of the way faith-talk functions. I noted that faith-talk is used to promote certain beneficial attitudes, but also that it is used to exempt religious claims from basic standards of rational accountability.]

Consider the fact that faith has spawned many hundreds of incompatible belief systems, each claiming a monopoly on religious truth. At most, one of these belief systems is true. This means that, as a method of determining belief, faith is appallingly unreliable. If one of (say) two hundred faith-based systems is correct, then faith gets it right about .5% of the time. Even if, against all odds, faith has guided you to the truth, you must concede that its overall batting average is embarrassingly low. Now ask yourself a simple question: What kind of friend is demonstrably unreliable?

Consider next the kinds of things that the world’s faithful claim to know: that we must sacrifice two goats before dawn, that Jesus rose from the dead, that Allah wants us to wage holy war against the infidels, etc. Take, in particular, the claim that believing in God pleases him, causing him to stamp one’s ticket to heaven. This is a claim about the causal structure of the world—about how certain (mental) acts affect the way things play out. How might one establish such a causal regularity? (Or take, if you prefer, “Jesus was born of a virgin”—How exactly are we supposed to know that?) Is it not utterly astonishing that, in this day and age, people can get away with claiming to know such things? The presumption inherent in such claims is breathtaking—the very antithesis of scientific humility. What kind of friend pretends to know things it can’t possibly know? 

A few weeks ago, I arrived at the office and found three anguished pleas for help in voicemail. A complete stranger had left them: a middle-aged woman struggling with a kind of identity crisis. She concluded that she needed philosophical counseling, and somehow, her web search led to me. I called her back, and over the course of an hour, her story came out. She had been raised Christian, and taught that, if she didn’t have faith, she would be denied entrance to heaven. Her marriage had collapsed, she had a child to support, and her deadbeat ex-husband had disappeared. With minimal earning prospects, she went back to college where, for the first time in her life, she was encouraged to think for herself. She found it liberating to ask her own questions, but when she tried to think about her religion, she was seized by fear. She realized, she said, that God, heaven and hell were all fictions, but it didn’t matter—questioning her faith could still bring on a minor panic attack. She’d approached her minister for help, but he had pointed out (correctly) that, according to the New Testament, doubting the existence of the Holy Spirit was an unforgiveable sin. She must stop thinking about it, he said, or she would surely spend eternity writhing in hell. She felt trapped, and began questioning her sanity.

Think about this for a moment. Religion had carved a set of neural pathways in this poor woman’s brain that effectively short-circuited her capacity to think critically. Questions about her faith literally made her nauseous. What kind of friend does that to a person? What kind of friend employs emotional abuse to prevent you from breaking off the relationship?

Consider also the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. In it, God commands Abraham to prove his devotion by sacrificing his son Isaac. Thoroughly addled by faith, Abraham prepares to slit Isaac’s throat, no doubt traumatizing him in the process. God shows a glimmer of moral decency when he sends an angel to stay Abraham’s hand, but set this aside. Focus on the simple fact that the story is meant to celebrate Abraham’s faith. The clear message is: Obedience above all. What kind of friend demands such obedience? 

It is worth noting that all three of the world’s great monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—are referred to as “Abrahamic” because they derive historically from this selfsame Abraham, and continue to worship texts that celebrate Abrahamic obedience—a blind, faith-based obedience that is supposed to override basic moral decency. Indeed, that is the whole point of the Abraham-and-Isaac story. What kind of friend deranges human values so completely for the sake of obedient followers?

Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists, Sunnis and Shiites: What kind of friend divides humanity into irreconcilable tribes, then inspires them to war upon one another for thousands of years?

Articles of faith are widely held to be exempt from basic standards of rational accountability. A doctor must have a good reason to prescribe a medication, an engineer must have grounds for thinking his bridge will provide safe passage, and a scientist must have evidence before positing a new particle. Heck, if I cancel a picnic that you are looking forward to, I owe you a good reason. But the concept of faith functions to protect religious beliefs from the standards of rational accountability that prevail in other domains. It whispers that, in at least this domain, we are not accountable. What kind of friend consistently excuses gross evasions of rational accountability?

Consider the social norm that says, in effect: If you can provide the better reason, I will yield. This is in many ways the founding contract of a civil society, for it affords an excellent, nonviolent way of resolving disputes. I would argue that this is the most important, civilizing norm ever—a kind of basis for civil society. Now if you look closely at how professions of faith function, you will see that, in effect, they amount to a defiant refusal to observe this norm. In essence, a profession of faith indicates to anyone who might disagree: ‘You might have the better reason, but I am too attached to this belief to rethink it.’ And so we must ask: What kind of friend flaunts the norm that has always allowed people of good will to resolve their differences amicably? What kind of friend willfully defies the understanding at the heart of civilized existence?

Consider the fact that slavery, torture, war, the persecution of gays, and the oppression of women have all sought, and all received, shelter under the rubric of faith. (“How do I know that homosexual marriage is an abomination? I suppose that’s an article of faith.”) Study history: you will find that, time and again, it is the doubters, the humanists and freethinkers that lead the charge for moral progress. Religious fundamentalists, on the other hand, tend to oppose such change. What kind of friend protects morally backwards teachings from humane revision? What kind of friend provides cover for hateful, inhumane ideologies? 

Consider the fact that religious people are less likely to educate themselves, not just on scientific matters, but also about their own religions. (A recent study found that, on average, adherents of the main religions know less about their religions than atheists do!) Religious people are more superstitious, more intolerant, more homophobic, and more likely to treat women as second-class citizens. What kind of friend breeds ignorance, superstition, intolerance, homophobia, and the oppression of women?

Faith has long claimed to provide a foundation for morals. It is assumed, for example, that fear of punishment in the next life tends to promote better behavior in this one. But this assumption has been tested, and it just isn’t true. For if it were, religious societies would have lower levels of societal dysfunction: lower crime and murder rates, less poverty, lower rates of teen pregnancy, less homelessness, abortion, divorce, etc. Studies, though, have shown that religiosity correlates with higher levels of societal dysfunction. If you live in a more religious country (or a more religious US state), in other words, you are more likely, not less, to experience high rates of crime, murder, poverty, infant mortality, homelessness, teen pregnancy and divorce. What kind of friend leaves societal dysfunction in its wake? 

(To be fair, we don’t know that religiosity causes the societal dysfunction—it could be the other way around—but evidence like this should dispose forever of the pretense that the faithful are more likely to live moral lives.)

Consider the evidence from history. For more than a thousand years, faith-based ideologies ruled Europe, wielding intimidation, torture and violence, leaving Europe it in a state of ignorance, poverty and disease. (This period is called the Dark Ages for a reason.) The era culminated in a period of sectarian violence and religious warfare that soured Europeans on faith for an entire century. In the eighteenth century, a kind of “faith fatigue” set in, and what happened? Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature documents precisely what happened: Murder rates plunged. Dramatically. So did crime rates, incidents of violence, state execution, superstitious killing, slavery and torture. The notion of human rights gained currency, despots lost power, and the institution of slavery was dealt a mortal blow. In the ensuing years, this “humanitarian revolution” has led to abolition movements, civil rights movements, women’s suffrage, and now gay rights. Faith waned, and human decency improved both rapidly and dramatically. What kind of friend postpones moral progress for a thousand years?

The answer to my question should by now be plain: faith is a false friend. At best, it is a two-faced friend. I implore all people of good will—my religious friends no less than my irreligious ones—to confront this “friend” and hold him accountable. Only so can you responsibly believe that you stand on the side of our “better angels.”