FAQ: "What about faith?"

"What about faith? Shouldn't there be a place for faith? Why do we have this ability, if it is not intended to have some useful purpose? Where did it come from?"

"Are not most if not many things taken on faith? Atheism is a faith. Believing in science is a faith. Evolution is a faith. The existence of many historical figures is accepted on faith. We produce books about Alexander the Great and take them as fact. We take it on faith!"

"You know, there are some things that can only be known through faith - things that are outside the realm of logic and science!"

      It is a common fallacy to think that by assigning a label to things, we have identified them, and that anything that bears that label is therefore inherently pretty much the same as everything else with that label. But that is not true. Labels are sometimes convenient shorthand, but they lead to fallacious comparisons. That's the problem with religionists who are trying to justify their "faith" in inherently absurd things by claiming that it is no different from "faith" in science or the calendar or the people we trust. "Everybody uses 'faith'," they say, "so it must be OK!"

      But there are significant differences between various kinds of what we call "faith." Most religionists try to equate what they are calling "faith" with something quite different. I suggest that it is important to distinguish between at least three kinds of "faith": 1) what all of us must use in our daily lives, and which might be more accurately called "unavoidable faith," "trust" or "justified reliance;" 2) "harmless (religious) faith," and 3) "dangerous, stupid faith" or "gullibility."

1. Necessary, unavoidable faith (i.e. justifiable reliance)

      For example, I "have faith" in (meaning: I rely on, I have trust in, I believe) the following:
  • that the sun will rise tomorrow;
  • that if I drop something, it will fall;
  • that 2 + 2 equals 4;
  • that scientists have determined the speed of light, and if I need to know it, I can look it up;
  • that the letter I mailed with a stamp on it will be eventually delivered;
  • that the appliance I just bought will work when I plug it in;
  • that my insurance company will pay an honest claim;
  • that my wife is faithful to me;
  • that taking my prescribed medications will help keep me healthy;
  • that the surgeon is qualified to operate on me, and will do his best for my health;
  • that Julius Caesar was assassinated by Brutus and others on the Ides of March, 44 BC;
    and so on.
      Many such things I have not personally tested scientifically, and some of them cannot be tested scientifically. Some of them might turn out to be wrong (my letter might get lost, my appliance might be a lemon). However, to refuse to rely on such things would force one to be totally inactive and unconnected in the world. It would also be quite foolish, since such things have proven, by our own experience and the experience of others, that they are quite reliable, and that any failures have ready explanations. The odds that any of those things are false are minuscule and insignificant. In other words, we have overwhelming evidence - from our own experience and from the experiences of others - that our reliance on them is generally justified, and we have no evidence that such reliance is foolhardy. Every rational person, whether religious or not, has this kind of "faith."

2. Harmless faith (often religious)

      Another use of the word "faith" is when we have a belief or trust in something which is simply not accessible to rational proof, or on which there is no evidence, or where the evidence is truly inconclusive. This use of the term is frequent among religionists. Thus, I might say that I have "faith" ("I believe" - even though there may no rational reason to do so):
  • there is a place called Hell where sinners are punished;
  • sometime, somewhere, I will see my dead child again;
  • I am the rightful heir to the throne of Bulgaria;
  • God has forgiven me of my sins;
  • wearing a copper bracelet will ease my arthritis;
  • wearing a crucifix protects me from evil spirits;
  • Grandmother is now with God and the angels;
  • leprechauns live in my garden;
  • burning a candle before an altar will ease the suffering of my dead uncle in Purgatory;
  • someday Jesus is coming back to earth and I will be caught up into the sky to meet Him;
  • the universe was created by an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent god who still exists and who protects me from harm.
      Although one might make valid-sounding arguments for such things, they are really not provable. Nor are they easily disprovable. Such things - so long as they cause no harm and provide some kind of comfort or solace or hope - are perhaps justifiable objects of "faith" or "belief." This kind of faith might be called "religious faith" but it is something quite different from "trust" or "justifiable reliance" (discussed above), since it is essentially reliance on propositions for which there is practically no verifiable evidence. What reliable, testable, believable evidence is there, for example, for the existence of hell (or against it)? Or that Jesus' death somehow paid some cosmic penalty for his sinful followers? Or that grandmother is now in heaven?

      This kind of faith is a double-edged sword, however, since such faith can also destroy the very solace or hope that it might provide, if I have faith that:

  • I am a sinner and will spend eternity burning in hell;
  • my dead child was not baptized and will therefore spend eternity burning in hell;
  • Grandfather is burning in hell because he was an atheist;
  • I do not need to work because God will take care of me;
  • I am surrounded by evil spirits who are trying to capture my soul;
  • I am not one of those pre-elected by God to be saved.

3. Dangerous or stupid faith (gullibility)

      But the third use of the word "faith" (or "belief") - almost always also in a religious context - is dangerous and insidious, and is the use that enables con-men, charlatans, false prophets and other deceivers to prey upon the gullible. Here, "faith" means what Mark Twain meant when he defined faith as "believin' things that you know ain't so." Or, more accurately, believing things that you OUGHT to know aren't true, or COULD find out that they aren't true.

      Examples of this kind of belief:

  • the first human being on earth lived about six thousand years ago;
  • the first human female was miraculously created from the first male's rib;
  • a wife should obey her husband no matter what, because God wants it that way;
  • the earth is less than ten thousand years old;
  • about five thousand years ago a great flood covered all the earth, and the only living things that survived were saved in a large ship;
  • there are no errors or contradictions in the Bible;
  • prayer can cure any disease without medical help;
  • I am a bad person if I work on Sunday;
  • God is telling me what to do, and whatever he tells me to do, I will do it without question;
  • witches are possessed of evil spirits and God wants them to be killed;
  • God hates homosexuals because they choose to be that way, and God doesn't like it;
  • God wants doctors who perform abortions to be killed.
      Every con man and false prophet will tell the victim: "you must have faith in this / in me or you won't get any of the wonderful benefits I am promising you!" Other favorites of the deceiver are: "You can trust me"; "You will miss out if you don't act now!" "Don't pay any attention to people who are saying bad things about me! - they are just complainers, and they had no faith." "You don't need to check this out - you can take my word for it."

      This kind of faith is a belief in things that are testable, for which the evidence can be examined, both pro and con. And, usually, there is overwhelming evidence that these things are NOT true. But people are willing to believe them anyway, because for some reason they want to believe them, and they can believe them if they have "faith". Usually the believers don't even look at the evidence proving the falsity of what they believe, or, if they do, they are able to find rationalizations (excuses, actually, usually provided by the promoter) to permit them to ignore it.

      In cases like that, the words "faith" and "believe" are being used as more attractive substitutes for what is really meant: gullibility, being gullible. If you rephrase the statements using those terms, you realize what is really happening: "You have to be gullible to believe what I am telling you." "If you aren't gullible, you will never believe what I am telling you." "Being gullible is a wonderful thing - God wants you to be gullible, the more gullible the better!" "If you start asking too many questions, that shows that you aren't gullible enough!" "If you are just gullible enough, you won't want any proof." "You are so blessed - I've rarely known anyone as gullible as you!"

      "Faith" has been praised by religionists for so long, and touted by them as a reliable source of knowledge, that it is easy to overlook what the term means when they are using it. They have convinced their followers that it is GOOD to have faith (see the passage from John, Jesus' words to "doubting" Thomas, John 20:29). But what they are describing is not good at all. Why should it be a good thing to believe something for which there is little or no evidence, and which is often contradicted by overwhelming contrary evidence? That is really the definition of "gullibility." And in discussing faith with religionists, it becomes apparent how silly their claims are, if one just substitutes "gullibility" for "faith," "be gullible" for "have faith":

"I can't prove to you that if I baptize you into my church you will go to heaven - you must simply be gullible."
"The Doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery, but you can believe it if you are just gullible enough."
"God will reward you in heaven, if you just are sufficiently gullible to believe what we are telling you."
      One would think that it would flash a red light to hear a religionist say something that really means, "The only way you can believe this is to be gullible!"

      To those who are hesitant to be gullible, the religionists will quote their scriptures and their prophets, citing passages that imply that it is wrong to doubt, wrong to ask for proof, wrong not to simply believe without question. Those who ask for proof are labeled "stubborn," "proud," "worldly-wise." But if you study the intellectual history of our human race, the history of science, of philosophy, of religion, one fact becomes glaringly obvious: our intellectual heritage has been built by the doubters, the critics, the questioners, the rebels. No advancement in our long journey out of primitive darkness was ever made by someone who accepted without question the conventional wisdom of his time or the words of the prophets.

      Without skeptics and doubters, without those who insist on "proof," there would be no science, because that is the essence of the scientific method. Even the Apostle Paul said: "Test everything!" (1 Thess 5:21, my translation). How can you test something without being skeptical?

      Sometimes religionists will say, "First you must BELIEVE, and then the proof will follow!" It's the same argument as "Fairies will not show themselves to people who do not believe in fairies!" But that is putting the cart before the horse. Yes, it undoubtedly works. (Notice that if you DO believe in fairies, you will probably see them.) But the only way it works is to filter out all evidence that does not consititute proof of what you have already decided is true. Any scientist following that method would be laughed out of the university. Evidence - however flimsy - can be found to support the most absurd propositions (such as the hollow earth, the flat earth, the continent of Lemuria, the "chariots of the gods"). But such evidence convinces only if all contrary evidence is ignored. That is not a path to truth.

      And it is quite true that there are some things that you can "know" only through faith, if by "know" you mean "fervently believe." In fact, you can "know" anything at all, if you have enough faith. That is the only way that you can know that the moon is made of green cheese, or that fairies live in your garden, or that the aliens are planning to take you to Mars soon. Is that supposed to be a recommendation for faith?

      Why, then, do people accept religious claims on the basis of faith? Probably because they want to believe them, for emotional reasons. They want to believe that there is a beautiful life waiting after death, that there is a powerful being in the sky who is guarding them and protecting their welfare, and also making certain that evil will be punished and goodness rewarded. Anyone who has lived for very long, basing their knowledge only on human experience and demonstrable facts, will quickly realize that such hopes and beliefs are not founded on reality. It is a hard lesson to learn, an unpleasant fact to face, that we humans live in a world which does not really give a damn about our welfare, and that we are essentially on our own, for a very short life. So believing the unbelievable offers some solace, at least for those who can put aside their intellectual equipment temporarily.

      And there are also those who are raised from infancy to believe without questioning. They are praised as children for "having faith," for being obedient. They learn that "faith" is a word with a positive connotation, just like "obedient," "Christian," "biblical," "fear of God," "Santa Claus," etc. There may be some occasions when it is important that parents require their children to accept certain things without having to have a thorough explanation or justification. But those times are rare. It is much healthier that children be taught always to ask "Why?" "How do you know that?" and to explore alternate sides to questions. Certainly by the time adulthood arrives, anyone who accepts any proposition "on faith" is still a child.

      I find it interesting that Christian scriptures and preachers must urge Christians to be like children, or like sheep. Anyone who has been around sheep knows that they are among the stupidest animals in the world. And adults who remain like little children are usually institutionalized.

      For the con man, the hoaxer, the self-proclaimed prophet, faith is the most useful tool in his kit of tools. Promoting and praising faith has enabled such men to gain followers, usually along with wealth, power, prestige, and devotion. It has enabled their false teachings to survive generation after generation, as the gullible promote what they have gullibly accepted, and cannot now live without. Not just in religion, but also in other areas. Once that gullibility is exposed, those men lose their power. Remember how the Wizard of Oz said, "Don't pay any attention to that man behind the curtain!" Recall how one sentence in Andersen's story was enough: "The Emperor has no clothes!"

      Religionists think, of course, that it is a terrible thing to "destroy someone's faith." On the contrary, to remove the blinders from a believer's eyes and show him the world as it is should be praised as the greatest accomplishment in the service of Truth.


For a news report on the most recent government research on faith, click here.

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©  2005 Richard Packham    Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included

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Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence.
Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.
  - Richard Dawkins

There's a sucker born every minute!   - P. T. Barnum

Faith is selective gullibility, a virus, every drop of which contaminates reason and honesty with the comfortable poison of self-deception.   - W. Cassity-Guilliom

Knowledge doesn't always tell you what you want. Faith does.

- poster "Razortooth" on Recovery from Mormonism



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