October 30, 2005

Solutions to the Problem of Faith: Critique Necessary, Not Sufficient

Alan at Meet An Atheist has taken up my call to discuss solutions to the problem of faith in an excellent post.

He suggests that publicizing problems with religious belief can be thought of as one type of solution to the problem of faith. This is a good point, and I was mistaken to suggest otherwise. After all, I would imagine that exposure to this type of material and examples of hypocrisy is one reason that formerly religious people abandon religion. Education about the dangers of smoking, sun tanning, unhealthy diets, etc. are effective in reaching at least some people. When Alan says, "I think that the best thing we can do is to encourage believers think, to get them to question aspects of their faiths that they may never have considered," he perfectly captures this approach and why it deserves to be considered a crucial part of the solution.

Of course, there are important limitations to the criticism-as-solution approach that prevents it from being a complete solution. Christians are taught from an early age that they belong to a persecuted class of people. In essence, they are prepared for attacks on their faith. Since their educators know (at least on some level) that their religious beliefs are absurd, they can rightly predict that they will be assailed by the forces of reason. For a great many believers, our attacks on religion will be interpreted as predictable persecution and will have little impact. In fact, such criticism may end up strengthening the faith of some.

Alan is also correct to point out that reason and skepticism will never be able to compete with infantile beliefs in immortality. The real power of religion is that it makes it socially acceptable for people to avoid their deepest collective fear - death. By clinging to belief in an afterlife, one can shelter oneself from death anxiety and even the grief that is supposed to accompany loss. This is comforting in a way that cannot be found outside of religion. That it happens to be delusional does not make it less comforting. This is what people mean when they say that religion "works" for many believers.

I am in full agreement with Alan that we can and should continue to plant our seeds of doubt. Faith may feel good to the individual, but it is maladaptive at the societal and international levels. However, I suggest that we view the practice of criticizing faith as necessary but not sufficient for reducing its impact. To succeed, our critique must be accompanied by a strong case for the benefits of rationality. Reducing one's reliance on faith only creates a vacuum. We must make a case for something more positive to fill this vacuum. Secular humanism seems like a good candidate.

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