August 25, 2008

Faith as a Virtue, Part II

After examining some of the cultural factors which establish a context within which faith is considered a virtue in Part I, we are ready to tackle the tough questions head on. We have seen that respect and admiration are often bestowed on the individual who endures great hardships and overcomes the odds to eventually triumph. But is faith really so difficult to maintain in our modern world that it can stimulate our unlikely hero archetype? If so, how does this necessarily make faith virtuous today? Even if it proves to be difficult, we must still determine whether it offers something of value in our modern world.

On the Difficulty of Faith

In one important way, maintaining religious faith in today's world is extremely difficult. At least, it should be extremely difficult. After all, there is not one shred of evidence which suggests that anything like the various gods exists. Science has proven valuable again and again, while religion occupies an intellectual wasteland of willful denial of reality in exchange for superstition and myth. Surely, the believer must expend considerably energy to keep reality at bay! One who does so well is doing something that certainly appears difficult (if not delusional).

But before we conclude that maintaining faith is difficult enough to warrant some level of respect, we must consider two additional factors. First, believers have done a skillful job of setting up the objects of their faith to make faith easier. Second, believers hold the majority position, at least in the U.S., removing much of the social pressure that would otherwise challenge their faith.

Faith requires a lack of evidence, and the purveyors of faith have been remarkably effective at defining and redefining their gods so as to make it unlikely that any supportive evidence will ever emerge. While we in the reality-based community may be correct in our assertion that this renders the god concept logically incoherent, unlikely, or simply absurd, we cannot deny that the believers have done an excellent job of setting up an environment where faith can thrive. When science advances or reality encroaches, believers redefine their dogma. The gaps are maintained, and believers are helped to remain faithful.

Moreover, the widespread Christian privilege in the U.S. has made it far less likely that Christian believers will encounter many obstacles to their faith. In a nutshell, Christian privilege means that the influence and elevated status of Christianity in the U.S. are so pervasive as to be nearly invisible. Christianity, to a large degree, is the unquestioned norm.

In sum, we can say that maintaining Christian faith is not particularly difficult in the U.S., at least nowhere near as difficult as it should be.

The Desirability of Faith in the Modern World

Difficulty of maintaining it aside, it is exceeding difficult to argue that faith is desirable in the modern world. In no other sphere of life do we encourage people to believe things in the absence of evidence. To make a case that religion is different and deserving of this practice is not an easy task. In fact, it soon becomes rather obvious that the religious faith of today centers on believing what one wants to believe no matter what the data suggest. It is a form of prideful ignorance in which human desire is elevated above reason, often with disastrous consequences.

Faith gives people a "get out of thinking free card" which they often use to end conversations much like a child throwing a tantrum. Because it is considered inappropriate in U.S. culture to criticize or even question someone's faith, the faithful can attribute any belief, statement, or action to their faith and often get away with it. In the unlikely event that someone does question them, screaming persecution often works. Faith gives people an excuse for claiming real or manufactured change and soliciting forgiveness for past wrongs. It matters little whether the change is genuine - if the individual claims faith, all is forgiven by many believers.

Summary

I see little about faith that can rightly be called virtuous. It is not particularly difficult to maintain in a culture that encourages is and when it is focused on the sort of belief system constantly revised to facilitate it. Nor is it beneficial in the modern world. In fact, the high costs outweigh any benefits by a wide margin. Solutions to the problem of faith are not easy, but this does not make them any less necessary. As Richard Dawkins wrote in The God Delusion:
Christianity, just as much as Islam, teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don't have to make the case for what you believe. If somebody announces that it is part of his faith, the rest of society, whether of the same faith, or another, or of none, is obliged, by ingrained custom, to "respect" it without question; respect it until the day it manifests itself in a horrible massacre like the destruction of the World Trade Center, or the London or Madrid bombings. Then there is a great chorus of disownings, as clerics and "community leaders" (who elected them, by the way?) line up to explain that this extremism is a perversion of the "true" faith. But how can there be a perversion of faith, if faith, lacking objective justification, doesn't have any demonstrable standard to pervert?
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