June 25, 2019

Challenging Faith

Faith, allegory by the Spanish sculptor Luis S...
Faith, allegory by the Spanish sculptor Luis S. Carmona (1752–53). The veil symbolizes the impossibility of knowing sacred evidence directly (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Assuming we are someday able to overcome our reluctance to criticize religious belief and can bring ourselves to directly challenge faith-based claims (see previous post on this issue), what would such challenges look like? If we decided to challenge these claims, how would we go about it? I think this might depend on whether the claim was a moral statement (e.g., "X is wrong because X conflicts with my religious faith") or one which addressed objective reality (e.g., "My faith leads me to believe the Genesis account of creation").

When faith is used as a basis for moral statements, challenges are probably limited in some ways by the nature of morality and the difficulty involved in obtaining any sort of external validation. In these cases, challenges might focus on (1) refuting the implicit assumption that the morality claim is both universal and valid on its face, (2) examining the consequences of the moral statement, and (3) addressing the underlying faith directly.

Consider the following familiar example: "I oppose homosexuality because of my faith. The Bible clearly says it is wrong, and so it is wrong." How might we respond to this? We could remind the speaker that there are many different interpretations of the "holy" bible and that many Christians do not oppose homosexuality for faith-based reasons. We might attempt to help the person see that his or her faith is leading to intolerance. Does this fit with his or her self-image? Is the persecution of others really a suitable manifestation of faith?

We might suggest an alternative theory whereby homophobia came first and statements like this were little more than efforts to use faith to justify it. Did this individual form his or her opinions LGBTQ+ persons prior to consulting the bible? Finally (and we usually stop long before this point), what does this sort of intolerance say about this person's faith? Yes, beliefs like this might have little to do with any religious dogma (except that they serve as such a convenient excuse for bigotry), but there are serious problems with any dogma that is this divisive. This could be examined too.

Things seem much easier when we encounter faith-based statements about external reality. At least, they should be easier. I think we can attack such statements directly. These claims can be (and often have been) refuted by volumes of scientific evidence. Why pretend otherwise?

Will this evidence make a dent in the position of the Christian extremist? Probably not. They will hear it all and eventually reply, "Well, I guess I believe it on faith." In other words, they believe it because they want to. This is usually the point where the discussion ends, but it does not have to be. We could take the next step. We could label what we are seeing as delusion. We could explore the psychological reasons that this particular individual is engaging in this particular form of self-delusion? We could ask ourselves why any religious dogma that leads to erroneous beliefs should be treated with respect?

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2005. It was revised and expanded in 2019.