October 20, 2005

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 that we are someday able to overcome our reluctance to challenge faith-based claims (see previous post on this issue), what would such challenges look like? I think this would depend greatly on whether the claim is a moral statement (e.g., "X is wrong because X conflicts with my religious faith.") or one which addresses 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 by the subjective nature of morality and the impossibility 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:

Mark: "I oppose homosexuality because of my faith. The Bible clearly says it is wrong, so it is wrong."

How might we respond to this? We could remind Mark that there are many different interpretations of the Christian bible and that many Christians do not oppose homosexuality for faith-based reasons. We might attempt to help him to see that his faith is leading him to be intolerant and perhaps hateful. Does this fit with the image he has of himself? Is the persecution of others really how he wants to manifest his faith? An alternative theory might be suggested where Mark's homophobia is already present and he is simply trying to justify it via his faith. Did he form his opinions about homosexuals prior to consulting his bible? Finally (and we usually stop well before this point), what does this sort of intolerance say about Mark's faith? Yes, his beliefs probably have little to do with any religious dogma (except it serves as a convenient excuse). However, there are serious problems with any dogma that is this divisive. This could be examined too.

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

Will this evidence make a dent in the position of the Christian extremist? No, of course not! He or she will hear it all and eventually reply, "Well, I guess I believe it on faith." In other words, he believes it because he wants 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?

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