June 29, 2019

Faith as a Virtue

faith religion belief

The men who committed the atrocities of September 11 were certainly not 'cowards,' as they were repeatedly described in the Western media, nor were they lunatics in any ordinary sense. They were men of faith - perfect faith, as it turns out - and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.
- Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

Faith, in the religious sense of the word, refers to maintaining belief in something for which there is insufficient evidence to justify holding the belief. Were we to have sufficient evidence to support the belief, there would be no need for faith. In fact, there would not be room for faith to be relevant in such a scenario. But when we want to believe something for reasons other than because the evidence warrants our doing so, faith enters the equation. And yet, none of this explains why faith is commonly regarded as a virtue, a form of strength, and something for which individuals are praised. In this post, I'd like to explore the "virtuous" nature of faith and see how we nonbelievers can better understand it.

The Unlikely Hero

Doing something which others regard as easy seldom brings admiration, respect, or reward. If I were to tell you that I, as a reasonably intelligent and physically able adult, can tie my own shoes, it is unlikely that you would be too impressed. You might be somewhat more impressed if I told you that I was a young child. But you'd likely be far more impressed if I told you that I had been raised by wolves until age 4 and had sustained serious brain damage, leading many doctors to abandon hope that I would survive at all.

We tend to reserve our deepest admiration for those who have overcome the odds to accomplish great things. You have all read the books, seen the movies, and watched the TV shows depicting underdogs triumphing in this way. This is ingrained in our collective consciousness. The unlikely hero is the one from whom nobody expects success. He or she must overcome the challenges and limitations to succeed in spite of the overwhelming odds against him or her. We like to identify with the unlikely hero. We are thrilled when David beats Goliath, finding it far more appealing than the other way around.

Overcoming Obstacles Through Faith

There is an important and extremely common variant on the theme of the unlikely hero which involves religious faith. It is so common as to be cliche in entertainment media. The hero always begins as a skeptic. Sometimes the hero is some sort of scientist, usually depicted as being overly cold, analytic, and rigid in his or her thinking. But most of the time the hero is one who walked away from religion after a traumatic experience leading to a loss of faith. That's not to say that the hero is necessarily presented as an atheist. After all, the producers of such programing probably want the audience to be able to relate to their hero rather than despise him or her. The arc of the story involves exposing the hero to increasing trials and insurmountable obstacles. At the darkest hour when things appear their bleakest, the hero finds religion, adopts or rediscovers faith, and ultimately triumphs.

Undoubtedly, some of these tales are intentionally designed to push religious belief; however, this is not the only reason they are popular. They tap into our shared obsession with the unlikely hero and offer a more cerebral alternative to the physically challenged hero. We can all relate because we have all had transformative experiences through learning, changing our minds, being exposed to new experiences, etc. Faith fits this bill perfectly because it is commonly regarded as the most transformative sort of belief one can have.

Blind faith

How Faith Became Virtuous

From an evolutionary-developmental perspective, it makes sense that faith would be encouraged. In many ways, unwavering trust of the primary caregiver is adaptive for young children. This sort of faith (i.e., complete trust on the caregiver regardless of whether it is warranted) helps to create a bond and facilitates survival.

As we move beyond the parent-child bond, we see religious belief conferring many benefits early in human history. It provided a means of grouping beyond the family structure, the appearance of shared morality, comfort, explanations for what are now recognized (at least by the reality-based community) as natural phenomena.

Raising children in early faith traditions was likely accomplished through indoctrination rather than education. We see this even today in fundamentalist communities. Asking questions was discouraged, as faith was not to be challenged. Those who maintained steady faith in the face of challenges were rewarded and admired. They became teaching models, and the lesson grew to include the notion that true faith requires challenge and perseverance.

As we enter the modern era, we find that faith is inextricably associated with challenge, hardship, and despair. We hear about the "trials and tribulations" of the faithful, and the message is quite clear: faith is difficult. But is faith really that difficult for those subjected to religious indoctrination? And why is faith still considered a virtue today when it seems to provide so little of value in our modern world?

On the Difficulty of Faith

In examining some of the cultural factors which establish a context within which faith is considered a virtue, 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.

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 considerable 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

Challenges 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 it 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?

For more on this and closely related topics, see:

This post originally appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2008 as two separate posts. It was edited and combined into one post in 2019.