Sunday, June 12, 2011

A little bit on faith

Over at Jerry Coyne's site, I found this little gem on the word "faith," as it's used in science and religion.

Let us once and for all make the distinction between the scientific and religious notions of faith—before they’ve become deliberately and permanently conflated by the faithful:
FaithSCIENCE :  Confidence, based on mountains of experience, that answers to questions about reality are best derived from a combination of evidence and reason.
FaithRELIGION : Confidence, based on no experience (indeed, even contrary to experience), that answers to questions about “reality” are best derived from personal revelation, authority, scripture, and dogma.
I agree entirely, but I wanted to say a bit more. I consider faith, of the religious variety, to be a delusion. More than that, I consider it to be a dangerous delusion. Why dangerous? Sure, plenty of fundamentalists have done horrible things in the name of faith, but there are also thousands of people who's faith has led and inspired them to do good and great things, such as fighting sexism. Well, yes, that's true. However, reaching a conclusion I (or anyone else) agree with based on a faulty premise is merely an accident -- beneficial perhaps, but not a good thing to encourage. Let me give you an example.

Here's an easy conclusion that most of us (I hope) will agree with: "It is wrong to rape a woman." Now, let's take two individuals, A and B, who both agree with the statement "It is wrong to rape a woman." Huzzah! A and B agree on this issue, and if so inclined, can work together to prevent people from raping women, and can work together to help women who have been raped, right? Great. Now let's consider the reasons that each has for believing "It is wrong to rape a woman."

A believes that a woman's body and sexuality belong to herself, and only herself. All rights and privileges pertaining to her body are hers, and hers alone. Rape is a use of her body that she has not in any way consented to, and therefore violates her rights. Thus, "It is wrong to rape a woman."

B believes that a woman's body and sexuality belong to her husband. All rights and privileges pertaining to her body are her husband's, and only her husband's. Rape is a use of her body that her husband has not in any way consented to, and therefore violates her husband's rights and property. Thus, "It is wrong to rape a woman."

Clearly, though A and B agree on the conclusion, the views and arguments that led to that conclusion are very different, and in fact, mutually exclusive. The two worldviews represented seem likely to lead to very different conclusions in other instances. Can a woman choose her own clothes? Can a woman choose for herself what surgery to undergo? Can a woman say "no" when her husband wants sex? Can a woman choose birth control?

Religious faith has led to good conclusions in a variety of people that I, and many others, would agree with. Faith has led people to donate money to charities, to be polite, to show compassion, to volunteer in food drives, to help the elderly when they need it, and to try ending wars. Faith has led people to fight against slavery, to promote women's rights, and to battle for equal treatment for minority races. Faith has promoted good works and good intentions.

But religious faith has also led to bad conclusions that I, and many others, would never agree with. Faith has led to people being rude, and gleefully telling someone they will go to hell. It has led to wars being started. Faith has led people to promote slavery, to oppress women, and to attempts at discriminating against minority races. Faith has promoted bad works and bad intentions.

Religious faith is often contrary to evidence, and this can lead to very bad decisions. For example, many with religious faith refuse to accept the evidence for evolution, instead believing that all life was created as is. This can lead to bad decisions in medicine. Evolution explains why it's a bad idea to quit taking your antibiotics before the full treatment is done, even though you feel better (it's not just to make sure you don't relapse, though that's part of it). Evolution explains why obesity is so easy to achieve in today's society, and why weight loss is not. Such understanding can lead to beneficial prevention and treatment measures. I could go on.

As another example, religious faith has led some to reject the dangers of global warming and climate change, on the basis that God won't let that happen. This is in contrast to the evidence that climate change is very real, and rather risky. That's a very dangerous attitude, especially when it's a politician making such a claim.

Faith may often lead to good, but since it's so subjective, and based on something not supported by evidence, it often leads to horrors. And because it can be so powerful, and tends to form the basis of the faithful's worldview, it makes it very easy to use faith to justify something bad, even for someone generally good. Faith is dangerous.

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