“… if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)
“A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything” – Nietzsche
Nietzsche’s callous sentiment cuts right to the bone of the faith/reason debate. Discussions about the existence of god often progress to a discussion about Faith. Faith is often cited as a sufficient reason to believe in a god.
What is this thing called Faith anyway? Flipping open my copy of the bible, I read that, “…faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1). The famous “Doubting Thomas” was told by Jesus, “…blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29).
So Faith is a virtue. Strong belief in the absence of supporting evidence – believing for no reason, is a virtue.
I have a big problem with this. If a discussion about the existence of god ends up with, “Well, that’s where Faith comes in!”, I hear, “Well that’s where having no reasons for my beliefs comes in!”. I’d be quite happy to agree to disagree at that point and move on to talking about something else, the weather perhaps. In my view the conversation is over because the believer has just agreed with the non-believer: there are no good reasons to believe what you’re claiming to believe, so you believe on faith alone.
Why should religious people be worried about believing on Faith? Well, it is quite possible that the set of beliefs to which you’ve aligned yourself are false. After all, there are many other religions out there that also believe as strongly on the basis of faith. Nietzsche’s lunatic asylum is full of people who strongly believe. Maybe you have Faith in the wrong god? How do you really know?
But Faith can also have effects beyond the individual. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not permit blood transfusions, Scientologists shun psychiatry, extreme “Pro-lifers” use guns to end the lives of doctors outside women’s health clinics, Faith-driven men fly aeroplanes into skyscrapers or detonate themselves on public transport.
Of course, some of the above examples are extreme, but Faith puts the individual in a position to be credulous and gullible. Sometimes, this is at the cost of that person’s time, or a tithe, a donation to a televangelist. Their emotional and physical health may also be jeapardised when their faith encourages feelings of guilt or obstructs medical treatment. If they’re really unlucky, they might even encounter a faith healer.
For most people, there is a bit of doublethink, and you’ll find that people are very rational in their day to day lives but less rigorous when it comes to examining their beliefs. These are the fortunate ones who can compartmentalise their minds, the ones who may think that Faith moves mountains, but would really have more faith in dynamite doing the trick.
But there are some who devote (or sometimes, sacrifice) their lives to a set of beliefs they follow through Faith. Life and the human mind are too precious to be just handed over without question. If you believe in a god, don’t you think he’d want you to use the reasoning powers he gave you to better understand him? Shouldn’t one govern one’s own mind like a mini-democracy, allowing competing ideas to be heard and analysed on their own merits?
I’ve quite often heard a defence that I like to think of as “guilt by association”. It runs, “Well I may believe things on Faith, but so do you. You have faith that the aeroplane that you get on each time you go on holiday won’t crash.”
In these cases, it is important not to confuse “little-f” faith with “Big-F” Faith. Religious Faith does not appeal to rational experience or logic. It exists outside of these spheres. It has to in order to have any point. You wouldn’t need Faith if everything you wanted to convince people of could be proven. It’s sometimes described as an alternative route to the “Truth”. What “Truth” is that? Islamic “Truth”, Christian “Truth”, Jewish “Truth”, Scientologist “Truth”? Using faith alone to arrive at “The Truth” allows the justification of any belief I choose, or am told to choose.
If you choose to believe what you’re told on faith, you become easy prey to those in authority who would abuse that trust.
“Little-f” faith, on the other hand, is a rational expectation based on experience. If I hear of a plane crash on the news, my world view isn’t shattered, I instead consider why this might have happened (mechanical fault, weather, pilot error, terrorism etc.). I can go to the crash site myself and investigate the event. Or, instead, I can watch the news about the crash on TV. The closest I’ve come to seeing god on TV has been in a Cecil B. DeMille film.