Faith & Belief

Belief is the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true. It is that very contention of truth that is important when assessing the validity of competing claims about the universe. Extraordinary claims should be required to produce extraordinary evidence to be regarded as true.

Undeniably, religious belief in the absence of evidence (a.k.a. “faith”) has been elevated as a societal virtue. While hope and optimism are virtues that should be encouraged, it is destructive to elevate the act of self-delusion beyond the reach of criticism. Sam Harris in The End of Faith said, “As a man believes, so he will act.”

Think for example that the 9/11 hijackers were not desperate and impoverished lunatics, but highly educated men of complete faith. The final words from the cockpit of Flight 93 were “Allahu Akbar!  Allahu Akbar!  Allahu Akbar!” This is an extreme example, however, the implications of misplaced belief extend far beyond martyrdom and can be quite destructive as well:

  • Censoring free speech as to avoid giving offense
  • Hindering education by attacking science with religious claims
  • Allowing death by rejecting medicine in favor of faith healing
  • Helping spread HIV, AIDS and HPV by condemning condom use
  • Fueling modern violence, prolonged conflicts, and even mass suicide
  • Preventing promising medical research thereby prolonging suffering
  • Attacking marriage equality and equal rights for homosexuals
  • Attacking womens rights and place in society
  • Segregating and labeling children before they can make up their own minds

These consequences are NOT an argument for the limiting or policing of beliefs. Freedom of belief is an essential and precious element of civilized society. It is important to note, however, that the freedom of belief also includes the freedom to be thought of and called a fool. You can believe in aliens, vampires, or that Elvis is alive, but those claims can and should be assessed and judged by conscience and evidence.

Beliefs in Public

The relegation of belief and religious faith to the private sphere is detrimental to our society. What people believe and why has a proper place in the public discourse of any pluralistic society that must deal with competing perspectives. Positioning faith beyond the reach of criticism is contrary to the way we deal with disagreements in everyday life. We usually try to get to the bottom of them because we know that beliefs influence why we support various policies and positions.

In fact, religious belief influences stances on the most important issues for many people. Without discussing those reasons for belief and positions of conscience we abdicate our ability to develop shared understanding. For example, the conviction that zygotes are not just human tissue but full moral persons is central to the debate on stem cell research. People must debate the validity of that assertion. Yet, understanding does not necessitate agreement. Reasons can even converge on shared policy without complete agreement. One might believe in halting pollution because God made us stewards of nature and another because of personal health concerns.

Debating these positions is also important because not all assertions are equal. If I think I deserve millions of dollars for free and shouldn’t pay taxes because God selected me to be his “rich messenger” you have no obligation to take me seriously. What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Further, not all evidence is good evidence and we typically need corroboration and support to justify a position. Simply put, susceptibility to criticism is the price of admission to serious public life for all assertions of conscience.

“The fact that a belief originates in a subjective experience does not inoculate it against interpersonal criticism.” -Austin Dacey in The Secular Conscience

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