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One of the potentially largest implications of religion is that of salvation and the afterlife. Such a belief gives light and hope to many people – as well as inhuman hate for others, given the idea of hell. The requisites for these categories of afterlives are a bit vague, to put it mildly, but we can assume for the sake of the argument against Christianity that they depend on the belief that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were necessary and sufficient in God’s plan to try and save humanity.
But, exactly what did Jesus accomplish by dying on a tree? Is death on a stick really the ultimate act that will save us all? If anybody else died on a tree, nothing like that would happen. If Christ died in a different way, say, of natural death after everyone had accepted him, what would have happened? How does his method of dying magically save us? Why did he have to die? To suffer? The whole idea seems absurd, especially when it is given next to no explanation whatsoever by religious authorities. So what I’ll do is, I’ll assume it’s true, then try and create my best explanations for it, and finally dismantle those.
Here’s God’s conundrum, pre-Christ time. Humans were in a bad way, and God doesn’t like that. So he wants to send humans a message. He wants to tell us about himself a little more, and what he has in store for us. So he sends a messenger. The messenger is in human form because he wants to connect with them better and show that even the flesh can be strong for God. It is our fault that we didn’t believe him, and eventually crucified him. So in a way, God was sacrificing his own son to us, for us. And he was sacrificing his son, not so that we’d directly be given salvation, but indirectly so that we would know of it and be able to make a freely chosen decision on the matter.
That’s my best made-up explanation. There are nevertheless huge problems in it.
One thing we find is that God is a distant god. Instead of directly telling us his message, writing his thoughts in our minds and in our hearts, he sends a messenger to one small region of the world, and only for the span of that man’s life is he here to talk. Why would God limit his method of communication to the ways of humans? This communication is too damn important for such unreliable means! Now the rest of humanity cannot tell if his message is legit, and the fault is entirely with him. God’s method of reaching out to the masses is indistinguishable from that of cults and other religions: people tell, or indoctrinate, other people. If you can find me a person who has converted to Christianity before ever hearing about the religion, then I’ll be surprised.
Can the so-called virtue of faith justifiably arrive at the truth? I think not. The whole justification part is absent from the exercise of faith. If science is a process of guess and check, then faith is just the guess part. And so I wonder: how can anyone call this mental blindness a virtue?
In the article “Unholy Alliance” from Discover magazine, I read this from George Coyne:
I did not tell Richard Dawkins that there was no reason to believe in God. I said reasons are not adequate. Faith is not irrational, it is arational; it goes beyond reason. It doesn’t contradict reason. So my take is precisely that faith, to me, is a gift from God. I didn’t reason into it, I didn’t merit it – it was given to me as a gift through my family and my teachers … Dawkins’s real question should be, ‘How come you have the gift of faith and I don’t?’ And that’s an embarassment for me. The only thing I can say is that either you have it and don’t know it, or God works with each of us differently, and God does not deny that gift to anybody. I firmly believe that.”
[Michael Mason:] “Are you saying that the Bible should not be held up to scientific scrutiny?”
“That is correct, absolutely.”
This is appalling thinking. If someone has to resort to calling faith a gift from God as the only way that we can righteously believe, it is the same as admitting that there are no actual reasons for believing.
(1) Faith can indeed be attached to a true belief that could not otherwise be justified by reason. (“it goes beyond reason.”) But faith only works as much as a guess does. For the most part (or the whole), faith gives you a wrong conclusion. There is no religion on Earth that holds the majority of the planet’s population, and so even if one is right the majority of the faithful are wrong. Thanks to faith. In super-general, the chances of faith being right is the number of true beliefs divided by the number of false beliefs. That’s practically zero.
(2) To accuse all atheists of secretly having faith in God is supremely arrogant and condescending. He apparently has enough faith to believe we’re all lying to everyone and to ourselves, and he firmly believes it.
(3) If the Bible shouldn’t be held up to scientific scrutiny, then we are restraining our right to think for ourselves. Freethought is fundamentally against this. Why can’t we investigate it? Isn’t a sincere investigation the right way to believe in something?
Beyond the belief sphere, there is the real world. How does faith work in practice? Can faith really be a good thing?
A virtue is something that leads a person to behave ethically and avoid causing suffering. So I wonder, is faith truly a virtue?
Faith in something that commands you to behave ethically will lead to good behavior. Faith in something that runs on hatred, fear, intolerance, bigotry, ignorance, or self-denial will lead to pain and suffering. And for “intellectual” faith – holding an amoral belief for the sake of belief – there is only misunderstanding, and that’s no good. Faith is only a virtue if you have faith in something virtuous in the first place. Thus, faith is not individually a virtue. It is not faith that leads you to good ethics, but rather the objects of faith.
Timothy Keller, in The Reason For God, gives a different definition of faith. (The book didn’t actually give a reason for God, just “deep clues.”) Keller attacks Dawkins for an epistemology he calls “strong rationalism,” which is where you ask for absolute proof of any belief before believing it. Obviously, no one could survive in the real world with strong rationalism. Keller suggests a better epistemology he calls “critical rationalism,” where you hold on to the belief or explanation that has the best evidence over competing ones. In this way, we have a sort of “faith” that goes “beyond reason,” in the sense of outside perfect proof. We hold provisional beliefs because we are without conclusive evidence of most things.
But Dawkins isn’t actually a strong rationalist. Dawkins invokes the ideas of probability and evidence, which suggests if the probability or evidence were sufficient enough for belief (to his eyes) he would believe. And most atheists aren’t asking for 100% proof of God – we’re asking for sufficient reason to believe. There have been some interesting attempts at giving us such reasons, but they have failed.
And this provisional belief that we hold under critical rationality is different from faith. Faith is blind, it does not relate to evidence at all. If you mix a little reason and faith together it still doesn’t justify belief. There is a reason faith is called a leap, and that is because it is the only way to get across a gap in logic to get to a desired belief.
Some apologists have even picked up on this. Have you ever heard the phrase “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist”? There is a bit of victorious irony in the reversal done with that statement. Supposedly, it’s to say that atheists who criticize faith are actually hypocritical. But it implicitly concedes the fact that faith is not a reliable epistemological method, and is in fact intellectually detestable. I wonder, do people who tout this clever quip for atheists feel good about their religion being called a “faith”? And what does it mean when we start seeing apologists losing faith in faith?
Ask most people, and they’ll believe that everything is made of atoms. But if you ask them, what kind of evidence is there to convince scientists of that? You will not likely get an answer from a lay person. Hence, most people take it on faith. We trust scientists to be the reliable authority on the subject. If we were to feel a little baffled or curious about the matter, then, well, we could lean on our scientific inclinations and do a little research for ourselves. But most of us just accept that everything’s made of atoms because we’re told that science says so. Likewise, a large number of theists believe what they do because they’ve been told these beliefs by all the religious authorities in their lives. If any of us were a little confused or intrigued about the matter, then we’d do our own research and become a little learned in theology.
That’s all fine and dandy … to an extent. Most people don’t have the time, energy, patience or interest to research atomic theory or theology. Society functions on its own without everyone being experts on everything. But the thing is, if the answer to a question is really significant and meaningful to you, then you should look at it with rationality and not blind faith and wishful thinking. If you’re wondering what the purpose of your life is, or why the universe is here, or what-have-you, and you really want to figure out the truth, then you’ll have to do more than just listen to others’ opinions on the subject.
For personal assurance, you should take a serious, reasonable look at the important parts of your belief system. (It’s no use wondering solipsisms like if the universe was created last Thursday, if we’re all a part of the Matrix, or if a Cartesian demon is feeding you false perceptions. However, if you’ve lived your life assuming that a certain man has the answers to your salvation and the nature of the divine creator, then you probably want to spend some time with that idea.) Furthermore, if you want to have a reliable and authoritative public voice about a subject, it is your responsibility to sincerely and soberly study that subject.
Now – apply this to the current state of religion. I am certain that the majority of believers, in any faith around the world, do not have sufficient justification for their belief. This is understandable. We grow up, and learn to accept much of what we are told when we are young. But that doesn’t make it right. That’s why it’s our duty to speak our opinions when it’s warranted and when it raises consciousness about the significance of a certain opinion – like religion. (I’m applying this to atheists and believers.) Robert Ingersoll once said, “out upon the intellectual sea there is room for every sail, and in the intellectual air there is space for every wing.” But to stay where you were born and never meet any new places on this sea or in this air is intellectual negligence, and it needs consciousness-raising. Religion is important.