Faith ceases to be a virtue when it has little connection with facts of reality

Tue, Oct 25, 2011, 01:00

RITE AND REASON:Belief unsupported by proportionate evidence corrupts our search for truth and morality

FAITH UNDERMINES critical thinking about reality and undermines empathy for other sentient beings. Strictly speaking we can know nothing for certain, even that we exist, so we have to take some things on trust in order to function in a sane way.

For example, we believe that our house will still be there when we return, and that certain people will do things based on the consistent evidence of past behaviour.

However, when we stretch our trust into beliefs unsupported by proportionate evidence, or even contradicted by the best available evidence, faith ceases to be a virtue and becomes a vice.

In his Rite and Reasonarticles last summer, Prof James Mackey is correct that secular groups can use faith to advance their interests.

He describes these groups as “creating gods in their own image” and suggests that Senator Ivana Bacik, speaking at the World Atheist Convention in Dublin last May, “stumbled on traces” of this when she talked of being “struck by the comparison between the unquestioning deference shown to bankers with that shown to religious authority”.

But Bacik did not “stumble on traces” of this. It was the central point she was making.

She was arguing that there is no difference between placing unjustified faith in secular authorities or religious authorities.

To use Prof Mackey’s terminology, all “gods”, whether religious or secular, are created by humans to advance their interests.

And it is not just some bankers that encourage unjustified faith. So do some businesses, politicians, conmen and clerics.

However, religious faith is more dangerous than secular faith.

Why? Because its claims are easier to invent, are more attractive because they are based on eternal rewards, and are more resistant to evidence once they are believed. Also, because they are more protected by society, for historical reasons based largely on political power.

When secular dogmas collide with reality, from communism to unregulated free markets, the evidence of reality takes precedence over the dogma. But religious dogmas protect themselves from reality, by positioning their rewards in an imaginary and untestable afterlife. And so it is particularly important to robustly challenge the unjustified faith-based claims of religions.

Prof Mackey also suggests that Christian faith is supported by reason, because early Christians were able to borrow from Platonic philosophy to support their beliefs.

He quotes St Augustine as saying of the Platonists, “Change a few phrases, and they might be Christians.”

It is true that they partly succeeded in this, by selectively using parts of Greek philosophy. Aristotelian logic, and ideas such as the first unmoved mover, could be used to help to support (already-existing) beliefs in a god.

The “other-worldliness” of Neoplatonism could be used to support Christian mysticism, Islamic Sufism and Jewish Kabbalah.

But in a wider context, the Augustinian project failed. Its aim was to synthesise all knowledge by rationally reconciling Neoplatonism with Christian belief.

Because they found it useful to use Aristotelian logic, Aristotle was incorporated into Christian tradition as “an authority”. Later, Aristotle’s metaphysics – with, for example, its eternity theory contradicting creationism – reached Christians via Ibn Rushd.

Christian philosophers now had the dilemma of rejecting Aristotle’s metaphysics, without undermining his “authority”.

Aquinas attempted this, partly by arguing that some issues can only be decided by divine revelation, but his compromise was rejected (by both conservative Augustinian Christians and strict Aristotelians). In the university structures, this eventually led to a split between the study of divinity and the study of the arts – exactly the opposite of the purpose of the original “unified synthesis” project.

Christianity has always been good at absorbing parts of the customs and beliefs of other cultures, in order to make it easier for other people to become Christians. Early Christianity combined Jewish traditions with a god that had a similar virgin birth to other gods of the time. Existing seasonal festivals became Christmas, Easter and All Saints celebrations.

We could perhaps reverse the quote of Augustine, and say of some Christian theologians: “Change a few phrases, and they could be pagans.”

Michael Nugent is chairman of Atheist Ireland