Bad Faith

Reliance on faith demonstrates bad faith on the part of the faithful. What makes reliance on faith “bad”? It’s bad, I would say, because it is intellectually dishonest. But what makes reliance on faith dishonest?

If the way we determine “facts” is by turning to faith, then yes, that is intellectual dishonesty. As I’ve said before, faith is useless at discerning matters of fact. The reason is simple: faith justifies or proves whatever we want it to. You tell me Osiris doesn’t exist? I have faith he does. I believe it, that settles it, and therefore Osiris does indeed exist.

Faith is not a method for determining truth at all. In fact, faith begs the question of truth. Yet people who invoke faith usually pretend otherwise, and that is dishonest. Bad faith.

If that’s bad faith, what is good faith?

A good use of the word “faith” is any which doesn’t pretend it is a method of knowledge. Consider: “I have faith that my wife won’t cheat on me when she goes to Vegas this weekend. ” Or: “In our faith, we prefer to pray silently.” In the first, faith translates as “trust” or “confidence”; in the second it translates as “cult” or “religion”. Those are honest uses of the term.

There is, after all, nothing wrong with being confident that your wife won’t cheat on you. Faith in this sense is good. –Unless, of course, there are reasons to doubt her fidelity: the way she gushes on about her boss; the inappropriately expensive earrings he gave her which she tried to hide; the very fact that he’s taking her to Vegas for a 3-day “business meeting”; the condoms you saw her slip into the suitcase for her trip. Faith is not appropriate in defiance of facts. In the face of contrary evidence, only the self-deluded remain confident.

With this as a guide, let’s translate a few typical invocations of faith.

“I have faith in God’s existence.”

Translation: I have complete confidence in my beliefs. If I say there’s a God then there is a God, no matter what anyone else says. I’m infallible.

“My faith in the Bible is unshakable.”

Translation: What should I believe, the Bible or my lying eyes? I choose the Bible, and I will be rewarded for that. Evidence doesn’t matter.

“The Atheist has faith too, faith that nothing exists.”

Translation: The atheist is just as confident in his belief as I am in mine, therefore I’m right and the atheist is wrong. God is real.

“In our faith we believe in the transubstantiation of wine into the blood of Jesus during the Eucharist.”

Translation: In our cult we participate in a ritual of human sacrifice and symbolic cannibalism, much like the Aztecs who would declare someone a living incarnation of the all-knowing all-seeing God (Tezcatlipoca, who had the power to cure disease and forgive sin), before slaughtering and eating the victim, uhh, I mean the living incarnation of God, in an annual sacrament.

Such is faith.

I bring this up because Richard Dawkings (The God Delusion) and Sam Harris (The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation) have recently been called intolerant and “fundamentalist” for their blunt criticism of religious people who use (rather, misuse) faith to determine truth. The most recent such attack comes in this Associated Press article (it’s nearly Easter you see and media conglomerates see an opportunity to sell a few more ads).

Harris and Dawkin’s sin is that they didn’t stop at criticizing the religious fanatics who do bad things like flying planes into buildings or mistreating the mentally ill; no they had to go and criticize even moderate and liberal religious folk. Why? For “legitimizing” faith as a method of knowing.

Dawkins and Harris are exactly right. Faith — the misuse of faith — is exactly the evil at the heart of religion. It is what makes religion harmful as well as dishonest. And the liberal and moderate churches are as guilty of misusing the word “faith” as are the fundamentalists. In doing so they make intellectual dishonesty seem acceptable, even normal. And that provides cover for the fanatics.

Faith is what swept Bush into office in 2000 (faith, and a few ballot irregularities in Florida), and faith is what Bush sprinkled over all aspects of his administration. Faith told us to invade Iraq. Faith encouraged us to torture those we suspected of being terrorists and hold them for years without charges or trials. Faith protected the inhabitants of New Orleans from Katrina. Faith will prevent global warming.

Americans, I’ve noticed, are beginning to get just a little bit sick of faith. They are beginning to notice that it is mostly just bad faith. Confidence without competence. Belief without evidence.

Belief in defiance of the evidence.

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