Rationally Speaking

In Pursuit of Positive Skepticism

Faith and Reason

Is faith a virtue? Nah...

One of the constantly bewildering aspects of living on planet Earth is the assumption that most human beings seem to make that faith (usually, but not necessarily, the religious variety) is a virtue. This bizarre attitude — just to add insult to injury — often comes coupled with the equally strange idea that somehow too much reason is bad for you. Why?

Faith means that one believes something regardless or even in spite of the evidence. This, I should think, is so irrational, and potentially so bad for one’s health, that educators and policy makers would be very worried at the prospect of a nation where faith was praised and encouraged. I mean, suppose I tell you that I have faith in my auto mechanic, but then you discover that the guy knows nothing about cars, can never get one fixed, and on top of that charges me thousands of dollars every time I see him. You would be outraged at him, possibly to the point of calling for legal action against the rascal, and you would pity me for being such a fool. Now substitute any of the words “Preacher,” “Pope,” “Imam,” or even “Guru” for mechanic in the above example, change the care of my car to the care of my soul (whatever that is), and suddenly you get the phenomenon of strong social and legal defense of the concept of organized religion. How nut is that?

But Massimo, people usually ask me whenever the f-word is brought up, don’t you have faith in anything? Nope, I say, a denial that is immediately met with both bewilderment and commiseration. Don’t I have faith in my wife, for example? No, I trust her because I know her and know that she loves me. What about faith in humanity, considering that I profess to be a secular humanist? No, I have hopefor the human lot, and even that is seriously tempered by my awareness of its less than stellar record throughout history.

Ah, but I believe in evolution, don’t I? Yes, I do, but notice the switch between “faith” and “belief,” two words that don’t necessarily mean the same thing at all. A belief is something one thinks is true, but beliefs — unlike faith — can be held in proportion to the available evidence and reasons in their favor. I “believe” in evolution because the evidence is overwhelming. I don’t have faith in evolution.

Okay, then, the irrepressible defender of faith might say, what about your acceptance of things you cannot possibly prove, either logically or empirically, such as that there is a physical world out there (instead of the universe being a simulation in someone’s mind)? Isn’t that faith? Nope, it’s a reasonable assumption that I adopt for purely pragmatic reasons, because it seems that if one rejects it apparently bad things will happen to him (like smashing his brains on the ground while believing that he can fly off of a skyscraper).

The exasperated faithful will then conclude that my life must be devoid of emotions, and that I am — once again — deserving of pity and commiseration more than anything else. But of course this is yet another common confusion that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny: my life is as emotionally rich as anyone else’s, I think, in accordance with both philosopher David Hume’s and neurobiologist Antonio Damasio’s conclusion that a healthy human existence requires a balance between reason and emotion. Without reason, we would not have been able to build our complex civilization; but without emotion we wouldn’t have given a damn about accomplishing anything at all. Still, while faith is obviously emotional, it is not a synonym of emotion; the latter is necessary, the former is parasitic on it.

What about this insane idea that somehow we live in a hyper-rational society which is already too burdened by the triumph of reason? If we are, it is hard to distinguish such society from a hyper-irrational one dominated by faith. This conceit that too much reason is bad is a leftover from the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, the so-called “age of reason” (which lasted much too briefly, and during which time reason was heard, but hardly dominated human affairs). If one wants to have a good measure of how little reason plays into our society, one only has to listen for a day to what most of our politicians say, or to what most of our journalists write, not to mention of course the often surprisingly frightening experience of simply overhearing people’s conversations on the subway or at work.

We are frequently told with a certain degree of smugness that we need to go “beyond reason,” even though that phrase is uttered by people who likely wouldn’t be able to pass logic 101. Now, this isn’t to say that reason is boundless, much less that it is a guarantor of truth. Reason is a tool, fashioned by natural selection to deal with largely mundane problems of survival and reproduction in a specific type of physical and social environment. But it seems to work pretty darn well even when it comes to proving complex mathematical theorems, constructing excellent hypotheses about how the universe got started, and even providing us with decent guidance on how to conduct human affairs while maximizing justice and minimizing killings — at least in theory!

Faith doesn’t bring us beyond reason, as amply shown by the fact that not a single problem — be it scientific, philosophical or socio-political — has ever been solved or even mildly ameliorated by faith. On the contrary, faith has a nasty tendency to make bumbling simpletons of us, to waste our energies, time and resources on pursuit that do not improve the human condition, and at its worst it convinces people to drive planes into skyscrapers, or to mount “holy” crusades to slaughter the “infidel.” Faith is not a virtue, it is a repudiation of one the few good things human beings have going for them: a little bit of reason.

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Massimo Pigliucci is a Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York-Lehman College. more...

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