50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God (4 page)

BOOK: 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God
7.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Probably nothing frustrates nonbelievers more than the concept of
faith. To many atheists, the believer's reliance on faith seems like a
complete surrender of the mind or at least a stubborn reluctance to
think. Nonbelievers may scoff at faith but they should never underestimate it. Faith can be like an impenetrable wall that stands firm
against any and all challenges from skeptics. No matter how thoroughly devastating arguments against belief may be, faith usually prevails. It is obvious why this is the case. Arguments based on reason
and reality are not likely to have much of an impact on a concept that
has nothing to do with reason and reality. Atheists who hope to
encourage critical thinking about belief should probably forget
arguing directly against faith. Faith doesn't lose debates because it
doesn't play by those rules. It is perhaps more productive to simply
encourage believers to think more about the concept of faith itself. It
is more likely that believers will challenge their concept of faith first
and maybe the existence of their god later. It is not impossible for
believers to recognize that faith is an empty justification for belief.
After all, most god-believers already reject fairy-faith and the faith
that props up all those rival gods, remember? Most believers recognize
how intellectually feeble faith is when they see it applied to anything
other than their god.

If it sinks in that faith is belief without a reason, some religious
people may see that relying on it as a primary justification for belief
in a god is just not good enough. Believers might also consider that retreating to the faith defense looks a lot like admitting that they can't
make a good case for believing in their god. Isn't this what believers
who stress faith above reason and evidence are really saying? Isn't it
a sort of confession that their belief is based on nothing substantial?
Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett thinks so. He suspects that the constant
talk we hear about faith reveals deep insecurities among believers. In
his book, Breaking the Spell, Dennett compares the attitudes of people
in contrasting belief systems:

Those who practice a folk religion don't think of themselves as practicing a religion at all. Their "religious" practices are a seamless part
of their practical lives, alongside their hunting and gathering or
tilling and harvesting. And one way to tell that they really believe in
the deities to which they make their sacrifices is that they aren't forever talking about how much they believe in their deities-any more
than you or I go around assuring each that we believe in germs and
atoms. Where there is no ambient doubt to speak of, there is no need
to speak of faith. (Dennett 2006, 160-61)

It fascinates me that believers have made faith in a god's existence
into an admired and respected concept. Some people brag endlessly
about their great faith in a god, never once considering that giving up
on their mind's ability to weigh evidence and analyze arguments may
not be such a good thing. I cannot imagine how it can ever be right to
default to faith when considering an unusual claim. For example, I have
an interest in space exploration and in SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. While I do not know if there is life somewhere else
in the universe, I think that there is a very good chance there is. I also
think that at least a few planets out there probably have intelligent life
on them. I hope that we discover extraterrestrial life in my lifetime. It
would be a tremendously exciting moment in history and could shed a
lot more light on our own origins and evolution. If we make contact
with intelligent life-assuming they don't exterminate us-I would be
so excited that I probably wouldn't sleep for a week.

Eager and hopeful as I may be about alien life, however, I could never take the leap of faith and pretend that I know for a fact that it
exists. It just wouldn't feel right. I would know deep down that I was
lying. I would be counterfeiting my hope, pretending to know something that I did not. I might be able to talk for hours about my "strong
faith" in extraterrestrial civilizations, but I am pretty sure that I would
feel guilty about it later. Faith sounds a lot like cheating. It's jumping
ahead to the conclusion before you have a right to, before it has been
earned by discovery and thinking. Maybe gods really do exist, but
shouldn't we wait until we discover convincing evidence before we
say we know?

Dan Barker, a Christian preacher who became an atheist, once
pushed the concept of faith to thousands of believers. Today, however,
he finds it difficult to believe that it used to make sense to him.
Barker's personal journey to religion and back is fascinating. He was
a devout believer who dedicated his life to converting others to Christianity and strengthening their belief in Jesus. Faith worked well for
him until he started questioning it. But once he admitted that it was a
hollow justification for belief in a god, he had no choice but to let go.

"Faith is a cop out," Barker writes in his book, Losing Faith in
Faith:

If the only way you can accept an assertion is by faith, then you are
conceding that it can't be taken on its own merits. It is intellectual
bankruptcy. With faith, you don't have to put any work into proving
your case. You can "just believe."

Truth does not have to be believed. Scientists do not join hands
every Sunday, singing, "Yes, Gravity is real! I will have faith! I
believe in my heart that what goes up must come down, down,
down. Amen!" If they did, we would think they were pretty insecure
about it. (Barker 1992, 102)

Dennett and Barker are right on the mark. The prominence of the faith
concept betrays the believers' own doubts about their gods. But not
only is faith intellectually lazy for the individual, it might also be
harmful to society. It cannot be a good idea in modern times for mil lions of people to think it is okay to make decisions based on faith
rather than reason. If anything, faith-accepting claims without evidence-should be strongly discouraged. I don't want my hospital
staff, police department, fire service, and government representatives
making decisions based on faith. I want them to base their decisions
on something more substantial, such as logic, data, facts, past experience, and science. Don't you?

To better understand the weakness of the faith concept, imagine if
atheists tried using faith to support the idea that gods do not exist.
How would that sound to the ears of believers? Barker writes:

Suppose an atheist, refusing to look at any religious claims, were to
say, "You must have faith that there is no God. If you believe in your
heart that nothing transcends nature and that humanity is the highest
judge of morality, then you will know that atheism is true." Wouldn't
the Christians [and followers of other religions] snicker? (Barker
1992, 102-103)

Believers who are reluctant to let go of the faith concept might consider that there is no logical end to it. Faith doesn't stop at fairies and
rival gods. Once it is accepted as a means of determining what is real
and what is not, it can creep into many other areas of life. If, for
example, one sees no problem with having faith that an undetectable
god is real, why should that person refuse to have faith in astrology or
psychic readings too? What is the difference? In fact, it might be
easier. After all, unlike gods, one can actually see stars and psychics.
There is no credible evidence that an alien spaceship has ever visited
the Earth but faith can make it so, if only in our minds. Just have faith
and-eureka!-we are not alone. The UFOs are here. Where does it
end? Sadly, of course, for some people there is no limit to the application of faith and they really do believe virtually every wild claim that
comes along. Billions of dollars are made off such people by armies of
heartless quacks and con artists.

I am reluctant to quote Richard Dawkins, the prominent scientist,
author, and atheist activist. I know that the mere mention of his name sends irritating shivers up the spines of some believers. But he is too
brilliant and too relevant to leave out of any discussion about faith. In
his book, The God Delusion, Dawkins argues that religion should
never be imposed on young children because they may not yet be
capable of sufficiently high levels of critical thinking. He especially
despises use of the faith concept to convince children that gods are real
and ancient holy books true.

Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and
brooks no argument. Teaching children that unquestioned faith is a
virtue primes them-given certain other ingredients that are not hard
to come by-to grow up into potentially lethal weapons for future
jihads or crusades. Immunized against fear by the promise of a
martyr's paradise, the authentic faith-head deserves a high place in
the history of armaments, alongside the longbow, the warhorse, the
tank and cluster bomb. If children were taught to question and think
through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior virtue of
faith without question, it is a good bet that there would be no suicide
bombers. Suicide bombers do what they do because they really
believe what they were taught in their religious schools: that duty to
God exceeds all other priorities, and that martyrdom in his service
will be rewarded in the gardens of Paradise. And they were taught
that lesson not necessarily by extremist fanatics but by decent,
gentle, mainstream religious instructors, who lined them up in their
madrassas, sitting in rows, rhythmically nodding their innocent little
heads up and down while they learned every word of the holy book
like demented parrots. Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is
a grievous wrong. (Dawkins 2006, 308)

Dawkins is right, of course, but it has been my experience that most
believers do not recognize any link between themselves and believers
who would kill innocent people in the name of a god. They dismiss
such people as "fanatics" or "extremists" and deny that they share the
common foundation of the faith concept. But, of course, they do. If
faith is the willing abandonment of reason, then it's not much of a stretch to imagine people doing just about anything in faith's name.
History shows how easy it is to lead faithful people down terrible
paths. But consider how difficult it would be to recruit me or most
other nonblievers to become assassins, crusaders, or suicide bombers
for a god. It just wouldn't work because someone first would have to
show convincing evidence of an afterlife in heaven as well as prove
that the particular god exists in the first place. Imagine if all those men
who hijacked those planes the morning of September 11, 2001, had
rethought their worldview the night before. What if they had decided
to question their faith in the god who they saw as the ultimate justification for their mission? What if they had rejected faith and instead
asked for evidence?

While it may seem unlikely for a believer who is firmly
entrenched in faith to ever readjust their view and begin to ask for evidence, it is not impossible. Millions of people around the world have
turned away from believing in gods. They were led to believe in a god
by their parents and their society but eventually found the courage to
think their way free of faith. It may take some time but it does happen.
Once believers take an honest look at faith, there is a chance that they
will see that it makes no sense. Believing in what there is no reason to
believe is simply not a justifiable position, especially for anyone who
thinks highly of truth and reality.

Author Michael Shermer was once a born-again Christian.
Empowered by faith, he was confident that he knew the ultimate truth
of the universe. Today, however, he is a nonbeliever who preaches science and reason. He founded the Skeptics Society, publishes the excellent magazine Skeptic, and has written several popular science books.
In The Science of Good and Evil Shermer describes his journey from
believer to nonbeliever:

I have been asked countless times how and why I lost my faith.
Although my conversion to Christianity was sudden and dramatic ... my "de-conversion" was gradual and evolutionary. The
scales did not suddenly fall from my eyes ... Rather there was a slow but systematic displacement of one worldview and way of
thinking by another: Genesis and Exodus myths by cosmology and
evolution theories; faith by reason; final truths by provisional probabilities; trust by verification; authority by empiricism; and religious
supernaturalism by scientific naturalism. (Shermer 2004, 231-32)

Faith cannot be argued away if a believer will not first consider its
underlying weakness. Faith is unlikely to be defeated by an essay, a
book, or a debate. As with Shermer's deconversion, faith is best
eroded from within. Scientific facts and reasoned arguments from outside sources can help, of course, but the real battle is fought in the
heart of the believer. They must decide to let go of faith all by themselves. Nobody can do it for them.

CHAPTER 3 BIBLIOGRAPHY AND
RECOMMENDED READING

Barker, Dan. Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist. Madison, WI:
Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1992.

Carroll, Robert Todd. The Skeptic's Dictionary: A Collection of Strange
Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions. New York:
Wiley, 2003.

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

Dennett, Daniel C. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.
New York: Viking, 2006.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Think
faith is a good thing? Read this book and think again.

Mills, David. Atheist Universe: Why God Didn't Have a Thing to Do with It.
Philadelphia, PA: Xlibris, 2003.

Shermer, Michael. The Science of Good and Evil. New York: Times Books,
2004.

BOOK: 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God
7.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Rust and Bone by Craig Davidson
Take Me Again by Mackenzie McKade
The Trip to Raptor Bluff by Annie O'Haegan
A Novel Way to Die by Ali Brandon
Olivia's Curtain Call by Lyn Gardner
Plus One by Brighton Walsh
Breath on the Wind by Catherine Johnson
NextMoves by Sabrina Garie