Faith is commonly regarded as a virtue. But is it really a good thing? What exactly is faith, anyway? Let’s look as some definitions.
Faith: Complete trust or confidence in something. Believing something without question. Firm belief in something for which there is no proof. Faith can also mean an obligation of loyalty, and if we’re still talking about beliefs, that would mean being devoted to sticking to a particular belief (which goes along with believing something firmly and without question).
“Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking.” —Bill Maher
So then, faith means you decide to believe a particular idea even though there’s no evidence for it, and then you completely refuse to ever question it or consider changing your mind about it, disregarding all evidence to the contrary. Faith means being gullible regarding some ideas, and closed-minded to others. Faith means abandoning reason, willfully ignoring the evidence, breaking the connection between your beliefs and reality.
“There is no virtue in accepting something on faith, since it may very well be false, and it is clearly not virtuous to believe the false.” —Charlotte Schnook
Clearly this is an unbelievably bad way to form your beliefs. Considering what faith actually is, I don’t see how anyone could possibly think it was a good thing. There’s absolutely nothing good or reasonable about it. Having faith is just like having a delusion, except you’re doing it on purpose. If you want to have true beliefs and avoid having false beliefs, having faith is probably the most counterproductive thing you could possibly do.
Unlike reason and evidence, faith provides no way to determine which things you should believe. Any belief can be “justified” by faith just as well as any other. If you have faith in one religion, why not have faith in another religion? Why not believe that you are a six-legged zebra from the planet Japan? Why not accept on faith that you should give me all your money right now?
You can probably think of some reasons not to accept those things, but why do you suddenly think you need to have reasons for what you believe? If I tell you that Ahura Mazda is the real God, or that you are a six-legged zebra from the planet Japan, or that you need to give me all your money, why do you question it? You don’t need a reason to believe; you just need to have faith, right?
“If something can be used as a justification for everything, then it shouldn’t be used as a justification for anything.” —Matt Dillahunty
When the inherent irrationality of faith is pointed out, religious people will sometimes protest that their faith is based on evidence. Well, if you’re trying to base your beliefs on reason and evidence, that’s great. You’re more reasonable than some religious people. But letting evidence shape your beliefs is not what faith is, and it’s not what the Bible tells you to do. The unreasonable way of thinking I described above is exactly the kind of thinking that the Bible encourages, and describes as faith.
The Bible on faith
The Bible says faith means confidently believing in something you hope is true, but that you don’t actually see any evidence for. To live by faith is to live blindly.
And the Bible encourages you to have faith, promising that you will be rewarded for it. It commends people for having faith, even though it admits that those people never got what they believed they would get. It claims that lack of faith somehow makes people evil. It says the only way to please God is to have faith, since he won’t be pleased if you don’t think he exists.1
“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.” —Dan Barker
The Bible says the only way to get into the kingdom of heaven is to believe in it like a gullible little child who believes in Santa Claus, and it says anyone who doesn’t believe will go to hell. Can you imagine a worse obstacle to true belief than telling people they will be infinitely rewarded or punished depending on what they believe?
“Faith does not give you the answers, it just stops you asking the questions.” —Frater Ravus
The Bible encourages you to uncritically accept what you’re told. It says having doubts is sinful, because that means you don’t have faith. That’s awfully suspicious, isn’t it? Why would anyone be so determined to keep you from questioning what they tell you, unless they were hiding something from you? It also claims that people who have doubts are unreliable, despite the fact that people who believe everything they hear are obviously more unreliable than those who don’t.
The Bible says Jesus was not pleased when his disciples didn’t immediately believe people who made extraordinary claims about the dead rising, because that meant the disciples didn’t have faith. Jesus thought it was foolish to hesitate to believe everything you hear. Jesus was an idiot. Not everything people say is true, so you should not believe everything people say.2 Trusting people is not always a wise thing to do, because not everyone is trustworthy.
The Bible says John the baptist’s father was cursed with muteness for questioning what he was told, while God considered Abraham righteous because he unquestioningly believed what he was told. God rewarded Abraham because he was so easily convinced that murdering his son was a good idea, due to his faith. This horrifying behavior was considered good because according to the Bible, God and other authorities are never to be questioned, and obeying commands is always the right thing to do. All authorities are perfect, after all.
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.” —Galileo Galilei
The Bible demonizes those who want to see some evidence before they’ll believe something. It promises special blessings for those who believe things without seeing any evidence. Obviously that’s not at all a reliable way to arrive at true beliefs, and a God who wanted people to believe the truth would never advocate such a thing, yet that’s what the Bible claims God wants us to do.3 It says righteous people ignore what their senses tell them, and it tells you to believe without a doubt that you’re perfectly safe when all the evidence tells you you’re in danger. Does that sound like a smart thing to do? Because that’s what faith is.
“A belief is only really worthwhile if you could, in principle, be persuaded to believe otherwise. If your retina ended up in the same state regardless of what light entered it, you would be blind. Some belief systems, in a rather obvious trick to reinforce themselves, say that certain beliefs are only really worthwhile if you believe them unconditionally—no matter what you see, no matter what you think. Your brain is supposed to end up in the same state regardless. Hence the phrase, “blind faith.” If what you believe doesn’t depend on what you see, you’ve been blinded as effectively as by poking out your eyeballs.” —Eliezer Yudkowsky
It’s good to be open to changing your mind, because it’s easy to get things wrong, and then if you can’t change your mind, you’ll have to be wrong forever. But the Bible encourages you to be closed-minded. It tells you to always keep your mind fixed and let nothing move you. It tells people they can’t be saved unless they always hold firmly to what they were originally told. It warns you to ignore anything you hear from anywhere else. It says everyone should remain fully convinced of whatever they believe, even when it’s clear that what some people believe is false. Even miraculous evidence must be ignored if it doesn’t fit with what you’ve been told to think.
Jesus told his followers that they could ask him for anything they wanted, and he would give it to them. What’s the catch? Before Jesus will give you what you want, first you have to believe that you already have it. That way Jesus doesn’t have to actually give anyone anything, but they’ll still think he’s given it to them, because that’s what he told them to think. And if someone isn’t convinced that they’ve gotten anything, Jesus can say it’s their fault for not believing. I wonder if anyone is actually stupid enough to fall for a scam like that.
Speaking of falling for scams…
Real-world consequences of faith
The Bible tends to portray faith as having beneficial consequences, but in reality, it doesn’t work that way. Faith is dangerous. It makes you more likely to be a victim of fraud.
Severely Highly religious people are popular targets for scams, because the faithful are so quick to believe, and so slow to change their minds when confronted with contrary evidence.
Some Christians demonstrate their faith by drinking poison and handling deadly snakes, because Jesus said they would be able to do those things safely if they believe in him. Jesus was wrong, of course. Lots of people have died that way.
“Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has.” —Martin Luther
These deaths tend to be blamed on a lack of faith, but the real problem is that these people have too much faith. If they hadn’t had the unsubstantiated belief that they could handle snakes safely, they wouldn’t have died.
“They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” —St. Paul, 2 Thessalonians 2:10
Other Christians exhibit their faith in ways that are perhaps somewhat less obviously dangerous, like choosing to just pray for themselves or others when they’re sick, rather than getting medical treatment.4 This often results in people dying when they could have easily been treated and lived.
Again, this happens not because people don’t have enough faith, but because they have too much faith. There would be a lot fewer people dying of treatable diseases if people didn’t have the unjustified belief that prayer was the best way to deal with those problems.