It is often claimed that the existence of nice, sensible religious people who don’t attempt to force their beliefs on others – or who do not hold many severe doctrinal beliefs at all – prove that religious faith is harmless. These types of people are generally called “moderates” or “progressives”, and are contrasted with “fundamentalists” who fight for strict adherence to tradition and religious doctrines.
But do moderates prove that the concept of irrational faith itself is a harmless thing? I absolutely think the answer is “no”.
What I mean to prove
When I refer to faith in this article, I mean faith that is a way of acquiring and holding beliefs about reality despite a lack of logical evidence or even despite evidence contrary to those beliefs. In short, faith is belief without sufficient objective reason.
And this applies not only to religious and supernatural ideas, but also to political dogmas and misrepresentations of science in order to favor certain goals, and so on. However those latter issues seem to be already accepted as obvious by most people, so my article will focus on explaining why religious faith in particular is a problem as well.
My position is that faith is a way of thinking that results in more dangerous ideas than not using faith. It’s as simple as that.
What I do not mean is that anything based on faith will always have negative results. I am saying that faith produces more random beliefs, and ones which are more susceptible to cultural biases and delusions. The resultant beliefs can be sometimes beneficial, or bad, or somewhere in between. But overall faith produces many more problems than would exist if it were not a contributor to human belief.
Most non-fundamentalists seem to have no trouble agreeing that fundamentalist beliefs are a problem. But there is a debate about whether religion and faith contribute to those problems.
It is often argued that proof for faith being harmless comes in the form of religious people who hold some faith-based beliefs and who are indeed generally good, moral, and sensible. But that argument is incorrect. The existence of harmless faith-based beliefs does not in any way refute the assertion that more religious faith in society results in more harmful beliefs than would otherwise manifest.
As I have stated, faith produces beliefs that are more random overall, not just dangerous. So it is clearly expected that harmless beliefs would result from it too. And the existence of good religious people also does not address the factors which lead to faith being more harmful, such as the degree of religiosity, the number of faith-based beliefs the person holds, the other societal factors that influence them or keep them in check, or the effect on government and society that results from increasing population sizes for groups with the same religious views.
Considering the way faith produces beliefs is key to understanding these other factors and why religious faith is so problematic.
How faith produces harmful beliefs
This section is long, so I will break it down into subsections that focus on particular points.
1. Irrationality is a dangerous way to acquire beliefs. The most crucial point that must be understood is that there is a difference between beliefs and a method used for acquiring beliefs.
If we equate specific beliefs with faith as a method we will misunderstand how faith affects people and societies. But that is often the mistake people make. As I have mentioned, it is common to hear people make the fallacious claim that a person holding a harmless belief based on faith is proof that faith itself is a harmless concept.
But that sort of claim is logically identical to saying that blindly eating unidentified wild berries is a harmless way of deciding what to eat by pointing out that a lot of people who do so end up ingesting perfectly harmless berries; and all this even as crowds of others around them are getting sick or dying from other berries which they would not have eaten if they were using a more critical method of determining what to eat.
So like eating unidentified berries, using faith produces some harmless results like a simple belief in reincarnation or a non-jealous god. But many other people will take on logically unsound beliefs in such things as a vicious God, faith-healing, or that homosexuality is a sin and nonbelievers are evil people leading others to hell. And they will teach their children these beliefs, who without being taught the flaws in the claims, will unwittingly adopt them and pass them onto the next generation.
My point is that just as eating unidentified berries will result in more sickness and problems than using a critical approach to decide what to eat, considering religious, presumptive thinking to be a harmless way to determine ‘truth’ will result in more dangerous ideologies than using reason and evidence will.
2. Heavily swayed by culture’s traditional holy texts. When we try to learn about the effects of a belief system or way of thinking, we need to look at the issue on a on the cultural level, not just person by person, or else we can mislead ourselves to incorrect conclusions about how these ideas impact us. And what we discover is that the irrational beliefs people adopt are not totally random. They are heavily swayed by family and culture, and the effects of this are revealed in how common certain views are in the country (such as views on creationism, gay marriage, etc).
Strong cultural presence of faith-based texts like the Bible and Quran cause those doctrines to maintain hold on generation upon generation of the faithful. And since these books contain such dangerous messages and delusions, those beliefs will be infectious in large parts of the culture, including government where such ideas would be scarce if people thought more clearly and freely. In a society heavily permeated with Christian and Islamic beliefs and scriptures, using faith to determine what you believe is equivalent to eating random berries in a place where most are poisonous.
3. Harder to prevent harm from religious beliefs. Your very perceptions of what ideas and actions cause harm are themselves warped by your beliefs about reality. An example of this is how fundamentalist Christians oppose same-sex marriage precisely because they think it is harmful to both the individual and society. This is due to their faith in Biblical doctrine, despite the real, non-Biblical evidence that same-sex relationships are absolutely harmless.
And when people adopt bad ideas like that, it is almost impossible to pursuade them otheriwse because their beliefs are based in that invented mythology. So you end up trying to argue theology and debate within their fantasy framework where God and Jesus are real, watching you, and we need to do as they wanted us to. For example, how many times have you seen people claim “Jesus never said anything against homosexuality!” and try to argue that Jesus would have supported same-sex marriage in order to convince fundamentalists to support it too?
If this works at all, it is nowhere near as effective as a secular argument would be if they simply had no faith-based beliefs. We could actually use real logic and talk about the real issues.
But since they have concluded by irrational means that the whole Bible is the word of God, they have genuine theological reasons to oppose homosexuality. And if their presupposition that the Bible is the word of God and that we should do what he wants were true, then honestly, they would be right, because their deductive logic is correct. The only problem is their false premise: faith in the Bible.
So if they didn’t have that faith, then they wouldn’t think Jesus was the moral master we all needed to listen to and there would be no problem. The Bible’s, God’s, and Jesus’s opinions would not factor into their opinion of homosexuality in any meaningful way.
Thus this problem at its core is faith. And moderates who have different views do not change the nature of this issue.
And consider an even more extreme example, from times when religion was – or places where it still is – very strong: the jailing or execution of heretics. Faithful people do this because in many religions, present and past, criticism or even disbelief is an immoral act toward God and the religion. In the Abrahamic religions, like many ancient ones, God will even bring disaster or demons upon people and communities that tolerate people in their midst who violate his rules. Remember that faith – irrational thinking – changes how you perceive everything. Beliefs do not exist in a vacuum, and that makes irrationality very dangerous.
4. Suppression of free speech and valid ideas by “moderates”. Faith manages to bring apologists to its defense who usually go under the banner of being progressives and moderates, but who drum up anger and propaganda to label and demonize anyone who criticizes anything religious. They are accused of being prejudiced, intolerant, and hateful of other people as human beings.
When this happens, the actual points against the religions are mostly ignored by the apologists. Rather than being debated with evidence and serious arguments, people are attacked out of anger and with claims that everyone must respect religion and faith.
In this way even so-called progressives and moderates to suppress of free speech, like any fundamentalist, in the name of protecting religion. Religious ideology is placed on an undeserved pedestal and shielded from the sort of debate and criticism we expect in all other political matters. This is detrimental to free speech and the benefits it provides. We suffer a reduced ability to engage in rational inquiry into religious matters, to identify problems therein, and develop solutions.
The result of this suppression is that we simply end up ignoring dangerous issues that we should recognize and respond to. We end up helping the problems that come with of religion take hold in society and spread, because we have blinded ourselves by pretending that such problems do not exist.
Moderates prove that less faith is good faith
I’ve talked about how faith produces dangerous ideas, but even people who hold good faith-based beliefs are evidence for the danger of religion. How so? It is revealed by what tends to define someone as a moderate in the first place, and it demonstrates how faith itself is the real danger underlying the harm caused by fundamentalists.
This factor is that so-called moderates are people whose total beliefs and opinions use less faith.
Many people disagree with this due to a common misconception about faith in our society. They think that moderates are people with equally abundant use of faith, and equally strong use of faith to determine their beliefs, and their “interpretations” of scripture are simply different from fundamentalists. But this is false.
They are actually people who base their beliefs very little trust in, or adherence to, the words of holy books or preachers. Rather, they base their views mostly on the evidence of experience, reason, and science. Thus their moral and scientific opinions tend to align so greatly with non-religious people on most matters, and issues of related to religion, such as homosexuality or the relationship of religion and government, are rarely a point of contention between these groups.
The proof of this is that their beliefs cannot be reached based on the scripture’s word and they generally reach the same scientific and moral conclusions as nonreligious people.
A moderate’s views often stand in direct contradiction to their professed scripture. Examples may include accepting Darwinian evolution, disbelieving that people who disbelieve in their religion are wicked or possessed, or disbelieving in the violent doom of non-believers on Judgment Day. This contrasts with fundamentalists whose beliefs largely derive directly from the doctrines established in the text. In short, fundamentalists use faith in the text and ignore reality, while moderates use evidence in reality and ignore the text.
For moderates, the only use of faith in most cases is actually in convincing themselves that their non-faith-based views were the intended meaning of scripture all along.
Just consider the strangeness of claiming that a moderate has equal faith to a person who you are admittedly calling a “fundamentalist”, since the very meaning of “fundamentalist” is one who strictly adheres to a certain belief system, like the doctrine set forth in the Bible. Therefore if one is not a “fundamentalist” then by definition they are not as strongly adhering to that belief system. Moderates are people with less faith.
So the less that faith impacts our lives and beliefs, the more “moderate” and harmless we become. And therefore if anyone says that moderates prove faith is harmless, then they are inadvertently acknowledging that less of it is better and thereby conceding that faith is indeed a problem.
So as a society, we have this decision to make:
Are we going to continue merely fighting the symptoms of faith-based problems, or will we acknowledge the real nature of faith and the problems that arise from considering it harmless and untouchable?
I much prefer to treat the cause of a problem rather than constantly fight the symptoms. By doing so we can make greater progress toward improving our societies and lessen the dangers brought on by faith that goes unnoticed until it is too powerful to easily challenge.
The more faith spreads and determines our beliefs, and the less it is criticized and denounced in our culture, then the delusions people believe will be more common and more dangerous. History shows us that this is true. The world today shows us that this is true. People adopt unsound ideas and hold delusions that cause oppression of speech and human rights and gridlock politics because we, as a culture, have said that emotional, subjective “faith” is something to be proud of.
We need to debate and scrutinize faith as a concept, otherwise we are helping support the roots of the harmful doctrines and policies that sprout from it.
So please speak out. We all have the power to help stand up for reason over faith.