Thursday, November 6, 2008

Justification by faith alone . . . not!

Often, in a sort of vague theoretical way, religious people will say that they have faith in their religion and that faith is enough to justify whatever it is that they want to justify. My experience with religion is . . . different. In particular, I can't think of a single person on this blog, or on any blog I've read, or in any of the fairly large number of private email conversations I have had with religious people where that religious person said, "My religion doesn't make any sense and I'm comfortable with that."

Time and again, I point out the absurdity of religion - like believing in an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving god who allows children to die of cancer. It makes no sense that a being would both love something and wish to see it harmed in such an unjust and arbitrary way. Lots of religious stuff is like that - it does not make sense. It means believing in magic, miracles, supernatural beings and things like that. But I can't remember a single person admitting that their religion makes no sense.

Usually, they will insist that their religion makes objective intellectual sense. The best known case of this is Pascal's Wager. Almost every religious person I've ever met will insist that their religion is sensible, and even if I don't think that their religion is right for me they deeply want me to agree that how they practice religion is reasonable - while many just insist that their religion is the most reasonably way to live.

Even when they are argued into a position of essentially having to say that there is no objective reason to believe in their religion, rather than just admitting that they will say that they've personally experienced things that make it sensible for them to believe in their religion. But that's not faith. If they've seen, as in honestly experiencing something, that inclines them towards a given faith, if they have proof and I've merely not witnessed this proof, that's still not faith. (It is, however, a conversation stopper - there's no good way to say that they haven't seen what they claim to have seen, after all. But it is my impression almost everyone who claims that is, well, lying. Or maybe crazy. Or both.) Faith is believing without proof.

(Which does have interesting consequences. If they have faith, they can't claim the Bible as proof.)

It is, of course, normal to want people to think that their decisions are intelligently made. And people use proof and evidence as the major influencing factor in almost every part of their life that isn't religious. When struck by a car, almost no religious person says, "Oh, my god will cure me if I'm to live." They go to the hospital. When they cross the street, they look both ways. They do not trust that their god will halt oncoming traffic. They make almost all of their decisions based on reason, evidence and proof. So it's normal to want a decision as important to most people as their religion to be sensible and reasonable.

The problem is . . . it's not. Most people are religious because they have been told their entire lives, since they were infants, that religion is important, that their religion is the most important thing there is, and the importance of religion is constantly reinforced by society at large. Most people do not seriously choose their religion - and when they do choose it's generally a small lateral move, such as a Catholic becoming Episcopalian, or Lutheran becoming a Baptist. Hell, even moving from Christianity to Islam is a fairly small step - it's merely changing from one large, organized patriarchal Judaism based religion to another. Almost all the tenants they learned in their old faith apply to their new. But most people don't even make it that far - they are the same religion as their parents. But that doesn't mean it makes sense. It just means it's a tradition and a great number of traditions are deeply stupid.

It is interesting to note, however, that almost no religious person is actually comfortable admitting their religion makes no reasonable sense.

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