Faith Is Not A Virtue Part I: Education

I was raised in an evangelical Christian family, sent to evangelical Christian schools (complete with daily bible classes and shitty science classes), and heavily involved with my evangelical Christian mega-church. Again and again I heard the explicit message “faith is a virtue,” which contains the implicit message “critical thinking is bad.” Obviously I ended up doing some bad shit, cuz, well, I’m now an atheist.

But I still hear the “faith is a virtue” argument from the religious people in my life when we discuss how untenable their beliefs are. My best friend is smart, very good at critical thinking, and has a degree in anthropology with a focus in archaeology. She understands evolution much better than I do, completely accepts it as fact, and yet for a long time she has wavered, torn between what she knew and what she had been taught while being raised a Christian. She has doubts about the bible and how all the bad things and the good things could be reconciled, and how the bible and science matched up. But, up until very recently, she chose to believe. Why? Because of her “personal relationship.” Because she didn’t want to give up her faith. Because faith is good.

Bullshit. Faith is not a virtue; faith is a weakness. I’d say I’m sorry for putting it so bluntly, but I’m not, so I’m not going to lie about it. Faith is unwavering adherence to an idea despite the dearth of supporting evidence. Or, to put it another way, faith is unwavering denial of evidence that refutes an idea. Faith is a blindfold that you cheerily put on right before you walk into the traffic of reality. Faith is socially accepted gullibility. And faith is something we’re supposed to idealize? Why would anyone fall for that?

Well, any combination of three reasons: lack of education, lack of reason, or fear.

LACK OF EDUCATION:

Science is complicated. If you take a scientific theory like evolution and try to sum it up in one sentence, it’s not going to be very understandable to someone who has very little scientific training. In fact, it’s going to seem bizarre – enough that they would be more likely to buy the idea of an invisible man in the sky who made everything and controls everything, probably because he’s lonely. But perfect. But also lonely. (I know it’s confusing, but if you play along you win a prize. It’s called heaven, and it’s awesome.)

But evolution is complicated too, and you don’t win an eternity of bliss if you accept it as fact. What you do win is knowledge. Sadly, that’s not as highly prized in our society as it should be, but damn if it isn’t enlightening. The better you understand science, the more likely it is that you won’t believe in god. (It’s science!) Why?

Because science is the anti-religion. The first commandment of science is simple: Question everything. In science, it’s good to be skeptical. It’s good to ask why, and demand an answer. In the scientific community, all new research is expected to be able to survive gladiatorial combat with the cut-throat scrutiny of the entire community. In science, it truly is survival of the fittest – if your results can’t reproduce themselves, they die out.

This mindset is vastly different from the unscientific method, where subjective experience holds a heavy sway. To the unscientific mind, data is too cold. Sure, people tell us things, but how do we know they aren’t lying? If what someone tells us doesn’t match up with our experience, their hypothesis is discounted. The unscientific mind wields the faulty Occam’s Razor: Rather than “all other things being equal, the simplest explanation is true,” it is simply “the simplest explanation is true.”

When I first heard about evolution, it sounded preposterous. How could we just happen to have evolved? Why aren’t there cats that are mid-cat-to-human evolution? It all just seemed so improbable. Then I learned that evolution isn’t an all-or-nothing change; evolution is tiny molecular changes built up over billions of years. When I started to understand statistics, I understood that each change has a less daunting probability of occurring, because DNA isn’t the best at replicating itself. It was the multiplication of all of these probabilities that created the staggering odds against us existing. If you take it all at once, yeah, it’s ridiculously unlikely. But when you break it down to every change, well, it’s not chance at all.

And when I understood that different environments would result in different organisms, I had a much easier time with the problem of how we became exactly what we are. Evolution doesn’t culminate in humans. Evolution culminates in organisms that can survive and flourish in the present environment. Change the environment, change the organism.

Tomorrow:  Faith Is Not A Virtue Part II: Reason

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Posted on December 30, 2011, in Atheism, Religion, Science. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. well did God create it all, even science. i’m not asking what do you think, i’m asking what do you believe. after all you’re going to believe something.

    • speakingupanyway

      I think we’re using different definitions of the verb “believe.” When I say I believe, I mean “given the evidence presented to me, I accept this position as correct.” If I am presented with new evidence that conflicts with prior evidence, I will re-evaluate, either by modifying my position, or by reversing my position outright. The other definition of belief that’s used in these topics is “to have faith in.” The difference between the two is that the first usage is based on evidence, and can be modified upon the arrival of new evidence. The second usage is adherence to an idea, no matter what evidence is given. You’re right; we all have to believe something. But the difference between faith and belief is your willingness to change your views based on evidence.

    • Why does someone need to believe something? There are things I know to be true – which is that which can be demonstrated to be true. That’s the end of my knowledge. I can think certain things are true and try to prove them – but if I fail, then those things are not true.

      If I believe in anything, it’s the ability of humanity to do whatever we set our minds on. Our potential is all but limitless, if we can avoid being tied back by superstition.

      • speakingupanyway

        It goes back to the dual definitions of the verb “believe.” The way I use believe (given the evidence presented to me, I accept this position as correct) is a synonym for the way you’re using the verb know. On the other hand, the second definition of believe (acceptance that is not based on truth) is a synonym with “have faith.” Definition one depends on evidence, and thus will change if the evidence changes. Definition two is independent of evidence.

        And that’s why english is a bitch of a language: the same verb can be applied to contradictory actions.

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