Religion, by any precise definition, is based on faith, and faith is about preserving assumptions at all costs.
Evidentialist philosopher Peter Boghossian defines faith as “pretending to know things you don’t know”; so by definition, faith entails what the late Christopher Hitchens termed “the surrender of the mind”. The cost of faith is reason. Wilfully surrendering one’s reason to the dictates of a higher authority is not only stupefying, it also sets a dangerous social precedent.
My argument against faith is a consequentialist one: when polite society is conditioned to extend “politeness” to deluded assumptions about the nature of reality, the venom of epistemic relativism has been injected.
For this reason, hating religion is not just OK, it is practically a moral imperative. Religion is by far the most obvious manifestation of the faith disease.
In response to one of my recent attacks on the ejaculations of a faith head, I was told something to the effect of “but that’s just your opinion, and you will respect mine.”
Why should I? And why should anyone? That perverted wisp of wisdom emanated from someone who believes that holding off her child’s vaccinations is a just and socially responsible thing to do, which it isn’t. Perhaps such a potentially infanticidal sentiment is not quite as extreme as those motivating acts of faith-based terrorism, but it does certainly resonate with Voltaire’s timeless dictum:
Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
As I’ve written elsewhere, opinions that are not informed by evidence are worthless opinions. Religious convictions eschew evidence entirely; they write any empirical evidence that doesn’t gel out of consideration.
Occasionally, in the “pluralistic” media, we are forced to endure the cognitive putrification of some disingenuous religious figure distorting science to justify his brand of faith-based garbage, but we should always consider the myriad things this professional rationaliser is not saying.
Religion is based on faith, and for that reason, it’s OK to hate religion. This contempt should extend to more liberal interpretations of the various religions too, because such prescriptive worldviews remain grounded in faith. The theocrat is right to assert that her faith should be afforded respect when the faith of the liberal theist is considered impervious to scrutiny.
If we wish to distinguish between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” religious dogmas, which criteria should we employ? Almost without exception, the various holy books of the world claim that the normative delusions they describe are absolute truths. Their doctrines are not mutually inclusive. Individual theists may hold beliefs that roughly align with liberal democratic values, but their motivations are still delusional.
Of course, religiosity should not rob anyone of the right to vote or to contribute to our discourse; but a person’s faith, like their politics, should not be exempt from scrutiny. Asking Mitt Romney whether or not he adheres to some of his church’s more contemptible doctrines should be a necessity, not a taboo.
Scientific knowledge, and the scientific approach to knowledge, on the other hand, is truly democratic. If we agree that science is about uncovering reality, anyone who cares enough to do the background reading can contribute. The culture of science is distinguished in other ways too: it’s worth noting that string theorists do not engage in holy wars with other quantum gravity theorists.
When made acceptable, the faith precedent rears its ugly head elsewhere in society.
I spend a lot of time arguing with global warming deniers, and ultimately their arguments will come down to “I have a right to my opinion”. Yes, they sure do, and I’d hate to disabuse them of their rights, no matter how much and in what manner they abuse those rights. But I don’t think their opinions deserve undue respect.
The precedent that everyone’s assumptions should be exempt from criticism in public space runs counter to free speech. Free speech is supposed to be a social mechanism for the self-correction intrinsic to modern liberal democracy.
The public have a right to know the truth, so it follows that the merchants of comfortable delusions deserve to be ridiculed and alienated. Free speech thus provides the rope for the Chris Moncktons and Rush Limbaughs of the world to publicly hang themselves with.
The reason we should not disabuse people of their faith, so we’re told, is that faith brings people comfort. Comfortable delusions are virulent infectious memes, and they do harm.
When confronted with a serial killer, nobody confuses tolerating with enabling. I think that the only reason people don’t readily equate enabling religion with enabling serial killers is due to the average homo sapiens’ inveterate environmental and temporal cognitive myopia. It’s the same myopia that causes people to stop and save a child who is drowning in front of them at the expense of their designer shoes, but to rarely even consider that giving money to alleviate poverty elsewhere in the world is equivalent.
On a personal level, I find the idea of healthy people with access to adequate nutrition and shelter pretending to know things they don’t know for a little extra comfort to be the height of self-indulgence. It takes a special kind of solipsism to take solace in the notion that something is looking out for a First World thirty-something, while millions of children who live in abject poverty die horribly every year.
Less seriously, for many people, use of the word “religion” is suspiciously correlated with a sudden transient drop in the user’s IQ score. Since this essay was originally posted, I have been told that I should identify my religious affiliation as “consequentialist” on the Australian census. I find the notion that the idea of minimising the palpable, measurable phenomenon of human suffering is on equal ground with childish, solipsistic delusions about reality more than a little distasteful.
Religion is like junk food. As psychiatrist Andy Thomson has pointed out, the evolutionary psychology of religion is almost analogous to the evolutionary psychology of junk food. The reason we modern humans like junk food, despite the fact that it’s so bad for us, is an evolutionary one. Sugars, salt and saturated fats were hard to come by in prehistoric times, but they provided fast energy and nutrients, so our taste buds evolved to seek them out.
Humans have succeeded as a species because we also evolved to spot patterns, and this trait has allowed us to refine our resource-gathering skills. Today, junk foods are available in quantities sufficient to choke our arteries to death; but still, we eat them because we can reach them, just as our ancestors would have done.
As with junk food, humans are apt to become pattern-greedy. Religion provides humans with the comforting illusion of an invisible intentional stance to attribute to the random events that make up our lives.
Clinging to religion also gives us a sense of relief from the knowledge of our impending death, which seems to be an unfortunate consequence of our evolved conscious self-awareness. But if we really get to live forever in some magical hereafter, why bother taking responsibility for the future and improving life here, on this planet?
Finally, it gives the faithful the illusion of a kind of moral safety net; we know that we are in the Higher Order’s hands, and that’s why we don’t have to take responsibility for our prejudices. Southern Baptists don’t hate gay people, God does. Psychopaths can defer to the supernatural and be forgiven. Ethics are predicated on delusional whims and wishful thinking rather than a careful consideration of the effects of one’s actions on the well-being of others. This is no way to think about building a just society.
And the faith of global warming denial, like religious faith, brings people mental (and often material) comfort. It is predicated on the faith that the resources on our planet are inexhaustible, designated as ours for the taking, and that our use of them must be inconsequential — these assumptions absolutely fly in the face of the evidence.
These delusions are again rooted in our evolutionary history: the smaller tribes of our Pleistocene ancestors could not possibly exhaust all of the resources available to them. Greed then was indeed good.
The Higher Order, or the conveniently simplistic Greater Good that buttresses the faith underlying global warming denialism can be religious or political, but usually both. In any case, it is a comfortable delusion based on the denial of evidence. The precedent for such harmful denialism was set by our cultural respect for the odious institution of faith.
I submit that respecting religion does not respect the religious individual. The health department has no right to ban junk food, but it does have a right to circulate evidence-based dietary recommendations. (And maybe proposing extra taxes on fatty foods, but that’s a discussion for another post.)
Secularists should not make the condescending and paternalistic assumption that religious people cannot live without their comfortable delusions. Everyone has a right to the best truth the evidence provides, and everyone who participates in a modern democracy has an obligation to the rest of society to at least be familiar with what constitutes the current best guess at the truth.
Faith therefore surrenders the modern mind to seductive delusions, to evolutionary hyper-stimuli. It is a fearful retreat to the terrified infancy of our species. The comparatively limited life spans of our ancestors have written a dangerous myopia into our genes; a disabling affliction that we must overcome.
Atavistic convictions only serve to placate yesterday’s evolutionary needs and they are not sufficient to address today’s problems. Evolution, with its blind brutality, does not intentionally furnish its products with the predispositions necessary for science or philosophy.
Those things are side-effects, perhaps glitches, emerging from our pattern-seeking minds. We can therefore ratiocinate, and today, we must ratiocinate if we want to overcome our evolutionary baggage. The ability to think is a happy accident, and we need to seize upon it to survive. We have to work at it and get better at it. Reason must become human nature.
All faith-based beliefs must be eradicated. We shouldn’t even say that we have “faith” in someone else’s abilities — instead, we should say that we have “confidence”, because confidence implies evidence. Even trust among adults typically involves the sort of basic reasoning and scepticism that faith must eschew.
We should not respect comfortable delusions aired in public space. We should be allowed to express hatred towards the idea of religion, and the notion of faith generally. For if we care about democracy, we should detest the precedent that such “toleration” sets. And we should respect our religious peers enough to tell them that their faith-based assertions poison our discourse.