The Fallacy of Faith

My father, the Southern Baptist preacher, used to say, "Everyone has faith, and they use it every day, they just don't know it."

Faith is Insanity

My Merriam-Webster defined faith as "believing in something for which there is no proof."  In the Bible, Jesus said, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain 'move from here to there,' and it would move." [Matthew 17:20 NIV] Conflating the two quotes, we get something like this:  "If you believe in something that has no proof, even a little bit, then you can say to this mountain ...” and so on, a sentence that might make the listener believe that the speaker needs a good psychiatrist and maybe a long course of some psychotropic drug. Mostly the sentence just doesn’t make any sense. Suggesting that there is some kind of magic in believing hard enough that a thing can be done, will somehow make it possible is Harry Potter thinking. (So is praying. Believing that if you pray hard enough you can speak telepathically to your imaginary friend in the sky is magical thinking.) Under any other circumstance than religion, such behavior would get you locked up as a delusional personality in the best case, or as a schizophrenic in the worst.

Faith is Suppressive

Faith suppresses creativity and innovation by saying that anything created by the god is, ipso facto, perfect, and not disprovable. This belief stifles scientific research, because the Why and How of things are unnecessary. It is only necessary to believe through faith that the god made it perfect.

The human brain is a wonderfully complex net of parallel computers. It took many eons to evolve from its earliest form to the three-pound lump of grey matter that is the average human brain today. With a storage capacity of 2,500 terabytes,(1) it’s the largest single hard drive ever developed. The brain has about 150 trillion synapses,(2) which means 150 trillion data points, and an effective running speed of 200 million billion calculations per second.(3)  It’s the largest neural net computer ever conceived. Scientists are not even close to building an artificial neural net of that size, much less that complexity.(4)

Many of these “clock cycles” (the comparisons are not perfect – neurons fire as needed, not on a cyclic basis) are used for keeping the human body working, but a large portion of the brain is used for cognitive skills, problem-solving, reading, creativity, emotion and mood.(5) Right now, your temporal lobe is firing heavily while reading this article. I am, while writing it, firing away in my inferior frontal gyrus.

All this brain talk illustrates that what little we know about the human brain has been deduced from evidence derived through long and meticulous experimentation. By not having faith, and by assuming a god did not create the brain but that it evolved from earlier forms over the eons, scientists have been able to slowly ferret out some of the Hows and even a few of the Whys of the formation and function of its complexity. These experiments would not have been done, certainly not to the extent that they have been, if faith had guided humans to feel satisfied with the brain’s godly perfection.

It is very likely, in fact, that the church would have made the practice illegal, if history is any indicator. Galileo Galilei, whose achievements include the improvement of the telescope, confirmation of the phases of Venus, discovery of the four largest moons of Jupiter, the Father of Physics, the Father of Modern Science, was nevertheless tried by the Holy Office of Pope Urban VIII and found guilty of being “vehemently suspect of heresy.”(6)  He was forced to recant publicly (but not privately) and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. Such is the life of a scientist under a faith-based theocracy.

Faith is Dangerous

Faith is one of the most dangerous concepts in the modern world. It requires the believer to believe in something that has absolutely no basis in evidence or fact. It asks the believer to believe simply because someone or something has told him or her that it is true. If it said in a “holy” book somewhere that the earth is flat (as it does) then the fundamentalist believers of that book are bound to believe it. The Bible, arguably, says it, so my grandfather believed it; the Quran, arguably, says it, so some Muslims believe it.

The distressingly dangerous point is that most people are all too willing to take things on faith. They do it all the time. One only has to delve even slightly into the UFO community to find that most things are taken on faith. That is, most accepted "truths" are anecdotal, based entirely on what someone has said. Even “photographic evidence” is anecdotal because someone interprets what those unexplained lights in the sky are, and that is what is believed. It's the same with all things supernatural, and it's the same with religion. The Bible is entirely anecdotal. The unknown writers of a book (and they are mostly unknown) say, "These things happened," and we are meant to believe them, much like we are meant to believe UFO reporters. We are meant to pattern our lives after them through faith that what they say is the truth. Nevermind any hard evidence. Nevermind any proof that any god exists. Nevermind any proof that Jesus was a real historical person. What is said is sufficient. Believers will tell you that this is evidence, but “evidence” like this, were it in anything but a “holy” book, wouldn’t even be admissible in a court of law. It is purely hearsay.

People who are inculcated into religion are potentially placing themselves in a very precarious position. Otherwise rational people have been persuaded to commit murderous acts against themselves and others for outrageous afterlife rewards: because someone told them that if they did so they would join a group of perfect beings in a spaceship,(7) or that some “holy man” could resurrect them because he told them he could.(8) As we have seen with Al Qaida, ISIL, and many, many others, faith as an ideology has led to mass murder and killings over and over in history, and in our lifetimes. If the god had not promised an afterlife, religion would not be what it is today, indeed, if it was anything at all.

“One cannot comprehend the suicidal zealot apart from the self-sacrificing saint – not because the two share a moral equivalence, but rather because the internal logic and social foundations of religious extremism are much the same, whether the extremists’ goals are good, bad, or deadly.”
-- Laurence R. Iannaccone, “Religious Extremism, the Good, the Bad, the Deadly” (9)

The Fallacy of Daily Faith

Now back to what my father said. He said that every time you sit in a chair, you have faith that the chair will hold you up; that it won't collapse under you. So, consequently, you can't avoid demonstrating faith in your life every day. About this, like so many other things in his life, he was wrong.

What is the opposite of faith?  Though many people see them as equal terms, in one sense, the opposite of faith is trust. If faith is believing in something without proof, trust is believing in something because proof exists. It’s what we mean when we say that trust is earned. We earn trust by establishing evidence for that trust.

Here’s my take on my father's chair example. I don't sit in a chair with confidence because I have faith that it will hold me up; I sit in it because I trust that it will hold my weight. I base that trust on three factors that constitute hard evidence:

  1. I understand the concept of "chair."  I intuitively understand that the structure of the chair is designed to be sat in. I know that it will have three or four legs, sufficiently connected to a platform on which I will sit, with a back that is of a style that will hold my weight when I lean against it;
  2. I examine the chair as I approach it to see if it is broken or otherwise unfit to sit in. Are the legs too thin?  Is it rickety?  Is a crossbar broken or missing?  Is the seat firmly attached?
  3. As I sit, I further test the chair, verifying my trust, to see if it is adequate to hold my weight.

That evidence leads me to trust the chair. Faith is not involved. This simple example is repeated again and again concerning everything we do throughout each of our days and lives. We live by trust, not by faith. Even the faithful.

That is, we live by trust in everyday matters. Where the system breaks down is when we attempt to live by faith in matters supernatural. When we attempt to believe in UFOs, or ghosts, or a god; that necessitates faith. Now, UFOs and ghosts are usually innocuous and rarely lead to death. But a god, well, that’s another story, for another time.

References:

  1. http://io9.com/if-your-brain-were-a-computer-how-much-storage-space-w-50...
  2. http://www.dana.org/News/Details.aspx?id=43512
  3. https://www.ualberta.ca/~chrisw/howfast.html
    To be sure, a slow-ish computer is many times faster than an individual neuron. A 1 GHz microprocessor is about 5 million times faster. The brain gets its amazing speed because it has so many neurons, like little microprocessors, networked together – a sort of neural net, though the comparison is not perfect.
  4. That doesn’t mean that scientists are not close to developing true artificial intelligence (AI). They are just using different designs. Ray Kurzweil estimates that a fully AI computer will be possible by 2029.
    http://www.kurzweilai.net/ask-ray-how-do-you-gauge-if-strong-ai-is-a-few...
  5. http://www.md-health.com/Parts-Of-The-Brain-And-Function.html
  6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo_Galilei
  7. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2120869/Heavens-Gate-cult-commit...
  8. http://tribune.com.pk/story/763684/too-trusting-pir-kills-follower-for-m...
  9. http://econweb.ucsd.edu

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