Faith fails to justify belief in religious doctrines

“Faith” is a devious word. Outside of a religious context, faith is a reasonable, virtuous quality to hold: faith in friends, parents, teachers, leaders and so forth. It represents complete trust in another human being and engenders human relationships and a cohesive community.

The use of the word “faith” in a religious context is significantly different. It has a powerful connotation but is a vacuous concept. Faith is used in asserting the truth of religious dogma. It is the righteous belief in something not only for no good reason but often in the face of strong reasons to the contrary. And yet people embrace the concept of “faith” as a sword and shield against rationality, reason and logic. Faith is the emperor’s new clothes, a mass-accepted delusion that isn’t questioned.

If you ask people why they believe in a particular religion, they often cite “faith.” If you ask them what their reasons are for this faith, they aren’t likely to have an answer. After all, the very meaning of “faith” is it is not based upon reasons. If you question why people have faith, you’re said to “not get what it’s all about” – you don’t understand the nature of faith. If you challenge it, you’re often deemed either spiritually obtuse or heretical.

Freud hypothesized we have a psychological need to believe in something higher than ourselves; the concept of God is merely an extension of our parental figures as we grow up to discover they are not all-knowing or all-powerful. Our psychology makes us fashion gods out of air.

But to avoid basing faith completely in psychological need, humans have sought rational foundations for their beliefs. Famous theologians have submitted numerous arguments for the existence of God. All these arguments fail. They can neither establish the necessary existence of some higher power nor the nature of such a power. For example, even if the complexity of the universe necessitates a designer, the nature of this designer is up for grabs. A divine being could consist of one or many gods; its nature could be omnibenevolent or malevolent.

Natural theologians avow humans can derive the nature of this divine designer from observation. William Paley thought the world in its beauty, complexity and perfection revealed the existence of an omnibenevolent God. Skeptics have argued to the contrary: The evil in the world – famine, disease, earthquakes – shows an all-good god does not exist.

Many people claim God cannot be derived from logical syllogisms but is known by faith – one knows God through “inner knowing.” Yet we need ask ourselves if this appeal to “inner knowing” justifies belief in a particular religion. It seems this intuition isn’t a pipeline to God but merely a product of one’s culture and upbringing.

American Indian tribes believe in the consciousness of Mother Earth; Hindus believe in the holiness of cows; Muslims believe in the prophet Muhammed. Different people have different spiritual intuitions. People believe in reincarnation, heaven and hell, angels, devils, spirits, one god, several gods and no god. There is endless diversity.

A Catholic, for example, has faith in Jesus, God, heaven and hell and feels assured of their existence. Yet this conviction is just an expression of how he or she was raised. In truth, if this same person had been born into an Indian family, he or she would equally have faith in Krishna, castes and reincarnation. And yet these two religious convictions, both based on the same foundations of spiritual intuition and conflict. Since these belief/value systems are incommensurate, “inner knowing” must not be a sufficient justification for belief.

One might refer to a religious text to justify his or her belief. What is overlooked is when embracing one text, one must reject other texts. If you believe in the New Testament, you cannot believe in the truth of the Torah or Qur’an. Just like “inner knowing,” the truth of one text demands the falsity of another. Which religious writing we decide to anoint as the “revealed word” is itself a product of cultural and familial inculcation. One believes the truth of this text not from some deep, historical analysis as to the authenticity of events but because his or her priest, rabbi or shaman says it’s true, along with the testament of its truth from his or her family and community. Moreover, how one interprets that text is utterly contingent as well.

One could claim some religious systems might be compatible and express the same underlying truth – that there is a higher power. Even if this vague claim were granted, the specific beliefs and values asserted by particular religions would remain unfounded. If you are religious, my question to you is not why do you believe in a higher power, but why do you think you have grounds for believing your particular religion is the truth? And, by God, don’t say “faith.”

Many religious beliefs appear just to be primitive human constructions in our struggle for understanding and comfort. Trying to rationalize the brute injustice of life, we imagine prisons of flame to punish evildoers after death, and in the clouds, kingdoms of gold to reward the righteous. To cope with the senseless tragedy in life, we find comfort in the idea that our loved ones’ spirits live on, though only sensible to psychics on daytime talk shows.

We use these ideas of ethereal prisons and paradise to motivate people to act and believe what we’d like. Reincarnation and karma work in this same way: Action in this life influences your quality of life in the next – so you’d better be devout. Ironically, there are so many possible religions with so many different beliefs and moral prescriptions that choosing one creed to cover “Pascal’s wager” doesn’t pay off – you’ll be damned according to one religion or another.

Many people prescribe religion not because it’s the truth, but for its positive effects. The slogan is “Believe in God because it’s good for you.” For example, people claim religion is essential to instill values in children as well as society. This is not a good reason.

Values can be taught without reliance on the commands of a deity. In fact, it seems better to teach children values based on reason rather than divine decree. Murder isn’t wrong merely because God decreed, “Thou shall not kill.” It’s wrong because of the very nature of murder. Likewise, stealing is wrong because it violates a person’s rights, not just because God said so. Teaching values through reason rather than relying on the pronouncements of religious authority will result in greater acceptance and tolerance. We will be able to slough off the shameful religious condemnations of such things as homosexuality, animal rights, spiritual diversity, etc., which are just human prejudices wrapped in shepherd’s clothing.

A higher power might exist, but we cannot know its nature. So rather than look to the sky for how to live on earth, we should look around us. We should treat human beings not the way some book tells us, but with a sacred recognition of the dignity and humanity in each person. We should live this life for its own sake and not for the promise of another. And we should remain enchanted with the mysteries of the universe and our human existence, but remain agnostic about what is out there.


Matt Brophy’s column usually appears weekly. He welcomes comments at [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]